An interview with Francisco Bethencourt on Racism & How to Write History


Over at Five Books:

Your fourth book deals more directly with racism and its effects, The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing by Michael Mann.

When I started my book on racism I was quite open-minded. I started with the Middle Ages, and I thought there was a good hypothesis relating racism in the Western world with the European expansion. The European expansion brought with it the need to classify different peoples of the world, the need to assert European superiority. But I didn’t know where to stop. At the beginning I thought I would stop with Darwin, but then I understood I had to include the 20th century, because it confirmed even more clearly that racism is triggered by political projects. Michael Mann was extremely useful in my research because he made me understand better the relation between nationalism and racism. In those circumstances, in the 19thcentury, nationalism based on democracy and citizenship triggered a struggle for territory, for the definition of new countries, mainly in central-eastern Europe and the Balkans. In that part of Europe you still had these composite, multinational empires — the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Ottoman Empire. All of these trends of nationalism — which had started at the beginning of the 19th century in a very generous, internationalist way, with dreams of sharing and cosmopolitanism — were confronted by the revolutions of 1848. Suddenly all these political projects bumped into claims of minorities. For instance, the Czechs had to deal with a strong German minority in the territory they were claiming. The Hungarians were confronted and challenged by Croatians and Romanians in the territories they were claiming. After the failure of the revolutions of 1848, you have a different trend, much narrower, much less cosmopolitan, much more centred in this idea of nation as a collective descent. And democracy, based on citizenship, brought with it the idea of exclusion. When you claim a territory, the issue was to exclude minorities who were struggling for the same territory. So this is the dark side of democracy, and I think Michael Mann saw it very well. Michael Mann is a sociologist, he bases his work mainly on secondary literature, and I must say he does it brilliantly. I am very attracted by his theories and he has several great ideas. I would not follow the way he practices history because I prefer to work on primary sources, but his work was a great inspiration. Also, he links history with sociology. This is another inter-disciplinary approach. We always work with some theoretical framework, and I was very inspired all my life by Max Weber, another sociologist. So I am glad I can still maintain this dialogue with what Michael Mann represents, historical sociology.

More here.