Thursday, April 2, 2015

Loyal Unto Death: Trust and Terror in Revolutionary Macedonia (Keith Brown)

In 1903, members of the Macedonian Revolutionary Organization were often considered terrorists, and some later specifically described themselves as terrorists: killers for a cause. But by 1948, many wars and struggles later, the surviving elderly veterans of the group were retrospectively considered freedom fighters by the new Yugoslav Macedonian government, and were invited to apply for pension recognition. Although the shift in categorization from terrorist to freedom fighter is not Keith Brown's specific or overriding subject in this fine monograph, Loyal Unto Death: Trust and Terror in Revolutionary Macedonia, it hovered in my mind throughout my reading of the book, probably because it is an issue that has obvious contemporary relevance and that will never be fully settled to everyone's satisfaction. The linchpin seems to be that if one approves of the goals of a revolutionary organization, one has moved some way towards excusing its methods, and in re-defining terrorists as freedom fighters.

Brown's study is specialized, but quite readable. He uses up-to-date historical and anthropological concepts without getting bogged down in impenetrable language or overly convoluted relations of ideas. He also does not commit the common sin of sniffily dismissing earlier literature on his topic - in fact, he mines such writing, both academic and popular, for all it is worth, and in a very respectful spirit. His chief sources are archival - the aforementioned pension applications, and British Foreign Office records. His goal is to trace the internal workings of the Macedonian Revolutionary Organization through anthropological analysis. The promotional copy for the book lays out the project well: "Keith Brown focuses on social and cultural mechanisms of loyalty to describe the circuits of trust and terror--webs of secret communications and bonds of solidarity--that linked migrant workers, remote villagers, and their leaders in common cause. Loyalties were covertly created and maintained through acts of oath-taking, record-keeping, arms-trading, and in the use and management of deadly violence."

Brown has some pointed things to say about the interpretation of past events in the Balkans through a prism of contemporary ethno-nationalism, even suggesting that it was not an ESSENTIAL goal of the MRO to replace one "distant" governing authority, the Ottoman Empire, with another, localized government that would presumably be more representative of and responsive to the people. He calls this skepticism "thinking past the nation," borrowing a term from Arjun Appadurai, and he draws on James Scott's work on traditional forms of "anarchist" resistance to "being governed" to elucidate the theme. I can identify this as an area where experts will debate his conclusions, without claiming any competence to make a judgment on them myself.

The readership for a work of academic history such as this, driven by analysis rather than narrative, is naturally somewhat circumscribed, but it could be larger than it is. Enthusiastic readers of "popular history" ought not to be overly wary of tackling more advanced analyses which will help them to understand historical events in a different, more complex way, and in fact this book is a perfectly recommendable one in that respect, because it is challenging without being inaccessible to the typical educated reader. Brown opens up the concepts that he uses in a way that invites further curiosity, rather than shutting it down, and his very ample bibliography offers many avenues for additional exploration.

Loyal Unto Death: Trust and Terror in Revolutionary Macedonia (New Anthropologies of Europe)

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