Nationalism and the State - Historical Lessons from the Greek Secession from the Ottoman Empire

Clemens Hoffmann, May 2009


  • State
  • nationalism
  • secession
  • legitimacy
  • state sovereignty
  • Greece
  • Ottoman Empire

The paper looks at the phenomenon of secessions which has become more prevalent after the End of the Cold War with examples from Kosovo to South Ossetia and Abkhasia. With focus on lessons from the case of the Greek secession from the Ottoman Empire, the paper concludes that social dynamics which trigger the disintegration are sometimes not adequately addressed by a change in the territory.

Balkanization became a buzzword in the Social Sciences in the 1990s after the End of the Cold War had shifted the attention of International Relations (IR) scholars from inter-state competition to ethnic conflicts and a new wave of national secessions. Especially the disintegration of Yugoslavia has left a mark on the research agenda of critical approaches to IR. However, this shift of attention was short-lived and the post 9/11 world has forced a Security discourse, this time concerned more with Terrorism and transnational violence than superpower contestation, back onto the research

agenda of many IR departments. Arguably, the short-lived shift in the 1990s towards rediscovering the National element of IR has not yielded satisfying results, either theoretically or empirically. As the contested secessions from Kosovo to South Ossetia and Abkhasia continue demonstrate, IR and International Law still need to come to terms with the Nation and the State as competing forms of legitimate rule more generally. As the case of the Greek secession from the Ottoman Empire will demonstrate, nationalism has always had a Janus faced role in the establishment of international order between a legitimating ‘right to self-determination’ which at the same time also led to the undermining of the core principle in international order, territorial sovereignty. In short, the two legitimating principles of international relations in fact contradict each other.

A historical reconstruction of post-Ottoman Greek state formation will show that national secessions, on the one hand, need to be contextualized more within their wider geopolitical environment as the failure to do so can have further destabilizing effects as the Russian reaction to the Kosovan secession goes to show. Internally, on the other hand, the social dynamics that trigger secessions and processes of collective identity formation need to be de-naturalized and understood as specific results of social struggles over property and control. As the Greek example goes to show, problems of social change are sometimes not adequately addressed by a change in the territorial definition of rule, frequently misunderstood as a natural, modern and, therefore, legitimate form of sovereignty. In other words, secession per se does not necessarily equal social change and the other way round. By de-linking social conflicts that often find a ‘national’ expression and a seemingly corresponding and problem-solving territorial change, it is hoped that processes of ethnic segmentation and homogenization, can be avoided.

* * *

To read the full text, please download PDF