Research Perspectives: Braudel’s Mediterranean in a Modern Context

Fernand Braudel is the 20th century historian who is foremost credited for having believed in the unity and coherence of the Mediterranean region across history. He is secondly recognized for bringing forth a vision of the greatness of the Mediterranean. In his still influential 1947 study The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Braudel argues that the past should be understood at three levels based on the region's 16th century history. These are: structures which are to be accounted for in centuries; conjunctures which are to be accounted for in the time span of decades; and events that are to be counted in days or years.

Braudel found that both the economic and ecological outlines of the Mediterranean system, the evolution of the Holy Roman Empire as well as the Ottoman Empire were more important to the area’s history than any events focused on single administrations, rulers or local bureaucracies. For him as one of the founders of the Annales school of the study of history, these long term determinants mattered the most. He also saw the areas interaction as more important than the conceptualization of the history of any one of the area’s states, their births or their legacies.

What makes Braudel’s contribution particularly interesting still today, outside strictly of its enduring fame and academic influence, is that it was published in the immediate years that followed the Second World War. This was the time when European rule in the Mediterranean area had just collapsed, veined, and the centuries of European empires had ended. At the dawn of the next decade decolonization was imminently about to begin. Much of the modern European history written in European languages had then and still continue to portray a vision where the Mediterranean story and its interactions were European-led. Histories often focus on issues of European conquering, control and influences of Africa and the Middle East. And, while, it is possible to see Braudel speaking to this continuum, it is also possible to understand his argument today after decolonization as part of a different narrative where the history of Mediterranean interactions have continued after the two World Wars into the Cold War and beyond. In such an alternative narrative one can note that the Russian Empire in its reincarnated form of the Soviet Union never left the Mediterranean, but instead reinforced its influence and activities from the early Cold War onwards. The United States stepped into the area and newly independent or reorganized Mediterranean states continued also interactions with one another.

Through a new look at Braudel’s vision, instead of a forum for rapid change, the Mediterranean can be understood still today as the setting and an amphitheater for diplomatic, military and economic competition and cooperation. Let’s explore the possible place of the contemporary history of the area in the Braudelian narrative. It is typically drawn from the rise of the Greek civilization and the Roman Empire, to the downfall of the Ottoman and the Spanish Empires. Yet, the rise of the 19th Century European Great Powers including the Russian one has also been seen traditionally to fit within this mold of the series of continuous rises and falls of empires in the area.

The Great Powers and the Cold War:

In the period preceding the First and the Second World War, the Mediterranean fell mainly under the British and the French spheres of influence, as well those of Austria-Hungary, Russia and Italy to lesser extents. The influences of these and other colonial administrations including Portugal and Spain elsewhere in Africa left enduring legacies of cultural and commercial ties and connections. Rusmed project’s hypothesis questions whether analyzing the Mediterranean as the stadium of diplomatic, military and economic exchanges where people and their histories and cultures are also at the center could not be extended to the Cold War period despite and also because of the Superpower’s influences as well.

The Cold War after two World Wars functioned as a continuum in this area as it like the other two wars became heavily focused on events. These were now related to defining borders, unrest characterized by violence and monopolies on natural resources, previously the focus of exploitation in colonialism. One such first event was the publishing of the Atlantic Charter outlining Anglo-American war aims against Nazism and Fascism with a promise for the peoples to choose their form of government also in the Mediterranean. State building became a major focus of the Cold War that followed.

The Russian revolution was the event that ensured the continuation of Russian presence in the Mediterranean area. As it took shape, the Soviet Union became an empire in its own right. After the Second World War, it sought security by conquering lands in Eastern Europe. Having suffered the most casualties of any industrialized state in the war, the Soviet Union sought to insulate itself from further warfare from the West by constructing a buffer zone in the east, which became the Warsaw Pact. This zone did not extend itself majorly to the Mediterranean per se outside of Bulgaria. However, many Eastern European states under Moscow’s domination became active in the Mediterranean during the Cold War. They included primarily Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Poland. The Soviet Empire extended itself via Sofia, Prague, East-Berlin and Warsaw across parts of Northern Africa and the Middle East. The Soviet Union itself offered an egalitarian ideology that spoke of lifting the previously oppressed and impoverished up to society, and to the world. It also presented a state model for rapid transition from a backward to an industrialized society. These features drew attention to Moscow through the formerly colonized, non-industrialized and poorer states of the Mediterranean and the world. It was not clear to anyone in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s or even 1980s that the eastern Superpower would necessarily loose the Cold War. Instead the Communist states of Eastern Europe, including Yugoslavia that was no allied with the Soviet Union became important interactors in the Mediterranean where they communicated arms and development projects, and student exchanges across the area. In addition, Yugoslavia grew into a role of the diplomatic power house of the area, connecting and communicating the prerogatives of the states of the area via international relations to the world.

Yugoslavia’s role as the international interlocutor of the area was possible during the Cold War because the imperative for a collective international body to guard peace in the world had emerged at the end of the Second World War. The concept of the United Nations as an authoritative international collective structure competed to a degree with the simultaneous emphasis on the priority and birth of new nation-states’ in world affairs. This competition between the two ideas increased the period’s emphasis on events rather than on philosophy or context. Mediterranean formerly colonial states gained independence in the 1950s and the 1960s: Morocco in 1956, Algeria 1962, Tunisia 1956, Libya 1951, Egypt 1954 (formally 1936). While post-colonialism led many Mediterranean states into independence, they were also asked to be represented and act through the collective multinational UN organization.

More important for the area still in the Cold War was the concept of the third world, an estate in international relations to which many newly independent Mediterranean states also belonged to. The concept of the tiers monde was created by French intellectuals in the 1950s, and it was meant to describe those countries that like the third estate in the French revolution represented the majority, while simultaneously they were being oppressed by the minorities in power. The concept of the third world spoke assertively to those societies across the southern, eastern and even northern Mediterranean shores where populations dreamed of more just futures, and of increased equality, or were at least aware of many plights in the world. The neutralism foreign policies chosen by many Mediterranean states in the Cold War were therefore efforts not only in balancing between the East and the West during the bi-polar competition; they were also imperatives of a desire for increased social justice, and contemplation on the roles former international relations had played in creating unjust societies in the past.

Translating new political independence and economic autonomy into viable state structures was complicated by the lack of modernization and legacy of inequalities left by colonialism. Southern and Eastern Mediterranean states to a degree struggled with their position of not being only of the third world (after the first of the Euro-Atlantic society, and the second of the Communist Soviet bloc), but also with being a part of the third estate of the globe. Against this background, Yugoslavia as an independent Communist state seized the moment and made great efforts to represent the third world and Mediterranean states under its wings in international relations and the via the UN.

The Mediterranean Today:

71 years after the end of the Second World War the tiers monde continues to exist and to represent boundaries as well as as inequality between humans, societies and states globally. Today this is most manifestly portrayed across the Mediterranean refugee crises which represents one of the most visible forms of human suffering and division in the world today. Academic research such as the Rusmed project seeks new information and perspectives from the diplomatic archives, video and photography evidence, from non-governmental civic actors and from oral histories to find out why it was not possible to overcome such legacies by states and other international collective actors in the Mediterranean until today, and how current day events relate to the past.

Today’s Mediterranean refugee crises is a development connected to the inequality, violence, inability to overcome poverty and instability problematic for the area after the Second World War.  The sea basin and its states served as a location where the US and the Soviet Union competed for transcontinental influence. They did this primarily by building military capacities including naval bases and nuclear capabilities, and the legacies of these endure for example in Russia’s naval base in  Tartus. The superpowers sought allies and client states in the Mediterranean which served in sum to militarize the area and create factions in and between states to some extent. Rivalries were however, often more difficult for the Superpowers to spark or control than for the Great Powers before. Influences such as neutralism foreign policies, Yugoslavia’s permeable presence as the area’s representative to the world and Arab nationalism worked against it.

Symbols for pan-African nationalism were defined early on in the Mediterranean sphere where Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser moved to nationalize the Suez Canal and with Soviet Union’s support forced Israeli, British and French forces to withdraw in spectacular diplomatic victory. Through this event the then young and handsome Nasser became a figure for Arab nationalism internationally. Egypt is markedly one of the few states which managed to switch sides in the Cold War from Soviet to US sponsorship. This was rare and showed independence. From the 1960s onwards also those Mediterranean states rich in oil resources became also part of the rising economic power of the oil states in the world. This gave them some additional independence while connecting them more tightly to the Cold War competition between Washington and Moscow

Despite marked features of influence and also independence from the two Superpowers, the Mediterranean house a legacy of growing violence across its states after the Second World War and in many cases until today. As in much of Africa, although gaining state independence was not particularly violent the decades of post-colonial rule often were. The Algerian civil war for independence 1954- 1962 is an exception in its vast violence, but many other states of the area also developed into violent dictatorship after a period of independence. Moreover, many of the Mediterranean states were held back by their inability to reduce poverty. As they evolved in many cases into dictatorships where political power and its clients became key above efforts to overcome poverty. Making state development more complex, both Superpowers considered much of the area underdeveloped and a location where commercial markets should also be conquered. The parallels to approaches of earlier Great Power strategies are apparent. While the US looked to the multilateral instruments of global capitalism including the World Bank to influence the area’s development leading many Mediterranean states into debt and dependency to international lending, the Soviet Union’s development model led to ecocide in many cases of its agricultural projects in the Mediterranean.

Returning to Braudel’s discussion about the enduring importance of trading routes and the diplomatic power of international relations, these are features which were very apparent and continued to connect the Mediterranean area in the Cold War and today. Aspects of Braudel’s argument are especially visible in such forms as in the importance of connectivity. Institutions which have emerged after the end of the Cold War, such as the European Union have included as the key building blocks of their strategies the development of communications and connectivity of geographical and electronic locations. For example Bridges have been mandated to be built across the Croatian coast line and train lines across Portugal, Spain and France. Telecommunications have been deregulated and brought under common EU jurisdiction.  These have served as determining features of history. These have regulated circulation of ideas, capital and people within the EU member states of the Mediterranean.  Sufficient commercial land routes and connectivity across the Mediterranean member states of the EU and their geographies are key components of the supranational, political-economic institution. They have not only connected the northern Mediterranean states and Cyprus, but are also the routes that connect Mediterranean refuges and migrants to Europe legally, illegally or when they have been rescued at sea. The geography of connectivity and routes across the Mediterranean build by the Roman Empire initially are today developed by the EU’s integration processes and they connect Braudel’s story to today.

The European Union is just one transnational influence which has emerged as important for the Mediterranean. Others, even more crucial still today include those lending organization from the Cold War such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, but certainly also the International Organization for Migration and the UN’s UNHCR, as well as civilian rescue organizations SOS Mediterranée and Doctors’ Without Borders. The civilian and UN outfits currently have the most up to date information and understanding from the ground gained during the Mediterranean refugee crises, and this is what is most needed together with active diplomacy to understand the area’s current plight. In short, the Mediterranean area’s current day tracks showcase how the roles of transnational influences such as migration, global investment networks too numerous to outline in short and other influences that function outside of state structures have risen into increasing prominence.

The most important transnational influence for the area today is continued circular migration. Movements of peoples has since the 1970s seen as becoming increasingly a function and a feature of globalization, which was long in the history a force across the Mediterranean. By globalization is most often meant the development of integrated and transnational cultural and economic structures worldwide. This is a process which has intensified the movement of families, populations, goods and knowledge across previous borders. It is by no means a new experience or function for the sea that connects: routes from Europe to Asia, Europe and Africa, the Atlantic world and the Middle East, the Atlantic world and Russia. However, since the 1970s disparities have became greater between those states that were able to participate in globalization and those that were not. Therefore globalization via inequality has become a more crucial influence in producing ideologies in Mediterranean societies and politics, but also in putting people on the move. Many in the third world expected increasing equality after decolonization, and forces such as neutralism foreign policies spoke to that end. Although trade, foreign investment, migration and cultural borrowing have long been hallmarks of modern history of the Mediterranean area, these have today after the Cold War become highlighted. They have produced a burgeoning conversation around quality and inequality that reflects transnationalism but also humanity and its plight in the world. Mediterranean political and social dialogues therefore are today more in touch with questions of humanity and society than before when described by Braudel. However, the Mediterranean area as remains a key locale in the world.