“Negative aspects of history are labeled as ‘Ottoman’ while the ‘Turkish nation’ reaps the praise for the success stories”

Philipp Wirtz‘ research focuses on the history of the Ottoman Empire. Currently, he is teaching at the University of London and researching German expatriate intellectuals in the Late Ottoman Empire and early Turkish Republic as well as the history of traditional Turkish archery. 

In your dissertation you looked at depictions of the late Ottoman Empire in Turkish autobiographies which included the First World War. What are the main differences and similarities between the experience on the home front and in the battle fields as described in autobiographies?


Philipp Wirtz (Foto: privat)

While there are obvious differences in the details of how the war experience is described, Turkish autobiographies treat similar topics as those found in narratives produced by other combatant nations of WWI.

With “frontline experiences” one finds experiences, well known from other accounts and other theatres of war, of short bursts of mortal danger punctuating long periods of boredom, held together by the continued experience of psychological anguish and physical discomfort. The Ottoman army was badly prepared for a war on such an extensive scale as the one on which the World War quickly unfolded. Thus, shortages of food, ammunition, medical supplies and other necessities are frequently mentioned. Not only the man in the opposite trench was the Ottoman soldier’s enemy, but malnourishment, disease brought on by poor hygiene or actions of incompetent officers threatened lives. We read of things as seemingly insignificant as an ill-fitting pair of boots not only causing discomfort, but actually killing a soldier.

Another aspect which appears in war-time memoirs is the awakening of national consciousness. The perception that one is actually a “Turk” rather than an “Ottoman” and that the declining fortunes of the (multi-ethnic) empire should herald a new dawn for the nation state is often connected with the authors’ experience of military setbacks and other crises.

Narratives of the Ottoman home front again tell of experiences non-combatants in other countries would have recognized. Shortages of food and other necessities as well as anxious waiting for news of loved ones at the front are common topic. For the families of Ottoman soldiers, ineffective lines of communications meant that a family in Izmir might remain for months or years without news of a son fighting in Iraq, just to give one example. In the case of a main breadwinner dying for his country, families were often left with insufficient pensions, if pensions were received at all –a situation described poignantly in İrfan Orga’s autobiography “Portrait of a Turkish Family.” This treatment at the hand of the state sparked grassroots protest movements of “war widows” which are now increasingly analysed by historians from sources other than autobiographical narratives. This is a very good example of how a historical development can be studies by a whole array of sources.

“Home front memoirs” whose authors were children at the time of the war often deal with a sense of loss of a familiar world and lasting trauma.  Authors experiencing the effect of the war as adults speak of strategies employed to make sense of catastrophic events. In some cases, as with authors closer to actual combat, the home front serves as a background to rising national consciousness. A good example for this development is the memoir of the novelist and educator Halide Edip Adıvar.

Another interesting experience of the Ottoman home front is that of increasing emancipation of women who for the first time took up paid employment in large numbers, replacing men in the workforce, often in factories producing ammunition or other military supplies. The journalist Ahmed Emin Yalman called this development  “womens’ revolution” (kadın inkilabi).

How is the war described in fictional literature?

My own research project did not involve any fictional literature per se, even though one comes across autobiographical narratives that are fictionalized to a higher or lesser degree. How much fiction there is in autobiography is a hotly debated topic among scholars of literature, and one that is unlikely to be ever resolved…

In general, the First World War has been treated marginally in Turkish fiction, at least as far as most of the fiction published in the 20th century is concerned. It is massively overshadowed by the war of independence or “National Struggle” (Milli Mücadelle), which was a continuation of the World War that violently revised the 1919 peace treaty of Sevres and established the Turkish Republic. Among the exceptions, there are, for example, quite a few books along the “adventure stories for boys” pattern about the battle of Gallipoli. This victory –the only significant success of the Ottomans in WWI –is portrayed as a triumph of Turkish racial and national superiority. This of course is in blatant denial of the facts (a large proportion of the Ottoman army at Gallipoli was of other ethnic background than Turkish), but it reflects a general trend in the cultural discourse of the Turkish Republic: Negative aspects of history, such as defeats, famine, plague or despotic rulers are labeled as “Ottoman”; while the “Turkish nation” reaps the praise for the success stories. This attitude is sometimes mirrored by what one can find in autobiographical narratives.

How does the Turkish commemoration of the Great War differ from other countries’?

As I mentioned before, in Turkish “collective memory” the First World War appears only selectively. Many aspects of the conflict are suppressed, both through official cultural politics and a collective “pact of silence.” The most (in-)famous case is that of the violent nationalist “re-ordering” of Anatolia which began in 1915 and continued until the late 1930s. Most well-known in this context are the forced resettlement and mass killings of the Armenian populations, which only form the tip of the iceberg. Large numbers of Greeks and Circassians (descendants of Muslim refugees from the Caucasus settled in Anatolia in the mid-19th century) became victims of forced displacement, either as part of the peace settlement between Turkey and Greece or because they had backed the wrong side in the Turkish war of independence (in the case of the Circassians). Many of the leading figures of the Turkish Republic were either direct perpetrators or in other ways implicit in these crimes against humanity. Any process of critically coming to terms with the past (in the sense of what in German is called Vergangenheitsbewältigung) would involve the open discussion of these connections, something for which the public discourse in Turkey does not seem to be ready yet.


Do you want to learn more about the Ottoman experience of the First World War? Then join Philipp Wirtz at the WeberWorldCafé “Narrating the First World War”!

Helen May

Helen May was a research assistant at Max Weber Foundation, 2015-2016.

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