Loss of empire halts Turkish marking of WWI: Historian

Loss of empire halts Turkish marking of WWI: Historian

Barçın YİNANÇ ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News
Loss of empire halts Turkish marking of WWI: Historian

‘Atatürk’s principle of ‘peace at home, peace in the world’ is truly impressive. He realized that first he had to save the nation. He therefore made peace with his neighborhood,’ says Koroğlu (R).

Countries around the world are marking the start of World War I, but the anniversary is passing in silence in one of its key belligerents, Turkey. The war represented the end of the Ottoman Empire, an event that cannot be a source of pride, according to historian Orhan Koroğlu.

“We need to accept the fact that the Ottoman era had come to an end. But it is not possible to commemorate it. There is nothing to be proud of,” he said. “We can have conferences and panels [about the end of the empire]. But how can we commemorate the end of a glorious empire?

What does World War I represent for Turkey?

First of all, let’s not use the term Turkey. Interestingly, Europeans did not use the term Ottoman. They used to call us Turks, but we called ourselves as Ottomans. Professor Kemal Karpat says the Ottoman state blended 60 communities. The Ottomans came to rule the world but then collapsed. It’s that simple.

Interestingly the British, which saved the Ottomans at least five times in the 19th century, sided with Russia. Russia wanted to reach the Mediterranean via the Turkish straits. There was chaos but also a brand-new world with the rising importance of oil in Iraq and Iran. The Ottomans were completely ignorant of these developments.

There is some speculation that the Ottoman state could have survived. This would not have been possible; all empires in history have collapsed. The Ottomans were at their last breath at the start of World War I.

There are also questions about who pulled the Ottomans into the war, and whether the Committee of Union and Progress [which ruled at the time] was guilty or not. But let me also tell you that the state went bankrupt as well. There was no industry, no production – just peasants and some agricultural production. There was Istanbul and the Istanbul intelligentsia, but it was completely disconnected from the peasants.

And the Ottoman state was caught in the midst of a war under these circumstances.

Let me tell you about a point that affected World War I. Abdülhamid II [r. 1876-1909] pulled a trick actually. In his eyes, the Brits, French, Italians and Austro-Hungarians were all thieves. Then he saw Germany, a new power. The Union and Progress comes from the German school.

In the meantime, internal power struggles between 1908 and 1914 further weakened the Ottomans ahead of World War I. These struggles came on top of all the separatist movements in the Middle East and the Balkans.

Another reason that led the Ottomans to side with Germany was the emptiness of the safes. The Ottomans needed money; they asked for it from the French and the British but were turned down. Germans provided money to a state that was bankrupt.

All this shows us that the state and society was at the end of the road.

And the Ottomans got dragged into the war.

There was also another dream. You know that when Turkishness started to appear, we first lost Libya and the Balkans, and then the Arabs started to rebel. The emphasis on Turkishness started at the beginning of the 20th century. And the Germans turned this into pan-Turanism [pan-Turkism]. But the Ottoman state would have collapsed whether it entered the war or not. Perhaps the Ottoman dynasty would have survived, but the state could not have survived as an independent entity.

World War I led to tremendous human tragedy in Turkey. The war in Gallipoli is said to have annihilated a whole generation.

The Ottomans were not ready for war. There were 300,000 desertions. There was no energy left for waging war. But Germany [fostered] Turanist policies; it aimed at hitting at Russia via Central Asia and India further away. So at the beginning of the war, there were two huge operations; one toward Egypt in the Middle East and the other toward Sarıkamış in the east. Both were big failures right at the beginning of the war.

Yet the big success that changed the direction of World War I and in fact world developments were the battles at Gallipoli. If they had been able to pass the straits, they would have reached Russia, the Bolshevik revolution would not have taken place, French-British-Russian cooperation would have continued and the war would have been terminated much more quickly. We changed the direction of the world.

At the end of the war, Turkey was forced to sign Sèvres, a humiliating treaty. Don’t you think this has had an effect on the psyche of the Turks to this day? There is something called the Sèvres Syndrome in Turkey, the belief that all Western powers want to divide and rule Turkey.

Only one-third or one-fourth of Anatolia would have been left to Turkey. The British wanted Iraqi oil via Mosul, the Russians wanted eastern Anatolia together with the Armenians.

To this day Turks believe non-Muslim minorities in Turkey like Armenians and Greeks stabbed the Ottomans in the back.

Everyone is aware that the Ottomans had come to the end of the road and that there was a decision to share those lands. So it was natural for colonialist powers to provoke them. They [non-Muslim] minorities were used [by foreign powers]. But now Turks are accused of slaughtering them. Some 8 million to 10 million Turks had to migrate from the Balkans and the Caucasus. Half of them perished on the road. No one talks about them but everyone talks about the death of 1.5 million Armenians. This figure is exaggerated, and I am sorry for the loss of 300,000 to 400,000 Armenians. But it was not a genocide. Armenians cooperated with Russians and started attacking Turkish villages. No one talks about that. Armenians were deported.

Sèvres was imposed but at the end of the day, it was not implemented.

The games at Sèvres were disrupted by the War of Liberation. This was an incredible endeavor.

And then Sèvres was replaced by Lausanne, a peace treaty that Turkey could live with, in contrast to other losing parties which became revisionist.

The Lausanne Treaty came, and though Turkey had lost, it was not crushed. We emerged at a greater advantage. The termination of capitulations is the most important accomplishment. We could not get back Mosul. It would not have been possible to get Mosul. But ending capitulations despite giving up Mosul was very important.

The Lausanne Treaty was internationally recognized as a big success and it surprised the whole world. And the important thing is that despite all the victories that had been gained [during the War of Liberation], there was no such desire to be maximalist and challenging in the negotiations. [Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk’s principle of “peace at home, peace in the world” is truly impressive. He realized that first he had to save the nation. He therefore made peace with his neighborhood. He was aware that the country was devastated from within.

Why is Turkey not commemorating the outbreak of World War I?

We need to accept the fact that the Ottoman era had come to an end. But it is not possible to commemorate it. There is nothing to be proud of.

Does commemoration for Turks mean only remembering our victories?

Of course. We can discuss it. We can have conferences and panels. But how can we commemorate the end of a glorious empire?

It was the end of the Ottomans, but it gave birth to the republic.

The two are different things. On one you are finished off, you totally surrender. I dont think it would be correct to commemorate the end of a huge empire.

Who is Orhan Koroğlu ?


Orhan Koroğlu was born in 1929 in the Central Anatolian province of Konya. He graduated from Istanbul’s Galatasaray High School, and studied at Istanbul University’s Journalism Institute before going to Strasbourg for post-graduate degrees.

He started his journalism career in 1947, working as a reporter and editor in a number of newspapers. In the 1960s he worked as a press attaché in the Turkish embassies in Rome, Karachi, Paris, London and Beirut. He served as the director of Turkey’s Press and Information Department in 1974-75 and 1978-79, and from 1978 taught courses in history and communication in many different universities.

Koroğlu is the author of 52 books on history and social sciences, including “The History of the Press from the Ottomans to the 21st Century,” “1918: The Year of the Crisis of Our Enlightenment,” “Who is This Mustafa Kemal,” “Spy Wars in Holy Lands” and “Abdülhamit In the Grip of the Europeans”