90 percent feel Turkey is still affected by the consequences of WWI

90 percent feel Turkey is still affected by the consequences of WWI

Just as we yesterday celebrated the 91st year of the foundation of the Turkish Republic, this year also marks the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, which brought an end to the Ottoman Empire.

“While it would be too simplistic to claim World War I was the single root cause, some of today’s most significant international problems are linked to its global reach and legacy,” reads the introduction of the British Council’s report titled “Remember the World as well as the War.”

Looking at the nearly 2 million refugees that have come to Turkey fleeing the bloodshed in Syria and Iraq, Turks are certainly well placed to agree with that sentence. The British Council’s survey is a testament to that feeling; 90 percent of Turkish citizens overall feel that the country is still affected by the consequences of World War I, according to a survey commissioned by the British Council.

While the British Council research is dedicated to exploring how the war and its legacy continue to affect the U.K. and its place in the world today; thanks to the survey conducted in seven countries, including Turkey (the others being Egypt, France, Germany, India, Russia and the U.K.) we also have some input about Turks’ views on World War I.

The survey is extremely valuable, as it shows us how the lack of information - or actually misinformation - lies at the source of the lack of communication and distrust among nations.

One striking example, for instance, is about Germany, where 53 percent of respondents believed that the Ottoman Empire was neutral. However, if you ask the Turks, a majority will tell you that the Ottoman Empire was dragged into the war by the Germans. (Fleeing the British, the German ships Göben and Breslau, which reached Istanbul, were then accepted as part of the Ottoman fleet. When they attacked Russian positions under their German commander, the Ottoman Empire was brought into the war.)

It is again extremely striking to see that a total of 41 percent of Turkish respondents and 59 percent of Egyptian respondents have heard of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, compared to only 9 percent of respondents in the U.K. and 8 percent in France – the two countries that made the agreement that proposed the division of much of the Middle East into British and French spheres of influence.

Ever since the beginning of the Arab Spring, many in Turkey have talked about how the Sykes-Picot order (and borders) are being challenged by developments taking place in the Middle East. Ten days ago, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu referred to the Sykes-Picot agreement half a dozen times in a speech.

In contrast to the Sykes-Picot agreement, only 25 percent of Turks surveyed had heard of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the letter written by the British foreign secretary that paved the way for the creation of the state of Israel and the associated ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.

Other results show how Turks differ from the rest when it comes to how they feel about the consequences of World War I.

With 53 percent, Turkey ranks first among seven countries in agreeing that “World War I and its outcomes have a lasting impact on my country’s international relations and how it is viewed by other countries today.”

With 47 percent, Turkey has the highest rate among the seven in agreeing that “World War I contributes strongly to my country’s identity.” With 30 percent it again has the highest rate in agreeing that “My country’s role in World War I and the subsequent peace negotiations are – to this day – often misrepresented and misinterpreted in global history.”

Finally, 88 percent overall said they feel World War I should be commemorated.

My understanding is that the Turkish government was not very enthusiastic about doing much to commemorate the outbreak of World War I when they were approached by the Europeans. It instead preferred to prepare for a huge commemoration ceremony to mark the 100th year of the Gallipoli campaign next year.

However, these ceremonies should be complemented with scientific research like the one conducted by the British Council. This could have shed light on our understanding (or misunderstanding) of the world today. Is it too much to expect that from the current government?

It is bizarre that even those accused of being neo-Ottoman are not using this occasion to at least mourn the end of the Ottoman Empire.