World War I 100 years later

World War I 100 years later

World War I constituted a watershed event in ending the two major continental multiethnic empires in Europe (Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire) and leading to a major transformation of another (Russia) into a communist state.

The Ottoman Empire entered World War I with the hope of recovering lost territories. Yet, a look back at the history of the empire during its last century reveals that its multiethnic structure was under constant challenge from the rising tide of nationalism.

After Muslim Arabs also began to display nationalistic proclivities, the Turkish element in the nation started to explore ethnic bases for their identity. However, the Ottoman defeat in World War I led to the adoption of a more modest, territorially-based nationalism in the lands that remained in Turkish hands.

The victors hoped to impose the infamous Sèvres Treaty on the Ottomans. However, the nationalist successes opened the way to new negotiations. The Sèvres Treaty was replaced by the new Treaty of Lausanne. Lausanne was a product of negotiations between parties, not a unilateral imposition. A peace treaty that Turkey could live with explains why Turkey did not join the revisionist powers led by Germany and take part in World War II. Turkey’s success in keeping out of World War II not only spared it from devastation, but also from being “liberated” by the Soviet army. It also made it possible for Turkey to become a member of the Atlantic Community.

A strong drive for laicization characterized the policies of the Republic for a good part of its history. However, the relationship between religion and politics in Turkey has continued to be problematic. The republican political and bureaucratic elites accepted Sunni Islam and becoming native speakers of Turkish as a tacit part of the national identity.

This posed the question of what to do with not only the non-Muslim populations, but also non-Sunni Muslims. The latter, it was hoped, would be gradually absorbed into the majority; however, they have not.

World War I left another legacy, often referred to as the Armenian problem. Armenians lived in larger numbers in eastern Turkey. Toward the end of the 19th century, Armenian nationalism bourgeoned.

Czarist Russia and France instigated and/or developed intimate relations with Armenian movements, hoping to have another ally in their colonialist expansionism into the lands of the Ottomans. After the Empire entered the war with Russia, Czarist forces, joined by Armenian irregulars, marched into northeastern Turkey.

The Ottoman government decided to relocate the local Armenian population, which it no longer trusted, to Syria. Many died on the way from hunger and disease; others were killed in robberies; some made it to their destination impoverished and exhausted. What happened, why it happened, who was responsible for what, how many people perished from which community, did the Ottoman government order the killings, how these events should be named and many other questions constitute issues of contention between Turks and the Armenian State, the Armenian Church and the Armenian diaspora.

Sadly, it has not proven possible thus far to find common ground for both nations to share their grief and ensure a better future.

Another legacy with origins in the War is the Kurdish Question. Remembering how imperialist powers had used ethnic and religious groups to advance their own territorial ambitions, the founders of the Republic turned to ethnic homogenization in building a nation.

The reasons for Kurdish political assertiveness have varied over time, but with growing economic prosperity and a concomitant sense of confidence, as well as advances in democratization, it is only recently that both succeeding Turkish governments and the Turkish public have come to recognize that a “political solution” needs to be sought.

In contrast to other nations defeated in World War I, it appeared that Turkey had addressed many of the problems encountered during the War or in its immediate aftermath with success. As time has shown, however, elements of a legacy sometimes disappear and then reappear; they are defined and redefined, depending on the times, conditions, events, needs, and psychologies. 

* İlter Turan is professor of International Relations at Istanbul Bilgi University. This is an abbreviated version of the article and was originally published in the Spring 2014 issue of Turkish Policy Quarterly (TPQ),