‘Young Turks more aware of World War I than older ones’

‘Young Turks more aware of World War I than older ones’

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‘Young Turks more aware of World War I than older ones’

It was hard to choose the countries where the survey on WWI would be conducted. Turkey was included as it is considered as one of the most important countries involved in the conflict, says Bostancı. HÜRRİYET Photo / Murat Şaka

Younger people in Turkey know more and feel stronger about the consequences of World War I than their elders, said Anne Bostancı, the co-author of a report commissioned by the British Council about perceptions of the conflict.

A survey conducted for the report in seven countries, including Turkey and the United Kingdom, reveals the contrast with Britain, where older generations are more knowledgeable and sensitive about issues related to the Great War.

“It just drives home the contemporary relevance of the conflict. If we don’t understand each other, it is difficult to trust,” said Bostancı, explaining the results of the survey to the Hürriyet Daily News.

What is your general evaluation about the results of the survey?

The most striking thing, though not unexpected, was how little a lot of people know.  We brought out that people know certain things, country-specific discourses that are established. But they don’t know much about the war as a whole, the aftermath, how it affected different countries, what it meant outside of their countries. Even within their own countries, it has almost become a ritualized discourse and our objective was to question this ritualized discourse.

What is the case in Turkey, according to the findings?

There is some country-specific discourse in Turkey as well. It is interesting to see that there are some similarities and differences in the knowledge of specific facts. One of the questions we asked was that of the assassination of Archduke [Franz Ferdinand] and where it took place. Turkey rates among the higher knowledge on that question. But there are other ones, like one thing that is quite big in the U.K. is the episode of the Christmas truce; not many people know about that in Turkey, but not many people know about it in Germany as well.

In some of the other questions, for instance, about which parts of the world was involved in the war, Turkey’s knowledge rate is quite high.

Is there any finding in the survey that sets Turkey apart?

There is a particular thing; the question about the knowledge on the Sykes-Picot agreement. Turkey together with Egypt was highest in terms of knowledge. From the U.K. perspective, it is quiet shocking to see the difference; in Turkey, over 40 percent are aware of it. In the U.K., it is 8 or 9 percent. If you consider that it was France and the U.K. who entered into the agreement, to see that it is possible for countries to move on in history and forget about decisive moments because it affected other parts of the world in a much more everyday way is quite shocking. That’s why we have brought it out so strongly in our report, and actually it was part of our motivation for the report. If we don’t understand each other, it is difficult to trust.

How is the U.K.’s outlook about Ottoman Turkey’s involvement in World War I?

One thing that is striking is that we had open-ended questions about top [in terms] of mind association with World War I: ‘What is the first three things that you can think of when you hear ‘World War I?’ We had roughly about a thousand respondents that generated 3,000 responses. In the Turkish survey, terms referring to the U.K., England and Britain came up about 30 times; in the U.K. sample, the Ottoman Empire comes up once in roughly 3,000 responses. So, that gives an impression of how strong the association is; people think so strongly about trenches; loss of life discrepancy between the perceived incompetence of the leaders and the enthusiastic young people being sent to kill; things like that are very much … in the U.K. discourse [in contrast to] other countries, including Turkey.

How did you choose the seven countries where you conducted the survey?

That was a very difficult question. Our message was that we should remember the whole world, but we did not have all the resources to do research on all affected by World War I. But we tried to get the balance right, between including all the ones that had to be there because they are considered the most important and having some of the ones which are important to challenge perceived knowledge. So in the category of those who need to be there, we had the U.K., Germany, France and Russia, and I would say Turkey falls within that category just because it was so important at that time; it was hugely affected by the consequence. It is still a very important country that falls within the core category. We wanted to bring in a Middle Eastern country to bring out the Skyes-Picot dynamic; that was Egypt, and we wanted a former colony, so we had India.

What else differentiates Turkey from the others?

On the surface, Turkey and the U.K. are comparable on quite a few of the findings; for instance, the same kind of percentages of respondents ranked World War I as one of the most important world political events in the past 100 years. I assumed that it would be older generations in Turkey [that think like that] because that is the case in the U.K. I found out it was the younger generations. The younger the age group, the higher the percentage of respondents who attribute top three significances to World War I.

I don’t know enough about the Turkish context to understand fully why that is – and whether it is the effect of education policy. Maybe there have been changes in the last three years that mean that people received more information and therefore they attribute more importance or whether there is some fresh interpretation of history.

Ninety percent feel that Turkey is still affected by the consequences of World War I. Up to the second oldest age group [45-54], the feeling of still being affected a great deal seems to increase while it dips again in the oldest age group.

Thirty percent agree with the statement “my country’s role in World War I is to this day often misrepresented and misunderstood in global history. The highest percentage supporting this statement can be found in the 15-25 and 45-54 [age groups].

The youngest age group has the highest percentages of knowledge about the Sykes-Picot agreement with 49 percent [15-25], the middle groups lower [37 percent for the 25-44 section] while the older ones [45+] have the lowest, 26 percent.

It just drives home the contemporary relevance of the conflict. If people had a more abstract way of relating to it, it might not been necessary to commemorate World War I to the same scale we do.

What does this finding about this generational gap tell us in general?

It shows us the discrepancy between countries: If in Turkey young people remember and if in U.K. young people don’t, then when people start to meet, there will be some disconnect; they will meet each other and make assumptions about each other based on different information.

What are the lessons to take in that case as far as the U.K.’s outlook to Turkey is concerned?

We need to be aware that these events that we tend to forget aren’t forgotten there and they have the power to color perceptions of the UK; a third of the respondents stated that Britain’s role in World War I influenced their opinion of the U.K. in a negative way. There is an impact of these events on people’s perceptions today that makes them see us in a negative light.

Who is Anne Bostancı?


Anne Bostancı is the co-author of the British Council’s report, "Remember the World as well as the War." She works in the External Relations team of the British Council in London, where she has contributed to a number of research reports on topics including soft power, modern foreign language teaching in the U.K., and the U.K.’s international reputation. Her current projects are on the benefits of international education opportunities for young people and UK-India relations.

Prior to joining the British Council, she worked in research and teaching roles at the German think tank the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation, the University of the Arts, London, and the University of Surrey. Her academic expertise covers Communications, Cultural Studies, European Studies, Politics and International Relations, which she has variously taught on in the U.K., South Korea and the Czech Republic. She has published policy papers, and academic papers and articles covering topics as diverse as migration, citizenship, diversity and integration, identity, European politics, political marketing, and the politics of discourse.