Stories and Histories
From the End of the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic
What makes history so interesting is very often evil: human beings who were capable of inflicting untold suffering on others. At the same time, there is tremendous reticence to speak about evil within one’s own ranks. The honour and glory of the nation are at stake. Consequently, we are often all too quick to turn the spotlight on the evils of others in order for them to outshine everything else.
This creates a tangle of attributions, both to oneself and to others, that becomes impossible to unravel. The period covering the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the founding of the Turkish Republic is still entangled in this way, knotted and encoded by myths that consume individual biographies. The writing of national history obscures all else, leaving no space for the fates of individuals.
Cry for freedom
In 1908 a resounding cry for freedom echoed all across the Ottoman Empire. In Thessaloniki in particular – the intellectual centre of Ottoman modernisation, a city where Muslims, Jews and Greeks each constituted a third of the population – reformative and emancipatory movements had sprung up demanding the return of the constitutional monarchy. This had been disempowered three decades earlier by the autocratic ruler Sultan Abdulhamid, the first pan-Islamic potentate of the modern age. The Ottoman Empire was clearly in trouble. The great European powers were already well in position; they had staked their claims, and were waiting impatiently for the division of the pie. Sultan Abdulhamid’s authoritarian regime tottered and eventually broke apart, but this did not immediately result in the break-up of the multi-racial state. The years between 1908 – the year of the revolution – and 1911 are immensely significant for the relationships between the peoples of the Ottoman Empire. It is therefore all the more surprising that there is very little literature on the subject. There are now numerous essays, films and documentaries that frequently recall the Armenian genocide, making it far more difficult to deny this terrible chapter of Ottoman history: yet we are still in the dark as to how it could come about. We are also in the dark about what befell other peoples living in the territory of modern-day Turkey, namely: the Süryanis, a people who followed the Syrian-Orthodox religion, the Greeks of Anatolia, the Jews, the Caucasian peoples, the Alawite and Sunni Kurds, and last but not least refugees from the Balkan wars, predominantly Muslim Macedonians, Bosniaks, and Albanians or Jews from Thessaloniki.
Who was considered Turkish?
The Ottoman Empire was a multi-ethnic state. So too is the Republic of Turkey. The former failed as a consequence of this. The republic that was then created, on the other hand, visualised itself as a homogenous nation state in which 99 % of the population were defined as Turks because they were Muslim. In the hour of its birth, modern Turkey – which has always taken pride in its laicism, unique in the Islamic world – made religion the basis of Turkish identity. Today it is still wrestling with the consequences of this bizarre contradiction. Because they were Muslims, Kurds had to declare themselves Turks: it is only in the past few years that a painstaking process has begun in Turkey to recognise Kurdish identity.
But Christians also suffered as a result of the new definition of Turkishness as falling beneath the umbrella of religion. When, in 1922, after the War of Independence in Anatolia, an agreement was signed between Turkey and Greece for a population exchange (which meant nothing other than the expulsion of 1.5 million people of the Greek Orthodox faith from Anatolia, and the expulsion of around half a million people of the Muslim faith from Greece), there were quite a few among the supposed ‘Greeks’ who spoke not a word of the Greek language: these were Turkish tribes from Central Anatolia who had been Christianised.
It is clear from just these few examples from the last century, which sound extraordinary and were the cause of endless suffering for the people concerned, that Turkish history belongs not only to the Turks. When someone has been driven out of a territory their history does not end, it is not extinguished: instead, it becomes a past that can no longer be updated. What place does this history that cannot be updated then occupy in the collective memory? Constructing a collective memory as a national project, which always involves establishing an opposition between an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, means working with the mechanisms of repression.
It is not so much the historical events themselves that are central here, but the place they occupy in the memory. Memory is a contentious, identity-forming medium with the ability to establish communities, and to allow them to disintegrate.
I do not write historical novels. Historical events are therefore not really at the forefront of my books: if they do feature, it is as the background for lapses of memory or the failure to remember. However, they also form constructions: a solid – often, indeed, inviolable – framework upon which national monuments of remembrance are mounted. In my books I tell stories that examine how vestiges of repressed memory are stored in the construction of national identity, and how these deposits make their presence felt in family histories and individual destinies: often painfully, traumatically, but sometimes in a way that is simply bizarre.
One motive for this approach is my own family history. I learned very little in my family about what my grandfathers had done in the First World War. An uncle of my mother, a captain in the cavalry, fell in the Caucasian mountains in the winter of 1914/15. My grandfather was exempted from military service as he was the only surviving son in his family. The family was originally from Batumi, in modern-day Georgia: they came as refugees after the Russian occupied Batumi in 1878. The First World War was preceded by the great Russo-Turkish War of 1877 and the First Balkan War of 1912-13, which was a traumatic one in many ways, incurring heavy losses not only for the Ottoman Empire but also for the people of the Caucasus and the Balkans. An estimated one million Muslims were driven out of the Balkans. Around 300,000 died in atrocities. These events have barely registered in the imagination of the European peoples; yet at the time German and English newspapers were full of descriptions of these dramatic events.
The history of the Armenians
In many Turkish family histories, the Balkans and the Caucasus exist like a backdrop that has been erased. Flight and expulsion are covered in a mantle of oblivion. This mantle of oblivion then also covers the events that led to the Armenian catastrophe in Anatolia.
A few years ago I met up with a friend in Istanbul who has read a great deal about the Young Turks. He had Armenian ancestors on his mother’s side, all of whom, with the exception of his great-grandmother, died during the expulsion. In his family, however, these origins were not only still a secret: they were actively denied. Consequently, my friend is also a staunch advocate of Turkish theories as to what happened in Anatolia in 1915. Resettlement as a consequence of war, badly organised, but absolutely not a planned genocide. Nowhere, he says, has any document been found to substantiate any such intention. According to him, the Armenian diaspora in particular is politicising events and pursuing all kinds of aims in so doing. The only legitimate aim is, he says, the only one it is not pursuing, namely: to clarify what really happened back then, and why.
He then hands me a book, commenting that it is required reading for anyone interested in the topic. It is the Turkish translation of The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide by Guenther Lewy. I know this book, I say; I read it in the American original. I know that the author is a renowned American historian who was not paid by Turkey to write this book. But the question of whether or not the events of 1915 should be described as genocide is, I tell him, of only secondary interest to me. I am interested in the question of how these events have shaped us, our grandparents, our parents, you and me; I am interested in all the repressed personal experiences.
I don’t have the impression that my friend is listening to me. Instead, he is preoccupied with the author’s identity. A Jew, he says. It takes a lot of courage to write a book like this: one that goes against the prevailing current of opinion and exposes the forgeries and trickery of some historians so openly. An embarrassment for us, when we’ve been treating the Jews so badly lately.
And I ask myself: what better illustration could there be of how history is part of our present than this encounter? Our Turkish relationship with the Armenians, who are, for both my friend and myself, part of our own families – families neither of which want to know anything about it. Survivors of the deportations married into my family on my father’s side as well as on my mother’s. Not as Armenians, but as Muslim Turks. Their origins are still a family secret, even today. An American historian of German-Jewish descent, who in his capacity as an academic has studied the fate of the Armenian people on Anatolian soil; the reactions to his work merely confirm my friend’s thesis that the instrumentalisation and politicisation of the subject are obscuring scientific historical study of the subject, or even making it impossible. My friend’s sense of relief, and, because the author of the book is a Jew, his feelings of shame towards the Jewish people on account of Turkey’s not exactly Israel-friendly prime minister.
The task of the author
This is precisely the tangle I am talking about, and this is what interests me as a writer. Not because I claim to be able to unravel it, but because I want to feel it and allow it to be felt as a knot, a barrier to thought, to feelings – and to empathy, without which it is impossible to have a dialogue with the Other.
It is these everyday stories and experiences that for me, as an author, open up like windows into people’s inner lives. There I discern complex realities and intellectual worlds, often veiled in fog and distorted by public discourse. A story can only be told when you go under the skin, peel away the surface appearance: when those layers that dictate our judgements and prejudices, our thoughts and actions, become consciously visible. Literature is, first and foremost, an internal experience. It communicates in a language that comprehends the silent monologue that goes on inside a person’s head.
In Europe, national communities almost always have two births. The first takes place on the battlefield, the second around the conference table. One without the other is inconceivable. These births are almost always associated with bereavement, expulsion, mass murder. Remembrance and the repression of memory are two sides of the same coin.
In my novel Gefährliche Verwandschaft [Dangerous Relations], I tried to reconstruct a story that no one remembers any more: the protagonist’s grandfather’s involvement in the expulsion of the Armenians from Anatolia, and the grandfather’s suicide in 1936 in unexplained circumstances, clouded by guilt and the denial of responsibility.
The question in my mind was: who speaks, when no one speaks?
In Turkey, the preference is for modern Turkish history to begin on 23rd April 1920, the date on which the National Assembly met in Ankara to liberate Anatolia, which was occupied by the victorious powers of the First World War. Like Germany, Turkey too had its Versailles Treaty after the First World War, but its Versailles was called Sèvres. The Sultan and the government in Istanbul signed the treaty. Istanbul and parts of Anatolia were occupied. Officers led by Mustafa Kemal Pasha rebelled, and eventually, after a successful war of liberation, founded the modern Turkish republic. A national myth was born, followed by Turkey’s cultural reorientation towards the West.
But Anatolia was not only Turkish. The transformation of the Ottoman Empire into a supposedly homogenous Turkish national state also brought with it great suffering. Expulsions, assimilation policies, the negation of history and identity. The things that took place in the Ottoman territories – in the Balkans, in Anatolia, and on the Arabian peninsula – as the Empire was disintegrating are so monstrous and bloody that the debate about the expulsion of a large part of the Armenian population, the debate about motives and the number of victims, seem to me, as a writer of novels, entirely unworthy of discussion. What do we win or lose in the word ‘genocide’, the subject of such bitter argument, other than the delimitation of our respective memorial communities?
But how does a memorial community function, if even in the context of family history it can only be maintained by lies, forgery and silence? In my novel Alman Terbiyesi [German School], written in Turkish, I tried to approach Turkey’s complex national history through the life story of my protagonist, Salih Bey. How does nationalism function at a psychological level when it is founded on traumatic experiences?
Salih Bey, born in 1881, originally from Macedonia, comes to Berlin in 1900 as a young officer of the Ottoman Empire to continue his training with the Kaiser’s army. He falls in love with the daughter of a German officer, marries her, becomes a German officer himself, fights in the First World War, leaves the army in 1918 and becomes a successful businessman in post-war Berlin. Salih Bey is loyal to the Kaiser, sees himself as a German and Turkish patriot, enjoys photography, and assists as a producer in the making of the first Turkish movie.
Just before the start of World War Two he and his German wife, Annette, move to Istanbul, which has become a foreign city for him. It is his wife who insists that they should move: unlike Salih Bey she is alarmed and disgusted by Hitler’s regime, and senses that a terrible catastrophe is threatening to engulf Germany. Shortly after the move Annette dies, and Salih Bey begins to write his memoirs. It is 1941, and German troops have penetrated deep into Russia. Shouldn’t one rush to assist them? Aren’t there countless peoples in the Soviet Union – Turkic peoples, no less – who could easily be won over to the German cause? Salih Bey feels a sense of responsibility and tries to get involved, but his efforts do not seem to find much favour with the Germans. Then Karla, a friend from Berlin in the 1920s, appears on his doorstep, looking very dishevelled. She is heading for Palestine, and she robs Salih Bey of his last illusions.
In this book, nationalistic blindness, an officer’s honour, patriotism, origins and identity enter into a complex, confused coexistence. The frontiers between the characters, their feelings, real events, dreams, fears and illusions are by no means always clear. There is Salih Bey’s childhood in the Balkans, his Ottoman identity; there is Salih Bey as a German officer; Salih Bey as the Muslim husband of a German officer’s daughter; Salih Bey as a would-be agent of the Third Reich; Salih Bey who helps a Jewish woman reach Palestine; Salih Bey expatriated by the German Reich; Salih Bey spied on by the Turkish secret police. A life in the twentieth century, with many faces, passports, destinies; with many home countries, lost and won; and, time and again, the individual as the victim of abuse – abused by ideologies, by his own feelings, by the yearning to belong. The First World War is the lynchpin of so many stories – many of which still have not been told.
is an author and journalist based in Berlin. He writes in both German and Turkish.
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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