A book fair I recently attended held a pleasant surprise for me: An abundance of Turkish military history books had been given the most prominent displays.
The annual event in the northern Aegean resort town of Edremit, Turkey, ran Aug. 13-16. The prevalence of those particular books seems to confirm a revived interest in Turkey's military past among a variety of readers.
Graduate sociology student Emrah Y. showed me a book he bought narrating the Kut battles in Iraq, which pitted the Ottoman army against the British army. “It's impossible to understand the new Turkey without understanding society’s popular interest in military history,” he said.
Hasan T., a veteran of Turkey's 1974 Cyprus operation, told me he came to the fair specifically to look at military history books. Writings on World War I, the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923) and the Korean War have increased, but there were no books on the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus. “Many soldiers were writing their Cyprus memoirs," Hasan said. "I hope their families will show them to publishers.”
Retired teacher Sefika P. described herself as a “Republican Kemalist.” She said she was a fan of "Vatanim Sensin" (Wounded Love), a TV drama about the fictional Col. Cevdet, who infiltrated the Greek occupation army at Izmir during the War of Independence. The series became a favorite of Turkish secular society.
“I am reading military history to better understand Ataturk and his comrades and their lives at the fronts,” she said.
The conservative segment of society nowadays favors books on Alparslan (also Alp Arslan), emperor of the Seljuk Turks, whose forces defeated the Byzantine army at Malazgirt (then called Manzikert) in 1071 and opened the gates of Anatolia to Islam. Kurds are mostly interested in the life of Selahaddin Eyyubi — who they believe is an Iraqi Kurd — and how he liberated Jerusalem from the Crusaders.
According to a prominent historian who studies comparative Turkish and European military history, military history research was seen throughout the 1990s as a job for retired officers working at the military history department of the chief of staff headquarters. Yet civilian academics and authors entering the field has enabled its diversification.
In 2014, marking the centenary of the beginning of WWI, the Turkish public also began to remember the war, with particular interest in Ottoman fronts that are now outside Turkey's borders. Many Turks have remembered just in the past couple of years that that their grandfathers fought not only at Dardanelles and Sarikamis in the east, but also at Galicia, Spain; Iraq; the Caucasus; and Palestine, and were killed or taken prisoner on those distant fronts. Families began lining up at publishing houses with memoirs of their forefathers. Turkey’s current political climate — along with the ambition of the Justice and Development Party rekindling the old days of the Ottoman Empire beyond Anatolia — is encouraging a wide segment of society, even those who are less-than-avid readers, to become interested in the events and characters of Turkish military history.
According to naval military historian Murat Acmuz, historical novels, movies and TV documentaries and serials have popularized the war history of 1914-1918. Popular history lecturers found themselves in demand for meetings and lectures organized by municipalities. The presidency sponsored such gatherings and even gave financial support to ceremonies commemorating events like the victory of the siege of Kut al-Amara during WWI and the 1915 battle at Manzikert.
Tuncay Yilmazer, a prominent civilian military historian who specializes in the Gallipoli Campaign, said there are two key reasons for the growing interest in military history.
The Turkish region has always been active militarily and diplomatically, he said. "It is generally accepted that the low-intensity wars Turkey has lived through and the occasional eruption of diplomatic crises are not that old. [Some] think of century-old events as recent. Dardanelles, Palestine, Iraq, Syria and Sarikamis have massive public appeal. Sagas of heroism are cited to elaborate on today’s events. We easily say any crisis with a Western country is an outcome of the Sykes-Picot deal. In the crisis with Saudi Arabia or the UAE, the first thing we remember is the Sharif Hussein rebellion in WWI, and we start searching for a new T.E. Lawrence [Lawrence of Arabia]," he said.
According to Yilmazer, the spread of social media has also contributed to this increased interest in military history. The exploits of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk at Dardanelles and Palestine; Enver Pasha; Lawrence; Fahreddin Pasha; and the defense of Medina instantly generate heated debates on social media.
Fatih Bas, another military historian, agreed with Yilmazer, saying, “Another important role of social media is to enable academics working on military history to contact each other and submit their findings to the public for debate."
Historian Erhan Ciftci, known for his doctoral dissertation on the Korean War, also noted that the tendency of civilian politicians to frequently refer to recent history encourages discussion on subjects not discussed before. “Finally, publishers [have] detected the public demand and stepped up their works on military history,” he said.
A military historian who didn’t want to be named said that "this sudden, exceptional interest in Turkish military history is different from the US, UK and Europe because we still don’t have a well-structured, documentary basis for war history. The military history archive, which keeps documents from the 1853 Crimean War to the 1974 Cyprus operation, is still under the chief of staff structure and is not fully accessible to civilian researchers. Our research is still market-oriented, serving today’s popular demands, [and] thus [it is] devoid of critical and analytical products. The public is served with anti-foreigner, religious, nationalist, single-hero- and supreme-commander-themed, chauvinistic publications. Human elements of war and non-combat aspects of military history are ignored.”
He added, “Moreover, events and actors of recent history are ignored, [such as] the Ottoman public rejecting compulsory military service and not wanting to fight the occupiers. The role of non-Muslim personnel in the Ottoman army during WWI — despite their outstanding services — is not appreciated.”
It's true that the lack of an established popular and academic military history tradition results in abundant disinformation and chauvinist publications, which naturally promote public interest. Meanwhile, publishers have expanded their offerings of translated publications. Cinema and TV productions on military subjects have increased. Those who want to learn more have realized there is no real military history tradition in Turkey, and this has encouraged the interest shown to military history subjects at the new National Defense University. It doesn't come as a surprise that civilian universities are taking notice of the growing demand and beginning to offer graduate courses in military history.
All military historians are pleased with translations made from Western languages on Ottoman and world history, the increasing number of military history dissertations, production of textbooks by the National Defense University and steps to turn over military archives to state archives. They see these as welcome trends.
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