Why Turkey hasn’t forgotten about the First World War

Turkey would be a different entity today, had it not been for the First World War. Co-author of the British Council report, Remember the World as well as the War , Anne Bostanci, highlights the effects of the war on Turkey and why especially the younger generation ‘remembers’.

‘When the war ended for some countries in 1918-19, it did not for Turkey.’ Photo © Ottoman Imperial Archives, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original (link no longer available).

Remembering a world war, by definition, must be about remembering the whole world’s involvement and losses – not just how it affected our own country or part of the world. Understanding the First World War also involves learning how it still affects our own country and other countries, and relations between countries.

‘Turkey’ was ‘European’ 

Today, many people tend to think of ‘Europe’ as more or less synonymous with the EU, plus a few non-EU countries such as Switzerland and Norway. But there is an argument  that this wasn’t always how people understood ‘Europe’. In the Age of Empire, the argument goes, none of the other ‘great’ European powers – e.g., the British, French, Russian or Austro-Hungarian empires – would have taken issue with counting the Ottoman Empire as one among them, both in positive and negative terms; regarding alliances and rivalries.

The Ottoman Empire’s entry into the First World War, as a result of a complex web of secret alliances between the European powers, can be characterised as part of the European origins of the war. But, just like the involvement of all other European empires, it meant that parts of the world well beyond Europe were drawn into the conflict.

Turkey suffered heavy losses during the First World War

While the extent of the Ottoman Empire was, by 1914, reduced (in the past it had included large parts of North Africa, South Eastern and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Arabian peninsula), its territory still spanned large parts of the Middle East and Arabia, which came to be heavily affected by the First World War.

The Ottoman army (just under three million conscripts of Turkish, Arab, Kurdish and other backgrounds) fought the British in Egypt, Palestine, Arabia, Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) and Persia (today’s Iran). Of all these encounters, the defeat against Ottoman forces at Gallipoli in particular has made a lasting impression on Britain, as well as Australia and New Zealand due to the heavy losses they incurred. It is also remembered as one of the most significant battles of the conflict in Turkey.

Overall, the total number of combatant casualties in the Ottoman forces amounts to just under half of all those mobilised to fight. Of these, more than 800,000 were killed. However, four out of every five Ottoman citizens who died were non-combatants. Many succumbed to famine and disease, but others died as a result of population transfers and massacres, including at least one million Ottoman Armenians, whose deaths are still subject to significant debate in Turkey and internationally today.

‘After’ the First World War, the Ottoman Empire was broken up

When the war ended for some countries in 1918-19, it did not for Turkey: the First World War led straight into the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923). This, together with the secret wartime agreements between the British and the French to divide up the Ottoman territory amongst themselves, sealed the fall of this formerly formidable empire, and led to the creation of the Turkish republic – reduced primarily to the former empire’s Anatolian heartland – under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Turkish collective memory of this period is coloured by these events. It lost its status amongst the great empires and, with it to some extent, its role in Europe. And it felt betrayed by the British who had, during the war, formed secret alliances with Ottoman Arabs to stir up revolts against their Turkish imperial rulers and entered into the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916 with the French, to take control of much of the empire’s former territory.

Perceptions of the First World War and the UK in Turkey today

It is therefore no surprise that British individuals and organisations operating in Turkey, such as the British Council, sometimes encounter a degree of mistrust or resentment. In the British Council’s seven-country survey on knowledge and perceptions of the First World War , the figure of Turkish respondents stating that Britain’s role in the First World War influenced their opinion of the UK in a negative way was high compared to other countries (34 per cent compared to, for instance, six per cent in France).

Young people in Turkey are very aware of the consequences of the First World War

On the surface, the findings from this survey look like the UK and Turkey put similar weight on the importance of the First World War. Just over half of British respondents (52 per cent) said it was one of the three most important international events of the past 100 years, compared to just under half of Turkish respondents (49 per cent).

However, in the UK, a higher proportion of the middle and older age groups (35+) selected it, while in Turkey more young people (especially in the 15-34 age bracket) placed the First World War in the top three international events of the past century.

Many young Turks feel their country’s role in World War One is misunderstood

The survey also reveals that 90 per cent of Turkish respondents felt that their country is still affected by the consequences of the First World War. What’s more, at 30 per cent, more than twice the proportion of Turkish compared to UK respondents felt that their country’s role in the First World War is often misrepresented and misunderstood in global history. Again, it was the youngest age group (15-24) who were the most likely to feel that their country had been misrepresented and misunderstood, at seven percentage points above the figure averaged across all age groups (i.e., 37 per cent).

Finally, less than ten per cent of UK respondents are aware of the Sykes-Picot Agreement mentioned above, whereas the figure for Turkish respondents is higher than 40 per cent. Knowledge of this agreement, too, is most widespread in the youngest age group – where almost half of respondents knew about it (49 per cent).

It’s in the UK’s interest to understand that Turkey is not likely to forget

Discussions in the UK rarely touch on these facts about the First World War, but in view of these findings, it would be naïve to hope that collective memory in Turkey will conveniently move away from them. They still have the power to colour Turkish people’s perceptions of the UK in a negative way, and they are likely to continue to do so.

However, it is important to remember that Turkey, with its comparatively young citizens who hold these memories, has been identified by the UK government as strategically important in a number of sectors: education, energy, trade, and security, to name just a few.

Only if we develop an understanding of countries like Turkey and their perspective of the First World War, can we understand the conflict’s true contemporary relevance for the UK. It is not only right to learn about the world’s experiences and perceptions of a world war. It is also in the UK’s interest to do this.

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