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Norman Stone – Turkey: A Short History (book review)

April 18, 2012

[A slightly shorter version of this review is published in the latest issue of ‘Insight Turkey’ (Vol. 14 No. 2): http://www.insightturkey.com/insight-turkey-volume-14-no-2/issues/168]

Norman Stone – Turkey: A Short History, Thames & Hudson, pp 192

A new title seems to be landing on the “Ottoman and Turkish History” shelves of Istanbul’s book shops every week. Norman Stone, formerly Professor of History at Oxford and Cambridge, is the latest heavyweight to step into the ring with this volume, an almost recklessly slim account of 1300 years’ history. The Turks’ nomadic central Asian origins, their 10th century arrival in Anatolia, the rise and fall of the Seljuk and Ottoman Empires, and the establishment of the modern Turkish Republic are all covered in just 165 pages. Though obviously thin on real detail in most places, the book nevertheless represents both a decent primer for the interested novice (with some important provisos), and an entertaining, elegantly-written frisk for the more jaded expert.

Early on, Stone suggests: “If you are Turkish you have to ask what you owe to: (1) the ancient native Turkish tradition; (2) Persia; (3) Byzantium; (4) Islam; (5) what sort of Islam; and (6) conscious westernization”. Of course, it would be far-fetched to imagine that every modern Turk self-consciously ratiocinates these things and comes up with their own credit-debit account of historical heritage. It’s this book’s major strength, however, to demonstrate the lesser-appreciated continuities – as well as sudden changes – that do make up so much of Turkish history. The Ottoman Empire, Stone tells us, initially saw itself as an inheritor of both the Seljuk Turk and Byzantine Greek traditions. Until the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, for example, the Ottomans had thrived as a cavalry-based nomadic “military empire” in the Seljuk tradition; indeed, the plan of the Topkapı Palace they built soon after the conquest – with its modest, low-rise pavilions and courtyards – deliberately imitates the tented headquarters of a nomadic Turkish chieftain. On the other hand, Mehmet II (the conqueror of Constantinople) spoke fluent Greek and was “in effect set upon retaking the eastern Roman Empire that Justinian had made great in the sixth century”. Sultans often made dynastic marriages of convenience with Byzantine princesses; and even the harem eunuch, an idea so beloved of the orientalist western European, was originally a Byzantine phenomenon, originating in the early Christian understanding that sex was the work of the Devil. There’s also the little-appreciated fact that, at the time of the conquest of Constantinople, the population of the Ottoman lands was still 75% Christian.

A more self-confidently “Ottoman” identity developed in the 15th century, particularly under Selim I (known to us rather unflatteringly as “the Grim”, though a more accurate translation of the Turkish “Yavuz” is “stern” or “tough”). His capture of much of the Arab peninsula – in particular the Holy Places of Mecca and Medina – inevitably made the Ottoman Empire more overtly Islamic, and it was during his reign that the Ottomans claimed the Islamic Caliphate from the withering Mameluke state in Egypt, (the Mamelukes themselves descended from Turks, brought to Egypt as slaves by the Ayyubid dynasty). It was also around this time that the Ottoman sultans would begin to emphasise splendour and grandiosity as their distinctive characteristic, adopting titles such as – amongst many others – “Marcher Lord of the Horizon” and “Shadow of God on Earth”. We associate this grandiosity with the apogee of Ottoman power, especially the long rule of Süleyman I (the Magnificent), which stretched from 1520-66. During Süleyman’s reign the empire won a series of blistering military victories, and the Ottoman territories reached their largest extent: it could be argued that the Ottomans were, for a time, the most powerful force on the globe. Süleyman wasn’t just a charismatic general of genius, however, but also a formidable organiser of the state machine, and he is known in Turkey to this day as “Kanuni”, or “law-maker”. “Süleyman’s reign”, Stone writes admiringly, “mark[s] a synthesis of empire: Rome for the law and organization, Islam for the inspiration, Central Asia for the military”. Nevertheless, things were set to change. It’s true that a light burns brightest in the moments before it becomes extinguished, but what happened to the Ottoman Empire after the age of Süleyman wasn’t so much a swift extinguishing, but rather an extraordinarily drawn-out decline, lasting until the 20th century. This decline is usually claimed to start at the disastrous siege of Vienna in 1683, which not only resulted in defeat but also prompted an enormous Christian counter-offensive in the European Ottoman territories. Symbolic though the siege may be, in reality the rot had started long before.

Stone poses a central question at the beginning of the book, which any historian of the Ottoman Empire must take seriously: “To what extent was the success of the Ottomans based on Islam, or would you read this the other way round, and just say that the Ottomans were successful when their Islam was not taken too seriously?” You needn’t necessarily answer this question entirely one way or the other. It is true, however, that hand in hand with the long decline of the Ottoman Empire went an Islamic intellectual retrogression, symbolised by the 18th century closure of mathematics and engineering schools and the broader atrophying of scientific enquiry. It’s also true that, throughout its existence, the Ottoman Empire depended not only on taxes levied on non-Muslim minorities to maintain its impressive bureaucratic machine, but also on minorities for the bulk of those conscripted into the elite Janissary guards, and even for Grand Viziers (who often held the real power, as opposed to their often ineffective sultans). The tolerance that the Ottoman Empire extended to its religious minorities, however imperfect, was truly remarkable, and certainly compares favourably with the record of contemporary European regimes. Indeed, when the Jews were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in the early 16th century as part of the Inquisition in Spain, most were welcomed and resettled on Ottoman lands by then-sultan, Bayezid II, who dryly reflected: “You venture to call Ferdinand a wise ruler, he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!” It’s a good thing that he did too, as Christians and Jews increasingly kept the Ottoman economy going over the 18th and 19th centuries, inevitable when Islam forbade the earning of interest on debts. The “capitulations” – favourable terms offered to foreigners (enterprising Europeans) to do business in Ottoman territory – also gradually came to symbolise the increasing stranglehold in which the western European powers began to hold the Ottomans. Initially intended as a sensible method to stimulate trade with outsiders (the product of a self-confident and outward-looking state machine), they eventually came to be seen as humiliating terms which the Europeans exploited to gain further leverage over the declining eastern power. The Ottomans didn’t feel able to abolish the capitulations until the First World War, when their empire became as reckless and destructive as great empires tend to do when staring down the barrel of extinction. (As an interesting footnote, Stone describes the abolition of the capitulations as coming from the same impulse that led to the notorious Wealth Tax on minorities of 1942, and the anti-Greek pogroms of 1955: the necessity of creating a “national bourgeoisie”, or functioning “Muslim commercial class”.)

Before publishing this book, Stone had already gained some notoriety for his contrarian views on the Armenian “incidents” of 1915-17, and there is no Damascene moment to report here. He characterises what happened to the Armenians as just one strand of a theme that was common throughout the Ottoman lands in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. At around the same time as the Turks were massacring Armenians, for example, Muslims were themselves being forcibly expelled and subject to atrocities in the Balkans and the Caucasus. For their part, Greeks and Armenians were each also committing their own crimes against Muslim Turks. Framing the matter this way, and puzzling over how the Christian minorities have so monopolised historical sympathy, Stone seems think that the Turks’ only problem is one of PR. It was the same story, he argues, during the 19th century, when Greeks and Turks traded barbarities on the Aegean and liberal British sympathy – dazzled by the fashionable romantic Hellenism of the time – sided with the Greeks. “Genocide” is an unsuitable word for something that was, in reality, a far more ambiguous shade of grey. If what happened to the Armenians is genocide – Stone says – then so too is what was visited upon the Muslim population of the Balkans and in the territories of the Russian Empire.

It’s true that crimes against the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire receive comparatively little attention from western historians, and Stone is right to highlight them. But what happened to the Armenians really was something altogether different, and of an altogether different magnitude. Comparisons with Nazi Germany won’t do, but it’s an indisputable fact that hundreds of thousands of Armenians did die. “Deportations” is a suitably vague term to describe the deliberate massacre of many, the accidental death of some, and the forced resettlement of many others. The debate will continue (perhaps “rage on” is a more suitable term) as to the motives and effects of Ottoman policy in eastern Anatolia. There’s surely no doubt, however, that the emptying of all significant Christian minorities from Turkish lands was indeed considered convenient by the Young Turk regime – whether all the killings were deliberate or not – and it set about achieving this by whatever means necessary. Does Stone honestly believe that what happened was a legitimate response to Armenian terrorist activity, as he suggests here? Nationalism gripped all sections of Ottoman society during the 19th and 20th centuries. Perhaps the greatest mistake of the Armenians was in embracing their own with such enthusiasm, despite the fact that in no Ottoman province did the Armenian population ever constitute a majority.

Stone, in his enthusiasm to testify as witness for the Turkish defence against the genocide allegations, no doubt goes much too far; and he does the same elsewhere. In the preface he makes the bizarre assertion that it’s “not really for an outsider to comment” on the state of contemporary Turkish politics. Perhaps this argument makes more sense when you’re Professor in the History department of Ankara’s Bilkent University, as Stone currently is. Would he say the same about the United States, I wonder? If not, would he not then be guilty of the same kind of relativism that he’s doubtless (correctly) critical of elsewhere? The claim seems doubly odd, when – despite professing to “resolutely refrain from doing so” – Stone does, in fact, go on to make a number of extremely contentious pronouncements about modern Turkey. Shorn of the Kurds, we’re blithely told, the country would become “a Greece and perhaps even a sort of late Byzantium”, whatever that means. Almost as bafflingly, the military coup of 1980 – as a result of which 650,000 were arrested, countless tortured or killed, and the seeds sown for the future bloody Kurdish conflict – is limply presented to us as “the most interesting of all Turkey’s coups” in which “the casualties were very few in number”.

The chapters on the modern Turkish Republic thus make for a curiously hollow read. Perhaps what Stone meant when suggesting that “it’s not for an outsider to comment” was really “it’s not really for an outsider to criticise”. In which case, more’s the pity. As Kant rightly observed, you show a friend most respect by adopting a policy of sensitive but unswerving honesty, trusting that they are mature enough to respond to such honesty with dignity and equanimity. If Stone had recognised this, his observations on Turkish history – particularly the more recent – would have carried more weight.

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