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The Sultan and the Sultan

November 8, 2017

I’ve written a long-ish article for History Today on historical revisionism in Turkey around the figure of hard-line late Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II – who many are keen to imagine as a precursor of President Erdoğan.

Abdülhamid has long been venerated as ‘Ulu Hakan’ (the Supreme Sultan) by conservative ideologues within Turkey, but the reverence has reached fever pitch under Erdoğan. An idealised memory of Abdülhamid, which casts him as the last proudly Islamic Ottoman leader standing up to the West, has become part of the government’s narrative of civilisational ‘restoration’, in which Turkey is once again a great power that shapes history. Abdülhamid is often glorified as a symbolic precursor of Erdoğan – proof that historic forces are at play today. …

When he first became sultan in 1876, Abdülhamid appeared to be an enlightened reformer. He supported the Ottoman constitution, giving the empire its first experience of constitutional democracy. The next year he opened the first session of an elected Ottoman parliament … But the experience of ruling a vast, decaying empire hardened him into an absolutist, and he became convinced that he needed to rule with a stronger hand to protect it from further dismemberment. …

The parallels with Turkey’s current president are obvious. Erdoğan was once lauded in the West as a moderate Muslim reformer, raising the country’s democratic standards and advancing its economy. But his international reputation has since deteriorated badly. Authoritarianism, rent-seeking and demagoguery mark his era. The state administration is subject to the whims of capricious one-man rule. A cult of personality is in full swing, with Erdoğan embodying the frustrations, hopes and grievances of Turkey’s conservative masses, bound by a powerful sense of shared identity. …

Erdoğan’s supporters see the decline in his reputation abroad as part of a dark international plot to halt this forward march. Conspiratorial thinking runs rampant. Orhan Osmanoğlu, a fourth-generation descendent of Abdülhamid, claims that Turkey is today witnessing a ‘repetition of history’: ‘Meddling foreigners now call our president a dictator, just as they used to call Abdülhamid the “Red Sultan.”’ Parliament Speaker İsmail Kahraman compared last year’s coup attempt to the dethroning of Abdülhamid in 1909: ‘They wanted to do the same as they did when they overthrew Abdülhamid, but this time they couldn’t succeed.’

I’ve been meaning to write this article for ages so do go and read the whole thing (there are also some nice visuals).

Abdul_Hamid_II_BNF_Gallica

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Turkey Book Talk episode #49 – ALEXANDER CLARKSON of Kings College London discusses his research on the Turkish and Kurdish diaspora in Germany, addressed in his long article “Kenan Evren’s Bitter Harvest: Legacies of a Coup that Changed Turkey and Europe.”

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Brand new Turkey Book Talk episode.

KAPKA KASSABOVA joins the pod to discuss her book “BORDER: A JOURNEY TO THE EDGE OF EUROPE” (Granta), on the troubled past and present of the border between Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria.

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*SPECIAL OFFER*

You can support Turkey Book Talk by taking advantage of a 33% discount plus free delivery (cheaper than Amazon) on five different titles, courtesy of Hurst Publishers:

  • ‘Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State’ by Olivier Roy
  • ‘The Circassian: A Life of Eşref Bey, Late Ottoman Insurgent and Special Agent’ by Benjamin Fortna
  • ‘The New Turkey and its Discontents’ by Simon Waldman and Emre Çalışkan
  • ‘The Poisoned Well: Empire and its Legacy in the Middle East’ by Roger Hardy
  • ‘Out of Nowhere: The Syrian Kurds in Peace and War’ by Michael Gunter

Follow this link to get that discount from Hurst Publishers.

Another way you can support is by making a donation to Turkey Book Talk via Patreon. Many thanks to current supporters Özlem Beyarslan, Steve Bryant, Celia Jocelyn Kerslake and Aaron Ataman.

[Published on openDemocracy (27th March 2012): http://www.opendemocracy.net/william-armstrong/europe-turkey-and-historical-amnesia]

“In the first years after the war … Europeans took shelter behind a collective amnesia.”    –   Hans-Magnus Enzensberger.

In his robust case for a liberal Euro-scepticism, ‘A Grand Illusion?’ (1996), Tony Judt robustly debunked an oft-repeated myth about the post-war rebuilding project in western Europe. From the very start, rather than being part of a carefully planned attempt to reshape the continent by deliberately sabotaging nation-states from above, (with the eventual goal being to unite the entire continent under one umbrella European super-state), initial moves after the Second World War towards greater European cohesion were, in fact, the logical result of quite distinct national concerns. These concerns only converged in shared European projects by force of convenience. As Judt points out, post-war European cooperation was “a fortuitous outcome of separate and distinctive electoral concerns, economic interests, and national political cultures, it was made necessary by circumstance and rendered possible by prosperity.” In particular, the war of 1939-45 had the lasting consequence of giving the continent something else in common: “a shared recent memory of war, civil war, occupation, and defeat […] The shared experience of defeat points to another common European wartime experience: the memory of things best forgotten […] Hitler’s lasting gift to Europe was thus the degree to which he and his collaborators made it impossible henceforth to dwell with comfort on the past.”

Almost every European participant emerged from the Second World War having lost. The shared perception of a necessity for deliberate historical amnesia in post-war Europe, for forgetting the traumatic recent past, was thus one of the most significant points of convergence between nation states that helped legitimate the new European project. Cooperation was imperative, and part of this cooperation was the tacit agreement between nations as to the importance of ignoring their own roles in the madness of the war that had just ended. At the very most, if not forcibly ignoring, countries tended (or still tend) to absolve themselves of as much responsibility as possible, to trumpet exaggerated national myths of resistance to fascism. The phenomenon is observable in France, (formerly West) Germany, Belgium, Poland, Italy: such methods were considered something like an existential necessity, necessary in order for states to get over the Second World War as cohesive units. It is only since 1989 and the end of the Cold War that a more complex, honestly realistic picture of the European inheritance has emerged, and even now it’s clear that many countries are still far from willing to look their own troubled histories directly in the eye. The official French line, for example, shared by a majority of the French people, continues to exaggerate the significance and size of the French Resistance, and underestimate the completeness of Vichy France’s submission to fascism, and its horrendous consequences. There’s a salutary lesson to be taken from a charmed visit to Paris: its state of flawless architectural continuity was paid for at the price of submission to the Nazis.

In its capacity as a candidate country of the European Union, Turkey’s apparent refusal to come to terms with the Armenian “events” of 1915 is often cited as a clear example of why the country is unsuitable for membership. However, the opposite could well be true. Far from having to recognise these events as “genocide” in order to adhere to established European norms of historical account-settling, Turkey’s continued denial of the Armenian “events” should rather be seen as an advantage, recommending it as an entirely suitable European candidate. Following classic post-war European form, perhaps Turkey’s historical amnesia should be seen as one of the key criteria that it fulfils in its wish to be defined as an authentic European state!

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