Unquiet on all fronts

The WW1 conference at Bilgi University

By Caroline Finkel | May 12, 2014

As if to provide a counterpoint to the self-absorbed tone evident in many of the events planned for British commemoration of WW1, a conference held at Bilgi University in Istanbul between April 8 and 12 emphasised the global nature of that terrible conflict. Eighty-plus panelists and keynote speakers addressed a rich variety of topics at a meeting underwritten by Turkish, German and French bodies. A handful of British academics presented papers.

The conference was entitled 'Not all Quiet on the Ottoman Fronts: Neglected Perspectives on a Global War, 1914–18', and was particularly important because it was the first time that Ottoman participation in the war had been subjected to detailed academic scrutiny by the grandchildren of those who were drawn willynilly into the defining event of the 20th century. The topic having found little favour hitherto, a younger generation of Turkish scholars is now researching the multiple facets of the Empire's engagement in WW1. Alongside these scholars are others, non-Turks, most of them also at the start of their careers, who likewise find the topic urgent.

A welcoming reception was held in the grandiose surroundings of the Kaisersaal of the former German Embassy, which now serves as the Consulate. Erik-Jan Zürcher of Leiden University spoke on the theme of what was different about the Ottoman war from the war experiences of the European states. The Kaiser himself was with us in spirit—in an adjoining room hangs a full length portrait in military dress painted at the height of the war. This was intended as a gift for Sultan Mehmed V, to be presented at the time of Wilhelm's third visit to the city in 1917. But it was not to be: the portrait never reached its intended recipient, and still graces the Consulate walls.

The second keynote speaker was Jay Winter of Yale University, who persuasively put the case for collaborative, trans-national history, and collective rather than national memorialisation. Third came Mete Tuncay of Bilgi University, who spoke first about Alexander Helphand, the Russian revolutionary, German social democrat and Young Turk adviser—known in Turkey as Parvus Efendi—who encouraged Enver Paşa and his fellows to enter the war on the German side. Tuncay also put forward for debate the question of whether the end of the Ottoman Empire was inevitable. Conference-related activities included a day-long workshop held at the Institut Francaise des Etudes Ottomanes on the topic of teaching WW1 to high school students, and a documentary theatre performance in the German Military Cemetery in Tarabya.

The conference proper was run with two parallel sessions, each panel having three or four speakers. The topics considered were:
o Forced Migration in Western Anatolia: Socio-economic, Legal and Ideological aspects
o The Politics of Food in Wartime: Local, Imperial and International Contexts
o Demographic Warfare in the Ottoman Empire (1914-22): From Imperial Perspectives to Regional Dimensions
o Violence and Resilience in Arab and Armenian Experiences of the Great War
o Intelligence, Spies and Irregular Warfare
o Bringing the Periphery back to the Center
o Social and Economic Perspectives: Between State Policy and Unheard Voices
o Individuality, Textuality and Autobiography in Wartimes
o Propaganda: Uses and Failures
o Identities at War: Gender, Motherhood and Female Labor
o Strategy and Social Structure: A Look at the Experience of the Great War and its Effects on Social Norms and Ethno-confessional Identity
o Visuality of War in Propaganda
o Germany, Colonialism and the Armenian Genocide
o "Crime" and Punishment: Prisons and Prisoners of War
o Wartime Perceptions, Post-war Representation and Memory
o The Experience of Officers and Soldiers on Ottoman Fronts during WW1
o Religious and Ethnic Minorities in the Armies of the Allied and Central Powers
o Converting and Conflicting Ideologies in Wartime
o Representing the Ottoman World War: Cultural Diplomacy, Memory and Remembrance
o Conflict, Entertainment and Urban Memory in Imperial Cosmopolitan Cities (1914-22)

The variety of topics demonstrates that a corner has been turned. Two earlier conferences laid the ground. In 2001 the Orient Institute in Beirut held a meeting dedicated to exploring the ways in which the war is remembered in the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, and in 2005, political and legal interference notwithstanding, Bilgi University hosted a conference on 'Ottoman Armenians during the era of Ottoman decline'. This prepared the ground, by breaking the taboo on discussing the fate of these subjects of the sultan.

The air has cleared, and the way is open for scholars to investigate this critical phase of Ottoman history as historians should, and thereby to overturn the official account of events on a sound evidential basis. At this moment of national introspection in Britain, when we seem to have little will to think beyond our island story, it was exciting to be part of a gathering where the wide range of subjects addressed, and the high quality of the research presented, set a standard for other WW1 commemorative events to emulate.

This centenary year of the outbreak of the war sees the launch in October of the public-access Online Encyclopedia of the First World War. As well as individual topics, entries are grouped both thematically and regionally, to give as comprehensive a view of the war as our present state of understanding allows. The editorial board comprises some 90 historians from 22 countries., and the articles in this collaborative undertaking have been written by acknowledged experts as well as scholars whose research is transforming the field.

Many of those responsible for editing and for writing about the Ottoman role in WW1 were present at the Bilgi University conference. Their work is shifting the focus away from the emphasis on central and western Europe to remind us of the global character of the war, and the extent to which European empires mobilised the manpower and other resources of their hapless colonial subjects.

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