Turkey: A Short History

A historical narrative about Turkey is impressive but lacks a framework, warns M. Şükrü Hanioğlu

April 14, 2011

The objective of this short history is to "trace six factors...that have gone into the making of Turkey today". The author marshals his factors in chronological order: ancient native Turkish traditions, Persia, Byzantium, Islam, "what sort of Islam", and conscious westernisation. Although this statement of intent suggests an analytical study of the historical roots of modern-day Turkey, in the pages that follow the reader finds instead a brief chronological textbook enlivened by a host of interesting anecdotes, perplexing ironies and humorous stories.

Written by a first-class historian with intelligence, wit and an impressive grasp of world history, Turkey: A Short History flows well, provides valuable details and helps the reader to place the historical development of Turkey in a larger context. The book fails, however, to make a significant contribution either to Turkish history or to the methodological debates that surround it.

Although written elegantly, Norman Stone's book lacks a convincing theoretical framework. Like many short histories of its kind, it offers a simplified linear narrative with an objective. Older studies on modern Turkey routinely presented the Ottoman past as a prologue to modern, secular Turkey. The study in hand adopts this teleological approach, making history an agent and assigning it duties with a clear-cut aim. Here it is not just Ottoman history that is given the task of producing modern Turkey; the early Turks of Central Asia are likewise charged with preparing the ground for the modern-day Turkish state. The book approaches the late Ottoman period through the problematic paradigm of decline, overlooking the emergence of developments that suggested alternatives to the current republic and, in some cases, remain to challenge it.

Although the author declares his distance from several controversial issues in Ottoman and Turkish history by writing that "it is not really for an outsider to comment" on them, he nonetheless takes some strong positions. For instance, many would disagree with his analysis of "the Armenian disaster" as the consequence of Armenian terrorism. Although a Russian official had remarked that the Armenians' own actions had paved the way for "an Armenia without Armenians", this tragic episode was more complex than "Turks giving Armenians what they wanted".

Similarly, the author's depiction of the 1980 Turkish military coup - which resulted in more than 650,000 arrests, a large number of hangings and deaths under torture - as analogous to a Boy Scout training programme implemented by humane generals might raise eyebrows in Turkey. Finally, Stone's description of the Ottoman past as a long peace contradicts the historical record, especially of late Ottoman history. From the late 19th century until 1912, the Ottoman Balkans witnessed the longest guerrilla war in history before Vietnam.

This study likewise suffers from factual errors and anachronistic references. To cite just a few: the alphabet question was the subject of extensive debates in the Ottoman Empire, and it was not necessary to translate a telegram into French to send a coded version of it. Ebu's-Su'ud Efendi suggested that accumulating interest might be permissible for charitable religious foundations; he did not propose it for bankers. The 1905-07 uprisings in Eastern Anatolia were against the poll tax and the tax on domestic animals, and played no role in the Young Turk Revolution of 1908. Similarly, the avoidance of anachronistic wordings such as "Italians joining Turkey in 1854", and the banishment of Midhat Pasha to long years of exile and eventual murder in "Saudi Arabia", would have rendered the text more solid.

Stone's book is recommended reading for those looking for a brief, clear and entertaining history of Turkey, but not necessarily for those interested in the state of the art.

Turkey: A Short History

By Norman Stone

Thames & Hudson, 192pp, £16.95

ISBN 9780500251751

Published 14 March 2011

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