Triumph from Trauma, Neglect to Adulation: Selective Remembrance of the First World War in Modern Turkey

By Pheroze Unwalla
Submitted to Session P3021 (Remembering the First World War in the Middle East, 2012 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
After being soundly defeated in the First World War, the Ottoman Empire was forced to sign the Treaty of Sevres in which its dominion was substantially reduced, its administration placed under foreign supervision, and its ‘Turkish’ territory apportioned into foreign zones of occupation. Only the Turkish War of Independence largely prevented this fate, and helped establish the Republic of Turkey. Given these circumstances, it is unsurprising that in the aftermath of these wars the bulk of Turkish state-sponsored remembrance focused on celebrating the triumph of the Turkish War of Independence rather than rehashing the traumas of the Ottoman First World War experience. Fast-forward to present-day Turkey, however, and one First World War event is not simply remembered by Turks, but often exalted as the episode which laid the foundations of the Turkish nation.

Relying on government documents and newspaper articles obtained from Turkish and British archives as well as participatory fieldwork on the Gallipoli Peninsula, this paper will detail a history of Turkish national remembrance of the 1915 Battle of Gallipoli – one of the most dramatic, albeit one of the few, major Ottoman victories in the First World War. Beginning in the early Republican period, I will explore how and why Gallipoli was neglected by the Turkish state as both an event worthy of remembrance and as a memorial site in favor of more ‘Republican’ events and spaces and in sharp contrast to extravagant foreign memorialization efforts on the peninsula. Subsequently, I will demonstrate how Gallipoli’s potential as a site of reconciliatory remembrance began to be exploited for gain with Turkey’s new allies during the Cold War, unexpectedly spurring grassroots Turkish nationalist sentiments around the event too. Finally, I will describe Gallipoli’s ascent in the Turkish national imagination in the post-Cold War period to its illustrious status today among both public officials and private citizens.

The presentation will broach the following questions: How has the battle’s First World War heritage, and in a similar vein its Ottoman heritage, impacted its remembrance in Turkey? Where have Gallipoli and the First World War ranked in the hierarchy of events in the Turkish national imagination vis-a-vis other events of import, and why? Which aspects of the battle have been selected or come to the fore and which have been forgotten, and why? Does remembrance of the battle in Turkey actually constitute as remembrance of the First World War?