Villain or Hero? Changing Views of the Hamidian Era in Republican Turkey

By Ioannis N. Grigoriadis
Submitted to Session P6176 (Ottoman Revival and Return in Turkey, 2020 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire; Turkey;
Middle East/Near East Studies; Ottoman Studies; Turkish Studies;
Narratives and representations of the past in the present sometimes tell us more about the present rather the past itself. Views of Ottoman history have varied in republican Turkey, according to political and ideological circumstances. The era of Sultan Abdulhamid II has remained one of the most contested ones, as it bridges the Tanzimat with the Young Turk revolution and is identified with oppression and an attempt to divert Ottoman modernization towards the consolidation of a personalistic autocracy, militarization and glorification of the state. It is also identified with massacres of Armenian populations and a very negative international image. While classic republican Turkish historiography has identified the Hamidian era with Oriental despotism, blamed it for the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, but exonerated it for the killings of Armenians, recent historical interest in the era has been characterized by a revisionist approach. Some of these approaches aim to contribute to a more balanced evaluation of the Hamidian period, identifying some bright sides and the continuation of Tanzimat reform in some areas, along the dark ones involving bloody oppression of dissidence and minorities. Other approaches move to the opposite extreme, aggrandizing Sultan Abdulhamid II and his era and also pointing at the alleged treason which the Young Turks committed against one of the most prominent Ottoman rulers, which precipitated the fall of the Ottoman Empire. These approaches have coincided with a re-evaluation -if not outright critique- of the ideological foundations of republican Turkey and the re-emergence of a strong cult of personality in mainstream Turkish politics. These conflicting views have been represented in the Turkish public sphere through publications and media productions and nurtured a new debate on one of the most controversial issues of late Ottoman history. They also reveal a lot about Turkey’s contemporary ideological and political developments. This paper aims to explore the reasons and the means for the changing perception of the Hamidian throughout republican Turkish history. It will be based on a combination of primary and secondary sources focusing on the Hamidian era, as well as republican Turkish historiography.