National Memories:Understanding the Other, Taming your own

by Halil Berktay

I would like to say right at the outset that I don't understand much about international relations or international law or international politics. I don't mean to say that I don't appreciate them. I do believe in institutions and institutional restraints, and the constraining impact of supranational binds or arrangements in terms of exercising, if not a civilizing, at least a partially domesticating impact on potentially violent nation states and nationalisms.

At the same time, my vision of Turkish-Greek relations is that, while these nationalisms and nation states can be contained or restrained, there is a profound problem of the political culture behind the situation that can explode again and again at any time. And the institutional arrangements or negotiations or diplomatic bargainings that we are talking about can be effective only in so far as they provide a new lease of life for other factors to get going and to ultimately change the political culture of these societies. That is my understanding of the dialectic of the short-run and the long-run, and of diplomacy and political culture, in this context.

I suppose I have made it clear what I think about the Turkish-Greek situation, but I shall spell it out anyway. For me, Greece and Turkey are two societies that are smoldering or perhaps festering with two moribundly narrow-minded nationalisms that are constantly transferring their enormous feelings of inadequacy and self-pity into huge reserves of hatred or blame for the other. That is for me the situation in a nutshell. And these festering nationalisms with their grand narratives that they keep recycling through the school system and the quasi-criminal media, are constantly trapping the two countries into the past and preventing them from thinking about or looking to the future.

In saying this, I am aware that as a historian dealing in historiography, perhaps I'm cultivating my penchant for deconstructing ideology above all else. That is to say, I am saying, in effect, that the essence of the Turkish-Greek conflict does not lie in claims over land or in economic interests or the military establishments and their supposedly innate expansionism. It lies in the dead weight of nationalisms and national memories on Greek and Turkish public opinion. Ultimately, that is what has got to change.

Everything else is largely opportunism; a lot of it is seizing the moment and, for example, trying to create a new bargaining plan out of the aftermath of the Kardak issue. Not that they really believe in it. But the point is that as long as this climate exists, as long as these extremely nationalist public opinions and their grand narratives are constantly socialized into new generations of students and citizens, these problems will erupt again and again. Thus I don't think much of any search for a more structured, economy-grounded theory of conflict of interest in this regard.

Having said that, I would like to interpolate, taking my cue from several other presentations and comments, an emphasis on some degrees of difference between Turkish and Greek society. First of all, with respect to heterogeneity versus compactness: Turkey is much larger than Greece. Of course, most Turks do not realize how large Turkey looms from the other side of the Aegean, caught up as they are in their own messy, pessimistic view of their society. But Turkey is much larger and less developed, and by that token also much more diffuse and heterogenous than Greek society.

Greece, on the other hand, is not only small, but also very compact and homogenous in a common middle-class kind of way. In fact, compared with Turkey, it is possible to describe Greece as a universally middle-class kind of society. In contrast, Turkey is a mess. It is enormous; it has its pockets of extreme underdevelopment; it has its Kurds and its Islamists. I myself have often written in the past that there is a continental shelf of Europe that comes under Turkish society from the northwest, as well as a continental shelf of Asian society that comes under Turkey from the east and the southeast.

Thus in or on the first, you have the Turkey of the coastal areas and the major con-urbanizations like Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara, with perhaps 90 percent of communications, trade and industry, and hence also the bulk of the business community and the working class and the intelligentsia. And in or on the second continental shelf you have the central Anatolian plain receding into the east and the southeast; these are the heartlands of both the Kurdish question and the Welfare Party. Just look at the areas that they keep carrying ( in themseves or by proxy) in both local and national elections.

So first of all, Turkey is enormously heterogenous. In fact, I would like to add that, given the present sclerosis of politics in Turkey I am willing to consider the possibility of Turkey coming apart in the next ten years or so. If a new social contract cannot be negotiated between all the various competing demands in Turkish society at the moment, it is very possible that the maximalism, the confrontationism, the annihilationism of Turkish political culture as embodied in all these contesting parties will cause Turkey to fall apart. I do not want to start a whole chain of speculation on this, but I cannot exclude this possibility for Turkey's next ten to fifteen years or so.

My second point of distinction has to do with Turkish versus Greek nationalism in the context of this heterogeneity versus relative compactness. It is important, in this regard, to realize that nationalism in Turkey is much more of a state ideology, whereas it is much more of a popular ideology in Greece. This has to do with the way the Greek revolution and the nation-state were made versus the way the Kemalist revolution and the Turkish nation-state were made. Though I am not willing to go so far as to say that the Kemalist revolution was entirely from the top down, it is true that compared with the relative localism of the Greek Independence War and Greek revolution in the 1820s and thereafter the from-the-top-down elements of the Kemelist revolution were relatively strong to begin with; and that furthermore, because of the way nationalism was redefined by the Kemalist elite in the 1920s and 1930s, the "social time" of the earlier nationalism of the 1910s was erased and replaced by the "monumental time"of a state-defined nationalism in the 1920s and 30s, which has basically remained a state ideology to this day.

If you simply go to Greece and Turkey, go to Athens and Ankara or to Athens and Istanbul on Republic Day or Independence Day to witness their respective national day parades, this comes out very strongly. In Turkey, intellectuals, middle-class professionals, western-oriented students or youth will simply not go to these parades (and neither will Kurdish nationalists or political Islamists, for different reasons). As a result, they are mostly attended by school children forcibly dragged out of their schools. A national day parade in Athens, on the other hand, strikes a Turk like me as being attended by virtually the entire city, waving Greek flags, including young men and women or teenagers kissing and embracing and making a social festivity of it. This is what I have seen with my own eyes; and I would add that the Turkish counterparts to the kinds of students and youth that I have observed in Greek national day parades such as, for example, the Turkish students of my own, Bogazici University or Middle East Technical University, if they happened to belong to a subculture that allowed for kissing and embracing and holding hands in public, would rather be seen dead than wave a Turkish flag around on national day. This is a totally different framework, and that is perhaps why Turkish intellectuals on the whole tend to be more alienated from Turkish nationalism, relatively speaking, than Greek intellectuals from Greek nationalism. I would not vouch for everyone, and I am speaking on the average.

But the broader point is that these differences aside, nationalism is very strong in both countries, and they have a built-in animosity towards each other. After all, these are the only two countries on earth, I think, each of which has waged its decisive nation-state formation war against the other. They are locked into that kind of mental space in terms of their national memories. And each side has its grand narrative in which it itself is only the victim and always the victim, while the other side is always the oppressor, the perpetrator of injustice. In effect, therefore, these are narratives that, if put together, would form the complete picture. But each side, in virtually total lack of empathy with the other, sees only its side of the story, sees the traumas to its own psyche and does not stop to think about what might have been happening to the other side in that regard.

Here again, there is a slight asymmetry between Greece and Turkey. Several speakers have remarked that in terms of leverage in international politics, Turkey enjoys a strategic advantage. And this operates particularly with respect to the United States. I would say that this is true. On the other hand, when it comes to emotional considerations like the accessibility or credibility of the Turkish vs. the Greek grand narrative, thus also in terms of identifying with the one or the other, Greece enjoys an enormous advantage over Turkey which operates particularly with respect to European public opinion.

Thus for reasons rooted in the nineteenth century as well as in religious lines of demarcation, a lot of people know what happened to the Greeks after 1923. Huge amounts of people, including Turkish intellectuals, know what happened to the Armenians in 1915. But people simply don't know what has happened to the Turks in the meantime. For example, if you take a recent publication like the Penguin Atlas of the Diasporas co-edited by Gerad Chaliad, there are accounts on the representation of the Greek diaspora, and the Armenian diaspora, etc., but there is not a word about what might be called theTurkish anti-diaspora, or the Turkish implosion that from the Hapsburg wars through the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 to the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 saw millions of Turko-Muslim refugees fleeing from the Caucasus, from the Balkans, from eastern Anatolia, from Crete, and from the Crimea into Anatolia. So much so that, I have argued in the past, modern Turkey is a nation born out of immigration. Not emigration, as in this country [the USA], but immigration, as all the outlying Turkish Muslim populations tried to take refuge in Anatolia. Part of the result was that in 1922-1923, the Kemalist revolutionary elite had to rediscover Anatolia. It was really in a strange country, which it had to re-possess. The heartland of the Ottoman Empire had always been in the Balkans.

A quick trip through the Gallipoli cemeteries, looking at the names and the birth places engraved the officers' tombstones, reveals that many were born outside the limits of present-day Turkey. Mintaga Kemal himself was born in Salonika. Thus in 1923, a deracinated elite leading a people that was half constituted out of refugees was trying to create a new existence for itself in this God-forsaken, backward, unknown land of Anatolia, into which they were driven, or where they had their backs to the wall.

In this connection, I would like to read just one thing, not from a Turk, but from a British witness who was in Constantinople during the winter of 1913-14 after the disaster of the Balkan Wars. This was Aubrey Herbert, who wrote a poem while watching a snowstorm: "There falls perpetual snow upon a broken plain. And through the twilight filled with flakes, the white earth joins the sky. Grim as a famished wounded wolf, his lean neck in a chain, the Turk stands up to die." This is extraordinary. It is the eve of World War I, and the image of the Turk is as a famished, wounded wolf, his lean neck in a chain, up to die.

It is perceived that the Turks were about to be crowded out of existence and history; and this is what the British also expected in their landings in Gallipoli in 1915. "It will be a walkover," they thought, "this is the last stroke, one little blow and it will all collapse." That is why they so under-manned and under-provisioned the Gallipoli campaign from the start, so that it then became a matter of pouring in reinforcements that were too little or too late, since they could never catch up with the Turkish build-up.

What matters is that this is not often recognized. There was a recent article by Robert Carver in the Times Literary Supplement entitled "Islam the Tolerant?", in which the author managed to write about the Armenian massacres and also the "Greek massacres" of 1915-1922, without mentioning a word about the landing of the Greek Expeditionary Army in Anatolia. It is as if somehow, the Turks had suddenly set on Greeks in western Anatolia without any reason whatsoever. By no means do I want to apologize for the ethnic cleansings attendant upon the creation of nation-states. Still, there is a saying in Turkish, that roughly translates as: "it takes two hands to make a clapping noise."

Given such oversights, what I would like to say in conclusion is this: there are these grand narratives, with perhaps some asymmetries, and with more of an emotional deficit suffered by the Turks, that are on the whole only half the story and present "us, ourselves" as the victim and the other as the perpetrator of oppression and injustice. This is of course re-narrated and re-cycled constantly through the media, and officially through the national education systems. History books have been already mentioned; I've been working on Turkish, history text-books, for the last ten to fifteen years, and can say not only that they are ghastly, but that they are constantly being readjusted and made worse and worse in response to the perceived exigencies of foreign politics.

In the 1950s and 60s, Turkish school books were much better on Greece and Greek history. They had ample chapters on ancient Greece and the birth of Greek democracy or philosophy, and they did not have an obviously anti-Greek bias. This was because the Kemalist Republic in the 1920s and 30s had tried to engage in an act of forgetting or unremembering vis-a-vis the traumas of the Balkan Wars and the Greek-Turkish War of 1919 -1922. This reversal was quite striking: they really tried to civilize Turkish society from above. ( I don't hesitate to use those terms). And this was also the time when the Kemalist regime explicitly repudiated Turkish irredentism and pushed a very active policy of peace in the League of Nations. "The friendship between Ataturk and Venizelos" became their underlying slogan of Turkish policy on Greece; they also tried to push a little Entente in the Balkans, a kind of proto-nonalignment policy that was too early for its day in those polarized inter-war years.

And together with all this, there was a massive official act of trying to unremember. They deleted the "social time" of, and all concrete references to, the years from 1908 to 1922. But what did filter through the sieve were some abstract emotions of always having been persecuted, and ostracized by Europe, having been and bullied by the Great Powers posing as the protectors of the Greeks or the Serbians or the Bulgarians, and a general kind of xenophobia that simply would not disappear. Then what happened was that when things, like the Cyprus crisis, started to come along from the 1950s onwards, certain elements of those new tensions or conflicts began to resonate very dangerously with this flattened-out landscape of Turkish memory. Nobody really "remembered"the Balkan Wars, etc, but there was an enormous fear of foreign irredentism or the Greek megali idea, as well as cliches to the effect that if you snatched an Orthodox priest, you would find a guerrilla. This is a constant refrain, for example, in the short stories of Omer Seyfeddin and of course Vasil Levsky, the Bulgarian national leader and hero, was a priest who had turned into a guerrilla. And when Turkish nationalism with this kind of memory was faced with Makarios, of course the whole idea of Enosis resonated with memories of Greek irredentism, and Makarios himself tell in line with the cliche of the priest turned guerrilla. This is what happens if things are not really brought out into the open and addressed concretely. If you engage in artificial acts of forgetting or unremembering, the later resonances of buried hatreds can be even more dangerous.

The people who fought against and killed each other in the 1910s or 1920s at least also knew each other as human beings. They were neighbors. As with Turks and Armenians in Eastern Anatolia, they murdered and they stole from each other (Turks more than Armenians, of course), and they engaged in mutual massacres. But at least they had also lived together and they knew each other. But what happens, as later generations and later generations - because of all these ethnic cleansings and populations exchanges - no longer have actual physical or human, communal, contact, is that the re-cycled memories become ever more abstractly binding like tribal taboos. The further you are removed from the point of origin, the more dogmatic, and the more intransigent these "memories" get.

I have no overall recipes. But as I am not a populist, I would like to say that enormous responsibility rests with intellectuals and scholars. What is needed in Greek-Turkish relations, among many other things, is to create safe havens or common spaces and common intellectual projects in which impeccably impartial scholars, and intellectuals can sit down, not as Greeks and Turks, but as human beings and enlightened scholars to see if they can re-narrate the joint history of these two nations (perhaps by producing model pamphlets or model textbooks, in any case by institutionalizing in continuity such publications), so as to gradually engage upon yet another process, very slow and torturous perhaps, of enlightenment vis-a-vis their respective societies.

* Halil Berktay is a professor of History at Bogazici University in Istanbul. This is an abridged version of his lecture at the Workshop on Turkish-Greek Relations, that took place at the Center for European Studies, Harvard University, on November 14th, 1997.