A Turkish Delight

Book review of Turkey: A Short History by Norman Stone

Books EU Literature

Young Turks: The Istanbul football club Galatasaray’s 1907-08 team 

If you’ve ever wondered how Turkish football fans have managed to outshine the English in the competitive field of hooliganism, you will find the seeds of the answer in Norman’s Stone’s account of the Young Turks’ rise to power in the early 20th century. In 1900, a handful of Turks enviously watched some Brits kick a ball about by the Bosphorus. Sadly, the religious authorities disapproved of bare legs, so the Turks played the English in disguise. The descendants of Osman wore black socks and the English, white (an obvious, almost Disneyesque metaphor); the colours mingled and over time produced Besiktas, one of Turkey’s most popular teams today and the inspiration for rival Galatasaray’s most rousing displays of team spirit. 

One suspects that Stone has fascinating backstories like this for most phenomena of modern-day Turkey, but holds back out of modesty. The job in hand is quite enough — tracing the chequered, thousand-odd-year history of Turkey from its Mongol origins in the 11th century to the heated political arena of the present day. He does this very well, occasionally straying on to more obscure topics such as the similarity in improvements to Spanish and Turkish railway systems from the 1960s to 1980s. The fact that this account comes from a detailed comparison of the empires of Spain and Turkey in the 16th century is, more than anything, impressive and suggests a contemporary Herodotus at work. This applies even to his geographical (and thematic) area of interest — the building of empire in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Stone describes the present-day Greek and Iranian attitude to the Ottomans who invaded them long ago as, curiously reminiscent of the ancient Greek attitude towards the Persians: “Little Greeks and Iranians learn that their ancestors, elegantly clad in white, discussed poetry in the subjunctive […] until, out of the blue, squat, hairy savages, offering rapine, arrived.” Little Turks, meanwhile, “learn that effete civilisations, eunuchs, etc, were given some sort of vigour by the arrival of their ancestors.” The Greek view of the Persians was, unfairly one feels, an unpleasant combination of both the barbarian cretin and the effeminate, perfumed dandy of the East. The Persians were too busy being successful to give much thought to the Greeks until they were right under their delicately flared nostrils.  

On to serious matters: the main controversy of the book is the sensitive subject of the Armenian massacre of 1915, which Stone treats almost as a semantic problem: “Was this ‘genocide’ — a claim that is often made? As the historian Bernard Lewis says, it depends on what you mean by the word; and if it is accepted for the events of 1915, it could legitimately be extended to cover the fates of the millions of Muslims driven from the Balkans or the Caucasus as the Ottoman Empire receded.” This may well be, but the fact that the word can be applied to Ottoman victims earlier in history does not preclude its application here.

What does seem important is the degree of blame laid on the Turks. Stone points out that many of the attacks were carried out by Kurdish or Arab tribes. This leads us to the question of responsibility for these deported Armenians and whether the Turkish authorities could have done more to prevent the attacks (or whether in fact they unleashed them). Stone mentions that the government ordered the trials of some 1,500 Turks, of whom 50 were executed, but does not discuss in what position of authority these people were, or for what exactly they were tried. He also does not offer any kind of figure for those massacred. We are in murky waters, perhaps not suitable for a short history, or indeed a review. 

Another tricky subject that Stone rather skirts around is Cyprus, briefly comparing it to Crete in its difficulties with European “peace-keeping” efforts in times of crisis. An important aspect of the Cyprus issue is how it affects Turkey’s entry into the EU, which Stone touches on in the final page of the book: “Europeans had been allowed in Greek Cyprus before the problem of Turkish Cyprus had been resolved, and the Greeks could therefore obstruct Turkey’s progress. Did this in any case matter very much?” Yes, it did and it still does, though Turkish Eurosceptics (by no means all of whom are frothing fundamentalists or batty pan-Turkicists) are entitled to feel as smug as their British counterparts. The Turkish economy has continued to boom while Euro-induced austerity throttles the PIGs. 

Politics aside, Stone does justice to the enormous complexity of Turkish history, and the book will suit anyone interested in Turkish oddities but daunted by the vastness of their explanation. A world-weary Besiktas manager might sum it up in the following way: “It’s a game of two halves. You win some (empires), you lose some. You back the wrong side (Germany, 1914), a visionary captain (Atatürk) emerges and saves the day. Now the bookies are going crazy over the question of the season: will we qualify for EU or won’t we?” It’s a cliffhanger.