Ottoman Propaganda and Turkish Identity: Literature in Turkey during World War I

TitleOttoman Propaganda and Turkish Identity: Literature in Turkey during World War I
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLaczó, Ferenc
Author(s) of reviewed materialKöroğlu, Erol


PublisherTauris Academic Studies: London, New York
ISSNISBN 978 1 84511 490 9
Review year


Full Text

Ottoman Propaganda and Turkish Identity: Literature in Turkey during World War I deals with a subject that has until now constituted a notable gap in both local/national and international historiography, the study of the war experience of the Ottoman-Turkish side. More concretely, Köroğlu analyzes the relations between Ottoman propaganda during the First World War, Turkish nationalism and national identity construction. This new English edition is the shortened form of the Turkish original published in 2004, which was also Köroğlu’s dissertation (seehere under the heading 2003). The book approaches its subject matter from a cultural history point of view, the material it draws on consists primarily of literary texts (that were created during the war years) while its interpretations are primarily socio-historical, so it is worthy of being seen as an attempt to open the study of history to the challenges of interdisciplinarity.
Köroğlu's basic claim is that the agenda of Turkish literature differed in the same way as the experience of the war itself. His aim is to describe and explain this difference (p.xviii). He rightly maintains that while in Germany, England or France, national cultures have become "regularly functioning industries" by the time the First World War broke out and these countries used their literary and cultural traditions for propaganda purposes during the war (which were well-planned as well as coordinated), the Ottoman Empire could not compete on the account of propaganda either. Not only was it economically less developed and culturally lagging behind [f.e. crucially in terms of literacy rates, thought to have been less than ten percent (p.22)], it also lacked political-administrative cadres and appropriate policies to seriously pursue propaganda and achieve notable successes both at home [where no more than eighteen novels and nineteen novellas or long stories were published in four years, to take the literary output as an example (p.88)] and abroad – it was capable of no more than tactical manoeuvering in this realm.
No doubt there were attempts to establish state propaganda during the war, but tellingly there was a significant amount of writing bemoaning its lack while aiming to extol its usefulness (p.6). This failure was partly due to the fact that the state was applying very rigid and encompassing rules of censorship and levels of political repression were high [the CUP clearly failed to normalize its power (p.186)], but perhaps most importantly, the Ottoman Empire simply lacked the infrastructure. Therefore, it could only be an anachronistic belligerent in ”the war of words” as well. The main propaganda activity of the Empire could be judged as negative, namely hindering the spreading of the truth, and so a main outlet for frustration was not used.
At the same time, there was a very important shift during the war years, since the initial pan-Islamic and Ottomanist strategies lost their force and by 1917 Turkish nationalism began to evolve from Turanism (in a non-linear process, to be sure) towards Anatolia-based nationalism. (The defeats at the Arabian fronts made pan-Islamism obsolete, while the opportunity provided by the Russian Revolution made pan-Turanism more attractive once again in 1917.) In this sense, the war contributed to the longer process of the building of national culture and speeded up the creation of 'national identity' while, on the other hand, the state basically failed to carry out patriotic agitation and propaganda.
Köroğlu's six chapters are divided into two kinds, the first four are chronologically ordered, and were written with the aim of contextualization (they deal with the material conditions, the ideological foundations, patriotic agitation, war propaganda and culture, respectively) while the fifth and the sixth are analyzing literary texts, more concretely, the works of three poets (as is well known, poetry was the dominant literary genre in the Ottoman tradition) and two prose writers. Concerning poetry, there is a sensitive, elaborate and critical treatment of the crucial and highly influential Ziya Gökalp, Mehmet Emin Yurdakul [“who best satisfied the state’s need for cultural propaganda during the war years” (p.129)] and Mehmet Akif Ersoy [“a leading name of the Islamist movement within the CUP” (p.139), who opposed nationalism]. Concerning prose, there is Ömer Seyfettin [a pioneer of modern Turkish short story writing (p.153)] and Refik Halit Karay [an oppositional person, who wrote the most successful articles describing the difficulties of civilians (p.176)]
Köroğlu’s chapter on ideological foundations discusses four competing ideologies: Turkism, Ottomanism, Islamism and Westernism, and points to their complicated relations. Crucially, he employs Hroch's theory of the 'national building process' and his model of three stages, to claim that the Turkish people were entering the second stage of patriotic agitation roughly in the years 1908 to 1923, though he maintains that these stages were to some extent overlapping. Ultimately, Hroch’s theory proves useful though insufficient (p.190). Köroğlu claims that patriotic agitation became really effective only after 1919, while until then the research and imagination of the cultural, linguistic and historic foundations of national identity had precedence (which can be identified as the first phase in Hroch's stadial model), arguably instead of the urgent task of war propaganda.

One needs to note though that starting in 1913, i.e. in the post-Balkan war period, national identity was clearly becoming stronger (p.37), and organizations such as the Türk Ocaği andTürk Gücü were emerging - which also impacted society's psychological welfare very negatively, leading to the acceptance of loss-compensating illusions, so Köroğlu (p.57). Though there were several alternative conceptions of national identity, the dire consequence in 1914 was that the Ottoman Empire entered the war on the basis of its "offensive, pan-Turanist dreams."
Importantly, Köroğlu presents all the three competing ideologies to Turkism as part of the Turkish national movement (p.34), since not all members of it had to be nationalists. Thereby, Köroğlu is overcoming the overused dichotomy of nationalists versus anti-nationalists and points to a historical process – instead of describing a "raging battle" between "sides." Simultaneously, he also acknowledges the diversity and contests within the framework of nationalism [such as oppositions between realist-idealist, romantic-political, voluntarist-historicist and organic-civic kinds (p.192)], and comes to the conclusion that ”it is impossible to define the national movement of the years 1914-1918 as a unified position” (p.196).
In short, this book tackles an important and previously neglected topic and addresses significant issues. It is based on solid and comprehensive empirical evidence and can be read with great interest by specialists of period of the First World War (which might need to be conceptually lengthened to accommodate the historical reality of a ten-year long war in this case) and, more generally, by those interested in nationalism studies, and also beyond. Its shortcomings are relative to its merits, nevertheless I ought to mention that Ottoman Propaganda and Turkish Identity: Literature in Turkey during World War I only applies one theory (that of Hroch), its comparisons are at times rather superficial (at times Köroğlu tends to talk of European countries in general, without acknowledging the significant differences between them, and f.e. on page 52, he wrongly claims that Hungarians redefined the concept of Turan in the 1890s, since they were “searching for a point of support against Russia”) and the text is often more informative or descriptive than analytical. Still, this remains an important historical study, and many of its interesting and valuable points deserve further exploration and discussion.