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For Turkey, WW1 Anniversary Evokes Memories of Defeat

Voice of America
09 Nov 2018, 03:05 GMT+10

ISTANBUL - Throughout Europe, commemorations are being held to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. But in Turkey, the event is all but ignored.

The Ottoman Empire that preceded modern Turkey was a key ally of Germany in World War I, and Turkey is holding no official commemorations marking the centennial of the end of hostilities.

Today, cargo ships from around the world pull into Istanbul, but a century ago it was allied warships that occupied the waters around the then-named Constantinople, capital of the Ottoman empire in its final days.

FILE - In this 1915 file photo, a Turkish soldier takes aim at British troops, while another watches carefully, from a trench in Gallipoli, Turkey.

The powerful show of force was among the most visible images of the humiliating defeat of the Ottomans, a time which Turkey still wants to forget.

"We prefer not to commemorate the beginning and end of the first world war," said Serhat Guvenc, professor of international relations at Istanbul's Kadir Has University. 'It's not considered an event, a development which brought good fortunes to the country."

It is not only the humiliation of Istanbul's occupation along with much of the country by French, British, Greek, and Italian forces that evokes those sentiments today. The defeat marked the end of the Ottoman Empire and the loss of vast swathes of territory to the British and French, which eventually became modern Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories.

"We have many legacy issues, leftovers from the First World War still influencing Turkish politics, Turkish culture -the trauma of losing an empire,' said Guvenc.

"I am sure you heard the term Sevres syndrome - the fear of losing the country, the fear of hostile encirclement, etc.,' he said. 'So it continues to shape, it haunts the public - the fear of losing the homeland."

Photo taken on Oct. 28, 2018 shows a Turkish womPhoto taken on Oct. 28, 2018 shows a Turkish woman taking a selfie in front of a poster of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's founder, in Bodrum, Turkey, a day before thousands of army officers, soldiers, teachers, politicians, including Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visit his mausoleum on Republic Day in Ankara.

Turks are taught in school how Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish Republic, defeated the allied powers after World War I. The victory prevented a far more severe loss of territory demanded by the victorious powers under the Treaty of Sevres.

Following Ataturk's military success, in 1923 the more equitable Treaty of Lausanne replaced Sevres, ensuring the survival of Turkey as a nation.

Guvenc suggests one reason the events of a century ago continue to resonate is because Turkey escaped World War II.

"Most European countries involved in World War I, their political culture was shaped by what happened in the Second World War,' he said. 'Turkey, fortunately, stayed out of the war, however, [and] did not experience the fascism, totalitarianism experience of other countries, the genocide, etc."

But historians say there have been other consequences, including the rise of nationalism in recent years.

"We are lagging behind the rest of the countries in Europe in terms of political culture" Guvenc said. "In some respects, the over-emphasis of nationalism in Turkey is a heritage of World War I."

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose roots lie in Islam and nationalism, has presided over a revival in nostalgia for the country's Ottoman past and the rekindling of memories of lost lands.

Ottoman military marching bands are a common sight across Turkey, as part of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's nostalgic trend for Turkey's Ottoman past, rekindling memories of lost lands. (D. Jones for VOA)

The present turmoil in neighboring Syria and Iraq, former Ottoman territories, is now seen by some in Turkey as an opportunity of righting what its leaders see as an historical injustice.

"Today the Middle East is in upheaval, so even there is the talk of the change of frontiers," said former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who served in the region.

FILE - Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army fighters advance in Der Mismis village in the southeast portion of Afrin, Syria, March 13, 2018. Turkish troops and allied Syrian opposition fighters have intensified attacks on the Syrian Kurdish-held town of Afrin.

"So Turkey sees there an opening to readjust these grievances done to it following the First World War, flexing its muscles and taking back what belongs to Turkey,' Selcen claimed. 'But it's a far shot; even this is not in the cards. Definitely, Turkey is looking for more influence in its near abroad region. More than ever before in the [Turkish] Republican history its present in the Middle East."

The starkest example is the presence of the Turkish military both in Iraq and Syria.

Turkey is continuing to reinforce its armed forces in Syria. A broad swath of Syrian territory is under Turkish control as part of a war against Islamic State and the YPG Kurdish militia considered by Ankara as terrorists.

FILE - Turkish troops take control of Bursayah hill, which separates the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin from the Turkey-controlled town of Azaz, Syria, Jan. 28, 2018.

Earlier this month, Erdogan warned of a new major military operation against Kurdish YPG militia that would extend Turkey's control of Syrian territory.

With Turkish forces controlling Syrian territory that was part of the Ottoman empire the question is raised is Ankara settling unfinished business dating back to World War I.

"The authoritarian rulers (in the Middle East) definitely will be concerned [about Ankara's intentions]," said Guvenc. "The Turkish desire to have a say in the former Ottoman territories may be going down, striking a chord with some of these people," he said.

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