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World War I and the Ottoman Home Front

[The caption of this photograph taken in Greater Syria by the American colony reads [The caption of this photograph taken in Greater Syria by the American colony reads "sifting dung to obtain a few grains of barley." Source: US Library of Congress. Via Ottoman History Podcast.]

The centennial of the First World War is fast approaching. In 2015, Turkey will commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the Gallipoli Campaign, both a major victory and collective trauma of the war, and Armenians will do the same in remembrance of the Armenian Genocide. With important and contentious issues of memory front and center in the public sphere, historical discussion of the World War I period will be as relevant as ever. This episode of Ottoman History Podcast, with Yiğit Akın, offers a new perspective on a well-studied conflict, employing the approaches of social history to shed light on ignored aspects of the war experience.

Akın’s recent dissertation on the war is part of a broader trend within Ottoman historiography that is drawing attention to the aspects of war that go beyond the battlefield. Through the stories of conscripts, women, and refugees, he offers a view of the war that highlights the impacts of hunger, disease, lack of labor, and various forms of violence in the lives of ordinary Ottoman citizens, looking not just at the periphery of the Ottoman lands such as Syria and Eastern Anatolia but also events unfolding in the Ottoman heartland of Western Anatolia. He takes us behind the scenes of the war where the mechanisms of transport, rationing of supplies, and procurement of food, animals, and soldiers are the real arena of a life and death struggle as opposed to the battlefields.

One of the most important and innovative aspects of Akın’s study is his attention to the role and experiences of women during the war effort. With millions of men away at the front and dying as a result of the war, women were increasingly thrust into leadership positions within households, working tirelessly to support their families. These women become protagonists of the historical record when they begin to demand assistance from the Ottoman state through petitions addressed to Ottoman administrators evoking their efforts and the sacrifice of their husbands, brothers, and sons during those trying times (we’ve also published a document where the Ottoman government addresses women, in particular when soliciting war bonds).

The social experience of the First World War is not only important because of the trauma it inflicted on the Ottoman population; the Anatolia created by the war is what was inherited by and for the basis for the new Turkish Republic that emerged out of the Independence Struggle. Thus, in the same way that many will look to the war period as a key moment in popular recollections and debates about history, scholars will be well-served to study the overlap with the early Republic era of this World War I period, a rupture that paradoxically serves as a bridge between the old and new political order in modern Turkish society.

Contributor Bios

Yiğit Akın is an Assistant Professor of History at Tulane University. His recent dissertation focuses on the social history of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.

Chris Gratien is the editor and co-host of Ottoman History Podcast and a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Georgetown University, researching the social environmental history of Ottoman Anatolia and Syria.

Seçil Yılmaz is a doctoral candidate at City University of New York researching medicine and disease during the late Ottoman period.

Listen to Episode #119 of Ottoman History Podcast with Yiğit Akın entitled “World War I and the Ottoman Home Front"


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