Yiğit Akın, When the War Came Home: The Ottomans’ Great War and the Devastation of an Empire (Stanford University Press, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Yiğit Akın (YA): It all started with the term seferberlik, which, in modern Turkish, literally means mobilization. I have come across this term in oral histories, literature, linguists’ works, folk songs, stories, and laments. What surprised me most was that people meant something much broader than the immediate military meaning of the word. World War I itself and all the horrors that surrounded it were referred to as seferberlik. This is pretty much true for all ethno-religious communities of the empire (this is what, for instance, Najwa al-Qattan’s work shows very aptly for Greater Syria). As countless folklore accounts and oral and written testimonies reveal, people throughout the empire remembered the seferberlik as one of the most significant events in their personal, familial, and collective histories. But the interesting question to ask is why? Recently, in an interview, Elias Khoury said, “literature cannot be a compensation for history, but it can point to an absence.” I guess this is how I felt when I came across these accounts. Despite the fact that the term was widely ingrained into popular memory, the social and cultural history of World War I had not attracted much scholarly attention. Documents I found in various archives further piqued my curiosity about how the war affected Ottoman civilians and led me to write a monograph on the subject.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
YA: When the War Came Home examines the catastrophic experience of World War I for Ottoman society. But it shifts the focus from the battlefront to the home front. For all the belligerents, World War I was a different experience from earlier conflicts. The fighting nations mobilized their societies and subordinated their economies for the war effort in unprecedented ways. The Ottomans did just the same. But the empire lacked the means necessary to fight a war on such a grand scale. The Ottomans tried to conduct this first truly industrial war of history without a significant industrial base, effective transportation network, sound financial structure, developed agricultural economy, or extensive demographic resources. They had other problems as well: the Entente navies’ blockade of the empire’s coasts, frequent natural disasters, and the significant loss of manpower to conscription and ethnic cleansing further increased the challenges that the empire confronted during the war.
Against this backdrop, Ottoman authorities constantly experimented with new policies to meet the endless needs of the war. Each policy devised for this purpose brought about further intervention by the state into the daily lives of ordinary citizens. Whether in the form of a draft through a progressively tighter and ever expanding net of conscription, the seizure of grain and farm animals, the involuntary quartering of troops at private homes, forced employment in transportation, agriculture, and construction, or deportation and forced relocation, agents of the Ottoman state made demands on its people with increasing frequency and intensity. My book takes the reader from governmental halls to military barracks, railway stations, private homes, fields, and stables, to shed new light on everyday Ottomans’ wartime interactions with the state. Exploring these interactions was particularly interesting because wartime state policies were often met with resistance from ordinary citizens. When state officials tried to intervene in daily civilian life, Ottomans from all ethno-religious communities contended with the state by playing different levels of government against one another, resisting regulations, and seeking both legal and illegal ways to evade the obligations imposed upon them.
Women emerged as important actors in this process. Although the war touched the life of nearly every Ottoman, it was Ottoman women who bore the brunt of the war and suffered most of its traumatic effects on the home front. The withdrawal of men from communal life and the state’s gradually ruthless encroachment into the everyday life altered the circumstances of Ottoman women beyond all recognition. Everywhere they had to work much longer and harder as they performed conscripted men’s work on top of the domestic work they already performed. Wartime conditions forced women to deal with issues beyond their immediate households as they were struggling to survive. As a result, Ottoman women came increasingly into contact with state authorities as well as with other men, a development that served to challenge entrenched assumptions about women’s role in public life.
The most important intervention of When the War Came Home, as I see it, is to offer an alternative glimpse into the war. Although there are important exceptions (fortunately, growing in number), mainstream historiography on the Ottomans’ Great War has so far privileged the narratives of military commanders and state officials. While indebted to this previous work, my book shifts the focus onto the problems faced by ordinary Ottomans and their responses to the demands and pressures imposed by the wartime regime. I have tried to approach war not as the domain of politicians and military men, but as an experience shared by all members of society. I hope the readers will like this shift of focus.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
YA: It is primarily addressed to those with an interest in the field of Middle Eastern studies, in particular of the Ottoman Empire and post-Ottoman Middle East. It emphasizes the centrality of the war and wartime policies in the disintegration of the empire and the emergence of new states in the Middle East. I hope it will attract the attention of scholars, students, and people who are interested in understanding the complexities of the region and the importance of the fateful years of World War I.
The book also relates to a broader historical and conceptual framework: war and society, total war, and the breakup of multinational empires. In that sense, I hope it connects the Ottoman experience of World War I to the broader, global narrative of the war and brings the Ottoman Empire into dialogue with the burgeoning literature to underline the similarities and differences of various total war experiences. As such, I hope that the book will speak to people who have developed an interest in the global impact of World War I.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
YA: I am currently working on my next book project, which will be a sequel to When the War Came Home. This new book will focus on the immediate postwar years and examine the dramatic transformations that Ottoman society underwent in the twilight years of the empire. The period between the signing of armistice in October 1918 and the defeat of the last Greek troops in Western Anatolia in September 1922 is a fascinating period to study. I am writing a social and cultural history of these fateful years when the Ottomans tried to come to terms with their catastrophic defeat in the Great War, cope with the disastrous terms of the peace treaties that were imposed upon them, and rethink the possibilities of ethno-religious coexistence.
Excerpt from the Introduction:
By the end of World War I, having lost millions of its former subjects and most of its Arab provinces, the Ottoman Empire had been reduced to Anatolia. More important, perhaps, the social capital of the region had been depleted by military casualties, ethnic cleansing, population movements, epidemics, and hunger. Defeats on the battlefield and harsh and intrusive wartime policies had completely discredited the Unionist regime in the eyes of most Ottoman subjects. For many, however, it was not only the Unionists who had lost their legitimacy. The war also delegitimized the whole idea of empire in ways that prepared various ethno-religious communities for new political projects that would aspire to be everything that the empire had not been.
From the very beginning, the Unionists had fought an uphill battle to justify the empire’s war effort to the Ottoman people. The disastrous defeat in the First Balkan War had brought about widespread war-weariness and a general decline in morale, while evoking deep concerns about the imperial army’s fighting capacity. Ottomans from all walks of life and ethno-religious backgrounds thus met the declaration of mobilization in August 1914 with a deep sense of apprehension. Unprecedented levels of conscription, which covered groups that had previously been exempt, ruthless requisitioning, and the imposition of a harsh martial law exacerbated those feelings even further. The CUP government attempted to dispel people’s anxiety and win their consent by portraying the empire as the victim of Entente aggression, casting the mobilization and war as defensive efforts. In the face of violent and unjust attacks, as the official rhetoric proclaimed, the government found itself in a position of defending the empire’s honor, borders, and official religion. All Ottoman subjects, regardless of their social class, age, and gender, were now under the obligation to share in the sacrifice and contribute to the war effort.
As the war continued, the heavy-handed execution of wartime policies, the material and emotional damages they generated, and the government’s inability to alleviate the war’s impact deepened the Unionists’ crisis of legitimacy. With battlefield casualties mounting, inflation skyrocketing, the value of Ottoman paper currency plummeting, agricultural production declining, and food shortages becoming widespread, people throughout the empire grew increasingly disillusioned and alienated from the state. Determined to continue the war, however, the government and the army persisted with their draconian policies, adopting an even more intrusive position in the face of looming defeat, a contracting pool of resources, and an increasingly uncooperative population. Although the prolongation of the conflict and persistence of the regime’s extraction policies required popular consent, the Unionists failed to secure it. The solutions they adopted fell short of persuading people to accept the material and emotional sacrifices they incurred.
This lack of popular consent is perhaps most apparent in the large number of soldiers who eventually refused to fight. Especially in the last two years of the war, desertion rates soared and the imperial army gradually melted away. An increasingly large number of soldiers came to interpret the war through the prism of the individual and the family rather than in terms of empire and religion. The hardships and deprivation the troops suffered and concern for family at home drained the ordinary soldier’s will and motivated him to desert, while on the home front, civilians became increasingly resistant to official wartime policies and refused to make further sacrifices. People came to see the war as an unnecessary, if not reckless, adventure launched without their consent by an irresponsible cadre of politicians. In tandem with deteriorating social conditions, the increasing encroachment of the state apparatus on people’s lives strained the legitimacy of the Ottoman state and intensified pressure on the government and military command. This loss of legitimacy presented a sharp challenge to the state’s authority and capacity to maintain social and cultural integration.
The war thus delegitimized the whole Ottoman order in the eyes of many of the empire’s subjects. In this sense, the wartime experience was the final nail in the coffin of Ottomanism, an ideological and political direction adopted by the Unionists to maintain the integrity of the empire’s various ethno-religious communities. Following an initial period of euphoria and enthusiasm in the aftermath of the Constitutional Revolution of 1908, hopes generated by the Unionists’ promises of equality, justice, and brotherhood among all ethno-religious communities were dashed after 1909. Initial optimism was gradually replaced by fear and distrust of the Unionists. The experiences of the Balkan Wars and the CUP’s increasingly antagonistic stance towards non-Muslim Ottomans dealt another blow to Ottomanism. Yet, despite their strained relations with the Unionists, both Muslim and non-Muslim minorities continued to imagine themselves as part of the Ottoman Empire, seeking to achieve varying degrees of autonomy within the broader Ottoman framework.
World War I marked the end of these endeavors and destroyed the foundations of intercommunal coexistence. The wartime policies adopted by the CUP government and the wartime encounters stemming from these policies irretrievably alienated the empire’s non-Muslim and non-Turkish minorities from the very idea of the empire. Their wartime experiences did not turn members of these minorities into die-hard nationalists overnight. But they made them exceedingly receptive to alternative political formulations outside of the Ottoman framework. In this sense, the war accelerated “the ongoing process of the definition of modern national identit[ies].” Separatist tendencies, which until the war had been embraced only by small, marginal groups within these communities, became more popular and influential. The new international context that had emerged in the war’s aftermath and greater emphasis on the right of self-determination lent strong impetus to these tendencies.
The strains of war and the destructiveness of the Unionists’ wartime policies also challenged the Ottoman Turks’ moral and emotional bonds with the empire. Many Ottoman Turks came to see the state again through the prism of the individual and the family. It sent their sons, husbands, and fathers to fight in far-off provinces and foreign countries, requisitioned their meager harvests, and in many cases impressed their only farm animal into army service. And yet, it did not extend help when they needed it most. Although this widespread discontent did not evolve into a revolutionary movement, the situation on the ground was exceptionally fragile in the six months between the end of World War I in October 1918 and the landing of Greek forces in Smyrna/Izmir in May 1919. Only the return of surviving Armenians with the backing of the Entente Powers, the Greek occupation of western Anatolia, and the French occupation of southern Anatolia would persuade them to acquiesce to another mobilization, this time for the Turkish War of Independence.