Burcin Cakir

Dr Burcin Cakir studied English and Political Science at Bilkent University and completed her MA in European Political History at the history department of the same institution. She completed her PhD in history at Istanbul University and her dissertation was an interdisciplinary and transnational study on “Gendered Nationalism: The discourse of modern women as citizens in Ottoman Empire/Turkey and Britain, 1860-1930”. Her research has revolved around war, gender, nationalism and empire via a comparative and transnational approach, mainly focusing on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Ottoman and Turkish history with special reference to the First World War and its aftermath. Her research interests cover the untold histories of certain groups of people in the Middle East, the cultural history of the First World War, and memory and commemoration in relation to gender, religion and history education. Currently she works as a post-doctoral fellow at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Burcin Cakir

In July 2016, I had the opportunity to spend four weeks at the Georg Eckert Institute working on my project “Creating Myth and Memory: The National Narrative of the First World War and the Militarization of Education in Turkey”. Drawing on the work of various theorists, most notably Benedict Anderson and his concept of the imagined community, I intended to examine textbooks in Turkey published immediately after the First World War. The goal of this project was to survey representations and discourses of First World War in Turkish history textbooks and analyse the militarisation of education and its impact on successive  generations in present day Turkey. Since its foundation, education at all levels has been widely regarded as one of the central mechanisms of the making of modern Turkey, by virtue of being compulsory and through its reflection of mass myths and memories regarding the First World War and the Turkish War of Independence. The research covers an extensive period of time so as to uncover the shifting boundaries of national identity and militarisation in relation to the commemoration and memory of the First World War in Turkish political and social culture. The analysis of textbooks with respect to the discourses on nationalism, war and militarisation they contain will uncover the ways in which these discourses design and limit the imaginings of the past and national identity along with the interdependencies among them.

By focusing on public education in general and textbooks in particular, this research provides insight into the formation and successive reconfigurations of militarism and national identity in Turkey. The research objectives will therefore explore and investigate the following:

  • The Turkish sentiments that are depicted in in textbooks on the First World War, nationalism, militarism and public education and how, when, why, and by whom such sentiments were constructed.
  • How these sentiments influence contemporary constructions of the national image and identity in Turkey.
  • The nature and extent of archive holdings on neglected topics of First World War and public education in Turkey.
  • How the narrative on the First World War shaped domestic and foreign policy and its discourse in history textbooks and how these shaped myths and memories at a national level.
  • The manifestations of myths and memories of the First World War in Turkish history textbooks, such as images of soldiers, weapons and flags.
  • How the narrativisation of the First World War and attitudes towards its memory are impacted by the prevailing political, social, and economic circumstances in Turkey. The research will also seek to identify which factors were vital in forming official or popular memories of the First World War and creating military roles and national identities, alongside examining how, ultimately, the myth and memory of the First World War in Turkish history textbooks influence the Turkish people’s perception of Europe today.

As the transmitters of officially agreed or indeed manipulated knowledge, textbooks are among the sources that can be studied in analysing the political and social order, as well as the formation of the myths and memories of a nation which are believed to contribute to maintaining its societal status quo. The methodology of this study thus consists of a discursive approach together with qualitative content analysis; we can summarise it as a basic textbook study from the perspective of discourse analysis. The First World War and its aftermath represent the main axis of the research. The theoretical framework of this research is connected with debates on national identity and collective memory.

During my research stay at the Georg Eckert Institute, I was able to conclude that the early Republican era in Turkey can be divided into 3 sub-periods as far as the continuities and varieties of discourses in textbooks are concerned:

  1. The dominant discourse found in textbooks between 1924 and 1931 is based on the idea that Islam and Turkishness are the two complementary components forming the basis of national identity and nationalism.
  2. In contradiction to the most prevalent view in this matter, a strictly secular nationalism is found in textbooks only in the period between 1931 and 1939.
  3. During the third and last sub-period between 1939 and 1950, reference to religion in textbooks is again on the rise.

… All these three periods display strong tendencies towards the militarisation of education in relation to the two world wars, when Turkey remained neutral but highly politicized.

During my research stay, I made extensive use of the GEI’s collection of Turkish history textbooks as well as academic literature, particularly that focusing on war and peace education in schools. I also read a number of textbooks from Germany, France and Britain, analysing how their authors approach the issues of narrative diversity and historical truth around war and peace in order to explore their engagement with these issues and the extent to and manner in which they present conflicting interpretations of the past.

Among the preliminary findings of my research are indications that the teaching of history in Turkey is adopted from France, which means children were conceived of as heirs and carriers of a common collective memory that made them not only citizens, but essentially a big family to protect and to be protected. The books are written in accordance with the decision taken by the Second Education Council in 1924 to publish textbooks pertaining to the ideology of the new regime. They are an embodiment of militarised iconography, rhetoric and memories and constitute the contemporary historical framework within which events become meaningful and which serves to explain the past, secure the present and produce the future. The image produced in these textbooks might be summarisable is “The New Turkey is indestructible and will always continue, since every Turk is born a soldier and educated to be a citizen”. Schoolbooks spoke directly to students of "our" strength, "our" values, "'our" sorrows, and "our" rebirth as a new nation born from the ashes of an (expired) empire. The narrative emphasised that a new, independent and strong state was only possible if Turkey had a strong army. Early Republicans narrated the First World War and the War of Independence over and over again, separated (almost alienated) it from the Ottoman past and created a model for an aggressive pedagogy that would turn Anatolian peasants into modern Turkish citizens, boys into citizen-soldiers, girls into patriotic mothers/sisters and the Republic into the idealised incarnation of the principles of modern Europe, making schools, and especially the school subject of history taught as a mythicised Turkic history, into an instrument for securing ideological integration and social order. Textbooks typically featured the lives of military heroes, promoted the achievements of Republican governments, celebrated Turkish-Islamic culture and lifestyles, mourned the “martyrs” of past conflicts, and emphasised the overarching solidarity among Turkish men that was depicted as transcending ethnic and religious differences and minority rights.

The Georg Eckert Institute proved an ideal location to conduct such research, since it maintains the largest international collection of textbooks. The library does not contain all textbooks published in Turkey since the 1900s, but the collection is so comprehensive that I spent four weeks at the Institute fully occupied with reviewing books. I was able to use the data compiled during my stay at the GEI to write a talk on the subject of war and history education, which I am going to deliver at the International European Academic Conference on Education and Humanities in 2017. I intend to pursue the topic further in my upcoming publications and hope to include the newly discovered material from the GEI archives. During my stay in Braunschweig, the GEI hosted the annual Georg Arnhold Summer School on Education for Sustainable Peace. Martina Schulze kindly invited us to take part in the event, which was on human rights education (HRE) at secondary school level and featured brilliant speakers from all over the world. The event was a true transnational and interdisciplinary platform at which I enjoyed speaking to researchers working in various thematic and methodological areas of the humanities.

I would like to take this opportunity to warmly thank the staff of the GEI and its guest house as well as the library team for their help and support during my stay. The library staff were extremely helpful in guiding me through the library and assisting me in searching for the books. Without the opportunity to spend time working with the library’s holdings of digitised material, manuscripts, printed books and online access to several journals, I would not have discovered the new material which will enable me to produce an article which I am planning to submit to a peer-reviewed journal. I would also like to extend my personal thanks to Martina Schulze, Imke Rath, Cornelia Hagemann and Kerstin Schwedes for providing me with opportunities to connect with GEI academic staff and other fellows and for sharing my interest in improving my research project. The collegial support and willingness to engage that was extended to me by other research fellows coming from different disciplines of the humanities, doctoral students and post-doctoral fellows, combined with the effectiveness, dedication and availability of the institute’s staff, made it easy for me to feel part of the GEI community. That community spirit had turned into lasting friendships by the end of the fellowship. Professionally, I have no doubt that the program has helped me go further in my career. There are certainly many qualified universities and research centres in the world where I could have developed my research. However, nowhere could I have benefited from such a combination of intellectual inspiration, friendship, networking and quality and quantity of data on historical textbooks as that to which I had access at the GEI. Once again, my grateful thanks go to the GEI for granting me the fellowship which will be instrumental for my current and future career.

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