Turkey in Europe: an uncomfortable presence?

Is Turkey a part of Europe? It is a question that confuses and divides both those within and outside the large Islamic country that straddles two continents. Certainly, the history of the Turkish people is very much intertwined with European affairs, ever since the Ottoman Empire’s expansionist strides in the fifteenth century. Yet for many Europeans, the presence of Turkey in “their” lands is something to be feared, or at least be sceptical about. Nowhere is this clearer than in France.

The French, and to a lesser extent the Germans, are the biggest obstacle to Turkey’s European Union accession. The Turks’ membership proposal has been on the table for several years yet has been consistently ignored by the French, whose politicians and citizens see Turkey as too big, too poor and too Muslim to join. Now, another flashpoint in relations between the two countries has emerged that threatens to destabilise Turkey’s bid for EU membership even further. The French parliament has passed a law making it illegal to deny the “genocide” of the Armenian people perpetrated by the Turks in 1915-16. Widely seen as a policy meant to win President Sarkozy the support of the half-million ethnic Armenians living in France for next year’s election, the Turks have responded with abject fury. Recalling their ambassador from Paris, freezing military cooperation with the French and threatening potential economic sanctions is the Turkish government’s response to what they call an assault on their country’s national identity. They deny that the mass killings and deportation of Armenians was genocide, suggesting rather that it was a sad consequence of the First World War.

The Turks have also been eager to point out the reliance of Europe in general, and France in particular, on their booming economy as part of the Eurozone recovery. Some MPs of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party are even asking whether Turkey needs further integration with Europe. What seems clear, not only in France and Turkey but also in the rest of Europe, is that there is a general unease about Turkish Europeanisation. This deeply-embedded mistrust stems from Turkey’s historical role on the continent, which has often run contrary to the interests of the predominantly-Christian states to the west. Whilst this historical legacy lingers, Turkey’s place in Europe will never be fully-accepted.


The Ottomans

The Turks burst onto the European scene with the capture of Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1453, ending the Byzantine Empire and with it the last remnants of the great Roman Empire, a bastion of Christendom for over a millennium. This was only the beginning of the Ottoman expansion. During the course of the sixteenth century, marshalled by their brilliant sultan Suleiman, the Ottomans conquered large swathes of Christian Europe, including Belgrade, Rhodes and much of Hungary. Furthermore, they annexed significant lands in the Middle East, including Jerusalem in 1517, a city long coveted by the Christians.

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 marked the beginning of Turkish engagement in Europe

Not only did this aggressive policy of territorial acquisition deal a religious and political blow to Western Europe, but it also had severe economic repercussions. The Ottomans’ control of the traditional caravan trading routes through to Central and Eastern Asia cut off the Europeans from some of their most profitable markets. Although this would ultimately encourage the Age of Exploration and Discovery that led Spain and Portugal to the New World and India by sea, it proved a downfall for many European states. The Italian republics of Venice and Genoa, long commanders of the Mediterranean and Oriental trade routes, began their fall into decline. Meanwhile the central Germanic states became isolated, exacerbating the religious tension already brewing under the Protestant Reformation.

The Ottoman Turks offered a severe challenge to Christian ascendency in Europe, advancing as far as Vienna and the northern tip of Africa. Only the combined forces of the Holy Roman Empire and the other Catholic states of Europe prevented the Islamic march progressing further. Consequently, the legacy of the Turks’ first appearance in Europe is one of religious warfare, economic undermining and political conquest. Whilst the Ottomans indirectly played a role in the creation of the great European colonial empires through their domination of traditional trade routes, they were overwhelmingly responsible for the destruction of Christian kingdoms and cultural artefacts that history makes hard to forget.

It would take the corruption of the Ottoman Sultans and a resurgence of Western and Central European power, brought about by colonial exploitation and industrialisation, to halt the Turkish challenge for European supremacy. Even so, the Ottomans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are still revered amongst some Turks for their show of Islamic power and cultural and political expansion. Such sentiments of invoking Ottoman power are unlikely to improve the Turkish image in the minds of sceptical Europeans, particularly those well-versed in modern history.


World War I

By the time the First World War broke out in 1914, the Ottoman Empire was in its death throes. With its territories having diminished to just a few areas of the Middle East and its leadership increasingly unstable, much of present-day Turkey was severely impoverished.

However, despite their restrictions, the Turks joined the War on the side of the Central Powers in October 1914 after signing the Ottoman-German Alliance. The key motivator for the Ottoman’s involvement in the War was territorial. Having been openly competing with Russia for supremacy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia for several decades, the Turks were determined to prevent the Tsarist forces assuming control over the strategically-important Bosporus and Dardanelles. These two straits were crucial in connecting Europe and Asia, both in terms of trade and with regards to naval deployment. The Russians had long coveted the straits. The Ottomans, however, were determined not to lose these economic and political lifelines.

With their German alliance, the Ottomans found themselves at war with the other Entente Powers, Britain and France. In one of the most notorious battles of the war, the Turks slaughtered thousands of British and Australasian troops at Gallipoli in 1915 as part of their campaign to hold onto the Dardanelles. Unsurprisingly, such battles, even in the heat of war, are hard to forget and have become part of the Australian and New Zealander national consciousness in particular. Not only that, but the Turks earned themselves long-held resentment by Western European forces, whose war efforts were hampered by having to fight on an additional front. Considering the Ottomans were also in direct competition with Britain and France for territories in the Middle East, there was a resurgence in animosity towards the former marauders of Central Europe by politicians and civilians alike. This was particularly piquant given that the British and French had given thousands of lives to protect Turkish interests against the Russians during the Crimean War in the 1850s.

The Ottoman alliance with Germany had been a result of their desire to weaken Russia, rather than to embroil themselves with the French and British. However, after several victories against the Allies at the beginning of the war, it was the Russians who began to inflict defeats on the increasingly-beleaguered and under-provisioned Turks. During fighting in the Caucuses, Russia won several key battles against their Ottoman enemies. One particular phase of the campaign, fought in Anatolia, saw the beginning of the Turkish deportation of ethnic Armenians to other regions of their Empire, including Syria and Mesopotamia. An Armenian volunteer force had fought with the Russians, with whom they had greater cultural and religious affinities, and the Ottomans retaliated against the Armenian population, in what has come to be seen as an act of genocide.

Victims of the Armenian "Genocide"

It would take the Arab Revolt from 1916, where various Arab leaders sought to overthrow Turkish rule in the Middle East, for the Ottoman Empire to finally be brought to its knees. However, the Turks’ actions in the First World War left a legacy as bitter as the days of their brutal zenith. Aside from the atrocities of Armenia and the Gallipoli campaign, the Ottomans sought to use the War to their advantage against Western Europe. Whilst the Turks were not alone in their motives – the imperialist Russians were also highly culpable in this instance – the existing mistrust towards them after years of religious and political tension further ingrained them as enemies of the people of Western Europe. Any solidarity brought by the Crimean War had long been forgotten.


The Secular Turkish State

The First World War and the resulting Turkish War of Independence (1919-1922) finally finished off the Ottoman Empire. In its place was a new secular Turkish state, headed by independence leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. With Turkey’s former Middle Eastern territories already handed over to the Allied Powers after the Treaty of Sevrés (1920), Atatürk set about creating an internal-looking Turkish state. He helped inspire a new sense of Turkish nationalism, withdrawn from the world around it, and quickly quashed any internal dissent.

Consequently, by the time the Second World War came around, the Turks were anything but eager to get involved. Atatürk had died in 1938 and his successor, İsmet İnönü, was determined to maintain Turkish neutrality during the War despite the desperate entreaties of the Allied and Axis powers for his support. Despite the arrival of an opportunity for Turkey to cement a positive future relationship with the rest of Europe, İnönü delayed Turkish entrance into the War until February 1945. Even then, it was little more than a ceremonious gesture to court Allied support in the future. Whilst Turkish neutrality was understandable given the previous horrors of the First World War under the Ottomans, an opportunity was missed to portray Turkey in a new light of responsibility, engaging positively with European affairs. Its status as an outsider was preserved.

Churchill and Roosevelt failed to garner İsmet İnönü's support at the 1943 Cairo Conference

Turkish neutrality was only completely revoked with its accession to NATO in 1952. This move was ostensibly an effort to prevent Stalin’s Soviets from making a move against the treasured Dardanelles and Bosporus once again. As a condition for joining NATO, the Turks were pressed into democratic reform. However, although the first multi-party elections in the country’s history had been held under İnönü in 1946, they were anything but free and fair. Therefore, come the 1950 election, with the world’s attention turned towards Turkey, İnönü had little choice but to behave himself. His party subsequently lost.

If this democratic transition was supposed to inspire a new positive era of Western European-Turkish relations, it was a sore disappointment. A 1960 coup d’état, in which İnönü supposedly conspired, led to the fall of the Democratic Party government. When the subsequent military junta returned power to the civilians in 1961, it was unsurprisingly İnönü’s Republican People’s Party that assumed leadership of the country. Elections were immediately held, in which the opposition leaders were imprisoned. It would take until 1965 before İnönü was eventually toppled for good. However, his determination to cling on to power had prevented the embedding of democratic values in a country now eager to engage with the rest of Europe.

With controversial attacks against the ethnic Kurds in Turkey’s eastern provinces persisting after the 1960s, and democracy still anything but entrenched, there was still little in common between the Turks and Western Europe. Despite closer economic integration and Turkish immigration to mainland Europe since then, the legacy of the Ottomans and two World Wars in which the Turks did little to endear themselves to the European people, has created the suspicions that exist today.


An EU with Turkish Membership?

Turkey’s historical role in Europe is problematic. For the most part, Turkish intervention in Europe has spelt trouble for the traditional political, economic and cultural hierarchies that exist there. Who’s to say that the same thing won’t result from Turkish EU membership? Admittedly, the days of rampaging Ottomans, conquering territory by land and sea, is not going to re-occur. However, with bureaucratic infighting already one of the EU’s biggest stumbling blocks, Turkish inclusion will surely only enhance the problem.

The reality is that French concerns are legitimate. Turkey is not like the rest of Europe. Indeed, in terms of culture and religion they could not be more distinctive, a worrying prospect considering the EU’s desire for peaceful integration of its multi-national population. There remains too much distrust between Western Europe, in particular, and the Turks, whose historical record is no antidote to existing tension.

Two points, however, are worth considering. Firstly, during the debate over the Armenian Genocide law this week, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé expressed anger at a motion he perceived would “kill off dialogue with the Turks”. He reminded his administration that “the Turks have just ordered 100 Airbuses [French manufactured] and there are 1,000 French companies doing business in Turkey”. Clearly, economic interdependence between the two nations is already well-established. Secondly, there has been a rising current of dissatisfaction amongst Turkish MPs towards the prospect of EU membership. Many now believe that, with the ongoing Eurozone crisis and antipathy towards their country, that Turkey would be better off retaining the status quo. Given that economic ties are already well-established, this renewed distaste for EU integration might be in the best interests of Turkey and the rest of Europe in general.


History and Film: an uneasy relationship

The power of film is no longer something to be marvelled at but simply something to be expected. The capacity for motion pictures to arouse emotive action and prompt spirited debate have long been recognised and used by individual directors and governments alike. Historical films often give exposure to events unknown, overlooked or forgotten by society. This can provoke a positive response by stimulating interest in a particular historical topic. However, it can also raise tension. The most recent example of a historical film dividing movie-goers and politicians equally is Yimou Zhang’s Flowers of War, a study of the atrocities committed by invading Japanese forces in Nanjing, China in 1937. The film claims to depict “the rape of Nanjing”, which is how the event is referred to in China, whose experts claim at least 300,000 civilians were brutally slaughtered. Yet, many Japanese historians and politicians do not acknowledge that a massacre took place in Nanjing, rather suggesting that the people that died were legitimate casualties of war. Considering the traditional enmity between the two nations such cultural productions carry an added political burden. Whether The Flowers of War can be considered a propaganda film is open to interpretation. Most impartial historians agree that a massacre did take place at Nanjing in 1937, but there is no consensus on the number of civilians killed given the lack of documentation and ruining power of war.

There is still no consensus as to how many people died at Nanjing in 1937

Perhaps the reason The Flowers of War has received added attention from the world’s media is because of its release date. 2011 is the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and its officials have marked it accordingly. Aside from brash naval displays and military parades, a number of overtly political films have been released. Sanping Han’s The Founding of a Party, starring famous actors like John Woo and Andy Lau, chronicles the events leading up to the CCP’s creation. Meanwhile, Jackie Chan’s 1911 depicts the Xinhai Revolution of that year, which saw the end of the Qing Dynasty and would set in motion the events that led to the rise of the CCP. Both these films have been criticised for their lack of historical accuracy and pro-Communist stance. Similarly in 2009, during the sixtieth anniversary of the CCP’s rise to power at the expense of the nationalist Kuomintang, Sanping Han’s The Founding of a Republic was released. Featuring a host of nationally-known actors, the film has also been derided as a propaganda piece for the ruling party.

Here lies the problem of historical films. Whilst they have the power to captivate and inform, they are often used to popularise a particular, controversial message. Perhaps more worryingly for the historical profession, filmmakers are happy to manipulate factual evidence if it means creating a more exciting story. To then say that the film in question is “based on true events” is more misleading than an overt propaganda piece. There is thus a difference between clearly-discernible propaganda films and historically manipulative films which both have an adverse affect on the educative powers of history.

Overt Propaganda Films

From its conception, cinema has been used for propaganda purposes. One need only watch D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent epic Birth of a Nation, with its denigrating portrayal of the African-American race and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan to see the early manipulative power of film. Indeed, the second incarnation of the Klan grew significantly in popularity in the period after the film’s release, showing the direct links between propaganda movies and social events. The reason the film’s message was so influential was because it was excellently made, on a grand scale and using techniques never before seen in the cinema. This would be a recurring feature of early propaganda films.

Black legislators - portrayed by white actors in blackface - were portrayed as drunk and ignorant

Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) is widely regarded as one of the greatest ever films, from both the silent and sound era. Using fast editing, dramatic acting and a plethora of extras, the film depicts the mutiny aboard the said battleship during Russia’s disastrous naval defeat to Japan during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. The political message comes from the fact that the ship’s incompetent and barbaric officers are part of the Tsarist elite, whereas the brutalised sailors are clearly working-class. Furthermore, the famous massacre scene on the Odessa Steps, when innocent civilians supporting the mutineers are mowed down by the guns of royal soldiers, is a clear sign of the ruthless, autocratic nature of Tsarist rule. This message was something the Communist Party perpetually emphasised throughout their cultural depictions, even after the 1917 revolution gave them power. Eisenstein therefore helped solidify the “enemy” in the people’s minds as the petty bourgeoisie and Tsarist remnants that were depicted so menacingly in his film.

Perhaps the epitome of the brilliant director/propagandist was Leni Riefenstahl. A filmmaker of great daring, capable of arousing fierce emotions through sweeping camera angles and dramatic displays of pomp and reverence, she became an integral part of the Nazi propaganda machine. Her Triumph of the Will (1935), depicting the Nazi Party Congress of 1934 in Nuremburg is a cinematic masterpiece. Stunning aerial shots, long focus lenses, thrilling music and exemplary editing of the Nazi leaders’ speeches create a spectacle of raw power. Those watching at the time would have found it difficult to dismiss the Nazi message of a return to German greatness. It remains the finest propaganda film ever made and, despite its overt support of the Nazis, was not dismissed as such.

One of many awe-inspiring stills from Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will

Any attempts today to present a similar message through film struggles to succeed. For a start, Riefenstahl’s success offers a stark reminder of the detrimental role film can play on one’s emotions and reasoning. People have become more wary of such presentiments. Additionally, despite its overt nature, The Triumph of the Will still possessed a subtlety in its message. It let the footage speak for itself. No need for a voiceover or dramatic reconstructions by actors; just a powerful message from a powerful party in an arena of mass jubilation. When looking at Sanping Han’s recent propaganda efforts for the CCP, they pale in comparison. Overly-explicit dialogue, coupled with blatant historical revisionism, means the films possess none of the subtlety of the earlier propaganda cinema. Rather, they offer a rather embarrassing spectacle that serves to diminish the CCP’s reputation rather than enhance it.

That is not to say that effective propaganda films do not still exist. Michael Moore’s documentaries are a fine example. For instance, his Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) presented a completely prejudiced account of the Bush administration’s response to the Twin Tower attacks, using cleverly-scripted voiceovers to give an impression of gross incompetence on the Republican government’s part. Yet, the politicians targeted were given no opportunity to expand on their decisions through interview. The film being released shortly before the 2004 US Presidential Election was surely no coincidence, as campaigns to remove Bush began in earnest in democratic circles. Moore’s “ultra-liberalism” is therefore as potentially dangerous to the historical record of events and people as any other propaganda film message. This did not stop Moore from being showered with awards for his clearly biased portrayal of a watershed event in global history.

Moore's much-heralded film was a sinister propaganda piece

The history of film is thus infused with propaganda pieces, ranging widely in their effectiveness and subtlety. The best films of this nature are invariably those made by pioneering directors who used cinematic techniques to sidetrack the audience from the more radical elements of a particular message. When Riefenstahl portrayed Hitler at Nuremburg people got the impression of a man of great power and leadership, rather than concerning themselves with what he was actually saying. Whether we are historians or not, we should always be wary of overt propaganda pieces in film. They may often appear phoney and unbelievable, but their appeal to emotion is a powerful mass weapon.

Historical Inaccuracies in Film

In contrast to overt propaganda movies, which willingly distort the truth for political effect, other history films alter fact in the name of fiction. This may seem a harmless enough procedure given that the purpose of movies is to entertain. However, when depicting real events and real people, one must be careful not to portray their fictitious versions as a definitive characterisation of the original. Too often history films claiming to be based on archival research and academic advice fall somewhat short of scholarly accuracy, making them just as misleading, if not as politically potent, as deliberate propaganda films.

A recent example of this historical perversion in film comes from The King’s Speech (2010) by Tom Hooper. Focusing on King George VI’s difficulties in overcoming a debilitating stutter with the help of an Australian speech therapist, the film suggests “Bertie” struggled for years to overcome his problem. It is even shown in the film that the impediment had not been brought under control by the time World War Two began, seven years after George VI acceded to the throne. In reality, Bertie’s stammer had been overcome in the space of a few months in the 1920s, before he was king. It also offers a rather debatable characterisation of King Edward VIII, who abdicated in favour of Bertie, and the royal family’s political involvement in general. Such changes for the sake of drama may seem trivial to the average movie-goer. Yet they irk historians. In a profession keen to improve its engagement with the public at large, such movies play a detrimental role in historical education. As with the propaganda films, the power of cinema makes the events being viewed seem believable, meaning more people are likely to take their historical cues from a film rather than a well-researched book. When politicians and social theorists continue to emphasise the importance of having an appreciation for one’s national history, such films hamper the process of awareness.

Colin Firth as King George VI - The King's Speech was entertaining but historically misleading

Biographical dramas are particularly vulnerable to historical alteration. Making a movie about a boring, unpleasant or uninteresting individual is hardly going to have people flocking to the cinema. Therefore, mythologizing becomes a reality of these films. Take Amadeus (1984) by Milos Forman for instance. Yes, it was based on the play of the same name by Peter Schaffer, thus hinting at its fictionalised nature. Yet the film still claimed to be based on real events. Which parts are real are naturally not elaborated upon. Therefore, with Tom Hulce portraying Mozart as a childish buffoon whose demise is brought about by the scheming of F. Murray Abraham’s insanely-jealous Antonio Salieri, we have a film whose only historical accuracy is the names used. How such seemingly innocent historical misinterpretations come to be taken as fact by so many is brilliantly highlighted by an episode of The Simpsons. In “Margical History Tour”, Marge Simpson takes the liberty of enlightening her children about the life and works of Mozart. However, as Lisa quickly points out, Marge’s “history lesson” is based on the movie Amadeus rather than real historical events, to which Marge acts dismissively. Therefore, though it is unlikely that Forman wanted to mislead people over Mozart’s history, it is surprising how easily popular culture is taken at face value, particularly when a film begins with the fated words “based on true events”. From King Arthur to William Wallace, Michael Collins to J. Edgar Hoover, people from history are “dressed-up” for a wider audience. Though directors quickly point out after the film that they never intended their works to be completely historically accurate, they are happy enough for you to believe that they are while you are watching them.

Tom Hulce clowning around as Mozart in Amadeus

This may seem like a petty attack on a popular medium which provides entertainment to many and spruces up the dull aspects of history. Yet the fact remains that, whether it is desirable or not, history is often far less glamorous than it is portrayed on screen. Such portrayals lead to misunderstandings, inaccurate nationalist convictions, and a devaluing of proper historical research. They may not be as blatant as the overt propaganda films of the Nazis or the Chinese government flunkies but in their own way contribute to the misrepresentation of history and reality in the public domain.