Sunday, November 13, 2011

Book Review (#34 of 2011) Toynbee - Turkey: A Past and a Future

Turkey: A Past and a Future by Arnold Joseph Toynbee. This book was published in 1917 in the midst of World War I (now free at Gutenberg or at Amazon for Kindle).  Toynbee was a British historian who had evolving views on Turkey over his career.  This book gives an overview of where the Ottoman Empire came from, who the Osmanli Turks were, and what their future, and the future of their subjects, looks like.

Toynbee uses several contemporary sources to explain the rise of Turkish Nationalism, which was leading to changes internally that would have immediate consequences following the War. Toynbee fills in some gaps for me, explaining where the nationalism comes from and why Turkey implemented its controversial policy of expelling Armenians and other groups from their country.

The symbiotic relationship between Germany and Turkey is also explored, Germany was eager to help the Turks complete a railroad system and other development projects that would require German workers and expertise and lead to further gains from trade for both nations. All of this was to create a bulwark for their aspirations of empire:

"Thus Germany's economic activity in Turkey has been not for prosperity but for power, not for peace but for war" (l. 480).  

Other people groups subject to the Ottoman Empire were agitating for their autonomy, which was causing some decline in the prosperity in the furthest regions of the Empire as they were often neglected by Istanbul.

There is much eerie foreshadowing in this book. At the time, the Zionist movement in Palestine was growing strong as Jews fleeing Eastern Europe migrated to Palestine, usually through Germany. Toynbee speculates on their fate. The Jewish problem for Germany is sadly foreshadowed by events in Turkey, and several Germans living in Turkey wrote official protests or resigned teaching positions to protest Turkish policy in 1915:

"'If we persist in treating the (questionable policies)...as an internal affair...then we must change the orientation of our German Kulturpolitik...[W]e teachers must give up telling our pupils in Turkey about German poets and philosophers, German culture and German ideals, to say nothing of German Christianity...The things of which everybody here has been a witness for months past remain as a stain on Germany's shield in the minds of Oriental nations'" (l. 564). 


Just imagine these words being written about Germany itself twenty years later.

Toynbee also quotes statistics of Americans and others who were working in Turkey prior to the start of the war, building schools and hospitals and such. These, too, were closed down as battle lines were drawn.

Like other people writing around this time, Toynbee seems a pessimist on the future of Turkey.  The Turks were seen as less advanced as other nations and with little hope of catching up.  I have some biographies of Ataturk on my list to read very soon, because he steps into this void and strives to move Turkey forward very quickly and reverse the decline of the nation.  That's the part that I want to explore next.

I give this book 4.5 stars out of 5. I consider it a concise must-read for anyone interested in this brief period of Turkish history.

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