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Unveiling the Challenges of Popular History in the Turkish Context: Fabrication or Fascination?

Dr. Yuksel Nizamoglu*

One of the staples of Turkish journalism is popular history articles. These historical pieces, sometimes written by academics and sometimes by what can be called “amateur” historians, find their place in newspapers and on websites, tailored to the significance of the day.

While some of these writings serve a popular purpose, some are written for ideological reasons. In some cases, the sole purpose is to manipulate certain topics, often highlighting conspiracies and sometimes even outright “fabrication.”

WHAT IS POPULAR HISTORY?

In the literature, “popular history” is defined as a type of history consisting of writings that are easy to read, devoid of scientific concerns in contrast to academic historiography. In popular history, unlike academic historiography, there is no process of peer review or scientific scrutiny. This often results in a single reviewer, which is usually the author himself, in such writings or books.

Furthermore, the differences between academic and popular history can be summarized as follows: Academic publications include citations and bibliographies, while popular historians don’t bother with such formalities. Academic publications have an “original” quality, while popular publications tend to focus on daily events and current affairs.

Academic publications follow a specific format, while popular history lacks such structure. Academic publications have a scientific style, whereas popular publications are written in a style that appeals to high school graduates.

Popular historians tend to use a more “storytelling” method and do not critically question events and sources. For them, what matters is writing in a captivating manner, sometimes resorting to sensationalism. Therefore, popular history writers take pride in not using “academic language” and avoiding technical details because their target audience is not the academic community.

Popular historians generally rely on secondary sources rather than primary ones. Furthermore, they may use a document or work as a source “as if they had seen it themselves” without understanding the concept of “scientific ethics.”

Hence, the fact that information was published in an academic context years ago is irrelevant to them. For years, they have no qualms about writing about a well-known piece of information in the field of “academic research” as if it were new, and sometimes even claim to have “discovered” it themselves.

So what motivates popular historiography? Primarily, it’s about goals such as becoming famous and making money, especially in today’s world of gaining popularity by appearing on television screens.

Another source of motivation is “ideological reasons.” This applies to both Islamist and Kemalist authors, who construct narratives to serve either the “Islamic cause” or the “Kemalist ideology.” Therefore, Kemalist writers often focus on writing about the “greatness of Atatürk,” while Islamists strive to establish “Hamidism” instead of Kemalism.

IS IT HISTORY OR HISTORY THAT LIES?

One significant feature of popular history is its aim to reach a wide audience. Nowadays, due to the detailed and sometimes dull nature of history encountered from primary school to university, there is an increasing demand for popular history writings and books.

For many of us, it’s the writings or books of such authors that have made history interesting. I, for instance, came across the writings of the late İlhan Bardakçı in middle school, which I always read with great interest.

Bardakçı’s sentences like “nazlı Budin (Budapest), you … years, … months, and … days under our rule” are still in my memory. The story of Iğdırlı Onbaşı Hasan, who fought on the Palestine front and was left on duty at the Al-Aqsa Mosque for years, is also etched in my memory. Of course, the only source here is Bardakçı himself, who went to Palestine in 1972.

Interestingly, despite being a “journalist,” Bardakçı did not take a photograph of Hasan. However, years later, Anadolu Agency (AA) would interview a scholar who had seen Hasan in 1982, providing new testimony to Bardakçı’s account.

Such “remarkable events” are essential in popular history. Particularly in articles and books written for ideological purposes, an interesting title is chosen to include such events. Titles like “The Zionists Who Overthrew Abdulhamid,” “The Devshirme Who Betrayed the Ottoman Empire from Within,” or “Native Collaborators Who Betrayed the Ottoman Empire” are highlighted.

Authors like these do not have a concern for citing sources, and they often accept information without verifying it, sometimes without any basis. Naturally, since these writings and works have not gone through a peer review process, there is no way to verify the accuracy of the information within them.

Another characteristic of such writings and works is their lack of academic quality, leading to a mixed content. While readers are enticed by the title or the author’s emphasis, the book often remains merely a decoration on a bookshelf.

Examples of this can be found in the books of Mustafa Müftüoğlu and Kadir Mısıroğlu, such as the “Shame on History That Lies” series and the book “Lozan: Victory or Defeat?” Many people bought these books, especially because of their titles, but probably failed to read them in full due to the disorderly content, much like me.

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For authors like these, what matters is adding another “traitor” to the list of those who destroyed the “magnificent empire” or making the betrayal of the “old traitor” even more prominent. According to these authors, the “magnificent Ottoman Empire,” which was supposedly impossible to collapse, disappeared due to betrayals, and the culprits, the “traitors,” need to be exposed repeatedly. Therefore, while all other sultans are simply mentioned by their names, Abdulhamid becomes “Abdulhamit Han.”

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It is often claimed that during his reign, the Ottoman Empire did not lose any land worth mentioning and that he was “extremely merciful, never carrying out death sentences” throughout his life. However, during Abdulhamid’s rule, the loss of territory was more than twice the size of present-day Turkey (over 1.5 million square kilometers).

He is also said to have “never carried out death sentences” due to his great mercy. However, just a simple scan of the Ottoman Archives reveals that Abdulhamid approved 129 death sentences, excluding military executions. Especially when considering the cases where sentences were commuted to exile and individuals were left to die in “exiles,” the number is much higher.

THE CONTRIBUTION OF CEMAL KUTAY TO HISTORY

Most popular history writers are not formally trained historians but are journalists, writers, or researchers with undergraduate education in fields such as law, journalism, or social sciences. For example, Kadir Mısıroğlu and İlhan Bardakçı graduated in law, while Cemal Kutay “completed Kadıköy High School but did not have the opportunity for higher education.” There is no information available about Müftüoğlu’s education.

In this article, I want to give an example of the historical massacre committed by popular historians by discussing Cemal Kutay, who was first known as the “historian of the conservative segment” in Turkey but later turned into a “Kemalist historian” in his old age, with a few examples to illustrate the consequences of popular history.

Kutay was born in Konya in 1910 as the grandson of Cizre Emir Bedirhan Bey and left his final year at Konya High School to go to Ankara. He worked as a proofreader and rose to become the editor-in-chief of the CHP’s publication Ulus and continued his life in Istanbul.

In 1996, a master’s thesis determined that he had written a hundred and six books, but by 2004, it was stated that this number had increased to a hundred and eighty-three. Among these are books written about important figures in Turkish history such as Kuşçubaşı, Çerkez Ethem, Talat Pasha, Rauf Bey, Mehmet Akif, and Celal Bayar. One of his first books is about İnönü, which he would later accuse of deviating from Atatürkism (İsmet İnönü’nün Seçme Sözleri, Istanbul, 1939).

In his later years, Kutay dedicated his life to Atatürk and Turkish-language worship, and in 1993, he published a book called “If Atatürk Hadn’t Existed.” However, he is also the author of a book called “In Our Time, A Century of Bliss: Bediüzzaman Said Nursi,” published in 1980 by Yeni Asya Publications, despite being likely “ghostwritten.” Interestingly, this book was never reprinted, and the author of another book about Nursi, Necmettin Şahiner, did not use some of the information Kutay had provided in his first edition.

Kutay’s two claims about Said Nursi are that “he was a member of the Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa (Special Organization) and participated in the committee that issued a jihad fatwa during World War I.” However, as we mentioned in our article “From War to Captivity: Bediüzzaman During World War I,” these claims are not accurate. Şahiner believes that despite Kutay claiming that “these allegations are documented,” he never actually submitted any documents to support them.

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Ali Birinci makes it easier to understand Kutay’s historiography with these words in “Tarih Konuşuyor” magazine: “It is understood that Kutay published this magazine, just like the other history magazines he published before and after, by compiling, or rather copying and pasting, texts… That’s why the first thirteen issues, like the other history magazines he published before and after, have no value in terms of historiography, just like all the other books signed by Cemal Kutay…”

It is indeed challenging to understand how someone like Kutay, who was described in such terms, managed to publish history magazines, print books, and establish himself as the “historian of the conservative segment” for years.

In Kutay’s historiography, it is impossible to distinguish what is taken from a document and what is his own interpretation. He does not have such a concern, and he comfortably adds his assumptions to a memoir or inserts some information “based on what he heard.” Sometimes he makes historical figures “speak as he wishes.”

An example of this aspect of his work was mentioned in our recent article about Emanuel Karasu. Kutay claimed in a book called “Three Eras, One Man” that Karasu was part of the committee that offered “a homeland in Palestine for Jews” to Abdulhamid (Istanbul, Tercüman Publications, 1980, p. 45).

In contrast, in the memoir prepared by Fethi Okyar’s son Osman Okyar and Mehmet Seyitdanlıoğlu, there is no such information, and Karasu’s name is not even in the index (Fethi Okyar’s Memoirs, Ankara, İş Bankası Publications, 1997). Another interesting point is that while Okyar and Seyitdanlıoğlu’s published memoir is 236 pages, Kutay’s published memoir is 606 pages. Okyar’s daughter even stated that Kutay’s published memoir only covered the Serbest Fırka (Free Party) period.

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Regarding Kutay’s activities, Ayşegül Yılmaz, who conducted a study on this aspect, claims that Kutay fabricated the diaries of Süleyman Tevfik, which he published, instead of being the work of Süleyman Tevfik himself. She even believes that Kutay made “alterations” in the memoirs of Pertev Demirhan and Nadir Ağa without using the information he had taken from Kutay in later editions.

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Despite all these negative aspects, the most significant contribution of popular history is to make history appealing to the wider public that academics cannot reach. Therefore, popular history studies, if conducted within the basic rules of history science, such as showing place and time, establishing cause-effect relationships, relying on documents (while also benefiting from secondary sources), and being objective, can provide valuable information that would otherwise remain at the academic level.

In popular history readings, readers must learn to “question” within the framework mentioned above. Otherwise, an understanding that accepts what is read or watched as “true” without critical thinking gains nothing from history. Since it has no connection with reality, it needs only legends and stories.

Such readers readily believe, for instance, that “young soldiers fought in Gallipoli, and soldiers on the Gallipoli front ate only oily wheat soup and grape compote,” without ever wanting to confront scientific information.

References: A. Aksın, “Evaluation of Death Sentences in the Sultan Abdulhamid Era”, Journal of Social Sciences, 2021, No. 31, pp. 1029-1040; F. Acun, “What Is Popular History? How Is Popular History Made?”, Proceedings of the International Halil İnalcık History and Historiography Symposium, Ankara, 2022, Vol. II, pp. 365-381; A. Birinci, “Babıali’s History Magazines”, Türk Yurdu, No. 132, pp. 129-138; H. Özdiş, “Cemal Kutay and Ottoman Humor”, Kebikeç, 2004, No. 17, pp. 27-40; S. Gök, Cemal Kutay as a Historian: His Life and Works, Graduate Thesis, Manisa, 1996; A. Yılmaz, “An Example of Historical Memoir Manipulation: Cemal Kutay and Süleyman Tevfik’s Diaries”, Tarihyazımı, 2022, No. 4, pp. 41-66.

Dr. Yüksel Nizamoğlu is an Historian focuses on Ottoman Balkans, Middle East Studies, and Military History. PhD. 2010. Istanbul University.

This article was first published in TR724.com and translated into English by Politurco.

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