The Great Courses: The Skeptic’s Guide to American History
Professor Mark A. Stoler
by Professor Stoler
Mark A. Stoler, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Vermont
Contrary to popular opinion, Professor Stoler argues history does not repeat. Stoler suggests history reflects current beliefs influenced by past remembrance.
What is the truth of history? Is there a truth? Mark Stoler, like many historians, sets out to debunk modern perceptions of history. To professor Stoler, context and interpretation are the arbiters of history’s truth.
The frustration one has with all historian’s analysis
of the past is with “fact choices”; as well as their interpretation. A great
part of Stoler’s argument shows that some historians, like most human beings,
view the past through the prism of the present.
The result confuses readers of history who seek truth.
Some suggest Kellyanne Conway’s comment about “alternative facts” means there is no truth.
Councilor to President Trump
An example would be historians who argue about past Presidents by choosing facts of history that support their argument. A past President of the United States is great, average, or awful depending on what facts are chosen and how those facts are interpreted. History seems revised in every generation.
George Washington is the father of our country. Washington made many mistakes as leader of the military during the American Revolution. Washington won the most important American battles of the revolution leading to British withdrawal.
Thomas Jefferson sold all his slaves (except for the offspring of Sally Hemmings, his black mistress) to pay debts before his death. He believed blacks were inherently less intelligent than whites. Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence which stated “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal…”
Abraham Lincoln proposes a plan to ship all American Negroes to another country to solve the issue of slavery. Lincoln executes the emancipation proclamation that frees American slaves.
Franklin Roosevelt supported industry over labor during the depression. He represented the upper-class of society. Roosevelt created jobs for American unemployed with a government financed program, the WPA.
Stoler infers there is truth, but it lies in knowing
history is a phenomenon that cannot be separated from the present. The facts of the past do not change but unreported
facts are dredged up by subsequent historians and history is revised. We call this revisionist history; i.e. a euphemism
for reinterpretation of selected facts of history.
That is why Stoler insists history does not repeat itself while Twain suggests history rhymes. With human nature as it is, the past is always present but in similar; not identical ways. History is not repeating itself. New history is being made based on new facts that fit modern societal norms. Stoler implies context of the present has changed history of the past.
Stoler supports his argument with numerous examples:
The origin of religious tolerance is not a founding principle of America. Early Americans were as religiously intolerant as the countries from which they came. Stoler suggests religious tolerance evolved in American history through the mechanism of unintended consequence.
Stoler argues American history is a story of imperialism, and that America has never been an isolationist country.
Stoler explains George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt remain as the three highest rated Presidents but with interpretations of history that have changed in different eras. Many American Presidents have risen and fallen in the eyes of historians. Wilson fell in part because of disclosed information about his racism. Grant rose in part because of disclosed information about his opposition to Andrew Johnson (Abraham Lincoln’s Vice President) who condoned slavery.
In Stoler’s opinion, one of the greatest unsung heroes of American history is George Marshall because of his service to country.
To Stoler, America’s role in WWI and WWII is misleading in many American histories because of misinterpretation of America’s contribution to the war’s beginnings and endings. Nationalism often gets in the way of objective truth when assessing any countries role in war.
Stoler notes the United States has never had a laissez-faire government. American government has always had an out sized influence over winners and losers in the economy.
Stoler’s lectures are a remembrance of things past, but just as with all historians, Stoler reports facts he chooses to recognize. The value of his lectures is realization that facts of history are immutable; interpretation is not. Interpretation is based on newly report facts, current events, and society’s evolution.
There are no alternative facts in history. There are only new facts that lead to different interpretations of history. Is that a truth or another fiction foisted on every new generation?
In 1939, Churchill calls Russia a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Stephen Kotkin unravels some of that enigma in “Stalin. Volume II” but the unraveling is marred by details that will only appeal to historians; not dilettantes. Nevertheless, a dilettante listening to nearly 50 hours of narration will find much to recommend Kotkin’s second volume of what is to be a trilogy.
Was Stalin a mad man, committed idealist, or something else? Was Stalin paranoid and highly calculating, or something else? Was Stalin a detailed planner or reactionary? What drove Stalin to eliminate 90% of Russia’s military leadership before WWII?
In “Stalin, Volume II” Kotkin describes a despot. Stalin controls a population of over 109
million people before and during WWII. Before
the war, it is estimated–between 5.7 and 7.0 million die from famine in Stalin’s
Russian agricultural collectivization.
During the war, Russia is estimated to have had 10,700,000 military
deaths, and 12,500,000 civilian deaths, of which 1,000,000 were Holocaust victims.
It seems Stalin’s administration before and during WWII led to 23,000,000 Russian deaths. In contrast, Hitler’s administration’s toll is estimated at 7,000,000 deaths; of which 6 million were Jews.
This is not to trivialize loss felt by any culture or nation, but–none exceed Stalin’s atrocity.
(An exception may be China and the famine during Mao’s administration. An estimated 45,000,000 died in the 1958-62 “Great Leap Forward”, led by the “Gang of Four”, a cabal that Mao later opposed.) Communism is clearly shown to be a treacherous and ultimately failed form of governance.
The ultimate question is –how could Stalin remain in power before, during, and after WWII? What people or nation would countenance 23,000,000 deaths? “Stalin, Volume II” offers a credible explanation.
Kotkin infers Stalin is neither a mad man nor committed idealist. Stalin is driven by an insatiable need for power and international influence.
Kotkin shows Stalin is highly calculating more than paranoid. The clue is in the fact that Stalin never countenanced bodyguards because he did not fear assassination. His longevity is the result of pragmatic use of power to eliminate rivals. Stalin assiduously pursues the preeminence of Russia as a communist state; not a Stalinist state. Contrary to some historian’s analysis, Stalin did not intend to create a “cult of personality”. Kotkin infers Stalin’s goal was to create a wider, more hegemonic, state of communism.
Stalin’s sleight of hand maneuvering is accomplished by publicly denying honorifics as leader of the state.
With that pirouette, Stalin systematically undermines any rivals by using state apparatchiks like the NKVD to arrest, torture, and obtain confessions. By branding rivals as “enemies of the state”, Stalin eliminated leadership competition.
Stalin operates as a bully without outwardly appearing to be a bully. But, each competitor who defies or competes with Stalin’s policies or position is confronted after gathered false or true accusations. A confrontation can be direct or indirect depending on Stalin’s whim. If it is a close associate, confrontation is personal and accusatory in a way that causes some to commit suicide; some to be disgraced and sent to a gulag, and a few to defect.
Through personal intimidation, and the help of a secret police, Stalin systematically destroys public perception of potential competitors. They are summarily tried, convicted, and sentenced to Gulags, or executed.
e.g.: Pavel Mikhalev, a wandering monk, was arrested in August of 1937 at the height of Stalin’s Great Purge for “counterrevolutionary activities”. He was tried on October 10 and shot on October 13. Mugshot taken in Moscow on October 13, 1937.
Stalin’s “hang man”, Lavrenty Beria.
Stalin replaces executed competitors with young followers. They are drawn from backgrounds of a less grounded education; similar to Stalin’s. These young followers become fierce defenders of Stalin; undoubtedly, in part, out of fear, but also out of appreciation for their gift of limited power and prestige in roles traditionally held by older citizens.
Stalin seduces new young leaders with dachas and improved economic benefits. Stalin appeals to the middle and lower classes; bypassing the upper-class or well educated.
A negative consequence of this system of promotion is lack of experience in leadership or management.
PURGED MILITARY LEADERS BY STALIN
Kotkin notes an estimated 90% of experienced military leadership is removed by Stalin before the war. The consequence is to make cannon fodder of many Russian soldiers as they are thrown into battle against better equipped and experienced German soldiers. Nevertheless, Stalin maintains control of Russia by recruiting from the young who are motivated by their own ambition.
Stalin, above all else, is shown to be a pragmatist in his increasing control of Russia after the revolution.
Prior to WWII, Trotsky attempts to form a competing communist party in Spain but is trumped by Stalin’s maneuvering.
Stalin opposes Franco’s fascist fight. He balances his enmity toward Trotsky with armament provisions to Spain’s communist party. That support diminishes Trotsky’s effort to form a competing communist party.
By discrediting Trotsky’s ideological support, Stalin undermines Trotsky’s success in forming any independent communist party. Kotkin notes that Stalin forestalls separate recognition of outlying communist parties by using Russia’s industrial capability to co-opt nascent movements. Stalin wishes to capture outlying communist movements by making it a part, rather than competitor, of Russian communism.
Stalin’s competition is either exiled or jailed. His ideological rival is Trotsky whom Stalin tries to have assassinated after exile from Russia. (Stalin finally succeeds in having Trotsky assassinated in Mexico.)
CHINA’S CHIANG KAI SHEK & MAO ZEDONG–eg. STALIN’S REALPOLITIC
Another example of Stalin’s pragmatic effort to extend territorial influence is in his playing Chiang Kai Shek forces against Mao’s communist movement. On the one hand, Stalin wants to spread communism in China but not Mao’s version. When Chiang Kai Shek is captured by Chinese communists, Stalin forbids Mao from executing him. Stalin insists on Chiang being released to join with the communists to combat Japan’s interest. Chiang refuses to join Mao but Stalin’s influence on China is undiminished. Stalin is playing a long game by offering arms support to Mao while resisting either Japan’s encroachment or Chiang’s defeat of Maoist communism.
Stalin is not characterized as a genius as is evidenced by his being duped by Germany. Stalin’s pragmatic effort to keep Russia out of war discounted Hitler’s oft spoken opposition to communism. Stalin fails to intellectually grasp the monomaniacal intent of Hitler.
Stalin is shown by Kotkin to be a consummate consumer of information. He uses information to make decisions about who to eliminate that might challenge his control. But, Stalin misses the realpolitik intent of Hitler.
In contrast to Stalin’s obsession for information, Hitler
is shown to shoot from the hip. Hitler
is neither a pragmatist nor an information addict. In shooting from the hip, Hitler chooses to
fight WWII on two fronts which is the beginning of the Third Reich’s end.
There are a variety of ways citizens of Turkey choose to live. Some choose to live in homes that are monuments to Turkey’s past. A few live in rock homes dating as far back as 1800 BC.
This home in Capadocia is a few feet from town. A husband, wife, and son live here. It is rented from the government of Turkey for what constitutes an annual property tax. The family can live in the home as long as related generations live there, and pay the taxes. The home is preserved by the State as a monument to Turkey’s past. It cannot be structurally modified without prior approval of the State. The few homes in this program are inspected annually for any forbidden structural changes.
This is a highly coveted style of living. The current occupants note their son is considered quite privileged by his school mates. This particular home is a social gathering place for local friends of the family. The wife is the descendant-connection that keeps this home in the family. Her marriage assures inheritance by future generations that have any blood relationship.
The temperature inside the home is perfectly comfortable when outside temperatures reach above 80 degrees. In the severest winter months, heat comes from a vented stove that is temporarily set in the middle of the living room. The home has electric wiring for lighting and appliances. The floors are covered with beautiful hand-made carpets made by past and present generations.
While sipping tea in the living room, the warmth, and cleanliness of the home floods your senses.
In another part of the city, in an older part of Capadocia, there is an underground communal enclave of passageways and rooms. They are carved into ancient rock formations. It served as a refuge for Christians. It was used in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. It reaches a depth of as much as 200 feet in the Derinkuyu district of Capadocia. Its purpose was to protect Greek orthodox Christians from many wars occurring in that era. As many as 20,000 people sought refuge in this underground city.
Massive rock door wheels secured passage ways and rooms in the underground city. The wheels were leveraged by spears or staffs to open and close the passage way.
Another style of living in Turkey is in national parks–occupied by nomads whose lifestyles reach back to the 3rd century BC. In winter months, nomads move to the city, but return every spring to tend their farms and goat herds. They, like the previously mentioned families retain their place on the State’s land as long as their descendants continue to use it during habitable months.
Each nomadic family builds their own house, out-buildings, and fencing. When they leave, those structures become expendable. Many live an “off the grid” existence, supplemented by periodic visits to the city to sell their goats. The couple noted below have a daughter that stays with her grandparents in the city during the school year. The father acknowledges he may be the last of his family to live this life because his daughter has other ambitions.
The remainder live in houses reminiscent of modern America.
The state controls a high proportion of land through the authority of the Under Secretariat of Treasury. Through inheritance rules set by the General Directorate for Foundations, the government indirectly controls Turkey’s historic sites.
One presumes the reason for much of Turkey’s control of land is because of its historic character. For nomads, the tradition of a nomadic population (though now quite small) is preserved for cultural reasons. This reminds one of a Hong Kong guides’ disappointment in the loss of traditional market places in semi-autonomous regions of China.
In addition to Turkey’s effort to preserve history and tradition, its cities are intent on being or becoming modern metropolises. It strives like all countries of the world to join the technological age to better serve its national interests and public needs. Turkey struggles with the same economic concerns evident in other countries of the world. The difference is that so much more ancient history is evident in Turkey than in many other parts of the world.
Istanbul and Ankara are modern metropolises.
Interestingly, it seems relatively easy to become a Turkish citizen. You can be born in a family with one parent who is a Turkish citizen, and you have citizenship. You can marry a Turkish citizen and receive citizenship after 3 years of marriage. Or, you can simply live in Turkey for 5 years (without any absence over a total of 6 months in the 5 year period) and become a citizen. The 5-year rule involves a residence permit which requires a foreigner to have a passport/travel document that is valid for at least 60 days after the expiration of a requested residence permit.
Today, it is possible for foreigners to own property in Turkey. There are limits to the size of the property (about 7.4 acres per foreigner), and some special rules depending on which city or area one wishes to live. In 2007 an estimated 75,000 foreign nationals owned property in Turkey.
Spending three weeks is not enough time to learn much about a country. However, with the help of local guides, and O.A.T.’s policy of travel, there is a glimmer of what life is like in whatever country you visit.
O.A.T. provides educated local guides, a school visit, shopping opportunities, artisan worker experiences, historic site hikes, controversial subject presentations, and dinners at numerous local eateries in their programmed trips abroad. Emphasis is placed on cultural immersion. There is an opportunity to have dinner with a local family and to meet local business people.
O.A.T.’s professional guides explain the history of ancient sites and answer questions about current events while traveling between cities and towns. Travelers gain first-hand views of a country’s culture and history.
Prior to leaving, our guide to Turkey suggests reading “Birds Without Wings” (reviewed earlier in this blog) as an introduction to Turkish society. This historical novel offers a record of Turkey’s ascendance as an independent nation; just before, and after WWI. Turkey is a complex state; re-defined by its Turkish heritage after the war.
In every Turkish city and town, there is an image or statue of the founder of the Turkish Republic. His name is Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Ataturk is Turkey’s George Washington. He is revered in the same manner as America’s first President. The formation of an independent secular state is what the founder of the Republic demanded. Leaders of Turkey, since Ataturk, have insisted on Turkey’s independence and a government unrestricted by religious belief.
There is an historical continuity in Turkey that seems poorly understood in America. That continuity is the secular nature of its government.
In 1923, Ataturk founded the republic as an independent and secular state. Even before modern times, when Turkey is part of the Ottoman Empire, emphasis is on government’s independence from religion. The Ottoman Empire’s history of diversity in religion is clearly shown by remains of Christian relics, churches, and seminaries in a tour of Turkey’s older cities, and towns.
Turkey is often perceived as a singular Islamic state. Yes, over 98% of its population identifies itself as Muslim. However, America’s population classifies itself as over 70% Christian. Just as American government is not a theocracy, Turkish government is not defined by its religion. Turkey is not a theocracy like Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen, or Saudi Arabia.
Neither America nor Turkey could deny religion’s influence on culture, but day to day life is primarily an economic; not religious struggle.
Though one cannot deny Muslim cultural influence, Turkey tightly controls religious radicalization of its citizens. Like America, the Turkish government has never been dominated by a religious faction.
At worst, religion becomes a crutch used by both Turks and Americans to gather followers who desire power; not religious enlightenment. At best, religion in both Turkey and America is a refuge from the hardship of life.
Ironically, the creation and evolution of a singular Christian faith is shown in many ancient Turkish sites. At the time of the Greco/Roman era, when Christianity began its conversion of pagan and Jewish followers, many churches and monasteries dotted the Mediterranean coast of what became Turkey. Religious Saints like Saint George, Nicholas, Stephen, Peter, Paul, and John were born or preached in Turkey. St. John spent the last 23 to 30 years of his life in Turkey. St. Paul visited Turkey in all three of his missionary journeys.
The history of Turkey, though not known by that name before the early
twentieth century, goes back to the pre-Christian era. Artifacts and relics of the past are
everywhere in Turkey. Some reflect on an
age before Christianity. Most reflect on
the world’s conversion from pagan belief of many gods to belief in one God.
Aside from the extraordinary history of Turkey, our guide explains his view of current affairs. We pepper our guide with many inane, and a few (hopefully) interesting questions. The following paragraphs are personal opinions rather than objective truths of what modern Turkey looks like.
Ruling Turkey, as is true of all nations, is complicated. The current leader of Turkey is President Recep Tayip Erdogan. He is not the first popularly elected head of state (there was Menderes in the 50 s, Demirel in the 70 s, and Ozal twice in the 20th century), but Erdogan is the first popularly elected President in Turkey’s history.
Like a lion tamer, Erdogan manages his country with one lion on
the right; one on the left, and his country’s lion in the middle. Russia, China, India, Great Britain, the
European Union, and the United States (among others) are important trading
partners for Turkey. Each country takes
its position on the left and right in the lion’s cage, while the leader of
Turkey focuses on the middle lion (Turkey’s citizens).
An estimated 80% of Turkey’s energy comes from fossil fuels. Gas and oil comprise most of that energy. Significantly, more than 70% of that gas and oil is imported from Russia and Iraq, with Iran playing a major role.
The spat between the U.S. and Turkey over military equipment ignores the reality of Turkey’s energy and defense needs. Russia and Iraq supply much of the energy Turkey needs for economic growth. Erdogan must walk a tight rope that offers a satisficing solution to two opposing world powers; Russia and the U.S., which are important players in Turkey’s future.
One doubts President Trump cares about the realpolitik situation of Turkey’s leadership.
Nationalism is the order of the day for many world economic powers. “America First” is Trump’s rallying cry. President Erdogan joins that nationalist movement with a revised Turkish constitution.
Erdogan changes the constitution to enhance Presidential control of government. Like Trump, Erdogan attacks internal dissension by weakening checks and balances offered by other branches of government.
Because of Turkish Constitution changes, Erdogan acquires a more powerful and longer-term leadership role in government. Though Erdogan is the first democratically elected President, his first elections show an anemic 36% and 47% winning vote for office, and less than 52% vote in his most recent election as President.
In the case of Ataturk, his recommendation for democracy in Turkey was a moment of “do what I say; not what I do” because Ataturk came to, and retained, power without democratic election. Multi-party democracy arrives in 1950 when the first truly democratic election is held., 12 years after Ataturk’s death.
Since its founding by Ataturk in 1923, Turkey has had a unitary form of government; i.e. a political organization with a central supreme form of government. However, the 2017 Constitution, adopted in a 2018 vote (some say, a controversial vote), weakens the judicial branch of the Turkish government.
Erdogan became a political power as mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998. In 2003, he became Prime Minister of Turkey. With changes in the Constitution, which is approved in 2018, Erdogan became Turkey’s first popularly elected President. The parliamentary form of government in the pre-2018 Constitution changes the “head of state” from Prime Minister (a less powerful leadership position) to President of the Republic. The significance of the change is that Erdogan can now serve up to two five-year terms.
Erdogan’s recent imprisonment of alleged revolutionary conspirators is evidence of the judiciary’s weakened position.
Without trial, and often because of association rather than volitional act, citizens are accused and jailed for a surmised conspiracy to overthrow the government. The judiciary has been able to get some “guilt by association” prisoners released but it is a procedural, long term struggle; reminiscent of repressive government. It can take months if not years for the falsely imprisoned to get a hearing before the court.
Erdogan voided Istanbul’s recent election for mayor. The voided election showed an 83.86% turn out with Ekrem Imamoglu getting 48.77% of the vote while the Erdogan party’ candidate received 48.16%
Erdogan’s seeming loss of support in Istanbul implies rising discontent with his leadership.
A possible successor to Erdogan might be the Istanbul opposition-party’ candidate, Imamoglu, who seems to have been popularly elected in the voided election.
As Lord Acton, the historian, said “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” There is the risk that Erdogan is travelling down that road. Some may argue the same for President Trump. Erdogan’s position may be threatened at the next election if he persists in unjust incarcerations. Add that to a weakening economy, and 2017’s change to popular elections, Erdogan may lose his second Presidential bid for office.
AMERICAN WALL STREET JOURNAL ARTICLE PUBLISHED 6/14/2019:
To be fair, leadership of any popularly elected national government is difficult and complicated. One must experience the complexity of democratic leadership to truly understand its difficulty. America’s experience is that “check and balance” are an essential ingredient of good democratic government.
Autocratic judgement by one leader may result in Stalinist purges with false arrests, torture, bogus confessions, and executions without a check and balance on Presidential fiat. One wonders if Erdogan is as far-sighted as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in recognizing the importance of democratic governance.
An interesting side note is Turkey’s interest in becoming a part of the European Union. Based on the nationalist movement evidenced by Brexit and present/past expenditures of Turkey to secure their borders, it seems unlikely it will become part of the E.U. any time soon.
Joining the E.U. may have economic value but nationalism gets in the way of practical economics, and open borders.
Our guide invited a Syrian refugee to tell us of his journey to Turkey across the Syrian border. His story is harrowing in that he came with little, did not know the language, and had to rely on the kindness of Turkish citizens to survive. He is a Kurd. His family remains in Syria.
One final aside is the temporary housing afforded by Turkey to Syria refugees.
Some may presume Syrian refugees are as likely to be Isis revolutionaries as citizens escaping the terror of war. The billions of dollars spent by Turkey to house these refugees, and close monitoring of citizen’s status as residents or refugees, offers hope that fleeing Syrians are being properly cared for and fairly treated. All arms are taken from those crossing the border, but beliefs cannot be controlled. No publicly revealed records are kept of any past actions of Syrian refugees. Even without weapons, the power of ideas can resurrect Isis ambitions.
E.U. membership would offer some help in covering the cost of refugee camps, but current costs far exceed the amount offered by E.U. membership. Some suggest E.U. membership is being denied to Turkey because of the size of its Muslim population. This is an interesting but weak reason for denial because Turkey has always been a secular state. The irony of that concern is that open borders (required by E.U. membership) could mean Christians would return to Turkey after their WWI ejection. How would the Turkish population feel about repatriation of the long absent Christians?
All of this E.U.’ conjecture seems moot because it seems likely that Turkey’s nationalists would reject any offer to join the E.U. Maybe, when nationalism becomes less important, and people realize we are all part of the human race, there will be no borders between nations. Ha.
Our trip to Turkey is in our memories and hearts. Thank you Mustafa Kemal Topcu. You represent your country with love, and show unwarranted respect for tourists’ foolish and impertinent questions. Turkey is a beautiful country; with a remarkable history and welcoming people.
Fans anxiously wait for the finale of “Game of Thrones”. Why has this fascinating mythological story captured the world’s interest? Why listen to a book of fiction; particularly when freighted with supernatural events? Michael Sullivan offers an answer in “Age of Myth”.
It is the thrill of discovering a good story with characters one likes, or reviles. Tribal bravery, cowardice, betrayal, honor, and morality are crystallized in each chapter of Sullivan’s story.
Sullivan begins and ends “Age of Myth” with battles. The beginning battle introduces Raithe, a killer of false gods (aka, the god killer). The god killer becomes protector of Persephone, the leader of a Rhune tribe. Persephone is introduced as the former 2nd chair of Dahl Rhen (a Rhune village). She is the widow of the deceased ruler of Dahl Rhen.
The ending battle produces Gryndal, a wielder of the black art. Gryndal is First Minister to the Fane (the Fane is leader of the Fhrey tribe). Gryndal can harness the forces of nature to destroy all that block his path to power. Gryndal’s obstacles are removed through guile, deception, and force.
Sullivan’s characters represent a fundamental conflict in life. He describes an age of tribal war with all against all. Mysteries are explained while Sullivan tantalizingly ends the first book of the series. In this tribal age, Sullivan offers a slender hope for freedom and equality of all living things.
“Birds Without Wings” is a fictional account of the rise of the Turkish Republic after WWI. The author, Louis de Bernieres chooses a setting for his story in a village in southwestern Turkey, on the Mediterranean coast. The village is populated by different ethnicities and religions at the time of Turkey’s transition from Ottoman Empire to independent state. What makes the novel interesting is it comes from a recommendation of a Turkish Tour guide.
There are many, many characters in de Bernieres’ novel. The story’s attraction is marred by its leisurely pace and manifold characters. However, threads of de Bernieres’ created lives come together in its last chapters. Each character offers a novelist eye view of cultural disruption, conflict, and resolution in Turkey’s journey to statehood.
The village of Eskibahce (presumed to be Kayakoy, Turkey) is peopled by Christians, Muslims, Jews, Arabs, Armenians, Greeks, and Turks who live under Ottoman rule.
It is not a cosmopolitan village with wealthy merchants and productive industry. It is a small community of sheepherders, subsistence farmers, one Pasha, one successful entrepreneur, and two religious leaders.
One wonders about the purpose of a Tour guide’s selection of this book. Is it to offer a better understanding of Turkish culture or to give an opinion on the current state of affairs in Turkey? The story illustrates how cultural, and religious differences influence and often repeat history. The author shows how the past is always present.
It is troubling that this cultural novel is written by an Englishman because of England’s pre-WWI, and postwar history with Turkey.
Is the writer being objective? One is reminded of an astute analysis of American Democracy by a Frenchman in 1835.
In WWI, the Turks (as part of the Ottoman Empire) are by treaty compelled to join the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria) against the Allied powers (Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Portugal,and the U.S.)
The Village is relatively quiescent until war is declared and Turkey is compelled to take sides. As the Allies defeat the Central Powers, the former Ottoman Empire is divided by the victors. In spite of the Central Powers defeat, Turkey demands independence and heads toward authoritarian dictatorship.
In de Bernieres’ novel, Mustafa Kemal is shown as an accomplished military leader who evolves into a secular President who nominally endorses democracy.
Though Kemal professes support for a democratic government, he remains an autocrat during his reign. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk became the 1st President of an independent Turkey (1923-1938). He dies at age 57 in 1938.
What makes the novel interesting is its depiction of rural life in a small multi-cultural village on the Mediterranean coast. The influence of culture and religion is revealed in de Bernieres’ vignettes of Village life.
The author shows how Greeks and Turks live in the same community before WWI. They live in discord but measured acceptance. Women can be stoned to death but saved by the religion that dictates such a punishment. Written rules of conflicting religions and cultural differences co-exist in a diverse community.
Christians and Muslims intermarry. Both a Christian Father and a Muslim Imam show compassion for residents of the Village. Christian and Muslim youths are as close as brothers.
A Greek Christian Father is considered irascible and judgmental by many in the village but he is a source of education for illiterate villagers.
A Muslim’s son joins the Ottoman army in WWI and writes a letter to his mother.
The letter cannot be read by the Muslim family because it is written with Greek lettering. Though the father of the Muslim son dislikes the Christian teacher in the village, he goes to him for help in reading the letter.
The son’s letter is translated by the Christian Father. This Christian taught the Greek alphabet to Muslim children, and showed them how to read and write Greek lettering. The letter is beautiful and poignant. It explains how much his mother meant to the writer as a boy in the Village. The Turkish father is deeply grateful for the gift of hearing what was written in the letter. He praises the Christian Father for teaching his son how to read and write. The letter is a precious gift for the family.
In another story, a political leader and the richest man in the village is profiled by the writer. His name is Rustum Bey. His wife has a lover. The lover is discovered by Rustum Bey. Partly from defense and partly from rage, Rustum Bey murders his wife’s lover and places her in front of a mob of locals (of all faiths) who begin stoning her for adultery.
The Village Imam stops the stoning and rescues the adulterous wife from the enraged mob.
In continuation of this vignette, the author tells of Rustum Bey’s guilt for placing his wife in harms way. The adulterous wife recovers from the stoning but is compelled by Village ostracism and Muslim belief to live the life of a prostitute. Rustum Bey never divorces his wife. He shows remorse for having put her in front of a mob, and regrets her having to live the life she lives. To Rustum Bey, it is not a matter of forgiveness but of understanding.
In Rustum Bey’s loneliness, he purchases a concubine to become his companion. He presumes the concubine is Muslim. However, she is Greek. The two grow to love each other but circumstances of history compel his concubine to leave.
Rustum Bey’s concubine chooses to leave when Ataturk orders all Greeks to leave Turkey. Though she has not revealed her true nationality to Rustum Bey, she chooses to return to the country of her birth.
As a result of Ataturk’s command, in a mass exodus, Greek men, women, and children are turned out of their homes and forced to leave the Village. They leave by foot, mule, or boat with just what they can carry. Some are old, crippled, and without food for the trip. Many homes are left locked and unoccupied because they cannot be sold. The village begins to look like a ghost town.
Kayakoy, Turkey today–
Obvious hatred exists in Eskibahce (aka Kayakoy) for events that occurred in the past and are reminded of in the present. Greece once ruled the area of Smyrna in Turkey. Greeks committed many atrocities in their rule. Those atrocities are compounded in various WWI’ battles.
Greece’s occupation of Symrna 1919-1922.
The horror of war is dramatically described by de Bernieres.The author writes of the stink of dead corpses, the vermin that infest the living and dead, and the rape of innocents. These historical events live in the minds of those who survive.
In another story, the author describes the betrothal of Ibrahim (a Turkish Muslim) and Philothei (a Greek Christian) at age 13 and 12 and how their love ends in tragedy.
An Ottoman Betrothal
WWI lives in Ibrahim’s memory with such horror that he cannot return to Eskibahce’s peace to marry Philothei. Ataturk demands deportation of all Greeks from Eskibahce. Philothei must leave unless she marries a Turk.
Ibrahim is still dealing with the memories of war and is unable to understand Philothei’s pleas. They argue near a cliff where Ibrahim is tending sheep. Philothei trips and falls to her death.
These and many stories are told of life in early twentieth century Turkey that seem reminiscent of the same conflicts that exist today. Is the current President of Turkey like Ataturk? Have old conflicts between religion and culture changed or are they the same? Hopefully, a traveler to Turkey will gain some answers, or at least, insight to what it means to be a Turkish citizen.
There are four plays in New York that please some of the people some of the time but not all the people all the time; i.e. “Network”, “Ink, “Tootsie”, and “All My Sons”. All were excellent Tony Award candidates. All four had something in common. Each exposed moral turpitude; three on a corporate level, and one on a personal level.*
Ayn Rand’s mistaken thought that “Virtue of Selfishness” is a social and economic good is eviscerated by these four plays. They splendidly demonstrate “…Selfishness” is personally, socially, and economically harmful.
“Network” addresses corporate media and its overarching effect on the public’s understanding of the truth. “Ink” is about corporate media and how sensationalism and circulation are a volatile mixture that distorts reality. “Tootsie” is about the personal consequence of lying. And “All My Sons” is about a CEO’s responsibility to the public.
A book titled “Skunk Works” is a paean to “boys with toys” (before recognition of women at work) and corporate greed. Ben Rich is an engineer that worked for Kelly Johnson at Lockheed.
Kelly Johnson headed Lockheed’s famous design team that created the U-2 spy plane, and the famous Black Bird in the 1960’s. Being an engineer, Rich had a detailed understanding of the facts in plane design, but facts are dead things without a good story. Leo Janos is a writer who turns Rich’s facts into tales of Buck Roger’s daring-do, but a failure of corporate morality.
Ironically, Lockheed became the talk of the century in the 1970’s; not for their incredible design work, but for bribery. Italy, West Germany, Japan, Netherlands, and Saudi Arabia are paid $22 million dollars to buy airplanes designed by Lockheed. That American law violation leads to the resignation of the Lockheed board.
“Skunk Works” is an entertaining and enlightening history of military weaponry. It illustrates the difference between a scientific research company and an industrial production company. Different skills are needed for managers of research than managers of production.**
The play “All My Sons” is about a CEO that produces engines for WWII military combat planes in the 1940s. The assembly manager calls his CEO to explain there is a crack in the blocks of twenty (or more) of the engines they manufacture.
The decision is made by the CEO to weld the cracks to make them look complete and unblemished. The planes with those cracked blocks fail, and 21 pilots are killed.
The company is sued. The managing partner who made the call to the
CEO is sent to prison because the CEO denies ever having told the process
manager to conceal the defect. The truth
is revealed many years later. The CEO rationalizes
his action based on a selfish belief that he and his family’s life were more
important than his process partner’s sentence to prison, or the pilot’s lost
lives. Is their a parallel in today’s
In “Skunk Works”, the inefficiency of government is exposed. On the one hand, inefficiency offers more time for deliberative decision; on the other, it impedes productivity and increases cost. Finally, the story opens military competition among nations that leaves only hope that the destructive power of nations will not destroy life on earth.
The last chapters of Rich’s story argue that government bureaucracy gets in the way of military innovation. He argues there is too much oversight and too many regulations increase costs and discourage innovative change.
Of course, the other side of the argument is about what happens when profit becomes more important than honesty or morality. Two Boeing planes, their pilots and passengers are dead as a result of inadequate oversight and what, at best, might be called self-interest.
Boeing 737 Max Malaysia Crash on March 11, 2019 kills 157 people.
The defense industry, like all human
enterprises, has its Bernie Madoffs (the stockbroker maven who stole investment
funds) and Angelo Mozillos (the ex-Coutrywide CEO who paid a fine for his
questionable mortgage lending practices).
Oversight and regulation are essential to
all forms of society because of the nature of humankind. “Network” has the famous line “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going
to take this anymore!”
Yes, you will be mad. and yes, we do take it again and again.
*It always comes down to a personal level, but the consequence is magnified by corporate immorality.
**Science and engineer managers rely on worker autonomy. Process managers rely on set rules for assembly line workers that manufacture complex products. It is science and engineering knowledge, more than rules of production, that determine product. But, assembly experience, more than science and engineering knowledge, completes product.