Does Turkey have a place in European memory ?

By Ophélie Hémonin | 26 September 2011

To quote this document: Ophélie Hémonin, “Does Turkey have a place in European memory ?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 26 September 2011,, displayed on 03 February 2023

Endless controversies are revived every now and then by declarations, Cyprus topical events or AKP’s unambiguous victory in June exhaust the question of whether or not Turkey should become a member of the EU. Going beyond this question and taking a step back, pondering on Turkey’s share in European memory provides some elements of answers as regards to Turkey’s past and present place in Europe’s, and proves enlightening for future debates about Europe itself.

In the recently opened Europe-wide debate when Turkey received official membership applicant status, the argument heard all along was that its candidacy did not make sense because « Turkey did not belong to Europe». When asked to clarify their point, opponents to membership would argue that Turkey is neither European by its geography (or in this case, so is Russia and indeed to a far greater extent), nor by its culture, thus usually alluding -with a smattering of hypocrisy as Europeans perceive themselves as « secular » - to Islam, as opposed to « Christian Europe ».

The question of EU enlargement to Turkey has become that passionate because it hides another, more essential one: Where, or what, are Europe’s (cultural, political, and geographic) limits? Or in other words: What is the EU, today? There are both external and internal imperatives for what is still today an « unidentified political object » to find itself a persona, and today, answering this question has become urgent.

We know who we are because we remember where and when we come from. Memory is the key to identity, and it is no haphazard if today it has become a corner stone and a buzz word throughout all of Europe. Turkey is widely seen in Europe as the Alter ego, the Other, different and defiant one, and common features tend to be subtly erased (to the point that it is commonly thought today in Europe that Arabic is the language spoken in Turkey!) Quite to the contrary however, Turkey and current EU member countries have exchanged and shared a great deal all along, be it ideas and ideologies, art, ambitions and strategies. Much case has been made about of Turkey’s fascination for Europe and Europe’s (glorious) share in Turkish modern history: secularism, western way of life, European alphabet, etc… However, little has been said about Turkey’s place in European memory.


Is there such a thing as a “European memory” ?

By reflecting on Turkey’s role in European memory, the term “memory” has to be better defined, especially when it comes to “European memory”.

Far from being an objective recollection of the past, memory is a subjective, voluntary process, which depends more on the present than on the past, in two ways. The present determines what aspects of the past you want to remember, because those elements qualify your present for the better or the worse. And the present also determines how you relate to the past. There are some times in history when past myths are plentiful, called for and recalled (such as Greece and the Hellenic heritage), and some times when « tabula rasa » or « Stunde null » is deemed necessary and all that preceded is ignored (such as the “Ancien Regime” in Revolutionary France, the Franco-era after 1975 in Spain, Nazi times in Post-War GFR, etc), because not only does the past provide an identity, but it also acts as a burden.

Memory usually serves two purposes. The first is centripetal in that it is related to the subject itself. Memory will condition how the subject of the act of remembering/remembrance perceives itself, and this act of remembering is linked with the goals the subject wants to achieve. But it also serves a centrifugal purpose, as it influences the image of yourself you convey to others, and hence how others will relate to you. Both are relevant for today’s EU. After the narrow ratification of the Maastricht Treaty giving European construction a political identity with the name “European Union”; but most of all after the French and Dutch « No » to the referendum over the Constitutional Treaty in 2005, after the sudden enlargement to 10, then 12 new states; and at a time when the European Union has a legal entity with the Lisbon Treaty and the will to develop a diplomacy of its own, the need for a common European memory/identity has never been more acute.

However, European memory is such a heterogeneous concept that we may wonder if such a thing exists. Although these modern products of history called « countries » situated on the Eurasian continent have a great deal in common, they have at least as much separating them, and it might seem a little paradoxical today to select from the past what countries possibly share, as the last two centuries emphasized and intensified national differences in order for nation states to emerge. Each country has its own history and its own memory and even if there definitely are memory areas in Europe, it will be long before all European school children learn about their common heritage in a unique textbook.

All Europeans know that behind the European Coal and Steel Community or the single market, lay the same intention: never again such a thing as what the last half century had witnessed. World War II and its array of crimes against humanity is the focal point of European memory, be it at individual national level (Stunde null for Germany, Marshall Funds for Western Europe), bilateral level (Mitterand-Kohl holding hands), and collectively, as is seen today with the Europe-wide (United Kingdom, Italy, Germany followed by many others) introduction of a Holocaust Memorial day (January 27th).

However common to all, World War II is still recalled very differently from one country to another. Whereas the UK still perceives it as a mainly continental conflict which it resisted all alone and finished off victorious, France has a very mixed memory of both resistance and collaboration, while the new Federal Republic of Germany has assumed all responsibility for Nazi crimes, and since then keeps beating its chest and imposing a severe “re-education” history program almost every year on its young generations. And this is only to mention Western Europe! 1946 pogroms in Poland showed that anti-Semitism still prevailed at that time and that the Holocaust certainly doesn’t have the same ring as in the West. Similarly, the 8th/9th of May are not perceived in the East as the date of their liberation from the Nazi regime as it is in the West, but only as the beginning of another occupation. Only in 2004 did non specialists start to realize that half of Europe had a very different memory, and that World War II crimes, as horrendous as they may have been, were maybe not an isolated fact deserving unique remembrance.


Holocaust memory” vs. “Gulag memory”

In fact, Katyn is far from being as notorious in the West as Auschwitz. Similarly, it is relatively unknown that camps such as Buchenwald and Hohenschönhausen were soon turned into “special camps” after their “liberation” by the Red Army, where some detainees were detained twice under two different regimes. With an estimated 12 million deaths, the Gulag has come to symbolize Soviet crimes, and the latter have struck Eastern European populations at least as much as five years of Nazi occupation.

Can the Gulag be compared to the Holocaust in order to find common memory denominators on both sides of the Iron Curtain? A big debate has emerged since 2004, accompanying the need for Eastern Europe to speak out and be heard by the West, where sympathy for the USSR could be found. When it comes to comparing legal texts and the penalization of Holocaust denial or relativization (negationism or revisionism) with penalization of communist crime denial in each member state in the East and the West, significant differences can be observed. Yet, the diversity of experiences and feelings can also be found within the “Eastern bloc” itself. Descendants of nationalist authoritarian rights such as in Hungary or Poland will not stress the same episodes of the past as the heirs of recycled communist elites. Hence, objectively, within the Eastern bloc itself for instance, as many as three different “memory blocs” can be distinguished. The Baltic and the Czech Republic, for instance, have witnessed extremely strong opposition to the communist regime and deeply painful experiences, and this long held tradition and enmity are still noticeable on occasions such as Ukraine’s presidential elections in January 2008 and the consecutive gas crisis and in their attitude towards Russia. Hungary and Poland would make up a second area of memory where opposition to Communism was generally speaking more qualified but still strong and widely shared. Bulgaria would be an example of a third East-European memory zone, where attitude towards the USSR was far more complacent and history was more one of collaboration.

Behind the general agreement that the Holocaust and more generally “Crimes against humanity” are a cornerstone, so many disagreements remain between EU member states as regards European memory! Is this to say that there are as many European memories as there are countries, and factions? Will the so much praised“Harmonization” by European jurists in legal fields, ever be extendable to the political field of memory? Indeed, it becomes obvious that memory is a very political concept, and is hardly scientific.



Turkey’s debated place between history, popular memory and collective amnesia

The current political debate around Turkey’s candidacy opposes a modern, forward thinking Christian Europe to a backward-thinking Muslim Turkey as two irreconcilable blocs. However, one needs only to open a history book to realize that there is no clear cut distinction between the two (not only geographically speaking), and reality is slightly more intricate.

In fact, looking back at history, French historian Jean Delumeau explains that Westerners at the start of the Modern Age hardly had a sense of a Muslim (Turkish) “threat”. Indeed, large numbers of (Christian) peasants sought refuge from European feudalism within Ottoman provinces until the beginning of the 16th century. There goes our cliché of the European cradle of human rights! Delumeau also challenges the idea of a homogeneous Muslim-Turkish Ottoman bloc, as he shows that at least 33 of the 48 Grand Viziers who ruled from 1453 to 1623 were renegades, that is,, non-Turks (Christian janissaries, Armenians, etc) converted to Islam. Later, at the turn of the 20th century, people from various “European” backgrounds were holding key positions in the Empire: Sultan Abdülhamid II, for instance, was surrounded by Armenians, Greeks, etc. Exchanges between the ethnic Turks and the populations which were gradually subdued in Europe and integrated into the Ottoman Empire were numerous and for the benefit of both Turks and non Turks, as facts show.

Far from always being the “Sick man of Europe”, to quote Prince Alexandre Gorchakov, ambassador of Tsar Alexander II, the Ottoman Empire has played a key diplomatic role in European history, as shown by the circumstances of the birth of European diplomacy. The first modern forms of diplomacy were established with the alliance of France and Turkey following the French defeat against Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire , and the signature of a treaty between François I and the Ottomans in 1535. Capitulations included a permanent ambassador (drifting away from its etymological function of simple, mobile messenger) in Constantinople, a consulate in Alexandria with the power to protect Christian citizens, a privileged trading status, etc. Cooperation between two great European powers did not stop there. After 8 joint naval wars, the French even invited the Ottoman fleet in Toulon! The Ottoman Empire held a key position on the European continent (covering parts or the whole of Bulgaria, Rumania, Greece, Cyprus, Hungary, Serbia, Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, etc) and for a long time was a key player in the balance of powers of Empires up until the late 19th cent. The French radical “Jeunes Turcs” party demanding reforms and secularism in France in the first half of the 20th century, shows the extent of Turkish influence on the political field.

Today, Turkish or Ottoman elements can be found everywhere in European culture, from painting (for instance: the Turkish slave by the Corregio, or Romantics such as Delacroix) to French literature (from Pascal’s philosophical Pensées to Racine’s tragedies with Bajazet, one of the few to have embarked on a modern subject, as opposed to ancient myths seen as the only “noble” and suitable topics, Molière’s Fourberies de Scapin, or Le Bourgeois gentilhomme), not forgetting Orientalist schools in both arts! Popular culture also bears numerous traces of Europe’s fascination for the Ottomans, with idiomatic expressions such as “vivre comme un pacha”, “c’est Byzance!” Food or cuisine is a great reflection of popular culture. If European countries such as Italy, France, etc have made coffee or ‘croissants’ their symbols, they nevertheless owe them to the Ottomans. The world famous kebabs, in many places, today compete with Mac Donald’s! If Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca is an all-time favorite, it is little known however that all of Europe’s military music, and fanfares, have Turkish origins.

While on one level, the Turkish role in European history is that of a European player, on the popular level of historical imagination, the “non-institutionalized memory”, however, it is present but remains the “other”, more akin to us than further to the East “Barbarians”, but never really part of the club. Popular memory is irrational and subjective. It is also linked to unconscious parts of our memory and covers episodes of our history, which we chose to forget. It enhances the strong differentiation, and sometimes even a facial split, between European history and memory.

Be it the Algerian colonization, and war/state terrorism regarding France; or before that, German colonization of Namibia and the genocide of the Herero people using methods which would become notorious after WW2; or more recently still, the Boers of Dutch & Huguenot descent in South Africa, or today’s impotency to stop Israeli settlements in according to UN Resolution 242 occupied Palestinian territories etc… Colonization is definitely a period of European history that Europe collectively chooses to ignore and forget. Reparations have never been officially mentioned, nor have European countries asked for forgiveness. Turkey is also part and parcel of this amnesia. Algeria, Tunisia, etc… were Ottoman colonies before they were conquered by Europeans, and if Europeans have a devastating responsibility in the current Middle-East conflict, the Ottoman Empire has roots in it as well.

In the collective European amnesia as well as in its history, Turkey has held an important role. Colonization is a significant but nevertheless forgotten part of history, completely left aside as a phenomenon in European memory… But for how long? In a globalized world facing the multiplication of exchanges and the acceleration of farther-reaching immigration, memory will sooner or later be confronted with history, and more important still, with present constructions and future projects.


Immigration and “forward remembering”: “Memory” with regards to the present and the future

Today, a quarter of Western European populations will soon have an “immigrant background” (up to 40 to 50% in urban areas). Algerians in France are now estimated at 5-6 millions. Turks are 3,5 millions in Germany, 600 000 in France, 500 000 in the Netherlands and in the UK, 300 000 in Austria. Given these figures, one cannot but predict a change, a shift in memory. Populations made of 50% of immigrants cannot be taught at school that their ancestors were the Gauls, nor the Franks. Europe, with the input of its immigration, will soon have to shape a possible “new”, more comprehensive and mature collective memory.

Unless we continue Gegen die Wand (“Head-On”), as Fatih Akin would put it, with populist and irresponsible immigration polices, immigration in Europe will come to play an increasingly positive political and cultural role, and may bring us to reconcile with this part of our past from which we currently look away.

Auschwitz, Katyn, Srebrenica, etc, why does the current debate only address negative elements of our memory, and why not, after acknowledging all responsibilities, also feel the need to remember positive and constructive aspects of our identity? Amidst deep introspection related to the need to get a reasonable sense of our European identity and to find the meaning of this common project, more than ever today we need to build closer and more rational connections to history. We must create continuous exchanges between ourselves and with others through research and education, and include other times in our Memory (how can the Renaissance not be enhanced when the European entity defines itself as based on humanist values? (cf Lisbon Treaty preamble), as well as other places, such as formerly colonized parts of the world, that have been part of European history, all the more so that it accounts, today in great parts, for immigration figures.

European identity is in a crisis. Acknowledging wars and crimes against humanity is important, (in fact, a sine qua non condition) but there are things in the history of mankind and in the construction of the European civilization which deserve as much remembrance. 65 years after the World War II trauma, it would be time to take a look further back in time and opt for a “positive” and more complete European memory, with regards to its history, its heritage, its unique cultures. And then turn our heads and look towards the future: where are we heading ?

Turkey has definitely played a huge part in European history and again, not only in Eastern European or Balkan history. Turkish culture and the many European cultures have a great deal in common and are complementary. At the current time, they challenge each other, but it could be for the better. These challenges might force Europe to raise substantial questions regarding its future and force it to become more consistent with humanist values (tolerance, diversity, multiplicity) it seeks to export. Turkey also has a role to play in the future by influencing and lending the EU some of its ever growing self-confidence, helping European countries face their amnesia and scares and switch to positive and assertive elements of identity for the EU. Ever more exchanges between Turkey and European countries can only contribute positively to both sides, no matter whether Turkey will ever become a member of the EU or not.



To go further

On Nouvelle Europe website

To read

  • DELUMEAU, J., La peur en Occident : XVIe-XVIIIe siècles, Hachette Littératures, " Pluriel. Histoire " - 1999, réimpr.
  • LEGGEWIE, C., LANG, A.-K., Der Kampf um die europäische Erinnerung – Ein Schlachtfeld wird besichtigt, Beck’sche Reihe, 2011
  • TABET Ibrahim, Histoire de la Turquie de l’Altaï à l’Europe, Ibrahim Tabet, L’Arichipel, Sept 2007