‘Headphones, genocide and Fanta: reflections on the Çanakkale Gallipoli conference’, Honest History, 4 August 2015
‘International’ conferences are often hard work, hard to organise, hard to fund, hard to run and hard to attend, especially as an ‘international’ visitor in a different time zone. For reasons that bear thinking about, such conferences are often regarded in academic circles as having higher value and status. For the academics organising them it is often a matter of pride at having enticed a ‘name’ to attend, and (for those attuned to the priorities of funding bodies and the arcane ways in which they evaluate these matters) the prestige of having scored an international collaboration.
The reality often falls short of the ideal of free and frank international dialogue and exchange but also may deliver surprising and valuable benefits and bonuses: fresh insights and ideas; encounters with colleagues who become friends; experiences, often incidental to the point of the gathering, that stay in the memory longer than the mediocre meals, dull papers or indifferent accommodation.
Sometimes these events work and sometimes they don’t and sometimes it is all worth it. This account of the 100.Yilinda Çanakkale Savaslari Ulusararasi Kongresi – the International Congress on Battles of Gallipoli on the Centenary – held in Çanakkale, Turkey, 21-24 May 2015, prompts both particular reflections on doing the history of that campaign and the broader question of how nations do history differently.
Turkey and its neighbours (Dissident Voice)
International conferences in Australia (and certainly international conferences in Australia on Australian military history) usually involve mostly English speakers, either from Britain, the United States, Canada or New Zealand, or foreign speakers with sufficient English to address audiences and take part in discussion. The Çanakkale conference involved as many speakers from Turkey and its neighbour Azerbaijan (though not its neighbour Armenia) as from Australia, with a smattering from Britain, New Zealand and North America. This conjunction promised much productive exchange. The presence of British and New Zealand participants helped to dilute the Australian domination. The involvement of Turkish colleagues with special interests in Gallipoli promised the possibility of engaging with other interpretations of the campaign and its many ramifications for several nations. All good, as they say.
The conference grew out of a long-term relationship between historians at Monash University, one of the major ‘Group of 8’ Australian universities, and Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart Universitesi, a provincial and not especially distinguished Turkish institution, named after the Turkish victory over the Anglo-French fleet on 18 March 1915 (‘Onsekiz Mart’ is 18 March). Known as ÇOMÜ (pronounced ‘Chomu’), its campus overlooks the Dardanelles and some of its humanities staff have naturally cultivated an interest in the Gallipoli campaign, known in Turkey as the Çanakkale Şavaş, usually translated badly as ‘the Çanakkale War’).
Monash’s people, its hard-working and effective Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Professor Rae Frances, and the dynamic Professor Bruce Scates, Director of the National Centre for Australian Studies and a leading scholar in the cultural interpretation of Australia’s wars, had been planning the gathering for about seven years. They invited (and funded!) about forty academics – archaeologists, literary scholars and various varieties of historians – from Australia but also New Zealand, Britain, France and Canada – to meet Turkish scholars and students in the year of the Gallipoli centenary, but held a month after the Anzac Day bash to coincide with the celebrated 24 May armistice. The ‘names’ at this gathering were the indefatigable and fecund Jay Winter and the wise and frank Bill Gammage, whose experience of Gallipoli and Çanakkale goes back to about 1970, earlier than that of all other overseas participants.
Ankara intervenes: many words from our sponsors
From the point of view of this Australian participant all seemed promising as the conference neared. Synopses were requested and delivered, then papers (the idea was they would be circulated in advance and presumably published afterwards, subject to refereeing). Most importantly, tickets were bought and rooms and transport booked. It looked like we were going to take part in an unusually well-organised gathering, both logistically and intellectually. But no conference program appeared. Instead, a month or so out, we learned that, to meet a shortfall in funding, Turkish historical bodies would be more closely involved, and that would mean a larger Turkish presence.
No problem, we thought – the more the merrier. And then things seemed to go awry. (I should note that I am largely both observing and inferring here: I did not press any of the organisers for details and they – ever careful of their continuing relationship with Turkish colleagues – offered no detailed explanations. Indeed, they were admirably discreet and astoundingly patient in the face of the most comprehensive embuggerances I had ever seen placed in the way of people who were supposed to be co-operating with international colleagues.)
Just weeks before we left for Turkey, it became apparent that the simple Monash-Çanakkale love fest that we had anticipated had become complicated and rather nasty. It turned out, we were to learn, that the Atatürk Araştırma Merkezi, the Atatürk Research Institute in Ankara (a government cultural institution, known as ATAM, from Atatürk Araştırma Merkezi) had extracted, as the price of its funding, virtual control of the program. ATAM added as many more speakers to the program as it carried already, so, by the time the program was finished, it involved 88 speakers over three days, including scholars from Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Hungary, India, Iran, Poland and Romania, with the single largest foreign contingent (eight) coming from Azerbaijan, under the auspices of its Bilimer Akademisi Tarih Enstitüsü Müdürü, the National Academy of Sciences History Institute; more of it presently.
The doubling of the number of speakers without extending the conference’s length immediately meant that sessions were to run ‘in parallel’, as conference jargon has it, and that papers would be limited to 15 minutes, with half an hour for shared discussion at the end, assuming that everyone kept to time. When I received the first draft program, a fortnight or so before leaving Australia, my heart sank. I began to glimpse that something was afoot.
One sign of the change from a lean Monash-ÇOMÜ meeting to the more cumbersome ATAM model was the proliferation of organising committees. In the old-fashioned, continental way that Turkish academicians (as they are quite sweetly called) have made their own, this conference now boasted no fewer than five organising bodies (one Australian, one Azerbaijani and three Turkish), an ‘honorary board’ of six (including one Australian, who did not attend), an ‘organising committee’ of 15 (with four Australians) and a ‘scientific committee’ of 44 (that is, half the total number of participants), but including only five non-Turks. Clearly the committees had been stacked, and the result was a program that was like the big loaves served in the restaurants of Sultanahmet, simultaneously large, but actually full of air rather than nutrition.
In considering the content of the program – and even more in listening to it over the three days in the Onsekiz Mart Universitesi’s Seyit Onbasi auditorium – it became clear that two historical traditions were at play and not always happily. The ÇOMÜ salonu had either a thousand-seat hall of North Korean proportions or tiny seminer salonu that held barely fifty. Invariably and bizarrely the huge hall had about 30 people scattered across acres of rows, while Seminer salonu 2 was always packed.
The university’s new conference facility (an unlovely glass-and-aluminium box, located on Çanakkale’s bypass nowhere near either the town’s charming old-ish centre nor the university’s hillside campus) was named after Corporal Seyit, the burly artilleryman who, on 18 March 1915, supposedly lifted a shell weighing up to 276 kilograms, in some versions not only loading the gun on his own but hitting and sinking an enemy battleship. This legendary but evidently much exaggerated feat is widely and inescapably visible around Çanakkale and on the peninsula – in souvenir tat on sale all over, in the statue near Kilid Bahr (where dozens of Turkish tour buses stop through the day) and now in the Çanakkale Destini Tanitim Merkazi (the Çanakkale Epic Story Centre) at Kabatepe, which attributes Seyit’s feat to the strength of his Islamic faith as well as his shoulders.
That a university should so endorse such a fabrication and exaggeration seems sadly symbolic of the Turkish relationship with history, and especially the history of the Gallipoli campaign, the ostensible subject of our presentations and discussions. In fairness, though, an Australian colleague pointed out that this was surely no more sycophantic than naming an Australian university after Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash.
Day 1 (and a bit of Day 3)
The first day’s proceedings got off to a good if somewhat tardy start, with a performance of folk songs apparently reflecting on the impact of war, and especially of the Çanakkale Savas. (The official ÇOMÜ video of the opening is on YouTube.) Then the speeches began, and at this point many of the overseas participants began to realise what they had unwittingly become a part of. The speech by the President of ATAM, Professor Dr Mehmet Ali Beyhan, not surprisingly touched all the expected buttons – the importance of the war in Turkey’s history, the need to remember the ‘martyrs’, the part played in the war by Atatürk himself – and Professor Dr Beyhan naturally quoted ‘Atatürk’s words’ – ‘The Quote’, as it became known in discussions over the next three days.
(The Quote, still often said to have been addressed by Atatürk ‘to the Anzac mothers’ in 1934, begins, ‘Those heroes that gave their lives’ and ends with the reassurance that Turkey’s people regard dead enemies as ‘their sons as well’. It is now commonly heard at Anzac Day ceremonies and is featured on memorials and quoted in books and films across Australia and New Zealand. Its origins and propagation recently became the subject of investigation by, among others, researchers active in Honest History. More of that presently.)
None of this was surprising nor particularly exceptional, not even that Professor Dr Beyhan consumed about double his time allowance, except that he gave the figure of 250 000 Ottoman dead for the campaign. Not ‘about 85 000’? For the campaign? Or was it the war? (The usual figure for Ottoman military deaths in the Great War is 350 000.) The conference’s simultaneous translators did a mighty job, particularly in the case of those translating Australian speakers, who often spoke too quickly, too idiomatically and used jargon no translator could be expected to render on the fly. But all too often crucial points, nuance and clarity were lost, one of the inevitable consequences of communicating across languages and cultures. ‘No wonder,’ we said, ‘wars happen’.
ATAM logo (ATAM)
The second opening speech was delivered by Professor Dr Yakup Mahmudov, President of the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences History Institute for the gathering, and it seemed, as intended, to set the tone. It seemed that the involvement of Azerbaijani participants had no place in the original Monash-Onsekiz Mart concept; they came at the invitation of ATAM. The Azerbaijanis became an unsettling presence because they seemed not to follow the unwritten expectations of international gatherings – that is, to be open to scholars who work in different fields and in different ways. The Azerbaijanis, by contrast, were there to demonstrate their fealty to the pan-Turkic ideal; we were irrelevant.
Professor Dr Mahmudov’s address took about four times as long as it should have according to the program distributed, even when considering that two of the four Turkish speeches of welcome were dropped and the Australian Consul at Çanakkale, Nicholas Sergei, severely truncated his speech to make up lost time. No-one from Monash spoke. Indeed, it seemed that neither Monash, nor Rae Frances and Bruce Scates were even mentioned, by anyone. We began to suspect that something odd was brewing.
Professor Dr Mahmudov began loudly – loud seemed to be the default setting of Azerbaijani rhetoric – and got louder. (The speech is on YouTube, so see for yourself.) He proclaimed the historic and inalienable bond between the people of Turkey and the Turkic people of Azerbaijan, a relationship forged in shared language, religion and culture, and tested and proved in many wars, including the Çanakkale Savas and the wars Azerbaijan had fought against Armenia in recent decades. This conference, he said, was ‘one of the most important conferences organised on this planet’, because it brought Turkish and Azerbaijani scholars together in this place so significant in the history of Turkey and the Turkic peoples. (I wrote that down on the spot, so I’m pretty sure that’s accurate.) He then denounced Armenian ‘treachery’ in 1914-15, implying, I think, that Armenians got what they deserved in the ‘so-called genocide’. ‘They call it a genocide’, he said, ‘but in fact they were the perpetrators of massacres’ (and so they were, to an extent, but Professor Dr Mahmudov seemed to lose proportion). This battle, he said (loudly, referring to the battle to portray Armenians as the aggressor) ‘is a battle of principle for us’.
The Azerbaijanis’ affirmation of their community with fellow Turkic speakers illustrates the difficulties the overseas contingent had understanding the nuances of our hosts’ historical relationships. You might assume that the pan-Turkic emphasis came out of the Kemalist interpretation formerly prevailing in Turkey before it was challenged by the Erdoğan government’s Islamist view. It turns out, though, that Ataturk – so Andrew Mango’s biography says – actually did not emphasise the pan-Turkic relationship. What the politics of this actually were, and how it played out in the structure of the conference, remained obscure to visitors.
We learned later in the conference from Turkish participants that in fact Professor Dr Mahmudov had said a great deal more, which was not translated and transmitted to our headsets. He said, apparently, that, talking of genocide, he hoped that the conference would acknowledge that in 1915 soldiers of Western imperial nations had invaded Turkey with the aim of conquering Turkey and annihilating its people and only the bravery of the martyrs of Çanakkale had prevented this genocide of the Turks. Or so we were told; Professor Dr Mahmudov apparently brought his own translator who did not convey all of his words.
I did not attend the concluding session (having decided to demonstrate solidarity with Robin Rowland – see below) but I heard about it the next day. Several speakers, including Bruce Scates and Dr Jenny Macleod, offered concluding remarks. Professor Dr Beyhan of ATAM chaired the session. Contrary to expectations and undertakings, both he and Professor Dr Mahmudov spoke for far more than the agreed seven minutes. I admit that keeping speakers to time is one of my bugbears and I am unforgiving of speakers who run over and of chairs who let them; in this case Professor Dr Beyhan was doubly culpable. Dr Kevin Fewster, the Australian director of the United Kingdom’s National Maritime Museum, timed all the speakers. Professor Dr Beyhan allowed Professor Dr Mahmudov to speak for 18 minutes, though the speakers who followed, including Bruce Scates and Jenny Macleod, spoke more-or-less at or under the allotted time. Professor Dr Beyhan then spoke, at 21 minutes taking the prize for the most long-winded participant.
All this would merely be a further curiosity of international conferences – I admit that I am at the extreme end of the speaking-to-time spectrum and it’s probably a cultural thing – but there are two serious points to add. The first is that, while Bruce and Jenny were speaking, both Professor Dr Beyhan and Professor Dr Mahmudov removed their headphones, so neither heard what these two historians had to say, and in fact indicated in the clearest way the two Professor Doctors’ indifference to or contempt for these contributions.
The second thing to notice was that Professor Dr Beyhan launched into another tirade on alleged Armenian genocide against Turks and Azerbaijanis and then wound up by thanking everyone involved – including his driver – but not actually referring to the presence or contribution of the international visitors (besides the international visitors from Azerbaijan). At this point it was apparent to international visitors present that this international conference at least had thoroughly lost any value it might have had. Through the conference’s remaining time all were heard to lament both the discourtesy of the non-Onsekiz Mart hosts and the fact that the original inclusive vision for the conference, as Onsekiz Mart and Monash partners had discussed and negotiated, had been so comprehensively trashed.
But ‘genocide’: where did that come from? One of the unwritten rules of international conferences is that visitors should at least be aware of local sensitivities and, while not avoiding them entirely, should at least be careful in raising sensitive issues. As visitors to Turkey we were all aware of Turkey’s refusal as a nation to accept that the deaths of up to or over a million Armenians at the hands of agents of the Ottoman state should be described as genocide. Indeed, Australia’s own Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, likewise cravenly refuses to accept or use the word, for fear of offending either the Turkish government or Australian Turks. But none of us were giving papers specifically about the Genocide (even though it began virtually at the same date as the invasion of Gallipoli) and none of us planned to or in fact did speak about it.
I was at the time about to deliver a manuscript co-written with Vicken Babkenian, Beyond Gallipoli: Australia, Armenia and the Great War, to be published by NewSouth in May 2016. But I was at the conference to speak about Indians on Gallipoli, the subject of my most recent book, and so did not raise the subject of genocide. But we heard Professor Dr Mahmudov describing Armenians perpetrating massacres against Azerbaijanis (both during the Great War and in recent times) in the clearest terms. We were told that he alluded to atrocities graphically – pregnant women raped, for example – in parts of his speech not translated.
As Professor Dr Mahmudov warmed to his theme in the opening session (and in the closing session as well) he became louder and more strident, being applauded enthusiastically by some students and supporters in the hall (see YouTube). Indeed, it was not the last reference to Armenian depredations in presentations by Turkish and Azerbaijani speakers: far from the idea of genocide being too sensitive to mention, these speakers seemed unable to keep off the subject, except that the subject was always Armenian massacres of Turks rather than the reverse. It seems that it is not the word ‘genocide’ that official Turkey deprecates but only the identity of its victims.
It later transpired (as we discussed what we had heard) that many of us had contemplated walking out in protest against Professor Dr Mahmudov’s flagrant, ahistorical and frankly offensive grandstanding on Day 1 – and that was just the bits we heard. As it was the conference’s opening session, we found we decided individually not to cause further trouble for Rae and Bruce who, though more aware than most overseas speakers of the scandal they had become involved in, were no more able to prevent it developing than we were. (In any case, people were wandering in and out of the salonu, answering their mobile phones, picking up tea and generally treating it as Liberty Hall to the extent that I doubted that anyone would have noticed had we upped and left.)
Or, indeed, cared. At about this point, I think, we began to realise that we had found ourselves involved in two conferences, occupying the same building and having common features, but barely impinging upon each other. Most sessions did, it is true, involve one or two papers as a sort of ‘cross-over’ – so, for example, in a session on Anzac Day a Turkish speaker spoke about the use of the Ataturk quote as a ‘bridge’ between Turkey and the Anzac nations, in a session in which three Australians spoke about Anzac Day and its evolution. But for the most part the two streams more-or-less preserved their separate identities. That is not to say that Turkish and overseas participants did not do what international conference-goers do as a matter of course, which is strive to make contact, to ask and explain; to compare. And, as we will see, at least a couple of times in this conference those attempts at communicating succeeded in surmounting the usual barriers: more on that presently too.
Two conferences, two styles
But for the most part we saw a separate Turkish-Azerbaijani conference and a Turkish-Australian-Western conference sharing facilities but emphatically not sharing ideas, approaches or even the fundamental assumptions governing the practice of historical research, interpretation and debate. And this is the hard bit: that is, I am about to offer some harsh observations of some of our Turkish and other participants and on the matter that presumably means a great deal to them – their professional competence and, to an extent, their identity as historians. This may appear condescending – and it wouldn’t be the first time I’ll have been accused of that – but judge for yourself. Or rather, judge the titles of their papers for yourself, because I can’t show you anything else – while the ‘Monash’ papers were written in full months ahead, all we had of the Turkish papers were the titles and what we could glean from what came through our headsets.
- ‘The assessments of Staff Colonel Mustafa Kemal, the Commander of the 19th Infantry Division and Anafartaler Group, based on his notes’
- ‘The place of the memories of those who took part in the Gallipoli Campaign as volunteers from Turkestan and Afghanistan in our literature’
- ‘The Gallipoli Campaign in the Russian press of the period and in the Azerbaijani newspapers published in the Russian language’
- ‘The Gallipoli Campaign in the Azerbaijani poetry and the public opinion about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’.
As might be apparent, these titles reflect a different attitude to or way of doing history. The archetypal ‘Western’ conference paper is (or ought to be) concerned with a question, an argument or a problem. These papers tend to avoid detailed exposition or narrative, focusing on expressing an interpretation or an argument, often generalising from the ostensible subject of a paper. The Turkish way, in contrast, characteristically dealt in great detail with a particular and often very narrow subject. The papers were typically narrative, describing rather than analysing, refraining from interpretation except to reinforce or reiterate commonly accepted notions – the quality of Mustafa Kemal’s leadership, for example.
A senior colleague said the papers reminded him of the old-fashioned papers he had heard delivered by older colleagues in the early 1970s at Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS) conferences, while another said that they reminded him of talks presented at local historical societies. This might appear to be judgmental, and some Turkish papers were interesting and worth hearing (such as Mehmet Al Celikel on Anzac diaries, Dilek Kantar on humour in Anzac diaries, Rustem Arslan, Reyhan Korpe, Bulent Sener and Candan Kirisci). There is no suggestion that our Onsekiz Mart colleagues and some other Turkish speakers were anything but solid. Indeed, while focusing on the more sensational and outrageous aspects of this conference, we need to recall that it was exchanges with these and other scholars that made the meeting valuable.
But international conferences expose assumptions and expectations and further cultural differences became apparent. At the end of the conference’s first day we were bussed to a reception in Çanakkale’s city museum to celebrate the opening of an exhibition on Australian nurses on the island of Lemnos (whence Gallipoli casualties were taken from mid-1915) and a book on the subject written by a young Monash researcher, Alice McConnell. As we stood in the museum’s warm upper gallery we discovered that one of the unfortunate consequences of bi-lingual, multiple partner conferences is that many, many speeches are delivered, translated and applauded, and all of this takes time. We were then bussed to the ÇOMÜ campus for a reception, which comprised Coke, Fanta and a variety of mostly sweet finger food. ÇOMÜ, we realised, was a ‘dry’ campus (and even the TT among us hankered for mineral water).
This was not just a matter of incommoding the drinkers among us. It was in fact a mark of the degree to which Turkish universities are subjected to political control down to quite a mundane level. In the several years between the first meetings with Onsekiz Mart and May 2015 the university’s liberal regime had been thoroughly purged. This profound political change was to affect the entire event.
After more faffing about (changing buses for the second or third time) those staying at the university’s Dardanos campus arrived to find that a students’ rock concert-cum-fun-fair had taken over the entire site. Not only would it blast rock music at door-vibrating volume until midnight, the Spring Festival would continue for the entire duration of the conference, as it did every year. Did no one notice? Was this simple inefficiency, apathy or a failure to plan?
As with the first day, there was a marked difference between speakers’ national styles, and indeed between what it was they were doing and why. Speakers in the Turkish tradition gave long papers (that is, often longer than the 15 minutes allotted) in which, overwhelmingly, they described, often in minute, bum-numbing detail. One speaker effectively read out weather reports day-by-day; not un-useful evidence, but surely not justifying time in a conference. (As I have said before on the Honest History site, conferences are for conferring.) While Western speakers usually spoke more generally, about issues, ideas, questions or problems, Turkish speakers, probably ones without exposure to overseas practice, often focused on describing and narrating. The differences in the two historical traditions became clear.
One of the contrasts became clear on Day 2, when Frank Bongiorno of ANU took part in a session in which he and three Turkish speakers delivered papers looking at the way Gallipoli has been presented in school curricula. A representative title: ‘The perception of significance, the levels of knowledge and awareness of the prospective history teachers concerning the Gallipoli campaign’. The burden of the three Turkish papers was that there was an orthodox or authorised version of Gallipoli and that teachers needed to understand it so they could faithfully inculcate it in their pupils. (We gleaned from the Turkish university students who had been induced to work to help organise the conference that, even in Turkish universities, much rote learning and regurgitation of teachers’ opinions occurs.) This, of course, was pretty much as education used to be in Australia.
In the course of this section, Frank mentioned a contemporary (1915) reference to alleged Turkish brutality. This prompted a member of the audience in question time to launch into an impassioned speech condemning Armenian genocide – that is, genocide by Armenians, not atrocities committed against them. The embarrassed chair of the session closed it down. Clearly, there were no-go areas in Turkish historiography that we stumbled onto by assuming that the rules of history conferences were similar world-wide: again, one of the pitfalls of ‘international’ conferences.
Different ways of doing history came up all the time. In one session an Australian speaker was asked whether Australian school-children are taught about Gallipoli. Well, yes, the Australian explained, but ‘school-children are certainly exposed to a range of interpretations about history and ideally are encouraged to make up their own minds’. ‘But are they taught the real story?’ his interlocutor persisted. (Not that this desire for orthodoxy is only a Turkish phenomenon: presumably many conservative champions of the story of Anzac would prefer that children receive instruction in a more direct, didactic manner. Search the Honest History site under ‘Christopher Pyne’ and ‘John Howard’.)
This approach is characteristic of the Turkish system in which – we learned from the students who had been conscripted to help out, even though exams had begun – rote learning and skillful regurgitation is still typical even of the Turkish university system. In another session an Australian speaker deployed the sort of detailed individual evidence that is now obligatory in Australian history (dealing, I think, with a bereaved mother’s grief). ‘Is this true or fictional?’ asked a Turkish colleague, unused to the practice of having access to large quantities of personal evidence and perhaps coming from a culture that values family privacy more highly than do we.
And then, on Day 3, just when we might have despaired of any real communication between these different, arguably diametrically opposed national historical traditions, we experienced the sort of benefit that international conferences can confer like no other fora. The session involved three Australasian speakers and one Turkish colleague. Associate Professor Recep Tayfun discussed ‘An invitation to global peace: Anzac Day activities in the context of public diplomacy’. This amounted to an advocacy rather than an analysis of the way successive Turkish governments have employed ‘The (Atatürk) Quote’ as a conscious expression of Turkish public diplomacy. Professor Tayfun ended by proposing that a statue of a Turkish soldier should be placed on the Anzac Bridge in Sydney, articulating the reconciliatory sentiments of the words we must now (since Paul Daley’s April 2015 article in the Guardian Australia– linked from here with related resources) refer to as ‘attributed to Atatürk’.
Dr Sally Carlton, a New Zealand sociologist, followed, discussing how the Christchurch earthquakes have affected how Christchurchers think of Anzac Day. Then Bill Gammage gave an assured, nuanced, humane reflection on the ways that Anzac Day evolved during the inter-war years. It alone was worth the price of admission (though Rae Frances not unreasonably pointed out that, thanks to Monash’s generosity, we at least had got in gratis). Finally, doctoral candidate Julie Lunn gave an account of the way Anzac Day in Perth evolved from 1916 to 1929. Hers was one of those specific papers that confound easy generalisation but which stimulate a better understanding of an historical phenomenon we feel we know but which continually confronts us with deeper meanings and more varied expressions of the same commemorative impulse.
The resulting discussion delivered more value than any other session that I attended. Jenny Macleod of Hull (whose new Oxford University Press book, inevitably entitled Gallipoli, provides an analysis of both the campaign and its historiographical and cultural aftermath) got the ball rolling. She asked Professor Tayfun whether he was aware of claims that ‘The Quote’ had been crafted after Atatürk’s death and what evidence could he offer that Atatürk had actually written it.
This opening gambit sparked a lively series of exchanges in which at least three pieces of evidence were shared. Bill Gammage mentioned a file in the RSL papers in the National Library of Australia that he had seen years before that he thought might help. A Turkish colleague (Gürol Baba, one of Bill Gammage’s former PhD candidates, once of ÇOMÜ, now in Ankara) suggested that the proceedings of the Turkish National Assembly, now available on-line, could be useful, and passed on details. Finally, Dr Cahide Sinmaz Sönmez, also of Onsekiz Mart, offered to provide a copy of the celebrated article (in a supplement to the newspaper Dunya in 1953) in which Şükrü Kaya, one of Ataturk’s colleagues, described how Ataturk had composed words for him to deliver in the speech which is supposed to have included ‘The Quote’. (And indeed she soon after did do so, to my delight – I had spent a morning earlier in the week at the superbly efficient and hospitable Atatürk Library in Istanbul looking for it. I had tracked down the issue but not the supplement.) The various suggestions and leads were soon transmitted to Honest History’s secretariat in Canberra and are now being pursued.
This vigorous discussion, interspersed with other questions, delighted several overseas participants who, like me, had a particular interest in getting to the bottom of the origins and evolution of ‘The Quote’. But it evidently discomfited some of our Turkish colleagues. One – again from Onsekiz Mart – asked ‘Why are you asking this surprising and shocking question?’ I took this to mean that she was objecting to someone questioning Atatürk’s words, reflecting the respect that he has been accorded in Turkish life. A colleague pointed out that with Atatürk, the creator of a secular state, coming under increasing threat from Islamist, anti-Kemalist forces, questioning of Atatürk has a political potency not always apparent to outsiders curious to establish the veracity of the words. Unwilling to be thought an unwitting accomplice of a conservative Islamist conspiracy to discredit Atatürk, I clarified this with her later: again, the complexities of doing history internationally are exposed. In Turkey, under whichever ruling regime, the assumption is that history serves the interests of the state.
All things considered … and a boat trip
International meetings are worthwhile. Despite the divisive rhetoric that we had heard, the tedious descriptive papers we had suffered, on the conference’s last day it was the conjunction of British, Australian and Turkish historians who together shifted the discussion and understanding of ‘The Quote’ a little bit further along. But the misunderstandings and mismatched assumptions continued. Perhaps the clearest instance that something had gone wrong was how the Australian poet, Dr Robyn Rowland, was treated. Robyn, formerly an academic sociologist, is now a poet. Her book This Intimate War presents poems (all in both English and Turkish) reflecting on the Great War in general and on Gallipoli in particular. While self-consciously romanticised – Rowland admits that the verse comes out of her love affair with Turkey – the poems represent a moment of Turkish-Australian reconciliation and a reading of her poems by her and her Turkish translator was rightly included in the original conference program.
For all of Robyn’s occasional plunges into sentimentality and her gullibility over detail – were there really units of Turkish teenagers on Gallipoli or were the photographs that moved her actually of students at a military high school, safe in Constantinople? – her work is a more genuine expression of reconciliation than many of its manifestations on and around Gallipoli, such as the ‘Turkish-soldier-rescuing-English-officer’ statue, which is utterly bogus, something that some Turkish colleagues were well aware of and happy to acknowledge.
The planned reading of Robyn’s work seemingly became a casualty of ATAM’s take-over of the conference, dropped from the program (and denied conference transport to it) for no reason that was given to Robyn. A group of conference participants booked taxis to attend the reading that proceeded anyway, but it was a sadly emblematic end to a gathering that promised much but too often disappointed and frustrated overseas participants. The Monash organisers, who embarked on the project with such optimism, were in this disappointed, as in so many of the outcomes in a conference that did not go as had been hoped.
As the exchanges over the session on Anzac Day and where it led attested, international contact can be productive, enlightening, challenging and instructive. It just didn’t happen often at Çanakkale; or not in some of the sessions I attended, in the way the organisers had planned anyway. Perhaps my experience of the Çanakkale conference was unfortunate, redeemed by what we saw and heard of a very different historical tradition and by the friendships and contacts made during it.
There are at least two codas to be added. One is that on 24 May, the very centenary of the informal truce at Anzac during which some Anzacs and Turks finally saw and even touched each other face to face, the conference moved out of the salonü and onto the peninsula. Our Onsekiz Mart hosts had enterprisingly booked the replica of the Turkish mine-laying ship the Nusrat (the real hero of the Turkish victory of 18 March 1915). A party of us travelled down the Dardanelles and around Cape Helles, able to see the peninsula from the perspective of the Entente navies – seeing the country much as the generals given the job of invading had seen the coast they were to storm.
This trip was illuminating in all sorts of ways. The boat was full of supposed ‘experts’ on the campaign, but we were continually scratching our heads asking each other questions that offered a caution against hasty historical judgment: ‘is that Morto Bay?’, ‘which is Gaba Tepe?’, ‘where’s Hill 971, that one or that one?’ Of course none of us had thought to bring more than the most basic map – a similar oversight had been one of Sir Ian Hamilton’s many derelictions. The other bonus of the trip was that we were able to chat about the campaign and much more in a sort of diesel-powered floating symposium.
At Kabatepe Limani we boarded a bus and toured the peninsula as a group, stopping at memorials, cemeteries and other sites for impromptu talks and discussions delivered by many of our party, a treat for us all and one of the highlights of the meeting. It was interesting how the national tensions of the campaign emerged a century on. Most of us were Australians; why would we want to go to Cape Helles (the ‘British’ memorial)? That parochialism was defeated. But it was also apparent that most of the conference’s Turkish participants travelled separately: the boat and bus could not take us all and so the group split largely on national lines, a reflection of the schism of the two-conferences-in-one that it had become.
The final coda, and one worth bearing in mind in the light of the way Turkish right-wing politics blighted the noble motives and hopes of the original conference, is to recall how often the conference saw genuine exchanges between Turkish colleagues and visitors, and especially between visitors and local PhD candidates and students. (‘Some of our delegates’, Rae reminded me, ‘actually enjoyed the Spring Festival’.) If, as we often console ourselves after a particularly dull session, ‘conferences are about what goes on outside the sessions’ then such encounters are the essence of international conferences. That needs to be borne in mind when analysing what worked and what did not. It adds weight to the positive side of the ledger.
No doubt post-mortems were or are being held in Melbourne, Çanakkale and Ankara. What will they bring: more ‘international’ conferences or more parochial meetings which confirm rather than challenge national assumptions? Despite my reservations, frustrations and questions, my encounters with Turkish (and other international) colleagues make me think that these gatherings are worth persisting with but, ideally, only if the basis of the meeting is agreed beforehand and all parties then stick to their agreement. International conferences are worthwhile and Monash and Onsekiz Mart should be commended for making the effort, even if politics intervened to diminish the attempt. We should toast their resolve, optimism and vision, even if we do so with glasses of Fanta.
I would like to thank the several colleagues who read and commented on an earlier draft of this report and who provided many useful criticisms and comments. Their suggestions have made a great difference to its clarity and accuracy, though of course I am responsible for any remaining errors or omissions. Please feel free to comment on the report using Honest History’s ‘comments’ facility. PS