Those who ignore history’s mistakes are sure to repeat them

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… by  Ian Greenhalgh

Sometimes history repeats itself and sometimes the repetition is so blatantly obvious that one must question the sanity of those involved; after all, one of the better definitions of insanity is to repeat the exact same actions with the expectation of a different outcome each time.

The cartoon above is from the cover of the New York magazine Judge; published in 1903. Below is the accompanying text written by a modern day historian:

American Cartoon Showing an Ottoman Turk Making His Own Noose With the Gallows in the Background

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire was politically and economically unstable. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the Ottomans had lost a considerable amount of their territory to expanding European powers, and they were heavily indebted to European banks. As result of its economic and financial distress, Western political leadership began to refer to the Ottoman Empire as a perilously “sick man.”

In 1903, cartoonist Emil Flohri drew a cover for Judge, an American political satire and humor magazine, which reflected this sentiment by showing the Ottoman Turk making the preparations for his own execution. Rather than attributing the weakening of the Ottoman Empire to financial and economic problems caused by foreign interference, Flohri censures the Ottomans themselves.

Their collective demise is an effect of cultural character, and inscribed on the noose the Turk crafts for himself are the symptoms of his downfall: “Mohammedan fanaticism,” “slaughter of women and children,” “massacre of Christians,” and an insincere promise to enact reforms.

Flohri’s satirical braiding of Islamic fanaticism with misogyny and violent intolerance of Christians in the context of a faltering Ottoman Empire is over one hundred years old, and his commentary is more evidence of the historical durability of negative stereotyping once a certain mental image has taken hold.

I do not, for one moment, agree with the author that this is an example of ‘negative stereotyping’; rather, I consider it an accurate and cutting critique of Ottoman policy. The Ottomans did indeed murder women and children and massacre Christians; the best known of several genocidal episodes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries being the Armenian Genocide of 1915 where the Turks harnessed what was then called ‘Mohammedan fanaticism’ but we would now call ‘Islamic extremism’ in order to round up, deport and murder over 1.5 million Armenian Christians.

The Ottoman Empire was propped up by the British, French and German empires throughout the 19th century, not least because the Ottomans were engaged in a series of wars with the Russian Empire and from the point of view of the British, engaged as they were in ‘the Great Game’ of imperialist expansion versus Russia in Afghanistan, the Ottomans were the ‘enemy of my enemy’ and therefore useful allies against Russia. Britain and France even went so far as to fight the Crimean War against Russia in order to keep the Ottoman Empire going.

Eventually, however, the Ottomans and Germans became closer allies than the Ottomans and British were and this lead to the Ottomans siding with Germany in World War One; a war which destroyed the Russian, German and Ottoman Empires and left the British and French Empires badly damaged.

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WW1 saw the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and emergence of the nations states of the Middle East today.

Parallels to today

It is rather easy to draw many parallels between the situation at the time of the cartoon to that which exists today. Today, Turkey, the successor state to the Ottoman Empire is every bit as unstable politically and economically as the Ottoman Empire was in 1903; where the Ottomans were faced with revolt by the Arabs (which finally came to a head in 1917 thanks to British intervention in the form of Lawrence of Arabia) the current Turkish regime is fighting what really should be recognised as a civil war against the Kurdish population of Anatolia.

Oil, especially the stolen variety that comes by truck into Turkey is the main resource being fought over today whereas in 1903 it was another strategic resource – hemp, which was needed for many things in the age before everything ran on oil such as sail cloth and ropes, both essential for naval power and merchant shipping (the Russian hemp supply was one of the factors behind the Crimean War).

‘Mohammedan fanaticism’ is the same thing as ‘Islamic extremism’ couched in the phraseology of 1903; both amount to using Islam as a cover for criminality.

“Slaughter of women and children,” anyone following events in the Kurdish regions of Turkey and in the neighbouring countries of Syria and Iraq will be well aware of the shameful, criminal killing of civilians, among them many women and children. What the Ottomans accomplished with the boot and the bayonet is today done more swiftly but with equal if not greater inhumanity by artillery and aerial bombing.

“Massacre of Christians,” in 1903 it was the Armenians, today it is the Kurds and other minorities; the cruelty and indifference to suffering remain unchanged.

Finally, an insincere promise to enact reforms. Erdogan has made a career out of promising one thing while doing another, so no great imagination required here to see the parallels.

Erdogan’s apparent Insanity

As I wrote in the introduction: one of the better definitions of insanity is to repeat the exact same actions with the expectation of a different outcome each time. By this definition, Erdogan does indeed appear to be insane.  Clearly he has learnt little, if anything from the troubled history of his country.

Why does Erdogan feel he can succeed where his predecessors failed? Maybe because he has powerful backers in Germany and Saudi Arabia? The Ottomans had powerful allies too but still lost their empire.

The eventual outcome for the Ottomans was to be removed from power, overthrown by a new generation of leaders. In the process they lost all of their territory outside Anatolia, which was the greater portion of their empire.

If Erdogan is to avoid this same fate – to be removed from power and to lose for Turkey the 40% of it’s land occupied by Kurds then surely he must avoid rather than repeat the same mistakes?

Author Details
Ian Greenhalgh is a photographer and historian with a particular interest in military history and the real causes of conflicts.

His studies in history and background in the media industry have given him a keen insight into the use of mass media as a creator of conflict in the modern world.

His favored areas of study include state-sponsored terrorism, media manufactured reality and the role of intelligence services in manipulation of populations and the perception of events.
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