Looking out: 1938 — the end of history

How you are taught history shapes the way you understand the world. For most of us, there is no choice about how we learn history, like what is included in our curriculum and what is not. In Turkey, history education is part of the national curriculum that everyone needs to study, and there are very few modifications allowed by schools. The nationally mandated history class goes through ancient civilization, early European history, Islamic history, Ottoman history and the history of the founding of the Turkish republic. Then, it ends. History in Turkey ends in 1938 with the death of Ataturk, the country’s founder.

Even without the issue of what is included in the curriculum and how it is weighted and framed, the peculiar fact is that history ends. This is not in an analytical Fukuyama sense, it is an issue of governmental control. Everything after the death of the national hero is tainted with politics and divisions, thus seen as ‘contemporary issues’ since they affect the Turkish body politic today. Millions of students graduate high school, and even college, without ever learning about the major figures in Turkey in most of the 20th century, or the fact that there have been multiple new constitutions, along with many coups. It is possible to leave the state education system by only knowing the longest serving Prime Minister and second president of the Republic Ismet Inonu as a military commander in the war of independence.

The implications are even scarier and explain some irrationalities displayed by Turkish people. The education system does not teach about the Holocaust — or any genocide for that matter — or about World War II. Is it then surprising that antisemitism is rampant and Hitler is not perceived to be the biggest villain of history? Most people who know Hitler know him from movies or other pop culture representations. Turks never learn about the Cold War or Vietnam or anything about the United States in an academic setting. After hearing about U.S. interventions in popular media and pop culture, of course they are prone to believe conspiracy theories.

This was not always the case. Before the 1980 coup, students learned about Turkish history up to the 1960 coup. They learned that the coup took place. They learned that World War II happened.

This practice of artificially ‘ending history’ promotes historical amnesia that has plagued Turkey to this day. People hold decontextualized opinions since they do not have a historical basis on which to analyze current politics. Sunday was the 94th anniversary of the Turkish Republic, and on this Republic Day I hope for Turkey to change, in many, many ways, for the better. One small way for it to be marginally better would be if we did not lie to ourselves about history and had the courage to teach about the 1940s. That should not be an unacceptable proposition in a society that proclaims it is a republic; it should not be scared of its citizens learning their own history.