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Response to Review of The Last Ottoman Generation

Any author would be lucky to have so thorough and thoughtful reviewer as Ramazan Hakkı Öztan, and I extend my thanks to him and the editors. It is a pleasure to respond and have a chance to discuss the book and its writing.

I hoped The Last Ottoman Generation would be useful to scholars of the region and the general public, especially in the Middle East, for whom the last century often seems like a kind of black box of mystery and misery. I wanted to explain to readers and to myself how things came to be as they are and to write the Ottoman Arabs back into late Ottoman history, since it seemed, particularly in the last couple decades, to be an exclusively Turkish story. I also thought that just as the experience of Ottoman rule had united the region, so the experience of mandate colonial rule was a common experience. The majority of national and colonial histories had focused on individual colonial states.

Dr. Öztan points out that this critique of the inward-centered nature of national and colonial history should be extended to the history of the early Turkish Republic as well. I agree enthusiastically, and I am hopeful other historians may chip away at the nation-centered tendencies of late-and post-Ottoman history. But extending the story to Anatolia after the early 20s, or to the Balkans, for example, was more than I thought I could manage convincingly.

Dr. Öztan also mentions the book’s lack on engagement with ideology among the Last Ottoman Generation. There are two reasons I neglected ideology. The first is that the sources, especially for Arab Ottomans are not especially rich and have been well-picked over by earlier scholars. The second is that I felt that cohesive ideologies may have been more important to scholars attempting to reconstruct the period than to people living through it. Put another way, I had come to think the traces of ideology, especially nationalist ideology, had come to play an outsized and probably undeserved role in nationalist histories. If events had not brought nation-states in the wake of Ottoman collapse, no one would care about or notice traces of Arab or Turkish ethnic nationalism in otherwise obscure publications in 1890, to take an obvious example. I think the shared militaristic ideology Öztan mentions was probably unsystematic and focused on saving the state, and ultimately salvaging something from the catastrophe. I leave it to colleagues studying the durability of Unionist affiliations to tease out these threads.

Somewhere along the line I realized, a little uncomfortably, that I was writing an elite history, and Ramazan is right to call me out! I would point out the social engineering aspect of the Ottoman modernization project, and confirm that while the state’s most determined defenders certainly constituted an elite, they started out as lower-middle class scholarship boys in state schools. They owed everything to the state, which surely colored their thoughts and actions.

I am pleased also that Dr. Öztan mentioned the several fine new works I did not have a chance to consult. They will surely enrich the future work of all of us.