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History for Nation-Building: The Case of Greece and Turkey

Hercules Millas

Greece and Turkey, two countries that have substantial different historical and cultural legacies, adopted resembling practices in history teaching. The similarities can be best explained by the common objective of the two sides: to build a nation-state. Not only did they both try to mimic the nation-states of the “West”, but each also kept an eye on the other trying to foresee probable future political threats, sometimes eventually imitating practices of the “other”. The similar trends in the fields of historiography, history teaching, and national identity are not the result of intrinsic social characteristics but rather of copied comparable contemporary understandings. The final model of nation-building, naturally, was influenced by and harmonized with the local legacies too.

The Greek national state was founded in 1830 after a successful revolution against the Ottoman Empire. The modern Turkish Republic started about a hundred years later in 1923 after a successful war of independence against the victors of the First World War but mostly fighting against the Greek armies in Anatolia. In both cases approximately a 40-year period of nationalist furor among the intellectuals preceded the nationalist upheavals. The great difference between the two national movements was not only the time gap of a century but the completely different starting points. The Greeks revolted as a “nation” and started a new state; theirs was a “genuine people’s insurrection” (Hobsbawm, 1980: 146). In the Turkish case there was already a state, the Ottoman state, and nationalism was

H. Millas (*)

Dardanellion 103, Nea Smyrni 17124, Athens, Greece © The Author(s) 2017

M. Carretero et al. (eds.), Palgrave Handbook of Research in Historical Culture and Education, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-52908-4_19

introduced as an ideology to save it.1 The Turkish endeavor reminds Massimo d’Azeglio who had written in his Memoirs (1867): “We have made Italy; now we must make Italians”. The Greek and Turkish states differed in the manner they developed but they resembled other states: Greece the nation-states of the Balkans and Turkey the lands empires of Europe, Austria, and Russia.

There are secondary differences too. Turkey was a much bigger and more populous Muslim country, whereas Greece was smaller and Christian. Turkey inherited a well-formed state and an experienced bureaucracy; Greece in this field had to depend on western expertise, on the “imported” King Otto from Bavaria and his entourage. Greece was ethnically more monolithic than Turkey which encompassed the Kurds. In the sphere of perceptions, geographically and culturally Greeks were seen by the “West” as being closer to Europe and as part of Europe’s history; Turks were seen as the traditional century-long threat against the Christian world.

However, in spite of these real and/or imagined historical, structural, and cultural differences, interestingly, the two countries followed resembling courses in the fields of historiography, history teaching, and perceptions of national threats and challenges. All these issues constituted a national narrative that set the boundaries of a national identity. Nevertheless, these issues were rarely approached and expressed as issues of national identity; instead all arguments were on a supposed “historical truth”. All related history wars and intellectual quarrels were focused mostly on trying to prove what is “false” and what is “real” in history. The proposed “realities”, however, could neither secure a harmonious agreement between the two countries nor within each country.

In this chapter I will try to show the differences and mostly the similarities in history education and the related skirmishes within these countries and in this part of the world. The phenomena will be compared with related developments in other countries as these unrolled chronologically. The objective will be to locate the dynamics that create and sustain nationalist history teaching but also the prospects for alternative historiographies. The effect of the local and international political developments as well as the input of academic contributions will be evaluated.

The exclusive and xenophobic history education hampers international relations and in our case specifically the bilateral relations of these two countries. Actually the national identity in both countries is founded on the negative image of the demonized “other”. The reactions to this ideology will be presented. At the end I will present my personal experience in teaching the history of the “other” in both Turkey and Greece and my efforts to come up with an approach that will cope with the prevalent history teaching and national prejudices, introducing a more modern approach and in a way that it would be acceptable to my students.

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