Book Review: Ottoman Children and Youth during World War I
Nazan Maksudyan, Ottoman Children and Youth during World War I, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2019. Series: Contemporary Issues in the Middle East. 211 pages. ISBN: 9780815636458
The history of childhood was long dominated by scholarship on children in Europe and North America, and changes in childhood ideals were frequently assumed to originate on these continents, spreading from there to the rest of the world through colonialism and other globalizing forces. Recent decades have seen many new works on the histories of African, Asian, and South American childhoods, as well as childhoods in various transnational contexts. These works have helped to “provincialize Europe” in the history of childhood, unearthing local particularities and cross-cultural similarities as well as complex trajectories of global change over the past centuries. This book, shedding light on four different groups of Ottoman children whose lives were profoundly affected by the events of World War I, makes a valuable addition to that growing body of scholarship.
The first chapter concentrates on the comprehensive network of state orphanages (Darüleytams) founded from 1915 onwards across the Empire in order to meet the pressing need of rapidly spiraling numbers of orphans. The institutions were officially catered to the children of “martyrs,” veterans, and soldiers, but Maksudyan shows that a very substantial number of the children there were Armenian boys and girls who had been orphaned as a result of the Armenian genocide. The chapter describes the political processes leading up to the establishment of the Directorate of Orphanages, as well as the seizure of properties from educational and philanthropic institutions of the Allied powers for this purpose. The orphanages were set up swiftly, but they were consistently underfinanced and overcrowded. Portrayals of poor living conditions in the orphanages include vivid details of children sleeping on the floor and holding one another to stay warm, constant hunger, and the ravaging of deadly epidemics. Ironically, as Maksudyan points out, while internal correspondence between institutional administrators recounts undisciplined behavior, cases of mistreatment and attempted escapes, the official reports emphasized the children’s happiness and good character.
The second chapter explores the destinies of the approximately 1,000 Ottoman boys who were sent to Germany in 1917 and 1918 to work as apprentices in workshops, mines, and farms. The arrangement between the two states resembled a fosterage agreement writ large: Ottoman orphans in need of care were transferred to Germany in exchange for the performance of manual labor. The young men were thus important pieces in a bilateral relationship between the two states, one of which was struggling to deal with an overwhelming orphan problem and the other from labor shortages due to military mobilization. Poor conditions in the Ottoman orphanages combined with high expectations for their opportunities in Germany motivated young men to volunteer for the adventure. However, their hopes were mostly frustrated as they arrived in Germany to find that not only were they insufficiently clothed, they also had to work long hours under bad conditions and with little or no pay. In some instances, this led to resistance and open revolt as the apprentices refused to perform their tasks and sometimes ran away from their workplaces. Most young men eventually returned to the Ottoman Empire, but were once again disappointed to find that the authorities there, rather than seeking to utilize their skills, still treated them as needy orphans.
The third chapter shifts the focus to examine the ways in which the militarization of Ottoman society affected children, particularly in the urban centers. The Committee of Union and Progress sought to kindle Turkish nationalist feelings and behavior in children through paramilitary educational schemes. At the same time, non-Muslim scout organizations were suppressed. Such interventions taught children to become aware of ethnicity and religion, intensifying tensions between different groups of juveniles. Importantly, the author argues, the children were not merely objects of the Turkish nationalist agenda; they also embraced it and helped push it forward through “playing war,” even engaging in violent inter-ethnic rivalries on the streets. The hypothetically universal category of the child was thus severely fractured in the multiethnic and religiously composite Ottoman society.
The fourth and final chapter deals with the children who survived the Armenian genocide. Arguing that existing scholarship “victimizes Armenian children as dependent, vulnerable, and passive beings,” Maksudyan insists that the survivors were “not simply miserable children who deserved pity” and underscores the importance of demonstrating the children’s agency. Following the genocide, Armenian orphans were more or less forcibly adopted by Turkish families or placed in orphanages where they were converted to Islam and raised as Turks. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the children were subjected to a major rescue operation initiated by representatives of the Allied powers, intended to liberate them and reintegrate them into Armenian culture. For many children, however, this meant being uprooted once again and placed them in new and difficult circumstances. Yet, in their testimonies, survivors emphasized their own “talent” in making the most of the situation. By building friendships, playing games, engaging in various adventures, the children exhibited resilience and a “will to survive.”
Together, the four case studies show how World War I affected Ottoman children in dramatic, though sometimes ambiguous and unpredictable ways. One of the strengths of the book is its thorough documentation of the importance of children in macropolitical battles. As in so many other contexts across the world, children in the Ottoman Empire were mobilized to forward competing political agendas, and the children themselves sometimes accepted or even participated in these processes, while at other times they more or less openly defied the role they had been granted. As with all interesting books, this one also raises issues for discussion. In the following I will probe two related questions regarding agency and methodology.
A persistent challenge in the historiography of childhood is that posed by the aspiration to go beyond documenting adults’ views and practices by tracing children’s own opinions, activities, and experiences. Given that children are consistently underrepresented in both published and unpublished archives, the ambition to bring forth their perspectives has pushed scholars to come up with innovative methodologies and locate untraditional sources. This ambition has also given rise to scholarly conversations about the epistemological possibilities and problems related to analyzing children’s “voices” as distinct from those of adults, and to ongoing debates about the theoretical desirability and methodological utility of the concept of agency.
Maksudyan implicitly inscribes herself into these debates by declaring it as a central aim of the book to “recognize children’s agency” and to resist “victimizing” them. A major argument is that children were indeed “agents” who were “capable of social action.” This gives the book a slightly circular feel; agency figures as both an aim and a conclusion. Moreover, despite the fact that the concept of agency is highly contested not only within the field of childhood history but also within feminist and postcolonial history, on which the author draws, the concept is not clearly defined in the book. It is used variously in different chapters to designate resistance to and participation in adults’ designs as well as to describe resilience and the capacity for survival. But one might ask: if all of these activities constitute agency, would it even be conceivable to argue that children did not have agency? Importantly, Maksudyan’s analysis demonstrates both complexities and significant differences in children’s coping strategies. It also shows that in many cases, despite attempts to affect their own situations, children had in fact very little influence on the courses of their lives, which were shaped by immense forces entirely out of their control. All of this calls for a conclusion with more nuances than the assertion that they had agency – or that their agency increased along the way (how could this be measured?). Finally, the strong assertion that the perspective of this book, unlike the existing scholarship, resists victimizing children or describing them as “miserable” and deserving of “pity” implicitly suggests that victimhood is somehow undignified. But just as the capacity for social activity is a fundamental human trait, so is our dependency and vulnerability. Victimhood, one might propose, should therefore prompt not pity, but solidarity.
A related aim of the book is to unearth numerous different perspectives and to “give voice” to children. The book is indeed based on meticulous research in a number of official archives as well as on studies of memoirs, autobiographies and diaries. Yet, in the chapters, the different “voices” are often harmonized into one singular narrative, making it a little difficult to sort out when different testimonies confirm or contradict one another. In some chapters, historical evidence about a few children serves as the foundation for relatively generalizing statements. One might also discuss to what extent referencing – and occasionally quoting – autobiographies, written decades after the end of the war, amounts to giving voice to children. It would therefore have served the book well if the author had shared more of her methodological considerations and discussed how broadly her conclusions might be applied.
In spite of these issues, the book is a welcome contribution not only to the history of Ottoman childhoods, but also to the historiography of children and war and to childhood history more broadly. It offers both horrifying and touching accounts of what was done to children and how children managed, and it will no doubt be of value to students and scholars alike.
Karen Vallgårda is a historian. She is an Associate Professor at the SAXO Institute, History Section, University of Copenhagen. Her current research centers on political family and childhood history in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Citation: Karen Vallgårda, Book Review: Ottoman Children and Youth during World War I, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 03.09.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/19565.