Fighting Under the Same Banner: Memories from the Ottoman Theater of the Great War

This article is part of the TRAFO series “Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’”. Today, we put the spotlight on the conference “Fighting Under the Same Banner: Memories from the Ottoman Theater of the Great War” which will take place on September 6-9, 2019 at the Orient Institute Istanbul. We talked with one of the conveners, Richard Wittmann, about the upcoming conference.

Together with Yaşar Tolga Cora (Boğaziçi University), you are organizing the upcoming conference “Fighting Under the Same Banner: Memories from the Ottoman Theater of the Great War”: How did you come up with the idea for this event?

The inclusion of narrative sources in the writing of the history of the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey has been a research interest of mine for some time and forms the topic of a research field that I supervise here at the Orient-Institut Istanbul. With regard to the period of the Balkan Wars and World War I, time and again I found myself puzzled by a strange observation: The “Partnership in Arms” between Germany and Turkey as allies in World War I can be considered general knowledge in both countries and the presumed close military cooperation before the end of the Great War often gets referred to and praised in official exchanges between representatives of the two countries. And yet, the history-writing on the period rarely shows this phase as an entangled, closely connected history of wars fought jointly with the help of allies from different countries. Rather, one can detect a tendency to ascribe the central importance in the war effort to one’s own troops while downplaying the role of allied military. Through the focus on personal narrative sources, the contributions of the conference aim to illuminate the experience of Ottoman, German, and Austro-Hungarian soldiers on the Ottoman fronts, highlight the extent or absence of communalities. How were the wars experienced by women, soldiers and civilians, and by minorities in the Ottoman army?

The conference puts particular emphasis on life narratives as source material: What makes this kind of historical source particularly interesting when working on the Ottoman experience in the Balkan Wars and the Great War?

Life narratives give room for rendering information that official accounts such as military reports and statistical figures generally discard. There is space for background information, personal assessments and differing opinions.

Common soldiers, women, members of minorities and otherwise in our source material often neglected individuals are given a voice. Personal expression can take various forms that go beyond the classic genres of personal narratives of autobiographies, memoirs, letter, and diaries. In addition to these written sources this conference will also include hardly used non-textual sources such as rare visual and acoustic materials like postcards and sound recordings.

The call for papers mentions that life narratives have recently begun to attract great interest among military and social historians of the Middle East in their work on the wars between 1912 and 1922: Why do you think that is and how will your upcoming conference contribute to this?

For the Middle East, the Balkan Wars and the First World War led to the creation and rise of numerous national states that were to replace the vanishing Ottoman Empire. For the Republic of Turkey, but to some degree for all nascent state entities of the region, the writing about the wars became submerged by the telling of an official history of the emergence of the national state. The focus of the predominant official historiography one-sidedly favored those protagonists of the wars who would also play an important role in the genesis of the future successor state. Considering life narratives as sources for the writing of the history of the wars brings back into the picture the entirety of individuals who lived through the war years and left an account of their experience. It helps overcome the prism of writing the heroic history of the victors and their decisive military achievements by allowing to investigate also the more mundane everyday-life aspects of the war (Alltagsgeschichte).The conference aims to shed light on the experiences of ordinary soldiers, male and female civilians, the homefront, and the Ottomans’ allied soldiers during the Great War.


After studying law, Islamic and Turkish Studies at his native Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität and at Freie Universität Berlin, Richard Wittmann obtained his doctorate in 2008 in History and Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University with a dissertation on Christian, Jewish, and Muslim relations in the multiconfessional society of 17th Century Istanbul. Since 2011, he has been the associate director of the Orient-Institut Istanbul. His research interests focus on Islamic legal history and the social history of the Ottoman Empire. Special attention is given in his work to the consideration of self-narratives as historic sources for the study of the Near East. Among Richard Wittmann’s latest publications is the coedited volume Istanbul – Kushta – Constantinople. Narratives of Identity in the Ottoman Capital, 1830-1930 (Routledge, 2019).


Citation: Fighting Under the Same Banner: Memories from the Ottoman Theater of the Great War, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 05.09.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/?p=19607.


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