Ottoman Children and Youth during World War I – Interview with Nazan Maksudyan

In October 2020, Nazan Maksudyan’s monograph Ottoman Children and Youth during World War I (Syracuse University Press, 2019) was awarded The Association for Middle East Children and Youth Studies (AMECYS) 2020 book award. Earlier, a review of the book by Karen Vallgårda was posted on this Blog. The following interview with Nazan Maksudyan was conducted by our colleagues from Jadaliyya.

What made you write this book?

Nazan Maksudyan (NM): As an Ottoman social historian of children and youth, I was among the first to acknowledge that children are active historical figures who deserve a history of their own. And I have always been interested in writing about “children and youth” as real persons, doing things, having opinions, taking decisions, and not in “childhood and youth” simply as adult constructions. So, my major motivation was to understand how children actually experienced the First World War.

Nazan Maksudyan, Ottoman Children and Youth during World War I, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2019.

But I also see this book as a continuation of my earlier work on the lives of orphans and destitute children in the late Ottoman Empire. My previous project, the first book, covered a period from the 1860s to the First World War. During this research, I actually collected material for the war years, but then I realized that all this could not be done in a single work. This is why my first book decidedly stops in 1914.

So in a way, it was a natural continuation for me to go back to the material I already had for the war years and then also dwell into new archives, particularly the German archives, which I had the chance to dig into during my postdoc fellowship(s) in Berlin. Therefore, in a sense, the new book complements the first book in a chronological way. But then, maybe it also needs to be complemented with a new book on the interwar period.

One also needs to acknowledge the impact of current historiographic trends. The Centennial has led to the revival of First World War studies in the past decade. An enormous number of new publications, conferences, documentaries, and museum exhibitions have appeared from the early 2000s onwards. I was also invited to contribute to a number of these myself. I guess we, the late Ottoman historians, have been slowly but surely drawn into the First World War.

Without doubt, increasing interest on the Ottoman home front and the daily experiences of ordinary people have also been a great inspiration.

What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

NM: One of the main issues that has shaped my overall work is children’s agency. I view children as capable of social action, with the potential to be at the center of the narrative. This book is also centered around children’s agency during the war. I focus on four different groups of children: thousands of orphans in state orphanages, apprentice boys who were sent to Germany, children and youth in urban centers who reproduced rival nationalist ideologies, and finally Armenian children who survived the genocide.

In the context of the war, children’s agency was definitely not a limitless “capacity,” or one that could bring progressive change. Agency mostly constituted the capacity to endure and suffer. I concentrate on children’s deprivations and suffering, along with their resistance and revolt. Agency was also relative to several social structures, especially age, gender, and ethnicity. For instance, I discuss how older children would take responsibility for younger ones; how children’s agency was expressed and realized in solidarity with other children; and how gender determined children’s everyday strategies.

Another central issue for me in this book is to situate the Armenian Genocide within the historiography of WWI. I argue that it is impossible to write a history of the Ottoman war without allocating a significant portion to the lives, experiences, and agency of Armenian children. Though specifically discussed in chapter four, the genocide is quite central to the general narrative arc of the book. 

Some main topics that the book addresses include several “child displacement” schemes that were implemented both by state and non-state actors from the perspective of these “refugee” children and forms of paramilitary socialization that motivated children and youth in urban centers to build up gangs, attack rivals, and get involved in nationalist politics. 

From a generational perspective, the book mainly discusses the lives of the last generation of the Ottoman Empire, but also hints at the formation of the first generations of the postwar period. It is ironic that, despite the firsthand evidence of the strength and resilience of children during the First World War, in numerous successor states in the Middle East, national identity has been formed on an infantilized understanding of the nation as a child.

How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

NM: Apart from the continuity in time periods (that I have touched upon above), the two books also follow a similar theoretical conviction. I start the Introduction—subtitled “Children’s Version”—with Akira Kurosawa’s amazing film, Rashômon (1950), which tells a story from twelfth-century Japan in which a samurai and his wife are attacked by the notorious bandit Tajomaru, and the samurai ends up dead. The film then reconstructs the “same story” from the perspective of these four different actors-witnesses: bandit, wife, dead husband, and woodcutter. My work follows this analogy.

As I have also stressed in my previous book, enumeration and multiplication of accounts with different “witnesses” contribute to an enriched perception and comprehension of the essentially misty substance of history. Incorporating the testimonies of children and youth had the potential to construct a new history of the First World War.

Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

NM: I think the audience will be mostly academic, though the relative “popularity” of WWI might enlarge it a bit. I have also just noticed that there is an e-book version, which might also increase its accessibility. 

As for the impact, I hope to contribute to an empowering approach that recognizes the importance of children’s experiences and involvement during critical historical moments, as partakers and as active agents. I think what we witness today with the Fridays for Future movement and climate activism is a major achievement, proof for the world of children’s sanity as opposed to adult’s denialism.

What other projects are you working on now?

NM: My current project builds upon my early research on anthropology in Turkey and relatively recent research on women suicides in Istanbul in the 1920s and ‘30s. I work on the development of what can be called the “child sciences” in Turkey from the 1920s to 1940s, with a specific focus on Turkish-German academic entanglements. I will basically focus on research done in different fields—not only but particularly anthropology, pedagogy, and psychology—that used children as their “test subjects”. 

The book cover does not have a historical photo from WWI, but it is an artwork. Could you say a few words about that choice?

NM: Well, first of all, words are insufficient to describe my gratitude to Gülsün Karamustafa. Thanks to her kindness and generosity, her beautiful work The Monument and the Child (2011) is the cover of my book. 

I have actually given it a lot of thought and energy but could not find an ideal historical image for the book. The available photography from the period is mostly propagandistic and militaristic. I did not want a photograph in which children appear in soldier uniforms or as boy scouts. I also the did not want a photograph that only had boys on it. Also, most visual representations prioritized only one group (Muslims, Armenians, Greeks, etc.). All these would be biased and could not represent the real content of the book. 

When I decided to have something abstract or symbolic on the cover, I immediately recalled Gülsün Karamustafa’s The Monument and the Child. It was just the perfect abstraction for my overall theoretical understanding. A child is pushing a monument. A book that struggles with structures of adults and agencies of children could not have been visualized in a better way. I find the mirror image also symbolically very powerful. It almost asks the question: “who pushes who, really?” 


Excerpt from the book

From pages 48-51

Ahmed Talib was born in Istanbul in 1901. His mother passed away when he was three years old. His father married again after a few years, but Ahmed was not at all satisfied with this situation. He constantly complained to his brother about the stepmother. Before the war, the family’s economic standing was not bad. The father had a shoeshine shop in Kadıköy, and he was also an ice dealer (sellac). The fate of the family changed dramatically with the explosion of the First World War. Ahmed’s father was drafted in late 1914 and was killed the next year in Gallipoli. As an “orphan of a martyr,” Ahmed Talib had the privilege granted by the Ministry of Education to be admitted to the Darüleytam in Kadıköy, which was located within the premises of the famous French Collège de Saint Joseph.  

In this crowded orphanage, housing about 1,000 boys, Ahmed was registered to the trades department and started his training in shoe making. When he heard in early 1917 that a large number of volunteer boys would be sent by the Orphanage Administration to Germany for further training, he applied immediately. Sixteen-year-old Ahmed was among the first group of 314 “craft apprentices” who arrived in Berlin in late April 1917. He was first transferred to Frankfurt (Oder) and then to Fürstenwalde, where he stayed in the household of Albert Pöthke as an apprentice cobbler. In the following years, he learned and improved his German. 

Ahmed Talib’s life story is situated in the context of sending Ottoman orphans to Germany for apprenticeships during the First World War. Yet it differs substantially from most of the almost 1,000 orphan apprentices who were less lucky in terms of earning a livelihood and integrating into German society. As destitute and rootless lads, they were practically uprooted from their home country. Being part of a group of all male orphans may have further exacerbated the isolation of migrant orphans. They were also discontented with their living conditions in Germany. They suffered from poverty as well and felt deceived because of their exclusion and foreignness as migrant workers.

This chapter is about the sending of orphan children from the Ottoman Empire to work as apprentices in all types of crafts, mining, and agriculture in Germany during the First World War. The designed project implied large-scale and long-distance child displacement, offering foster care as a solution to accumulating orphan problems in urban areas. The unilateral apprentice exchange program between the Ottoman and German Empires was curiously initiated in the middle of the war. Sometimes the term “student” (talebe) had been used in official correspondence, and actually there was a significant body of Ottoman students in Germany at the same time. Yet this chapter deals only with orphans sent from the state orphanages. Both governments made it clear that the transfer was not designed for formal schooling; instead, these children were to acquire vocational skills and work as apprentices. Although there were negotiations regarding sending girls, they proved not long enough for the fulfillment of this phase of the project. In other words, gender-wise, the displacement comprised only boys. The project was launched swiftly and with considerable enthusiasm—about 1,000 boys were sent throughout 1917 and ’18. Yet the implementation phase had not been as successful, disappointing both the German parties involved and the orphaned apprentices.

The project was initiated by the leading figure of the CUP and Minister of War Enver Pasha. He made it clear to the German military attaché Otto von Lossow in late 1916 that the government was willing to send 5,000 to 10,000 orphan boys to Germany. The German-Turkish Association in Berlin (Deutsch-Türkische Vereinigung [DTV]), the sole party responsible for the handling of the project, decided to begin with several hundred boys—about 300 handicraft apprentices, 200 mining trainees, and 200 agricultural apprentices. 

Chapter 1 described the limits of financial and human sources in the hands of the Ottoman government, as the context in which German master craftsmen and mine owners appeared to be an option to provide for the orphans. I have also explained the poor conditions in the orphanages that might have encouraged the inmates to volunteer to be sent away into the unknown. Although they were not properly informed about their country of destination, they somehow assumed that they would live in much better conditions in Germany. It is clear from the reports of the DTV that a serious number of orphans assumed that they would become factory workers and earn a good salary. What awaited them in Germany was quite different, though.

By and large, Ottoman authorities treated orphan boys as state property, over which the state had unrestricted rights of disposal. The opportunities offered to the boys or the trades they were trained in were neither problematized nor scrutinized. The bankrupt Directorate of Orphanages tried to send out as many orphans as possible to relieve itself of the high cost of providing for them. As the entire financial burden of the project was borne by the German master craftsmen and the DTV, the project, curiously enough, was free of cost to the Ottoman government.


Nazan Maksudyan is Einstein guest professor at the Friedrich-Meinecke-Institut at the Freie Universität Berlin and a research associate at the Centre Marc Bloch Berlin. She was a EUME Fellow in 2009/10 and an Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung Postdoctoral Fellow at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (Berlin) in 2010-11 and in 2016-18. From 2013 to 16, she worked as a professor of history in Istanbul and received her habilitation degree in 2015. Her research mainly focuses on the history of children and youth in the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with special interest in gender, sexuality, education, humanitarianism, and non-Muslims.


This blogpost was first published at jadaliyya.com and is reposted on this Blog with kind permission of the editors.


Citation: Ottoman Children and Youth during World War I – Interview with Nazan Maksudyan, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 04.11.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/25208.


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