“Turkey is the only country in the region whose past seems to flow toward a positive outcome, a history with a future. As with any narrative, to make things interesting, you want a sense of progress—otherwise you get that famous definition of history as ‘one damn thing after another.’ The Turks have always played a role in making things happen in the world. For a while they seemed pretty dormant, but I knew it would change.”
As the sun goes down, Prof. Norman Stone is standing on the balcony of his residence at Bilkent University in Turkey’s capital, gazing out over gleaming new tower blocks and the Anatolian hills. Ankara looks distinctly affluent these days, with the Turkish economy steadily expanding at 11 percent this year. For two days I have been gently pushing Stone to look back on his career, his decision to leave his post as professor of modern history at Oxford in the mid-1990s and to transplant himself in Turkey, his life before and since. It’s a highly poignant encounter for me, a Turk educated in the U.K., to talk to one of Turkey’s staunchest public enthusiasts—a contrarian posture in any century.
It seems like an appropriate moment for self-assessment: Stone had a minor stroke some months ago. At 70, he’s had to give up drinking and smoking (he was a famous practitioner of both). And he recently published a timely new book, Turkey: A Short History—timely because the world is increasingly curious, not to say concerned, about the strategic direction of his adopted second home, a former hegemon that has rather alarmingly rediscovered its independent spirit in recent years. With Turkey’s newfound influence in the Middle East, with the inchoateness of the Arab Spring, the West holds its breath. Inevitably, what Stone says about Turkey will be closely followed.
“I’ve never had trouble making my opinions heard,” he says in a throaty Scottish chuckle, and one gets a flash of the Oxford don in the ’80s—the hard-living, impish bon vivant who outraged academe with pro-Thatcher polemics and who later became a political adviser to the Iron Lady. Is that why he left Brit-ain, because he had made too many enemies? He chuckles again. “It was simply that I didn’t get paid enough to make a living as a young professor. There was no dignity in it. I started writing for newspapers, which I enjoyed, because frankly in those days the entire world needed an overhaul in ideas to shake off the socialist doldrums. But it did take time away from scholarship, and I wanted to get back to that. No, in the end, I got a respectable offer from Turkey to focus on my studies.”
If Stone won notoriety in journalism, puncturing the stale pieties of the nanny state, his fame as a historian began early and built more slowly. His 1975 book The Eastern Front 1914–1917 became a classic of World War I literature. His expertise as a Sovietologist extended to the Eastern Bloc and its languages—at one point he could study and speak Russian, Hungarian, German, Slovakian, and a smattering of other tongues. “Nobody had really done the spadework in foreign archives. There was a Cold War. As an area of work, it was uncomfortable, thankless and bound up in red tape—and full of apologists for Moscow. But you see, early on, before Turkey, I already had an interest in the world from the Eastern perspective.”
I put it to Stone that he achieved the near impossible by inciting as much outrage while abroad as he did at home. “You’ll always find entrenched sensitivities everywhere,” he says. No sooner had he settled in Turkey than he began (and continues) to offend on such topics as military coups, the Armenian massacres, and Kurdish unrest. He saw good things in the 1980 coup: “There was a left-right civil war with thousands of casualties per year fueled partly by pro-Soviet neighbors. You have to imagine the alternatives to a coup.” On the Armenian question he says, “Not a genocide in the Hitler sense,” and, perhaps more offensively to some, he likes to put the matter in historical perspective. “Well over a million Muslim refugees had been expelled from the Crimea or Balkans or Caucasus,” he writes. “It was the clash of these refugees with Armenians that caused a part of the problem.” Conclusion: not a sudden, arbitrary genocide but a civil war. On the Kurds, he offers himself as exemplar—he’s Scottish but considers British citizenship a benefit, and he says that similarly, the Kurds are better off with the Turks than in a monoethnic enclave.
Is there a particular “Stonian” approach to history? “That’s for you to tell me,” he says. I cite some attributes: a fast-moving prose style with no-nonsense judgments on touchy subjects. Also: sweeping original perceptions that can realign received wisdom in a stroke. In his previous book, World War One: A Short History, the reader learns that the Russian Army spent almost a year surviving on scant supplies, drinking “highly poisonous alcohol,” and soon after, the revolution followed. The Turkey book is full of such revelations. The Ottomans were a successful European empire that began to falter only when they absorbed the Middle East. Plague and climate change were equally responsible for the empire’s collapse. In 1876, Turkey’s first constitutional Parliament quickly disappeared because Turkish statesmen realized that a plebiscite would only empower religious reactionaries. (Arab Spring, anyone?)
Always throughout his histories, Stone throws in sparkling, eccentric details that beguile the reader’s eye. In his latest book I found out that my father’s alma mater, the French-style lycee of Galatasaray, was launched by Sultan Abdülaziz in 1868 and soon bred the kind of educated elite who tried to overthrow the sultanate. Stone alludes to little-known facts, such as that the secret Jews of Salonika, the Dönme—who converted to Islam en masse in the 19th century (along with my grandfather’s ancestors)—later became the ultra-secular elite of the republic. In fact, some even whisper (though Stone doesn’t say so) that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was descended from the Dönme—another reason, perhaps, for the Islamist hostility to his reforms.
On many things, Stone’s opinions differ between the written page and real life. In person, he laments the loss of phrases with “long poetic memories” when Atatürk changed the language and shed many Perso-Arabic words. In the book, he argues that such language would never have served as “a vehicle for the mass literacy that Turkey went on to achieve with Latin letters.” “Oh, I’m not always consistent,” he says, “but I’m always right,” and laughs again in the jovial way of a contented man.