A concealed political debate - and ‘borrowings’ - in Greek and Turkish texts
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Presentation of Hercules Millas in the ‘Literary/cultural Festival’, Thessaloniki/Istanbul – March 19/24/2004.


A concealed political debate

- and ‘borrowings’ -

 in Greek and Turkish texts



     I have been asked to write an article on ‘Balkan Borrowings’, mostly in literary texts. I looked up in a dictionary what ‘borrowing’ means and I found out that it means two quite different things:

a) ‘to appropriate or take over an idea etc. from another source’ and

b) ‘to obtain something with the promise to return it or its equivalent’.


     I think both definitions apply to the ‘borrowings’ in the Balkans. Neighboring people, religious and ethnic groups, nations, countries and individuals, as it always happened all around the world, they do take ideas, habits, words, food recipes, songs etc., and in the end they appropriate them as their own and thus enrich their culture, their dictionaries, their cuisines, their music etc. I will speak however, about the other case: where one side gets something from the Other and returns it (or its equivalent) later.


     The Balkan peoples as well as the literary writers did a lot of this kind of ‘borrowing (taking) and returning its equivalent’. My dictionary does not say the manner that characterized this returning. When I went trough the Greek and Turkish historiography and novels I found out that the returning process was not of the kind one would normally expect: we are used to expect a word of gratitude and ‘thanks’ when the Other returns what he borrowed from us; in the case which I deal with this does not apply. Here are some examples which illustrates that better.




     The Greeks were among the first people that established a nation-state in the Balkans (1830). The idea of nationalism, with all the positive and negative aspects of this new ideology, appeared in the Greek texts - literary and others – in the beginning of the 19th century. The others ‘borrowed’ from the Greeks and soon after they ‘returned the equivalent’; which of course was nothing but nationalism anew. The idea of only one single nation in each state became the target of each new nation-state.


     The Greek novels narrated the liberation war of 1821-1829 and exalted the new structure of the new state. The Turkish writers, for example Ömer Seyfettin, clearly stated that the Turks should follow and do exactly what the Greeks, the Bulgarians etc. had done, i.e., they should not hesitate to exterminate other ethnic groups so that a nation-state can be built.[1]


     The Greeks had practiced the novel idea of boycotting economically other ethnic groups. This practice was first used by Greeks against Jews and Bulgarians during the strife in the area described geographically as Macedonia in the years 1904-1914. The Turks borrowed (received and returned) the practice of economically boycotting other ethnic groups a bit later; they used the method during 1915-1916 and in the thirties and forties.


     The Greeks first developed the idea that they are an exceptional nation with superb qualities, actually the grandchildren of glorious ancient Greeks. Greek literature but also art in general spread this idea. The Turks were a little late in returning what they had borrowed; but when they did in the 1930s they by far exceeded the imagination of the Greeks: they developed a historical theory known as ‘Turkish Historical Thesis’ which claimed that all ancient civilizations, and of course the ancient Greek one was Turkish. Turkish novels propagated the idea for a few decades.


     In the third quarter of the 19th century the Greeks discovered – some historians say they ‘invented’ – a Greek Byzantium. They named the Byzantines as Greeks. So the Ottomans (whom the Greeks consider ‘Turks’) were turned to national enemies who had invaded ‘Greece’ in the 12th century, causing great unhappiness. The Turkish ‘return’ followed. Byzantine Empire was evaluated as a Roman empire, and its people as composed of a joyful and happy population that welcomed the Seljuks and the Ottomans (the Turks) as liberators. Turkish authors like Cevat Şakir and Kemal Tahir wrote novels explaining this happy development in the region.  


     The Greek novels narrated the massacres that occurred by the Ottoman armies during the Greek War of Independence (1821-1829). The Turkish novels narrate the massacres of the Greeks during the Turkish War of Independence hundred years later (1919-1922).


     The Greeks had an idea that it is known as ‘Megali Idea’ in the year 1844; they thought of capturing as much land as possible from neighboring countries to have a wider country – actually as wide as it can get.[2] All the Balkan countries loved this idea. So we had the Balkans Wars, the First World War and so many others. The Turks especially returned exactly the equivalent by developing the same idea that they called ‘Büyük Mefkure’ (Great Idea). For this purpose they fought in the Caucasus and in so many other places. The borrowing in this case was complete. Of course the corresponding poems and literary texts developed parallel to these great ideas.


     Greeks developed ‘education’ as a means to spread all these ideas as early as 1880-1890. The Turkish side borrowed the idea a little later. Ahmet Şerif explained what the Greeks had done and the Turks should do the same (Tanin, 1909-1910). Greeks and Turks developed myths and their related terminology. The Greeks popularized  the term ‘Kokini milia’ (The red apple tree), which is the imaginary region to where the Turks will be chased away towards the East. The Turks developed the term ‘Kızıl Elma’ (The red apple), which is the imaginary region up to where they would extend their state frontier towards the West subjugating other populations.


     ‘Pans’ followed in the Balkans: Pan-Slavism, Pan-Hellenism, Pan-Islamism, Pan-Turkism. Something like the Balkans on the frying pan.


     When the time was ripe, especially after the Balkan Wars, the Christians expelled the Muslims from their countries. In the years 1915-1923 the Muslims got rid of the Christians. Some call the cleaning as cleansing.


     In short the borrowings in the Balkans was a widely used process. I finish with a Turkish poem of Young Turk, by Ziya Gökalp, addressed to the Greeks, asking for a relationship of borrowing – taking and giving – and expecting national profit out of it.


You Greek, do not stop, increase your pride

Throw your contempt on the Turks

Our sleeping nation needs these insults

Beat us, you, our ex-slave

Do not let us sleep, wake us up!

The Turks are the owners of the country

But you hold the key to all this richness…

Exert pressure on us, so that

We build armies and navies

And we get all the best of Western world.[3]


     This Balkan heritage is a source of optimism to me. It is clear that ‘borrowing’ in the sense of ‘returning the equivalent’ really works. Probably it only needs a little adjustment. Once we start presenting signs of humane behavior it is obvious that all the nations will reciprocate.





Related Bibliography

(by H. Millas)


- Tencere Dibin Kara, Türk Yunan İlişkilerine bir Önsöz, (The Pot Called the Kettle Black, An Introduction to Greek-Turkish Relations), Istanbul: Amaç, 1989; and the extended second edition: Türk Yunan İlişkilerine bir Önsöz (An Introduction to Greek-Turkish Relations), Istanbul: Kavram, 1995.

- ‘History Textbooks in Greece and Turkey’, London: in History Workshop, Spring 1991 (No. 31).

- Yunan Ulusunun Doğuşu (The Birth of The Greek Nation), Istanbul: İletişim, 1994. (Includes a chapter on how the Greeks are presented in the Turkish historiography.)

- ‘Türkiye’de Etnosantrik Tarihçiliğin Pratik Sonuçları’ (‘The Practical Consequences of Ethnocentric History Teaching  in Turkey’ in Tarih Öğretimi ve Ders Kitapları (History Teaching and Textbooks), Istanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt, 1995.

-  ‘The Image of Greeks in Turkish Literature: Fiction and Memoirs’, in Oil on Fire?, Hanover: Verlag Hansche Buchhandlung, 1996.

- ‘Türk Ders Kitaplarında Yunanlılar: Bütünleştirici bir Yaklaşım’ (Greeks in Turkish Textbooks: The Way for an Integrationary Approach’, in Tarih Öğretimi ve Tarihte ‘Öteki’ Sorunu (History Teaching and the ‘Other’ in History), Istanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt, 1998.

- ‘Les Romans, Les Femmes et Les Relations Gréco-Turques’, in Nancy: Genese/Oluşum, August 1999 (No. 60-61). 

- Türk Romanı ve ‘Öteki - Ulusal Kimlikte Yunan İmajı, (The Turkish Novel and the ‘Other’- The Image of the Greek and National Identity) Istanbul: Sabancı, 2000.

- Εικόνες Ελλήνων και Τούρκων - σχολικά βιβλία, ιστοριογραφία, λογοτεχνία και εθνικά στερεότυπα, (Images of Greeks and Turks - textbooks, historiography, literature and national stereotypes), Athens: Alexandria, 2001.

- ‘Non-Muslim Minorities in the Historiography of Republican Turkey: The Greek Case’, in The Ottomans and the Balkans: A Discussion of Historiography, Ed. By Fikret Adanır and Suraiya Faroqhi, Leiden: Brill, 2002.

- Do’s & Don’t’s for Better Greek-Turkish Relations, Athens:Papazissis Publishers, 2002 



[1] For more information on Greek and Turkish novels and Greek-Turkish relations see: Millas 2000 and 2001.

[2] Actually this idea is somehow older. When the first pithecanthropus erectus appeared he tried to control a hunting area as wide as possible. Byzantines and Ottomans did the same.  

[3] Durma Yunan, durma, kibrini artır!

Türklük’ün başına yağdır!

Uyuyan bu kavme bu zillet azdır.

Vur eski kölesi, uyandır onu!

Bırakma uyusun, uyandır onu!

Bu yurdun haznesi onun elinde

Fakat anahtarı senin elinde...

Sıkıştır ki ordu, donanma yapsın

Garp’te ne terakki varsa kapsın.



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