The ‘Other’ and Nation Building - The Testimony of Greek and Turkish Novels
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First published in Representations of the ‘Other/s’ in the Mediterranean World and Their Impact on the Region, Editors: Nedret Kuran-Burçoğlu & Susan Gilson Miller, The Issis Press, İstanbul, 2005 (as published and corrected)


The ‘Other’ and Nation Building -

The Testimony of Greek and Turkish Novels


(Hercules Millas)


The Greek and the Turkish nation states and their citizens who identify themselves as Greeks and Turks exhibit a series of recurring behaviors towards the ‘Other’ that may be designated as ‘nationalistic’.[1] The image of the ‘Other’ portrayed in Greek and Turkish discourses, reveals the manner in which national identity is created, developed and reproduced as well as the framework within which bilateral relations are carried on. Nationalism functions as a binary system where ‘we’ and the ‘Other’ are permanently present and interdependent. In this essay, I shall present the various manifestations of the ‘Other’ as he/she is portrayed in the literary texts of the two countries and comment on the phenomenon with respect to prospects for bilateral relations.


     The appearance of Greek and Turkish novels was in step forward in the search for national identity and nation building. The first Greek novel circulated conventionally in 1834, five years after the establishment of the Greek national state; the first Turkish novel appeared in 1872, three decades before the dawn of the Young Turk movement and fifty years before the establishment of the Turkish national state.[2]  The first consequence of this incongruity is apparent in the way the ‘Other’ is portrayed in the literary texts of the two communities. In the first Greek novels, ‘Turks’ are presented as (meaning they are perceived as) a nation with shared negative characteristics, as the historical enemy and as a source of a threat.[3] In the first Turcophone novels, however, the Greeks do not appear as the ‘Other’. Before national identity becomes a major problem in Ottoman society, the Turcophone  novel does not make an issue of the Greeks. Whenever Greeks appear, they are not identified as member of a nation but only as individuals or as citizens of the Ottoman state. Sometimes they have positive or neutral ethnic characteristics, but they are definitely not portrayed as having negative stereotypes.

     The appearance of Young Turks marks the end of this school of writers. The ‘Ottomanists’ stopped publishing their works after about 1912 and a new generation of authors appeared.[4] From then on, nationalism existed not only as an ideology and as a political movement, but also as a rhetoric that ran across all texts: textbooks, historiography, literature, newspapers, etc. This nationalist discourse legitimized all military and/or political actions against the ‘Other’. In the era of the nation states, the ‘Other’ in Greek and Turkish texts was almost identical, but as a mirror image: an enemy, a source of various political problems (a threat to ‘our’ freedom), very different from ‘us’ and having a negative character (dishonest, violent, etc.).

     The political situation and the wars between the two countries (the war of 1897, the Balkan Wars of 1912-1914, the Greek-Turkish clash of 1919-1922) are not sufficient to fully explain this negative image of the ‘Other’. Literary texts did not portray the actual environment of  the writers but sketched the ‘Other’ in accordance with a nationalist ideology and a constructed past, irrespective of personal experiences. A comparison of the image of the ‘Other’ in the memoirs and novels of three Turkish authors is revealing. In their memoirs, where real events are narrated, the Greeks are almost all ‘normal’ and have positive personalities, whereas in the novels, written by the same authors and in the same period, they are almost without exceptions, extremely negative.[5] This negative image is in harmony with the images of the ‘Other’ encountered in textbooks and historiography (Millas: 2001 and : 1991).

     During the periods of improved bilateral relations and a more relaxed international milieu, the image of the ‘Other’ also improved, yet still preserved the main nationalist traits. The ‘Other’ is ‘a friend’, he/she ‘likes us’, ‘he/she is honest’. However, a closer inspection reveals that this positive ‘Other’ has actually lost his ethnic identity, is now assimilated, and has become one of ‘us’: he thinks, feels and behaves like ‘us’. I call these characters ‘naively positive’ because naiveté characterizes the concept of an ‘Other’ who no longer exists.

     An example of a naively positive Turkish hero in Greek literature is Moskof Selim in the 1895 novelette of the same name, written by G. Viziinos. Selim is presented as a ‘mature and balanced’ person who declares that the Turks should leave Anatolia to the Greeks and go back East, to Asia, from whence they came. Naively positive Greeks appear very often in Turkish novels too, such as in the work of Kemal Tahir, Halikarnas Balıkçısı and others. These Greek heroes welcome the Turkish conquerors; they fight against the Christians on the side of the Turks and accept their ‘superiority’  and ‘magnanimity’.[6]

     This naively positive ‘Other’ is especially evident when the ‘Other’ is a woman. Women play a special role in nationalistic discourse. They do not participate directly in inter-ethnic fights but rather ‘watch’ the men; therefore they are perceived as judges and as the criteria of the righteous side. Their preference counts. They normally fall in love with ‘us’ and prefer ‘our men’ to their own. In the novels of the two countries - in real life, of course, the case is different – in the two hundred cases of love affairs between Greeks and Turks,  it is always the women of the ‘Other’ who prefer to unite with ‘our men’. Cases to the contrary, according to my findings, do not exist.[7] Among the reasons for the sensitivity with respect to our/their women may be the fact that wars were traditionally marked by the enslavement of the women of the ‘Other’, as trophies, followed by becoming the ‘wife’ of the winner. Symbolically, the marriage of ‘our woman’ to the ‘Other’ is a sign of a defeat. Whatever the reason, the role assigned to women in nationalistic rhetoric is directly associated with national identity, revealing this identity more than any other parameter.

     In other words, among the Greeks and Turks, the image of the ‘Other’ is concurrent with nation building. Actually, all the phenomena referred above serve as examples of this. The ‘Other’ is portrayed either negatively (an enemy, an invader, a potential danger) or, as a product of wishful thinking, as a ‘domesticated Other’, as a ‘naively positive Other’. Public consensus was proclaimed as necessary vis-à-vis the dangerous ‘Other’. One can see easily how nationalistic discourse advances a rhetoric based on xenophobia and on an imagined historical rival. The Greeks see ‘expansionist’ Turks, and the Turks see Greeks who consistently follow the ‘Great Idea’, that is, the dream of establishing a new Byzantium.  The Greeks feel proud that they had a successful revolution (1821-1829) against a Turkish rule that had lasted for hundreds of years (called Tourkokratia), and the Turks have the same feeling about defeating the Greeks in 1919-1922 and establishing their own nation state. Both share ill feelings about the dark years of occupation. Thus the ‘Other’ is a protagonist in national history and in ‘our’ heroic past.


The role of the ‘Other’ in national rhetoric is not contingent but intrinsic. B. Anderson defines a nation as a ‘political community imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign’ (Anderson, p. 15). What do ‘limited’ and ‘sovereign’ mean?  By ‘limited’ it is meant that other nations lie beyond the national boundaries. ‘Sovereignty’, and other sacred principles such as ‘liberty’ and ‘independence’, meant the subduing of  the imaginary rivals, the enemy and ‘our’ dominance over ‘them’. The ‘Other’, the one beyond our living space, is a sine qua non of every nation. Each sovereign nation state is by nature related to a real or constructed ‘Other’. The heroic past of the ancestors starts with a history in which ‘we’ and the ‘Other’ coexist, but with considerable tension. Nationalism is characterized with an imagined past which has to include some ‘Other’. One nation’s Unknown Soldier is related Unknown Soldier of the ‘Other’. A binary relation is unavoidable.

     Almost all Greek and Turkish novels are based on the presupposition that readers share with the author an understanding of a common past: the pride, the agony and the regrets that are minimum consensus binding the members of nations together. The common feelings which insure the identity of a community are the same sentiments that link the author to its readers. 

     These national sentiments permeate the population and all social manifestations of the modern nation state. This conforms with our expectations. However, in age of nation states, the question is whether there is a tendency in the opposite direction, against the main stream of the nationalist paradigm. The study of Greek and Turkish novels shows that such examples do exist even though they are not abundant. However, caution is needed when ‘anti-nationalism’ is on the agenda. Ottoman authors and a Greek poet, belonging to a pre-nationalist period have already been mentioned. These phenomena have historical significance, since we now are in a new era where such old practices belong to the sphere of nostalgia. 

     The question of what is meant by ‘anti-nationalist’ attitude is an important one. The adjective national/nationalistic bears (at least) two different meanings:


a) a modern ideology, a new historical and social identity associated with territorial (and other) limits, with sovereignty, with a state, with a language; in short, a belief willingly shared, a social consensus related to a (diachronic) community, and

b) the above, plus aggression, expansionism, xenophobia, etc. 


     The first is a historical category which is expressed mainly as an identity, the second is a contingent political program. However, violence per se is not what characterizes nationalism; it is only one of its conjectural manifestations. The first can be called ‘consensual nationalism’ and is the ideology that forms modern nations. The second may be called ‘contingent nationalism’ and may take various forms depending on conditions: sometimes peace seeking and other times choosing policies of controversy. The first is rather enduring, the second more open to variations.  When a nation changes governments, political visions and ‘programs’, it changes its ‘contingent nationalism’, but their ‘consensual nationalism’ is not impeded.

     With this differentiation in mind, almost all Greek novels (after 1834) and all Turkish novels (after 1910) are marked by a group identity, characterized as ‘Greek’ or ‘Turkish’. They bear the stamp of consensual nationalism. The ‘Other’ in these texts is distinct: different from ‘us’, mostly negative or naively positive, etc. In most cases a silence reveals an uneasiness with respect to the ‘Other’, especially about ‘our’ violent acts against the ‘Other’ and the rights of the ‘Other’ that have been violated by ‘us’. Silence coexists with absence of empathy. Also ‘we’, in contrast to the ‘Other’, are praised either blatantly or indirectly. Historical events are manipulated selectively and interpreted by a double standard.

     Contingently, most the authors of these novels followed different political programs and used different phraseology while remaining within the national paradigm and consensual nationalism. For example, after the reforms of 1908 that promulgated the equality of all national/religious groups within the Ottoman State,  Halide Edip, author of Yeni Turan (1912), presented her only positive Greek characrer, a ‘loyal’ minister. In Greece, G. Viziinos presents his positive (even if some are ‘naively positive’) Turks during the years 1883-1895, during a relatively peaceful period, before the war of 1897 and the Balkan Wars. This change was promising and showed that literature could contribute to a better political atmosphere. 


     There are a limited number of cases where literary texts oppose national confrontations and initiate an anti-nationalistic discourse. The authors of such texts are the vanguards of an effort to transcend the nationalist paradigm, the consensual nationalism altogether. Based again on the evidence from novels produced in the two countries, these writers can be classified in broad categories as follows:


     a) Adherents of ecumenical (universal) religions. The representatives of this group are  very rare because the adherents of a religion traditionally do not prefer modern literature and the novel in particular to express their views. In Turkish literature the novels of Samiha Ayverdi (1906-1993), and in the Greek case the writings of Photis Kontoglou (1895-1965), may be mentioned as examples of this category (Millas: 2000, pp. 108, 311).

     b) Adherents of internationalist Marxism or socialism. There are many writers who identify themselves as internationalist and a relatively smaller number who really are. In the Greek case, Dido Sotiriou, Kosmas Politis and in the Turkish case Nazım Hikmet and Orhan Kemal may be mentioned. These writers present class identity and class struggle as more important than the ethnic ideals and perceptions. 

     c) Humanists and cosmopolitan liberals. Some are advocates of old humanist ideals, others show an understanding of recent developments such as the European Union. In Turkey Reşat Nuri Güntekin, Sevgi Soysal, Demir Özlü and in Greece Rea Galanaki, Nikos Themelis may be mentioned.

     d) There are writers that can not be readily classified. Especially in Turkey, the authors from minority groups (Armenians, Greeks, Jews) exhibit an anti-nationalistic discourse. Sait Faik (1906-1954), a Turkish writer,  should be mentioned separately, not only for his unique anti-nationalist and humanist approach, but also for its complex origins of his inspiration. He is influenced by humanism, Marxism, by the traditional pantheistic Turkish religious/philosophical school of Tasavvuf (Sufism) but also by his personal preferences. 


     It is not easy to distinguish the many self-declared and pretentious humanists and Marxists who simply reproduce a nationalist paradigm. Their attitude and approach with respect to the ‘Other’ can prove to be decisive. The real anti-nationalists not only refrain from characterizing the ‘Other’ negatively, they do not even notice an ‘Other’. For them, human beings are not identified ethnically, but rather according to their fraternal behavior and their humanism.


     In conclusion, the general trend with respect to the image of the ‘Other’ is that the more writers come in contact with the ‘Other’, the more realistic the image of the ‘Other’ is.  The imagined ‘Other’ is mostly a negative stereotype. Studies on Greek novels with respect to the image of  the ‘Turk’ reveal that Greek writers who actually met and lived with the Turks portray a much more realistic picture of the ‘Other’ relative to the authors who sketch an imaginary ‘Other’ (see: Demirözü:1999, Millas: 2000). Some Greek writers who lived in Asia Minor within Ottoman lands are I. Venezis, Str. Mirivilis, N. Politis, M. Iordanidou. These authors wrote about more recent times (1890-1950). Writers who lived only on Greek territory, such as M. Karagatsis, Th. Kastanakis, P. Prevelakis, distanced themselves from Turks and wrote about imagined Turks and ‘old times’ (16th to early 19th century). Their literary characters drawn from ‘life’ and heroes inspired by concrete personalities are much more balanced and portray complex realistic characters. The positive Greeks encountered in Turkish literature exhibit the same traits and have two basic origins: a) memoirs, where mostly ‘real’ characters are portrayed, or b) literary texts based on actual experience and on real encounter with the ‘Other’, as it is the case of Sait Faik and his heroes.


     Based on the assumption that the case of Greeks and Turks is not an isolated one, it can be asserted that contingent as well as consensual nationalism can be transcended by efforts on three axes.

      A) Developing a paradigm or a world-view that will constitute a substitute for the present-day nationalist paradigm. Authors who did not associate themselves with nationalism where attached to such a ‘different philosophy’. A vision such as the ‘European Union’, or an even more inclusive one such that new ‘Others’ are not created in the periphery may constitute an example.

     B) A less ambitious project may be to increase the communication between all parties with direct visits and with all kinds of cultural, economic and other relations of NGOs, helping in substituting the imagined ‘Other’ with a more realistic one. 

     C) Finally, the immediate step may be to bring to the level of awareness the idea that the presence of the ‘Other’ within the nationalist discourse is a source of tension and that this situation is not our only alternative.




Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities, Verso, London-New York, 1990.

Demirözü, Damla. ‘Η Εικόνα του Τούρκου στην Γενιά του ’30’, Diss. University of Athens, 1999 (in Greek).

Millas, Hercules. ‘History Textbooks in Greece and Turkey’, History Workshop, No, 31, Autumn 1991.

----. Yunan Ulusunun Doğuşu, Istanbul: İletişim, 1994 (in Turkish).

----. ‘The Image of Greeks in Turkish Literature: Fiction and Memoirs’, in Oil on Fire? Textbooks, Ethnic Stereotypes and Violence in South-Eastern Europe, Hannover: Verlag Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 1996, pp. 79-87.

----. ‘Les Romans Les Femmes et Les Relations Greco-Turques’, Genese / Oluşum, No. 60-61, May/August, 1999, pp. 46-64 (in French and Turkish).

----. Türk Romanı ve ‘Öteki’ - Ulusal Kimlikte Yunan İmajı, Istanbul: Sabancı Üniversitesi Yayınları, 2000 (in Turkish).

----. Εικόνες Ελλήνων - Τούρκων, Σχολικά Βιβλία, Ιστοριογραφία, Λογοτεχνία και Εθνικά Στερεότυπα, Athens: Αλεξάνδρεια, 2001 (in Greek).



[1] A behavior can be named differently: national, ethnic, ‘Greek’ or ‘Turkish’, regional, patriotic, chauvinistic, racist, etc. Here the term ‘nationalistic’ does not carry a pejorative meaning but refers to a specific national (group) identity and trend, which are in fact, the main topic of this article. 

[2] Leandros by P. Soutsos and Taaşuk-ı Tal’at ve Fitnat by Şemsettin Sami are considered the first Greek and Turkish novels respectively. See: H. Millas: 2000 and :2001, where about five hundred novels of about one hundred and fifty Greek and Turkish writers are presented and analyzed.

[3] Only forty years before, the image of the ‘Turk’ in grecophone literature was not negative as can be readily noticed in the politically oriented poems (and other writings) of Rigas Velestinlis and other Greek intellectuals (Millas: 1994, pp. 87-122, 257-294). After 1834 literary authors such as I. Pitsipios, Gr. Palaiologos, St. Ksenos, D. Vikelas, A. Papadiamantis portray a negative Turk who is in confrontation with ‘us’. This tendency persists in the 20th century, too.

[4] Some Turkish novelists who did not exhibit a negative ‘Other’ are Şemsettın Sami, Ahmet Mithat, Halit Ziya, Recaizade Ekrem.  Some well known nationalist writers who portrayed a negative ‘Other’ are Ömer Seyfettin, Halide Edip, Yakup Kadri, Samim Kocagöz, Tarık Buğra, Peyami Safa, Atilla İlhan.

[5] See: Millas: 1996. Considering the totality of their published works, the three writers, Ö. Seyfettin, H. Edip and  Yakup Kadri, in their memoirs portrayed 17 very positive Greeks with only 3 negative ones, whereas in their novels they portrayed a total of 69 very negative Greeks with only 3 positive ones.   

[6] This naively positive image of the ‘Other’ is so disturbing to the ‘Other’ that passages which contain such heroes are normally censured when these texts are translated into the language of the ‘Other’.


[7] See: Millas: 1999. Actually the two cases where ‘our’ women get in sexual relation with the ‘Other’ man confirm the rule: in both cases the authors have openly acknowledged that the ‘Other’ was among their recent ancestors (Millas: 2000, pp. 204).  


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