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Nazan Maksudyan, Ottoman Children and Youth During World War I

Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2019, xv-210 pages, $60 (hardcover)
Kelly Hannavi
p. 246-248
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Nazan Maksudyan, Ottoman Children and Youth During World War I, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2019, xv-210 pages, hardcover $60.

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1Nazan Maksudyan’s Ottoman Children and Youth During World War I is an ambitious monograph that proposes to examine the war’s “home front” through the perspective of children and young people. It is divided into four thematic chapters that delve into the political structures, state institutions, and wartime policies that Ottoman boys and girls found themselves in – state orphanages, apprenticeship programs abroad, nationalist policies and scouting organizations, and the Armenian genocide. These broad, macro, top-down historical processes are brought to the child’s eye-level, and Maksudyan deftly takes her reader through the halls of the orphanage, the cold carts of trains carrying apprentices, the yards of paramilitary training centers, and the ruins of genocide. Maksudyan argues that children witnessed the horrors of war, partook in defending the empire and themselves, and shaped the perceptions of Ottomans, the war, and themselves, whether as soldiers, laborers, artisans, or survivors. As the meanings of “child” and “childhood” were fluid and contested during this period, Maksudyan shows how children themselves were just as active in the definitional developments and meaning-making processes as were the adults who were trying to reclaim, rescue, or retrieve them both physically and metaphorically. By centering the stories and experiences of children and youth during World War I, Maksudyan not only elucidates a history of childhood through this case study but also argues that the meaning-making contests attached to children and youth became a locus of power during the war, the Armenian Genocide, and the final years of the Ottoman Empire.

2As the historiography of World War I has grown beyond military history, to delineate the “home front” and to include more groups affected by the war such as women and children, Maksudyan makes an important contribution to the field by showing how the lines between the battlefield and the home front were not always clear cut. Children and youth are an appropriate population to study as they experienced the war in a myriad of ways, whether they were fighting as underage soldiers, laboring in factories, harvesting much-needed foodstuffs or surviving plans of annihilation. Her work has also brought forth new historical episodes, such as the apprenticeship program that took Ottoman orphan boys to Germany to learn skills and trades (chapter 2). While Maksudyan seeks to tell the experiences of children during the war, she also does a thorough job of placing the “child” into the context of wartime politics. In my opinion, what makes Maksudyan’s work so novel, in addition to her storytelling and writing voice, is the balance she has accomplished between presenting the discourses and policies around policing and managing children and how children pushed back against efforts to use, abuse, or erase them. Indeed, one could have easily written a book just looking at the main adult actors (e.g. the Ottoman statesmen, Armenian clergy, foreign aid workers, etc.) and called it a day. Maksudyan’s dedication to historicizing children’s experiences, amplifying their voices, and doing so alongside the “macro” or the “top-down” makes the work incredibly rich and layered. For example, in her first chapter on the darüleytams (war-time state orphanages) Maksudyan’s attention to children’s voices uncovers how these state institutions, while touted by the state as institutions for “orphan martyrs”, actually served the state’s plans for genocide as an institution to convert, assimilate, and “Turkify” Armenian orphans (pp. 14, 38). Indeed, what emerges from listening to children is a paradigm shift, a new witness to the “total war” story that shows how power operates and how children’s creativity and resiliency are no small thing.

3When writing about subaltern or oppressed populations, as children often are, there is always the inevitable issue of sources, their inherent lack, and how to read them without reproducing power dynamics that silence subjects. Nazan Maksudyan manages to achieve a balance between official documents, public sentiments, and personal records in her use of sources, which includes the Prime Ministry’s Ottoman Archives, parliamentary discussions from 1919, Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amtes, papers of youth organizations, contemporary press, personal memoirs, and genocide survivors’ testimonies (oral interviews, diaries, and memoirs). Children, in the midst of war, were not able to write their own stories or their stories were disregarded or misrepresented by the adults around them. For example, the “Neutral House” run by the Armenian Patriarchate and English humanitarian groups would interrogate children that they assumed were Armenian and had been kidnapped, sometimes through long, drawn-out interrogation processes so that they would “remember” their Armenian heritage and renounce their “new” Islamic-Turkish identity (chapter 4). In this way, children were seen as the property of the Armenian community. Maksudyan critically examines this episode in the Armenian Genocide to show how children were not allowed to make their own choices and that humanitarian demands to rescue children were a power play between political and national groups. Aside from her choice of source material, her methodology and epistemological commitment to presenting children at the center of the narrative highlights the gap between the ideals and propagandist prescriptions for childhood and the experiences and perspectives of children. As her use of Armenian Genocide survivor testimonies show, children were resilient, creative, and still managed to find joy in the midst of so much suffering. She re-humanized the children of genocide from passive victims in need of rescuing to active participants in their survival and witnessing.

4This book is appropriate for scholars studying the late Ottoman Empire and early Turkish Republic, World War I, and histories of marginalized groups. It will especially be relevant for historians of childhood as the case study of Ottoman children during war highlights the contests over meaning-making of youth and childhood as a locus of power. It is also important for scholars of the Armenian Genocide to read this book, especially as Maksudyan herself notes, “the research and findings of this book attest to the fact that it is impossible to write a children’s history of the Ottoman First World War without allocating a significant portion to the lives, experiences, and agency of Armenian children” (p. 8). While testimonies of survivors have played a large part in the field of Armenian Genocide Studies, Maksudyan’s focus on survivor’s childhoods adds dimension to lived experiences and problematizes the victim/oppressor binary that forecloses historical inquiry. Overall, this book is well-written and well-researched and will prove to be a valuable contribution to the study of World War I, the late Ottoman Empire, and the Armenian Genocide.

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Kelly Hannavi, « Nazan Maksudyan, Ottoman Children and Youth During World War I »Études arméniennes contemporaines, 15 | 2023, 246-248.

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Kelly Hannavi, « Nazan Maksudyan, Ottoman Children and Youth During World War I »Études arméniennes contemporaines [En ligne], 15 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2024, consulté le 12 juin 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/eac/3467 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/eac.3467

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Kelly Hannavi

University of Michigan

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