The Man Who Returned His Medal

Tribute to a "foreign intruder" and exceptional Leiden academic

Erik-Jan Zürcher, the man with the white pants on the right, at the symposium held in his honour.

The Turkish PhD student Ugur Derin pays tribute to his professor Erik-Jan Zürcher, who recently got rewarded the Order of the Dutch Lion.

On 25th August, 2018, Leiden University scholar, Erik-Jan Zürcher was appointed Knight in the Order of the Dutch Lion (Ridderorde). The sixty-five-year-old Dutch academic received this award at the end of a three-day-symposium for his outstanding contribution to the social sciences as a Turkey expert and a historian of Ottoman Empire and Turkey.

In the last week of August 2018, a symposium in honour of Zürcher was organized at Leiden University by the Turkish Studies department. Titled “Ottoman Continuities, Republican Inventions,” the symposium duly reflected Zürcher’’s academic career. Approximately thirty academics from various universities (most of whom were Zürcher’s current and former PhD students) discussed for two-and-a-half days various aspects of Ottoman Empire and Turkish History.

As the son of a Sinologist who held the chair of East Asian History at Leiden University for many years, Erik-Jan Zürcher started his academic career in the beginning of the 1970’s at Leiden University Middle East Studies program.

After a year of a not-so-successful attempt at Arabic, Zürcher changed his major to Turkish Studies and ended up doing his MA and PhD at the same department. At that time, he probably had not thought that his decision to move to the Turkish Studies program would have significant and worldwide consequences for Ottoman and Turkish studies, and for Turkish historiography in general.

Zürcher’s main contribution to Turkish history is based on his motive to question the long-held preconceptions of official Turkish historiography. The Turkish Republic was founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who wanted to create a new nation and to break from the Ottoman past.

Atatürk wanted to modernize, secularize and Westernize Turkey, and his endeavors in this respect included the dictation of how Turkish history should be written. With few exceptions, Turkish historians generally adopted Atatürk’s view regarding the foundation of Turkish Republic. As a result, until the late 1990’s, the majority of works of Turkish history portrayed the emergence of modern Turkey as the work of a single-man, Atatürk.

Starting from his MA thesis defended at Leiden University in 1977, Zürcher had a completely different outlook in terms of Turkish history. His work questioned this sacred account that portrays Atatürk as the sole founder of modern Turkey, something that could not be done in Turkey at that time.

As Zürcher writes in his 2010 book The Young Turk Legacy and Nation Building: From the Ottoman Empire to Atatürk’s Turkey, he “strongly argued in favour of continuity between the late Ottoman Empire and the early republic” and the things he wrote “ran counter to everything that was and is sacred in the official historiography of the Turkish republic”.

For this reason, his ideas about Turkish history and Turkey in general have not always been appreciated in Turkey and from time to time, people from different sides of the political spectrum denounced him as “foreign intruder.”
Zürcher’s academic works about Turkish history had a great impact in terms of Ottoman and Turkish historiography, including in Turkey. Based on his PhD dissertation defended at Leiden University, Zürcher’s 1984 book, The Unionist Factor, questioned the portrayal of Atatürk as the undisputed leader of Turkish War of Independence, which was fought between 1919 and 1922.

His 1993 book (and in my opinion, his masterpiece) Turkey: A Modern History has so far been translated into nine languages, and its Turkish translation has been reprinted more than thirty times.

Today it is accepted as the history course book for Turkish history, and is used as the canonical source not only in prominent Turkish universities, but also outside of Turkey. Zürcher updated Turkey: A Modern History three times, and its most recent fourth edition involves a thirty-page final chapter about the period of Erdoğan.

Zürcher’s contribution to society went beyond the academic field. He was part of UNESCO’s advisory council for years, and as we learned during the presentation of the medal, in 2010’s, he was even the chair of the board of ASC, a football and cricket organisation in Oegstgeest.

Recognized as an expert on Turkey, Zürcher often shared his knowledge and comments with the public in a language everyone can understand, without using the academic jargon. He gave briefings to people ranging from government officials to members of the Dutch royal family. In addition, he is still part of the Heineken Prize for History committee, which is accepted as the History Nobel’s.

In 2005, during the golden age of Turkey’s relationship with the European Union, Zürcher received the medal of high distinction from Turkey for he had “actively tried to inform the Dutch politicians, and the public in general, about Turkey and to combat prejudices.”

Zürcher returned the medal in 2016, citing the “dictatorial misrule of Erdogan Turkey.”

Having supervised almost thirty PhD students and published/edited thirteen books and more than hundred-and-eighty academic works, Erik-Jan Zürcher retired from teaching at the beginning of the fall 2018 semester after more than forty years of teaching. It will not be an exaggeration to say that Leiden University Turkish Studies department, where he held the chair from 1997 till his retirement in 2018, reached its current prominent position with Zürcher, and we can only hope that it will keep that position after his retirement.

Zürcher is still supervising his current PhD students and has recently become the academic director of LIAS (Leiden Institute for Area Studies), meanwhile working on new projects about the late Ottoman Empire, and enjoying a peaceful life in Beesd, with his wife and classical cars as his hobby.

As a young academic, I feel myself very lucky to be one of his last PhD students, and his last assistant.

Ugur Derin is a PhD candidate working on the thesis The New Sevr Paranoia: The Discourse of Turkish State about her “Internal and External Enemies”

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