International Journal of

Communal and Transgenerational Trauma

Journal of
  Common Bond Institute  and
  International Humanistic Psychology Association

An Inter-Generational Story At The Fall Of The Ottoman Empire

Excerpt From: “Historical Traumas Among Armenian, Kurdish, and Turkish People Of Anatolia: A Transdisciplinary Perspective Toward Reconciliation”

Published by Sussex Academic Press in January 2022, Nermin Soyalp’s Historical Traumas is a transdisciplinary academic research book. Based on decade-long doctorate research, the author reviews the deep wounds that exist from long-standing conflicts between Turks, Kurds, and Armenians that have not yet been sufficiently addressed and healed. Soyalp explains the collective traumas and their significant psychosocial impacts in terms of the potential for reconciliation among these politically conflicted groups. Drawing on the complexities of history, psychology, and identity, this book elucidates how collectively and historically shared traumas become inherently more complex and more difficult to address, generation by generation.


The year is 2012; I am in my home in Oakland, CA, and talking to a non-blood relative in Turkey whom I will name Hüseyin. He is in his mid-80s. We are on a Skype call, and he begins to tell me his father’s story. Even though there are thousands of miles between us, we are connected through the Internet and a computer screen. Part of me wishes that I were physically there with him, enjoying some morning tea. But I realize I actually have his undivided attention through the computer. With the knowledge of the physical distance between us, the moment has gravity and a sense of preciousness. His grandson (who is my second cousin) sets up Hüseyin’s computer and leaves the room. Hüseyin smiles when he sees my face on the screen. Looking at the twinkle in his eyes, I thought to myself, what a miracle it is to see each other, even though there is an ocean between us—so much has changed within his lifetime.

He tells me that about 200 years ago in the early 1800s, during the Ottoman Empire, his great-great grandfather, Osman, and his two brothers decide to migrate to Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) from Bukhara, Uzbekistan. They get onto their horses and ride west, following the old Silk Road. They stop by a town at the edge of the Armenian Plateau for a break. The town, Eğin (Agn), is built on rocky mountain formations along the Euphrates River. The populace is about half Christian Armenians and half Muslims. The town has grown because of its strategic location on the Silk Road and is advanced in producing and trading goods. Needing manpower, an Armenian business owner convinces these young men to stay— promising them a job and marriage to an appropriate Armenian or Muslim girl. While Osman settles and raises a family, the Ottoman Empire is crumbling.

In the following decades, Muslim refugees arrive from Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Russia as the Ottoman Empire loses its grip. The social fabric of Anatolia is beginning to change. Balances in the interdependent relationships of different ethnic and religious groups are breaking. By 1891, Osman is long gone, but his great-grandchildren are still in the same town. The Armenians in town are weighed down by double taxation policies, demanding Kurdish militias and bandits on the trade routes. Not feeling secure, they ask for protection from the Ottoman governance. The Ottomans increasingly fail to provide security for those living in rural areas and at the edges of the empire. In the guise of addressing this, Abdulhamid forms the Hamidiye Regiment in the East, arming primarily Sunni Kurdish tribes to protect the region (see Chapter 2). This only makes matters worse. Local disturbances increase. The Armenians in town, mostly upper-class residents, bribe the Hamidiye regiment with gold to survive. However, in 1896 following a dispute between the local Ottoman governance and Armenians, the Kurdish militias attack their village and massacre approximately 6,000 Armenians (Dadrian, 1995). Some of the local Muslims enable the attacks (Hayreni, 2015). Hasan, Osman’s great-great-grandson, is born only a few years after this incident in 1900. Hasan is Hüseyin’s (the relative I am speaking with) father. What made this town appealing to their family has been destroyed. During Hasan’s lifetime, the Ottoman Empire continues to crumble.

In 1914, Hasan is a 14-year-old boy when World War I breaks out. The Committee of Union and Progress (CUP; see Chapter 2), better known as the Young Turks, conducts a coup d’etat in Constantinople and takes over the government in 1913. The CUP had originally formed in 1886 with the support from non-Muslim minorities to reform the Ottoman Empire. However, the nationalist and pan-Turkish factions of the CUP take control of the party’s governance. The CUP leadership sees war as an opportunity to accomplish its political agenda and decides to join World War I on Germany’s side. One of the first battles is against Russia in 1914. The Russian army brutally defeats the Ottoman military, causing the Russian army to occupy the Eastern Anatolia/Armenian Plateau, almost all the way to Hasan’s village. Hasan’s uncle, Ahmed, goes to fight for the Ottoman Army who loses a foot in the war and never comes back to his town. Hüseyin tells me that his father, Hasan, decides to move to Istanbul to start over and perhaps also to complete his ancestor’s, Osman, original dream. The year is 1914; a 14-year-old Hasan leaves his village and opens a café in Constantinople/Istanbul to begin a new life. In the meantime, war and internal affairs are becoming more intense each passing day. Largely in reaction to the loss of wars, CUP’s increasing interest in forming a Turkish state, fearing that Armenians will form their own that would shrink the boundaries envisioned by the Turkish state, and due to further monetary interests (see Chapter 2), CUP organizes a gruesome and violent Armenian displacement process across Anatolia that claims 800,000 to 1.5 million Armenian lives—mostly civilians including women, children, and the elderly. Taking place between 1915 and 1917, the Armenian Genocide, wipes out the remaining Armenians in Hasan’s town. Even though town residents claim that they had no involvement in Armenian deportations and massacres, there are other resources that claim otherwise (Hayreni, 2015); portraying a dispute of the narratives. In the end, the town is not the same place anymore—Armenians, who were the town’s backbone of economic production are gone.

Back in Istanbul, in Hasan’s café, Rum (Ottoman Christian Greek) women dancers would perform Kanto for entertainment. A few years pass in relative peace for Hasan; however, in 1919, a confrontation that takes place at his café changes his life for the second time. Istanbul is invaded by British, French, and Italian military forces after the Ottoman Empire loses World War I. A lieutenant searching for weapons visits Hasan’s café and finds a gun in his possession. The lieutenant insults him in front of his friends and customers by spitting in his face. Hasan is not able to do anything at that moment but is outraged. Feeling deeply offended, he is out for revenge. Knowing where the lieutenant would be at night, Hasan approaches him from his back and hits him with a heavy object, killing him. Hasan, knowing that he would be a suspect due to the earlier dispute, escapes Istanbul to the Aegean coast. He is not aware of the war that has broken out between Greeks and Turks. Before he reaches Izmir, the Greek army stops him. These soldiers, seeing him well-dressed on a horse cart, think Hasan is a CUP member (Unionist). After beating him, they put a string of barbed wire around his neck and suffocate him. Thinking he is dead, the army officers throw him into a creek. However, Hasan is not going to die just yet. Several hours later, he wakes up with his legs and half of his torso in the stream. While having a hard time speaking due to gashes and bleeding around his neck, Hasan climbs out of the creek and finds a nearby village to rest and heal. Once there he hears that the Turkish War of Independence has been declared. Outraged by what happened to him in the hands of Greeks, he decides to go to Ankara, the headquarters of the Independence movement which would become the capital city of the Republic of Turkey, to join the revolutionary army. Because he does not have any military experience, the army sends him to Samsun to fight with the Turkish bandits. According to his story, the Turkish military is providing arms to Turkish bandits to fight against the Rum bandits and also to raid their villages. He fights for this band until the end of the Turkish War of Independence (1919–1923).

A few years before this, during World War I, a Turkish imam (a male prayer leader in a mosque) had rescued a 3-year-old Rum girl in Samsun. Her entire family had been murdered. This young child was the only living member of her family and having seen her mother’s dead body in the forest covered by ants, she is traumatized. The imam hides her until she is seven. Soon after, the head of the Turkish band in Samsun (Hafız Mehmed) takes her from the imam and decides to raise her as his own. She grows up in their household with Hafız Mehmed and his wife from the age of 7 to 14. After the war ends, now that she is 14, the age for marriage, Hafız Mehmed is looking for a suitable match. The fierce young Turkish man, Hasan—who happens to be fighting Rum bandits—is a candidate. They get married, and shortly after, their first son (my relative) is born in Samsun. Later, they move to Hasan’s original village, Eğin, in Eastern Anatolia by the Euphrates River. Shortly after their arrival, they have two more children. Villagers call this young woman Samsun’lu yenge, which means “Aunt from Samsun.” According to Hüseyin, her first son, she is well adapted to Turkish culture; at times, her neighbors even consult her about Turkish customs.

Hüseyin’s vivid memory and the details in his story struck me. He knew about his lineage much more than anyone else in my immediate family. His timeline was consistent with the historical literature and indeed intimately exemplified the stories of many in the early 1900s Anatolia. Hüseyin, the son of a Turkish man, Hasan, and the young Rum bride, were from the first generation of citizens of the newly formed Republic of Turkey. Hüseyin grew up calling Hafız Mehmed, the leader of the Turkish band in Samsun “grandfather.” He grew up with strong Turkish nationalist views, and so do his own children and grandchildren.

War and Trauma

This story is a typical example of the dynamics at the time. Many wars and conflicts that broke out in Anatolia were inter-related. This fierce young man’s murder of the lieutenant exemplifies the effects of European invasion and the thin societal sanctions in the crumbling empire. The level of rage that was ready to explode due to an insult was intense. People running for safety were stumbling upon other wars and conflicts. People did not know who was who. Hasan was mistaken for a Unionist, the enemy of the Greek army. Without clarifying, the Greek military thought it was safer to kill him than wait to find out. After almost losing his life, this young man was then ready to do whatever it took for revenge. He decided to fight and joined the Turkish army. Amongst other outraged Turks, his band was in Samsun. Away from home, without a personal connection to the conflict there, this young Turkish man attacked Rum villages and fought against Rum bands. After all was settled and done, he married a young Rum girl from Samsun whose entire family was murdered earlier, possibly by an earlier generation of Muslim bandits. He took this young woman to his village, where she assimilated into the new customs and ways of living.

Imagining New Identities in a New Republic

In the early 20th century, during the Ottoman Empire’s fall, a homogeneous Turkish national identity replaced the multi-religious and multi-ethnic Ottoman identity. [New and re-occurring conflicts emerged due to Turkey’s continued multi-ethnic and multi-religious social map. For example, 30 different Kurdish rebellions took place following the Turkish independence; some were brutally suppressed.] The new Turkish state launched reforms, policies, and regulations to align with the Western World, which were welcomed and praised by many Turkish communities and Muslim migrants. Hence, during the Republic of Turkey’s formation, to create a homogeneous Turkish identity that people could feel an emotional connection with, the state erased both perpetration and victimhood narratives and used the reforms in education, language, and control of the public narrative as a state practice to maintain control and dominance in Anatolia. To blend in, most immigrants adapted a homogeneous Turkish identity in public and eventually they either hid their family/community origins or hid their history altogether.

Hüseyin remembers that when he was a young man and read about Greeks killing Turks, he would cry out loud with outrage: “Greeks massacred Turks, burned down villages.” His father Hasan who personally went through the war, when hearing his son’s remarks, would respond and say, “Son, if Greeks burned down a village, we would raid a Rum village and execute ‘yediden yetmişe’ (meaning everyone regardless of age). What they did to us, we did more to them.” While Hasan, from his personal experience, knew and acknowledged the raids made to Rum villages, at a collective level, the Turkish state largely denied such historical facts and the violence non-Muslims experienced during the fall of the Ottoman Empire, also claiming people from both sides died. Of course, such narratives within Turkey have been diverse and variable based on location, family history, and other external influences. And most people, unlike Hüseyin, do not know their family’s war stories.

Hüseyin’s parents must have made meaning and created narratives and family dynamics that were influenced by war conditions. They tried to cope with pain and the after-effects of war. As parents, they taught the skills they used to survive the war to their children, who in turn taught them to their children and so on. War conditions find a place in family dynamics and can be transmitted to subsequent generations. At the same time, for many families like Hüseyin’s, there was a rupture from past traumatic events and a new beginning with the founding of the new Republic. Hüseyin was born into a new Turkish nation with new rules and regulations. He was influenced by Turkish nationalist propaganda through education, media, and military. Thus, his narrative and identity began to diverge from his parents.

Hidden and Oppressed Histories

Forced marriages to Muslims and assimilation, for survival, of non-Muslim women are familiar stories throughout Anatolia. The victims of war, whether they were non-Muslim women or refugees, appear to have employed the strategy of trying to adapt to Turkish culture. Their adaptation was often transmitted to their children and grandchildren in the form of strong Turkish nationalism values, as in the case of Hüseyin’s strong nationalist sentiments despite the knowledge of his Ottoman Rum heritage.

Despite the hardships present in the story, Hüseyin’s mother shared her story with her children. They knew that she was initially Rum, from Samsun. Recent oral history research in Anatolia also confirms while many non-Muslim women who married Muslim men hid their ethnoreligious identities, a substantial portion of non-Muslim women, in addition to their adaptation to Turkishness, also shared their stories with their children and later generations (see Chapter 5). These young women maintained their survivor strategy of adaptation despite their trauma of losing their families, villages, and customs. They courageously shared who they were, leaving gifts for subsequent generations to receive, to help future generations remember. Furthermore, the village reminded them of who they were. In this story, the Rum bride was called “aunt from Samsun” amongst villagers.

Transgenerational Trauma

History, collective experience, and individual trauma intersect. Men who came back from a decade-long war were most likely struggling with their demons. International research overwhelmingly validates that PTSD and other stress-related symptoms of combat trauma have consequences throughout the family (see Chapter 1). Hüseyin’s father, Hasan, was known in the village as “crazy Hasan” due to his unpredictable behaviors, outbursts, and rage. From what we know today, they might have been posttraumatic stress symptoms. Hasan died in his 50s due to complications in his lower torso. He had ongoing health issues from the wounds he received from Greek soldiers that almost killed him. According to Hüseyin, Hasan carried scars around his neck, and his voice was always hoarse. Thus, the next generation, even though they did not experience war at a collective level, may have suffered a micro version of war in their own homes. This version of conflict could be hidden in their family’s silence or outrage.

Children pick up clues of their parents’ wounding—they internalize it—and from it, make meaning. In Hüseyin’s case, one of the ways historical trauma in his lineage may have manifested is a need to tell his story. Villagers and family around him have heard his various stories countless times. At the end of our call, I thanked him and said, “It was great to see you. And thank you so much, Uncle Hüseyin. Thank you for sharing your story with me.” He responded, “No, it is good. So, I have been listened to. I fed the animals already; it took me only 15 minutes. Now it is time to rest; my newspapers have just arrived, too.” He signaled that now he was ready to end the call.

Hüseyin died of old age four years after this conversation. I was in Upstate New York at a psychodrama retreat when I got the news. I was shaken and grieving his loss. I wished that I was in Turkey and had a chance to say goodbye. I shared what was going on for me in the morning with the class. One of the instructors suggested that I do an “empty chair conversation” with Uncle Hüseyin and say goodbye that way. When I started my conversation with the empty chair and invited imaginary Hüseyin to sit across from me, I realized that I felt a bond with him through knowing parts of his story. Through that exercise, I came to believe that as we live in the present, we are connected to the past, the future, and each other.


Historical Trauma, Transgenerational Trauma, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Armenian Genocide, the formation of the Turkish republic, transdisciplinarity



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  • Nermin Soyalp is an organizational psychologist and consultant. She has been a facilitator of the Healing the Wounds of History approach since 2012, where she co-produced workshops with Turks, Kurds, and Armenians. She has been facilitating peace-building workshops in the Bay Area and in Turkey. She has designed and conducted training on conflict transformation and experiential training in for-profit and non-profit organizations as a senior organizational development consultant/professional. Nermin grew up in Ankara, Turkey. After graduating from Hacettepe University (Ankara, Turkey) in Statistics, she moved to California. She received her MA in Organizational Psychology at John F. Kennedy University. Currently, in addition to working as an Organizational Consultant in Oakland, CA, Nermin is a Healing the Wounds of History educator, facilitator, and co-director and recently completed her Ph.D. at California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). -- Email: NSOYALP@MYMAIL.CIIS.EDU