Erich Auerbach Letter on Turkey

The German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung reproduces a 1938 letter Erich Auerbach sent to Johannes Oeschger from his Turkish exile. The occasion is no doubt the Frankfurt Book Fair where, as I mentioned a few days ago, Turkey is the main guest. I don’t have access to the whole letter (it is not in the online version) but here is my quick translation (plus the original) of the extract published this morning by the Perlentaucher, describing the “process of a modern barbarisation” of the country:

The Turkish government “has to organize a country that is poor and unused to work, teach it modern and practical methods that will enable it to live and defend itself; and like everywhere else this happens in the name of a purist nationalism that destroys the living tradition, and that bases itself in part on completely fantastical conceptions of ur-times, and in part on modern-rationalist ideas. Piety is combatted, Islamic culture despised as an alien Arabic infiltration, one wants to be at the same time modern and purely Turkish, and it has gone so far that through the abolition of the old script, through the elimination of Arabic loan words and their replacement by Turkish neologisms and partly by European loan words, the language has been totally destroyed: no young person is any longer able to read the older literature — and there reigns a spiritual lack of direction that is extremely dangerous.”

Die türkische Regierung “muss das arme und nicht arbeitsgewohnte Land organisieren, ihm moderne und praktische Methoden beibringen, damit es leben und sich wehren kann; und wie überall geschieht das im Zeichen eines puristischen Nationalismus, der die lebende Tradition zerstört, und sich teils auf ganz phantastische Urzeitvorstellungen, teils auf modern-rationale Gedanken stützt. Die Frömmigkeit wird bekämpft, die islamische Kultur als arabische Überfremdung verachtet, man will zugleich modern und rein türkisch sein, und es ist so weit gekommen, dass man die Sprache durch Abschaffung der alten Schrift, durch Entfernung der arabischen Lehnworte und ihren Ersatz durch ‘türkische’ Neubildungen, teils durch europäische Entlehnungen völlig zerstört hat: kein junger Mensch kann mehr die ältere Literatur lesen – und es herrscht eine geistige Richtungslosigkeit, die äußerst gefährlich ist.”

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4 opinions on “Erich Auerbach Letter on Turkey”

  1. It is amazing to read this scholar’s letter, who was in Turkey as a guest of the Turkish/Kemalist government to save his life from the European barbarism of the time. As an enlightened leader, Ataturk created a safe haven, an oasis for a group of scholars, philosophers, economists during World War II in Istanbul where they taught at Istanbul University and were honored guests. Here is the example of someone who knows everything and understands nothing, the historical necessities which forced Ataturk to establish the reforms he did. As for the destruction of the Turkish language because of these reforms, it is quite a claim knowing that Turkish created one of the major poetries of the 20th century.I was amazed to find out how Aurbach, who reveals such a broad perspective in “Mimesis,” can still not escape the supercilious Orientalism of the West condescending to the East. To think that at that time his own country was the center of one of the most depraved and violent barbarisms in history.

    Ciao,

    Murat

  2. I was hoping you would comment Murat! Thanks! Auerbach & his "Mimesis" is held in such awe, but this letter (& I'd love to read the rest of it)is such a classic Euro-centric orientalist view that I felt it useful to reproduce it.

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