23 November 2023

The Political Instrumentalisation of National Days in Turkey

In October Egemen Bengisun defended his PhD thesis in International History, “Commemoration and the Politics of History: Continuity and Change in the ‘National Days’ of Turkey”. The main aim of his research is to analyse the establishment, alteration and commodification of Turkish national days, from the late Ottoman era to the centennial of the Republic. He tells us more in this interview.

How did you come to choose your research topic?

Since the early 2010s, there have been significant changes in the way Turkey’s national days are celebrated. This situation also led to some political tensions. These changes caught my attention as a political scientist who focuses on modern Turkish history. I started researching and collecting data on this subject in the early 2010s and the foundations of my research were laid while I was studying for my undergraduate and graduate degrees, long before I arrived at the Geneva Graduate Institute. The submission of the thesis coincided with the centennial celebrations of the republic, which enabled me to analyse the whole century. This made this thesis more meaningful to me as it is a product of a long and comprehensive research.

Can you describe your thesis questions and methodology?

The main research question of this thesis is why and how several national days were adopted and suspended in modern Turkish history. I also analyse how the antagonism between secularism and traditionalism creates a tension around the issue of national days. The thesis also explores the purposes of national days. This includes how national days create a disciplined society, function as a state propaganda method, reproduce the official ideology, redefine the boundaries of the nation, define the ideal citizen and commemorate the founding leader(s).

As for the methodology, I can say this thesis relies on a wide range of resources: archival documents, visual material, postcards, postal stamps, newspapers, magazines, posters, old video footage, oral histories (interviews and written correspondence) and field trips. I did not set a hierarchy among these resources, but I utilised multiple resources in order to balance and cross-check each other.

What are your major findings?

It is obvious that continuities and shifts around the issue of national days would continue to rely on political power. Considering the tension between secularism and traditionalism, I conclude that traditionalism increasingly shapes national days. The commodification of national days under the influence of neoliberalism is another important finding. By the centenary of the republic, the four main national days seem to have remained the same, but the content and form of the rituals have changed. The thesis ends with the discussion of whether these important shifts in rituals actually constitute the creation of totally new rituals.

What can we learn from your thesis to help us understand Turkey today – and possibly other regions?

Although the thesis does not aim at a comparative analysis, it examines which parallels could be observed in Europe, the Balkans and the Middle East in the 1920s and 1930s, when national days were being established in republican Turkey. Therefore, I can claim that this thesis helps the reader understand the past and present of these regions.

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Photo of Bengisun at the end of the OhD defence

Egemen Bengisun (middle) defended his PhD thesis in International History on 19 October 2023. Professor Davide Rodogno (right) presided over the committee, which included Professor Mohamed Mahmoud Mohamedou (left), Thesis Supervisor, and Associate Professor Canan Aslan-Akman, Department of Political Science and Public Administration, Middle East Technical University, Turkey.

Citation of the PhD thesis:
Bengisun, Egemen. “Commemoration and the Politics of History: Continuity and Change in the ‘National Days’ of Turkey.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2023.

Members of the Geneva Graduate Institute can access the PhD thesis on this page of the Institute’s Repository. Others may contact the author at

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner image by Margo_Alexa/