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Turkey’s Hidden Past

Within two years, against what many considered insurmountable odds, Atatürk achieved his goal. The Greeks were driven into the sea at Izmir, and an armistice provided for their withdrawal from eastern Thrace; the British, French, and Italians also withdrew their forces. The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne was Atatürk’s triumph. Besides reversing the humiliation of Sèvres, the treaty gave international recognition to his government and to the new republic, whose borders have lasted to the present day, with little modification. The claims of the Kurds and Armenians were dismissed.

Militarily, politically, and diplomatically, Atatürk’s was a stupendous achievement; he succeeded in killing off the multinational empire, portraying it as based on an obsolete, sentimental conception. By the end of the War of Independence, it had become clear that Anatolia’s religious and ethnic diversity would no longer be tolerated. A Turkish identity had emerged out of the ethnic conflict, particularly the conflict between Turks and Armenians, some half a million of whom died during the deportations and massacres of 1915. Anatolia’s Muslims came to regard Armenian Christians, and Christians generally, as traitors, and the Christians looked on the Muslims as oppressors. It was on this Turkish identity that Atatürk was to build the republic.

In 1925 Atatürk initiated a forcible exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey. More than a million Greek Orthodox Anatolians were sent to Greece and 380,000 Muslims made the same journey in the opposite direction. Many suffered severe hardships, but this exchange brought to a comparatively humane close the process of ethnic and religious cleansing. Atatürk’s later suppression of Kurdish nationalism was partly a response to the reactionary, Islamic character of early Kurdish revolts. But it was also part of a wider process of homogenization that he considered vital to Turkey’s security. “The biggest break in Turkish social history,” writes Mango, “came not with Atatürk’s reforms, but earlier with the departure of the Christians.”

Not surprisingly, the war of independence became the first chapter in the new official history of modern Turkey. Atatürk’s heroism and the Sultan’s perfidy created conditions propitious to the political and social revolution that would follow. The Sultan slipped out of Istanbul aboard a British warship. This cannot have been unwelcome to Atatürk, since it strengthened the moral authority he needed if he was to persuade Turks to accept the abolition of their monarchy and, a year later, of the caliphate. In 1922, Atatürk accused the Ottoman dynasty of seizing “the sovereignty and Sultanate of the Turkish nation,” adding, “they have maintained this usurpation for six centuries.” He later described Vahdettin as a “degenerate.” These were shocking words; they illustrate the violence and the suddenness of the Ottomans’ fall from grace.


According to Såüevket Pamuk, coauthor of an influential economic and social history of the empire, there was a “political decision by the new regime not to derive legitimacy from the old one…. Only by speaking ill of the empire could they create a new republic.”5 Atatürk spent his presidency encouraging his people to regard the old empire as a backward despotism whose guiding ideology, Islam, had prevented its Turkish elite from keeping up with Western technological and economic progress—a paralysis that would be cured by his own modernizing, secularizing reforms. In The Emergence of Modern Turkey, Bernard Lewis lent his support to that most Kemalist of arguments—namely, that the Atatürk revolution represented the “liberation of the last of the subject peoples of the Ottoman empire.”6

Lewis is sympathetic to the aims and methods of that revolution. But his Emergence of Modern Turkey acknowledged both that the new state started to emerge well before Atatürk was even born and that Atatürk took to its conclusion a process of reforms that the Ottomans had been pursuing since the beginning of the nineteenth century. In Imparatorlug*un En Uzun Yüzyili (“The Empire’s Longest Century”), his excellent history of nineteenth- century Ottoman reform, first published in 1983, Ilber Ortayli makes repeated and explicit reference to the influence of the Ottoman Empire on the republican regime.7 In The Well-Protected Domains, Deringil takes this argument a step further. “A direct thread,” he writes, “can be drawn from the gilded antechambers of the Sublime Porte [the Ottoman court] to the ramshackle parliament building in Ankara.”

The Ottoman reforms were started in earnest by Sultan Mahmud II in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and were extended in a series of mid-century reforming edicts known as the Tanzimat, or Reorganization. They included modernization of the military forces and improvements in education. The reforms also partially secularized the empire’s Islamic legal system and restrained the powers of the ulema, the Muslim holy men. Even changes nowadays regarded as completely Kemalist, like the replacement of the Arabic with the Roman alphabet for the writing of Turkish, the modernization of dress, and the emancipation of women, had been suggested or set in motion in the imperial era. The republic’s press, parliament, and tradition of party politics all have their roots in the empire.

That Atatürk the reformer drew on Ottoman examples should not be startling. He was born an Ottoman and his early career—whether he was defending the Ottoman province of Libya against Italy in 1911–1912, or leading troops at Gallipoli in 1915—was spent fighting on its behalf. The fact that he spent two years as military attaché in Sofia and was enthusiastic about French culture recalls the chief architects of the Tanzimat—all French-speakers who had served in Ottoman embassies in Europe. In his youth, Atatürk himself benefited from Abdülhamid’s lavish investment in education. As president, he followed the Sultan’s example in avoiding unnecessary and costly foreign wars.

All this raises a question: If Atatürk was formed as an Ottoman, and most of the policies he carried out were proposed or partially put into effect by his Ottoman predecessors, what exactly is it that divides him from them? To answer this question, it is worth recalling Deringil’s contention that Atatürk and Abdülhamid “would have found that they had much common.” Deringil’s comment is rhetorical, coming at the conclusion of his book, for it invites us to imagine a tantalizing historical impossibility.

Picture the bearded Sultan in the reception chamber of one of his lodges in Yildiz Park, which his fear of assassination persuades him only rarely to leave. As is his practice with guests other than Muslim clerics, the Ottoman Sultan does not rise to meet the President of the Turkish Republic. Atatürk bows, and then takes a seat indicated by an aide. He is cleanshaven and portly from too much booze. Indeed, he would like to have a glass of raki at this point but knows he shouldn’t ask for it. He wears elaborate formal dress, which he prides himself on for being as well cut as any he has seen in Europe. The Sultan, however, is uncomfortable in his morning coat. An embroidered caftan, the dress of his forebears, would suit him better.

The audience begins, but there is an immediate problem. The Sultan’s Ottoman Turkish is a strangely official language, full of Arabic and Persian words, invocations to God and the Prophet, and with much use of artifice and allusion. The President understands perfectly what is being said, since he was born and educated as an Ottoman, but he seems to be replying in a different language altogether. Back in the capital of the Turkish republic, Ankara, Atatürk and his colleagues have been hard at work expunging Turkish of as many Persian and Arabic influences as they can, and finding replacements of “Turkic” origin for “foreign” words. When the Sultan indicates that he does not understand this new, “purer” Turkish, Atatürk offers to speak in French, or German. The Sultan insists on either Arabic or Persian. An interpreter is called.

Now that the problem of communication has been resolved, the two men can test Deringil’s theory. Still, though, it is as if they come from differ-ent cultures. Montesquieu’s Esprit des Lois, Auguste Comte, H.G. Wells, the French Revolution, a treatise entitled “Can One Deny the Existence of God?” (as if!)—whatever is un-Islamic, profane, and European, observes Abdülhamid, seems to have caught the eye of this president. Even the name of his republic, Türkiye, has been borrowed from the French, la Turquie. Atatürk goes on to describe in detail a statue in Ankara of himself and several colleagues, completed some years ago by an Austrian sculptor called Krippel. Abdülhamid shudders. The Sultan has banned the exhibition of his likeness throughout the empire. It is un-Islamic, and it encourages plotters.

The Sultan tries to impress on the President what he considers the rottenness of his intellectual inquiries. The job of the Islamic modernizer, he says, is to rediscover the essence of Islam, which is necessarily applicable to modern life. The best in Europe, he says, is already to be found in Islam. What, for instance, is “democracy” other than a variant on the verse in the third Sura of the Quran, in which the Prophet is commanded by God to take counsel with his followers? Why recklessly ape the West, when Islam contains the answer to all of man’s questions?

The call of the muezzin puts an end to the interview before it degenerates. At the door, an aide shows the President a small prayer room set aside for guests. Atatürk waves the man away. He wants to return to his farm outside Ankara. As he leaves the lodge, he quotes from one of his favorite speeches: “For everything in this world, for civilization, for life, for success, the truest guide is knowledge and science. To seek a guide other than knowledge and science is a mark of heedlessness, ignorance, and aberration.”

The divide between Atatürk and his Ottoman predecessors, even those who opposed Abdülhamid, was the divide between the reformer who advocates change because he thinks it will ultimately strengthen the present order, and the revolutionary for whom the same changes mean nothing un-less they are accompanied by the replacement of that order altogether. In turning to European civilization, Atatürk understood better than any Ottoman this truism, elegantly expressed by Bernard Lewis in The Emergence of Modern Turkey: “There can be no limited and insulated borrowing by one civilization of the practices of another…. Each element introduced from outside brings a train of consequences.”

Lewis’s recent book, A Middle East Mosaic, is an amiable but shapeless compendium of Eastern views of the West and Western views of the East, divided into sections with names like “A Bundle of Prejudices,” “Food and Drink,” “Wit and Wisdom,” and “Prophecy and Empire.” It is interesting and useful to have excerpts from Flaubert’s notes on a camel caravan and Mark Twain’s observation on the “pauper village” of Jerusalem, along with Karl Marx’s long dispatch from London on the Crimean War, and instructions by Iraqis, Persians, and Egyptians on how to deal with spies. Dean Acheson’s comments on Mosadeq, the Iranian prime minister, implicitly seem to regret America’s part in overthrowing him in 1953:

We were, perhaps, slow in realizing that he was essentially a rich, reactionary, feudal-minding Persian inspired by a fanatical hatred of the British and a desire to expel them and all their works from the country regardless of the cost. He was a great actor and a great gambler.

It is hard to tell, however, what Lewis would like the reader to take away from his anthology. Few of the observations he includes show any great perception or originality about the differences between cultures. More than anything else, Lewis’s selection of travelogue, letters, and miscellany illustrates the mutual contempt and ignorance that has informed, and continues to inform, the perspectives of both Middle Easterners and Europeans.


To the casual visitor, the idea that Turkey’s founding father is losing his authority is faintly preposterous. More than sixty years after his death, Atatürk has never been more visible. Barely a week passes without some municipality erecting a monstrous new statue of him. Civil servants and lawyers pin his image to their neckties. Politicians, even those who hold views antipathetic to his own, resurrect his memory in their speeches. On the anniversary of important events in his (and therefore the republic’s) life, daily newspapers compete with one another to express adulation for him. Public buildings are festooned with gigantic posters of Atatürk the statesman, soldier, or lover of children.

Millions of Turks continue to regard Atatürk with reverence. Had he not expelled the European occupiers in 1922 and 1923, and persuaded them to recognize his republic’s new boundaries at Lausanne, Turkey as they know it might not exist. Furthermore, most of them share Atatürk’s ambition for his people—the construction of a modern nation-state. Notwithstanding the strength of Turkey’s recent Islamic revival, and the debilitating effects of fighting the sixteen-year Kurdish nationalist insurgency in the southeast, most Turks have adopted a central Kemalist doctrine: their country is a secular one, built on rationalist foundations.

But the agreement of modern Turks with aspects of Atatürk’s message has been accompanied by a growing distaste for its tone. Of the six “fundamental and unchanging principles” that Atatürk incorporated into the constitution, just one—republicanism—remains unchanged. The other five—nationalism, populism, étatisme, secularism, and revolutionism (attachment to the process of change)—have been modified. The Islamic revival and the continuing strength of Kurdish ethnic consciousness have raised doubts about both secularism and nationalism, while the influence of the market economies of Europe and the US—not to mention the IMF, with which Turkey signed an agreement in 1999—have made the rest seem outmoded. Most important of all, an increasing number of Turks resent being supervised by the generals and controlled by draconian laws and constitutional provisions.8

During the War of Independence and its immediate aftermath, Atatürk’s dictatorial style undoubtedly worked to Turkey’s advantage. It is difficult to see how anyone observing democratic norms could have persuaded Ottoman commanders and administrators to defy their sultan and expel Turkey’s foreign occupiers. A collaborative approach would have served Atatürk ill in his efforts to dominate the civil and military apparatus he set up in Ankara. He exploited that dominance to supplant the sultan’s authority, put down rebellions on several fronts, proclaim a new state, and expel the Greeks. Democracy could not have been installed overnight to meet the challenges faced by Atatürk when he was trying to take power.

His fifteen years as peacetime president of a constitutional republic, on the other hand, are more debatable. “Theoretically,” says Mango, “sovereignty had passed from the sultan to the nation,…but it was exercised by Atatürk as president. The prime minister was his chief vizier in all but name.” Mango suggests in his conclusion that Atatürk was right not to do away with restrictions on political opposition in his lifetime. Between the wars, he says, “democracy could not be sustained in many richer and better educated societies.” True enough, but the same—mostly European—societies have now worked out effective democratic systems, and Turkey has failed to do so.

Even since the 1950 electoral defeat of Atatürk’s Republican Peoples Party marked the beginning of multi-party politics, three “corrective” military coups have reminded Turks of the generals’ unhealthy interest in day-to-day affairs. Democracy in Turkey has been inhibited by the pressures of the cold war, when Turkey was a front-line NATO state. Opposition from the left was seen as subversive. There has been much corruption in parliament and the bureaucracy. Ordinary Turks have long been conditioned to genuflect to authority, whoever may have it. Atatürk must bear some of the blame for this. His 1924 constitution calling for a parliament elected by universal male suffrage may have provided a frame for later democratization; but Kemal ruled as a virtual dictator, and his refusal to allow democracy to flourish under his presidency has acted as a baleful precedent. It is a sad commentary on the quality of Turkish public life that, more than sixty years after his death, Atatürk remains the most important figure in his country’s politics.

The manipulation of his memory is an unedifying sight, for it makes him seem like a petty and vindictive man, and not the visionary that he was. Generals and senior politicians recall his doctrine of a unified Turkey when they arrest and condemn Kurds who put forward demands for Kurdish rights. The generals invoked Atatürk’s memory three years ago, when they ejected from power Turkey’s first Islamist government.

As Turks examine the possibility that they will voluntarily surrender a great deal of Atatürk’s hard-won sovereignty and join the European Union, so they are reevaluating their Kemalist historiography and, with it, their attitudes to the empire. According to the Turkish historian Ilber Ortayli, the recent upsurge of interest in Ottoman era is attributable to a desire to find out “what the empire means.” Part of this can be put down to nostalgia; even on its last legs, the empire was a great power, whereas Turkey is not. Part of it is point-scoring on the part of Turkish Islamists, who like to provoke secularists with praise for the empire’s religious zeal. The end result, however, is clear; as one might expect, Kemalist historiography is skewed in favor of Kemalism, and both are flawed.

The Kemalists’ principal mistake was to ignore the question that is faced by any Muslim country that attempts a social and political transition along European or North American lines. To what extent is it possible to reconcile a population with a large proportion of devout Muslims to Western ways of government and of thinking? The relative success of the Atatürk revolution suggests that it is possible but extremely difficult. So far the goal has only been realized at the expense of other, cherished European ideals, such as freedom and human rights. As they hover uncertainly at the door to the EU, Turks should be trying to find a more satisfactory solution to this contradiction. In neighboring Iran, where debate is harder to conduct, pro-democracy reformers are trying to do just that.

If Turkey is, eventually, to bring about an accommodation between the republican and the theocratic and imperial aspects of its identity, then history will be an important guide. An increasing number of normal Turks seem to agree. In 1998, they participated in a nationwide celebration of the republic’s seventy-fifth birthday. Last year they commemorated, on a smaller scale, the seven hundredth birthday of the empire which the republic supplanted and whose ideology it discredited. This is not the anomaly it may seem. In most Turks, whatever their schoolbooks tell them, there is some Atatürk, and some Abdülhamid, too.


Massacres of the Armenians August 9, 2001

  1. 5

    See Halil Inalcik, Suraiya Faroqhi, Bruce McGowan, Donald Quataert, and Såüevket Pamuk, An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire (Cambridge University Press, 1994). Pamuk’s remark was made during a recent interview.

  2. 6

    Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey (Oxford University Press, 1961).

  3. 7

    Istanbul: Hil Yayin, 1983; third edition, 1995.

  4. 8

    For a recent and useful study of the power struggle that has resulted from this resentment, and the efforts of Turkey’s generals to retain their vast influence and prestige in the face of a tendency toward greater democratization, see Eric Rouleau’s article “Turkey’s Dream of Democracy,” in Foreign Affairs, November/December 2000.

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