The storm before the calm

THE ECONOMIC CRISES of the nineteenth century, coupled with aggressive exploitation and tutelage on the part of industrializing European states, had forced a semi-colonial status on the Ottoman Empire. Many of the new economic and infrastructural enterprises of Abdülhamid’s reign – such as insurance companies and banks, ports and railways – were foreign-owned, sometimes in partnership with Ottoman non-Muslims; the high cost of servicing the public debt consumed much state revenue and the debt was, moreover, administered by a council of seven, of whom five members were foreign. By providing a scapegoat for the ills of the empire these inescapable signs of humiliation worked to the advantage of the CUP; more positively, revision of the disastrous peace terms being discussed in London in December 1912 – brought about by the retaking of Edirne early in 1913 – had a similar effect. The liberal opposition, having flexed its muscles with the forced dissolution of parliament in 1912, had been crushed by means of the executions that followed Mahmud Şevket Pasha’s assassination in June 1913. The execution of former officials had been an exception since the 1840s; exile had been considered sufficient punishment – and was frequently followed by rehabilitation. Seventy-five years later, during the second and third constitutional periods of the Ottoman Empire, the fate of those in public life could be far more brutish.

In January 1914 Enver, now promoted pasha, became minister of war; the military governor of Istanbul, (Ahmed) Cemal Pasha, who had been responsible for exacting revenge against the liberals after Mahmud Şevket’s assassination, became minister for the navy; and former postal official Talat, for long a pivotal figure in the civilian wing of the CUP, served as minister of the interior. The parliament that emerged from the elections in 1914 reflected better than hitherto the ethnic composition of the Ottoman population, with more Arab deputies – some of them in the CUP – than in previous parliaments.1 The CUP was in the majority, and thus preserved from effective political challenge: it put forward coercive measures as ‘the will of parliament’, and the result was authoritarian government.2 For the next four years, any other input into the political process was restricted still further by the outbreak of the First World War. A recent writer has summed up the situation with this question and answer: ‘Could the Ottoman government of 1914 be described as a personal dictatorship under Enver, a single-party state under the Union and Progress party [CUP], or a straightforward military regime? The answer probably lies between all three.’3

On 28 June 1914 the Habsburg heir-apparent Archduke Franz-Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo. Austria declared war on Serbia on 28 July and Russia decreed a general mobilization on 31 July, prompting Germany to declare war on Russia on 1 August. On 2 August Germany invaded Luxembourg, and on 3 August declared war on France. Germany marched into Belgium on 4 August, and that same day Britain declared war on Germany.

The Ottoman Empire was taken into the First World War as the result of diplomacy as secret as most CUP activity. On 22 July, before it was certain that war was inevitable, Enver Pasha had proposed an Ottoman–German alliance to Baron von Wangenheim, the German ambassador in Istanbul, and the grand vezir Said Halim Pasha had made similar propositions to the Austro-Hungarian ambassador. Neither diplomat received the proposals with much enthusiasm, but as events brought the likelihood of war closer, an agreement committing the empire to support Germany – were Russia to intervene in Austria-Hungary’s dispute with Serbia, and Germany therefore be required to support its ally Austria-Hungary – was negotiated, and received the Sultan’s blessing before being signed on 2 August. The government’s official stance was one of armed neutrality, leaving the other Great Powers guessing as to Ottoman intentions.4

Following the Balkan Wars attempts made by the CUP to forge closer links with Britain, Russia and France had received no positive response,5 but it was nevertheless not a foregone conclusion that the empire would align itself with Germany, despite Germany’s close and long-standing military and economic influence. Enver had been military attaché in Berlin from 1909 to 1911, but his relations with the German military mission in Istanbul were far from easy, and in particular those with its chief, Otto Liman von Sanders: as a patriot he put his faith in the Turkish soldier and the Turkish army, and deeply resented German instruction.6

Military experts from Prussia were advising on the modernization of the Ottoman army as early as the 1830s. In 1880, in the uncertainty following the Treaty of Berlin, Sultan Abdülhamid had asked the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck to provide him with military and civilian advisers. To the Sultan, Bismarck’s Germany, a nation that eschewed alliance with either Britain or Russia, was neutral with regard to the Ottoman Empire: this was not entirely the case but the fiction served the interest of both parties. Military contacts continued, and Ottoman officers visited Germany for training – Mahmud Şevket Pasha, for instance, spent ten years there. These contacts had paid dividends in improving Ottoman military performance, and the importance of this in a state so heavily reliant on the army for its survival was such that the assistance Britain provided to the navy and France to the gendarmerie could not hope to yield equal influence. In its turn, German assistance to the Ottomans boosted German domestic industry, particularly armaments and steel; the most visible and prestigious German investment in the Ottoman Empire was the Berlin–Baghdad railway, for which German industry largely provided both rolling stock and rails. The concessions for the two main sections across Ottoman territory, from Konya to Baghdad and Baghdad to the Persian Gulf, were awarded in 1888 and 1903 respectively, and Germany was glad to be paid by the kilometre to assist the Ottomans against what was seen as British encroachment in the Gulf, and in the extension of Istanbul’s writ in the empire’s furthest provinces. Kaiser Wilhelm II, the only European head of state received by Abdülhamid, visited Istanbul in 1889 and both Istanbul and Syria in 1898.7

Peremptory action by Britain also had a part in inclining the Ottomans to the German side. Aware that the Istanbul government was unlikely to be allied with the British in the impending war, on 28 July 1914 Winston Churchill ordered the seizure of two warships being built for the Sultan’s navy in British shipyards. Having been paid for by public subscription, these ships already belonged to the Ottomans – and the public was duly outraged. On 10 August two German cruisers – the Breslau and the Goeben – were permitted to enter the Dardanelles to escape the British ships pursuing them, and were soon turned over to the Ottoman navy as some recompense for the vessels held by the British.8

The imminence of war in Europe inspired Ottoman statesmen to take a number of defiant steps symbolizing a bid to free the empire from its thraldom to western economic interests. On the day of the signing of the alliance with Germany, the government announced the ending of foreign debt repayments.9 The German ambassador in Istanbul proposed a joint protest with the empire’s other creditor-states, on the grounds that international regulations must not be unilaterally abrogated, but no agreement could be reached on the text of the protest note; the Ottoman government would make no concessions and the matter soured Ottoman–German relations throughout the war.10 Another issue guaranteed to mobilize Muslim opinion against western interests was that of the capitulations, which had long served as a convenient scapegoat for the ills of the Ottoman state. Successive governments since 1908 had sought their abolition but the Great Power beneficiaries of the status quo had resisted. On 9 September 1914 they were unilaterally abolished, to expressions of popular support, both spontaneous and CUP-sponsored.11

On 29 October, with the Breslau and the Goeben – renamed Midilli (the Ottoman name for Lesbos) and Yavuz (‘Stern’) Sultan Selim – under his command, Admiral Souchon of the German navy, commander since 9 September of the Ottoman navy, shelled the Russian ports of Odessa, Nikolayev and Sevastopol, sinking many Russian warships. This action sealed the Ottoman Empire’s fate – Russia declared war on 2 November, and Britain and France on 5 November. On 11 November 1914 Sultan Mehmed V Reşad declared war on Britain, France and Russia. Two days later, in the chamber housing the relics of the Prophet at Topkapı Palace, at a ceremony in the Sultan’s presence, ‘holy war’ was proclaimed.12 Five juridical opinions legitimized the call, for the first time addressed to all Muslims – particularly those in territories ruled by the colonial powers of Britain, France and Russia – to rise against the infidel. There was some enthusiasm for this appeal to the Muslim community at large among Arab clerics, but one of the key individuals whose support was critical, the Sharif of Mecca, Sharif Husayn, refused to associate himself with the Sultan’s rallying cry on the grounds that were he to rouse local Muslim sentiment, he might provoke a blockade, and possibly bombardment, of the ports of the Hijaz by the British – who occupied Egypt and controlled shipping in the Red Sea. Reaction from elsewhere in the Islamic world was muted – in Egypt and India, for instance, juridical opinions asserted that it was obligatory to obey the British.13

Between the Ottoman army’s headquarters in Istanbul and many of the theatres of war in which that army was involved lay the great land mass of Anatolia. Communications had improved greatly over the past fifty years, but the road and rail network was hardly adequate to the demands of wartime: the mobilization and supply of troops posed insurmountable logistical difficulties. It took more than a month to reach Syria from Istanbul, for example, and nearly two months to reach Mesopotamia. Railway-building proceeded apace, but inevitably there were gaps in the system, and troops and supplies were forced to rely on boat, truck and camel. The border with Russia was no better served: the head of the railway was only 60 kilometres east of Ankara, and it was 35 days’ march to Erzurum from this point.14 Roads were poor, and the sea lanes risky owing to the presence of the British navy in the Mediterranean, and of the Russian in the Black Sea. The Ottoman Empire was an agricultural state which had thrown itself into an industrialized war. It could raise an army but lacked the capacity to support it adequately.15

The defence of the Ottoman Empire against enemy aggression was concentrated at different times on four widely separated fronts: east Anatolia and the Caucasus, the Dardanelles, Iraq, and Syria and Palestine. The early months of the war did not bode well for the Ottomans, for German support did little to ensure their success. The British captured Basra in November 1914, and marched north into Iraq. The army led by Cemal Pasha – as commander of the Fourth Army – to eject the British from Egypt was stopped at the Suez canal in February 1915, and again the next summer. In the snows of north-eastern Anatolia in January 1915 Enver Pasha lost almost 80,000 of the men he commanded, in battle against Russian forces at Sarıkamış, in an attempt to avenge the territorial losses of the 1877–8 war; 60,000 Ottoman soldiers died in the winter of 1916–17 on the Muş–Bitlis section of the front. Ottoman victories were few and Pyrrhic: the repulse of British forces in Palestine in the spring of 1917 was followed by the loss of Jerusalem in December of the same year, and though what remained of the British army besieged at Kut-al-Imara in southern Iraq between December 1915 and April 1916 was taken captive, Baghdad fell to the British only six months later. While Kut still figures in the Turkish imagination as an Ottoman victory, the only lasting military success achieved by the empire’s army was the defence of the Dardanelles in 1915–16 – the Gallipoli campaign – which was not only a tremendous strategic victory but provided a necessary psychological boost, and somewhat vindicated the Ottomans in the eyes of their German allies. Ottoman losses at Gallipoli were terrible: statistics give some 90,000 dead with 165,000 wounded – but this is undoubtedly an underestimate.16

Ottoman loss of life over the four-year war as a whole was equally horrific, and many more died of illness than of their wounds. Estimates put the number of soldiers killed in action at 325,000, while the number of wounded – of whom some 60,000 subsequently died – varies from 400,000 to 700,000. A further 400,000 men died of disease, bringing the total number of Ottoman combatants who died to almost 800,000. The number of effectives fell by half between March 1917 and March 1918, from 400,000 to 200,000, and was halved again by the time of the armistice in October 1918, when the number of Ottoman men under arms was only 15 per cent of what it had been in early 1916 when the army was at maximum strength of 800,000. Tens of thousands deserted. The main burden of providing combat manpower fell on the Turkish peasantry of Anatolia, which accounted for some 40 per cent of total Ottoman population at the outset of the war.17 One result of the enormous loss of life was a shortage of manpower to work the land. At a time when the army’s requirements took precedence over civilian needs, those left at home often endured conditions as miserable as those serving at the front.

The war tested to the limit the empire’s relations with its Arab population. Although Ottoman Arabs largely retained their traditional loyalties – the most deep-seated being to the sultan as caliph of Islam – the exigencies of the war were fostering new attitudes. Returning humiliated from his Egyptian campaign in February 1915 to Syria, where he exercised absolute power in both military and civil affairs, Cemal Pasha convinced himself that an uprising amongst local Arabs was imminent, and instituted a reign of terror. Leading Arabs were executed, and notable families deported to Anatolia in the cause of eliminating those he deemed hostile to the CUP; in defiance of current CUP policy, the exclusive use of Turkish was reimposed. Cemal’s policies did nothing to alleviate the famine that was gripping Syria; rather it was exacerbated by a British and French blockade of the coastal ports, the requisitioning of transports, profiteering and – strikingly – Cemal’s preference for spending scarce funds on public works and the restoration of historic monuments. Already by 1914 the burden of financing the government and administration of the empire had begun to fall ever more heavily on the Arab (and Anatolian) provinces as a consequence of the empire’s loss of territory – and taxes – in the Balkans.18 Cemal’s harsh regime in Syria made for widespread Arab resentment, though this had yet to take the form of nationalism as it was understood by the European powers with their long experience of stirring up Ottoman subjects in the Balkans.

The British had not hitherto interested themselves particularly in the Arab lands between Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula – regions critical for control of the route to India – but the continuing chronic instability in Istanbul led them to reconsider their role in the Near East, and to explore ways in which anti-Ottoman Arab sentiment could be manipulated to their advantage. At the same time, they could not afford to ignore the interest France was displaying in the region. The suggestion of some Arabs that choosing an Arab caliph would enable them to distance themselves from the Ottomans was therefore quite acceptable to British policy-makers, for whereas Christian Arabs in general inclined to France, the Muslims, who in Syria were the majority, inclined to the British. In June 1916 the so-called ‘Arab Revolt’ broke out in the Hijaz: its origins lay in an opportunistic bid by Sharif Husayn to expand his influence. In August he was replaced by Sharif Haydar, but in October he proclaimed himself king of Arabia and in December was recognized by the British as an independent ruler. There was little Istanbul could do to influence the course of events, other than try to prevent news of the uprising spreading, lest it demoralize the stricken army or act as a spur to anti-Ottoman Arab factions.19 It was strange enough that the Ottomans were allied in a holy war with Germany, an infidel power; to have invited German troops to assist in the defence of the Muslim Holy Places would have been out of the question.

The course of events in the Arab lands during the First World War is still the subject of debate – and a full treatment is outside the scope of this book. For too long, British romanticization of the Arabs and demonization of the Turks predisposed an eager audience to believe T. E. Lawrence’s fictionalized account, and to ignore historians’ analysis of the reality on the ground. As in the nineteenth century the Powers mistrusted one another, and inasmuch as they saw in the war an opportunity to reduce what remained of the Ottoman Empire still further, they also knew that they must be vigilant against one another’s claims: intense diplomacy as well as fighting continued throughout the war. Britain’s strategic concerns at this time have been characterized thus:

The scenario commonly envisaged by British planners was of a post-war situation in which the dominant fact in the Near East would be the Ottoman–German alliance, a view shared by German planners. British plans were made with the notion of limiting the possible damage to their interests from such an alliance; the most obvious way was by limiting Ottoman authority over parts of the empire.20

As each Power manoeuvred to achieve its ends, various plans and agreements resulted, which would be signed and sealed at the peace conference that would inevitably follow the end of the war. In the series of diplomatic exchanges known as the Constantinople Agreement – concluded in March–April 1915 – Britain and France promised Russia the Straits and Istanbul following victory in the war; the Treaty of London of the following month recognized Italy’s claim to influence in south-west Anatolia; France and Britain both put forward claims to Syria, and as these and other agreements regarding the Arab provinces of the empire were discussed, Russia demanded Ottoman territory on its border in north-east Anatolia. Post-war arrangements for Syria were complicated by the question of Palestine, and Britain, fearful of the effect an Ottoman sultan-caliph might have on the millions of Muslims under British rule, opened discussions with Sharif Husayn about an Arab caliphate and an independent Arab state. The details of the proposed Ottoman partition and how this Arab state might look were worked out during 1915 in the correspondence between Husayn and the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, and in the agreement between a British negotiator, Mark Sykes, and his French opposite number, François Georges-Picot. Although these two documents were broadly compatible, they differed in essentials about such matters as the status of Palestine and the extent and degree of independence of a future Arab state. Arrangements made early in the war could hardly have been expected to stand the test of time: the course of the war and shifting national priorities – by 1917 the Ottoman military effort was collapsing, and Russia was in the throes of the Bolshevik Revolution – had rendered these partly (although not entirely) void. In 1917, also, the United States entered the war, and President Woodrow Wilson’s doctrine of self-determination for new states began – perforce, if almost imperceptibly at first – to influence the colonial attitudes of the Great Powers who had never before paid much heed to the wishes of those whose fate they were deciding.21

The First World War altered Ottoman society in ways no political or ideological programme had succeeded in doing – and in the long run brought the empire’s dissolution. Each stage of the territorial dismemberment of the Ottoman domains had consequences for the ethnic and religious make-up of the state, as successive waves of people arriving from predominantly Muslim regions forfeited by the empire compensated for the loss of many, though certainly not all, non-Muslim Ottoman Christians – the Greeks, Bulgars and Serbs who saw a rosier future in their own national states.

Ottoman Jews subscribed to the idea of ‘Ottomanism’ for longer, continuing to hold prominent positions in the CUP even after the 1908 revolution.22 In the early years of the century about half of all Ottoman Jews lived in Thessalonica – where many had settled after their expulsion from Spain and Portugal at the end of the fifteenth century; they had shown little interest in Zionist efforts to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine during the reign of Abdülhamid, and few chose to go there when Thessalonica was lost to Greece in 1912, migrating instead to France, Britain, Egypt, Brazil, South Africa and the United States.23 Following the 1908 revolution, a branch of the World Zionist Organization was established in Istanbul; until the First World War its activities focused on cultural matters, although political aims were never absent from its programme.24 Zionists supported the survival of the empire until the early stages of the war – they tried to form a group to provide medical assistance to the Ottoman army during the Balkan Wars of 1912–13, and to assist the war effort after 1914; Zionist groups also offered to contribute towards the cost of the Hijaz railway. Many of them saw a homeland within the Ottoman Empire as the best guarantor of their security.25

Whether they favoured gradual or revolutionary change, Armenians too had had close, if uneasy, relations with the CUP; like other non-Muslim groups, they came to prefer the liberal wing of the Committee, and after 1911 usually sided with the opposition. Many, however, saw a chance of achieving an independent state if Russia won the war, and Russian propaganda encouraged them in this hope; in the event, the Armenian population of Anatolia barely survived. During the first year of the war Russia armed Armenian insurgents who fought against their own government in north-east Anatolia – and who were accordingly regarded as traitors by Istanbul. Following Enver Pasha’s vainglorious defence of the Ottoman front at Sarıkamış and in the face of a Russian advance, on 25 February 1915 the order was given for Armenian soldiers in the regular army to be disarmed, lest they go over to the Russians and fight with them. Transferred to auxiliary battalions responsible for providing the fighting arm with logistic and other services, they found themselves at the mercy of armed Muslim soldiers detailed to keep order among them.26 In eastern Anatolia attacks on Ottoman government offices, on representatives of the government, and on Muslim civilians alike went on throughout the early months of the war and, with the war effort in peril on all fronts, the government decided on 24 April 1915 to deport the Armenians of eastern Anatolia to Syria and Iraq, well away from the Ottoman–Russian front line. Matters became yet more alarming for the Ottomans when in mid-May a Russian–Armenian army reached Van – driving out the garrison and massacring the population before setting up an Armenian ‘state’27 – and on 27 May the government passed the ‘Deportation Law’, whereby the military authorities were authorized to relocate the Armenians around Lake Van and in the province of Van southwards into south-east Anatolia, to break up concentrations of Armenian population considered breeding-grounds for anti-Ottoman rebellion. Government orders included strict instructions on ensuring the safe conduct of the Armenian deportees,28 yet eyewitness reports from foreign consuls, missionaries and soldiers in eastern Anatolia told of terrible suffering as thousands died on the march and thousands more were massacred. Detailed regulations were also given for the protection of these people’s property,29 but in the autumn of 1915 legislation passed the Ottoman parliament for expropriation of the assets of the Armenian deportees.30

Of the multitude of controversies in Ottoman history, ‘the Armenian question’ is the one least open to detached debate on the part of either the inquiring layman or the historian. The ‘question’ today has come to focus exclusively on whether the massacres constituted genocide – itself a term whose very meaning is the subject of acrimonious debate, the provisions of the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide notwithstanding – and all other aspects of this acutely sensitive matter tend to be scrutinized for their value in clarifying this central point. This focus, and the thicket of argument and counter-argument which attends it, bedevil any wider understanding of the history of the fate of Ottoman Armenians. For most Armenians – a people who exist today in an impoverished landlocked state in the Caucasus, or as besieged minorities in their former homelands in the Middle East, or in communities scattered across the globe – it is an article of faith that the wartime Ottoman government was seeking their extinction. They cite millions of dead, point out that Armenians living blameless lives far away from the front were also killed or forced to leave their homes, and accuse successive Turkish governments of failing to make the contemporary archives fully available to researchers – even of having destroyed the evidence. The Turkish case rests on a number of contentions: that the whole idea that the government of the time ordered the massacres is a nonsense; that more Turks – for ‘Turks’, read ‘Muslims’ – than Armenians were killed in the war; that the fifth column activities of some Armenians made their deportation inevitable; that an Armenian community still exists in Istanbul, demonstrating that the extermination of a whole population was never intended and that the term genocide is therefore inapplicable; that the military tribunal subsequently set up to try those suspected of war crimes was illegitimate since the Allies occupied Istanbul at the time; and that the desperate situation in eastern Anatolia in the early years of the war set Kurd against Armenian in a civil war within the larger conflict as they struggled for dwindling resources.

The 1948 Convention on Genocide outlaws the destruction ‘in whole or in part’ of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, ‘as such’. That terrible massacres took place on both sides is not in doubt; the devil is in the detail, and only genuinely disinterested historical research will establish whether the deportation and death of the Armenians of Anatolia constituted a genocide or not – if that is what must be determined. No ‘smoking gun’ has been found in the Ottoman archives, but this cannot be taken as evidence that no order was given: documents can be lost perfectly innocently, as well as removed. Some who accept Ottoman culpability suggest that the massacres were ordered by the ‘Special Organization’, a secret society of military men inside the CUP which was started by Enver Pasha and under his control at the start of the war, but its records no longer exist. A contemporary anti-CUP journalist and popular historian, Ahmed Refik (Altınay), writing in 1915 following the massacre of Muslims in Van, lent this view credence:

At the beginning of the war numerous bands were sent from Istanbul to Anatolia. They consisted of murderers and thieves freed from prison. They were trained for a week in the War Ministry square and then sent to the front with the help of the Special Organisation. It is these bands which committed the worst crimes in the Armenian atrocities.31

Ahmed Refik’s testimony would seem to shift the burden of guilt to a clandestine body, but does not thereby necessarily exonerate a government whose relations with the Special Organization remain unclear. Circumstantial evidence does not constitute proof, however, and judgement must await the completion of research: the ‘narrative gap in Ottoman Armenian history’,32 whereby the story of the intercommunal violence that took place in Anatolia and Syria during the First World War is told predominantly from one side – the Armenian – certainly demands redress. What is clear, however, is that the issue of the ‘Armenian genocide’ not only continues to bedevil Turkish foreign relations around the world but consigns Armenia, which borders Turkey and is officially at war with another of its neighbours, Turkey’s ally Azerbaijan, to a wretched existence.

It is also clear that the war devastated the already weakened Ottoman economy. The economic policies – or the ‘national economy’ – instituted at the outset of the war, in a complete reversal of the liberal regime which had pertained for centuries, had two main components. The immediate purpose of the abolition of capitulations and the cancellation of foreign debt repayments was to reduce the foreign stranglehold on the Ottoman economy; a second purpose – and one to which great political weight was attached – was to extirpate non-Muslims from the economy by transferring assets to Muslim Turks and encouraging their participation with government contracts and subsidies. From this grew a class of Muslim businessmen of whom the most enterprising prospered by exploiting the extraordinary demand created by the war, and the inflation, speculation and opportunities for profiteering that it brought. Some received lands and business expropriated from Armenians and Greeks. The majority did not, however, and the economy took many years to recover.33

Great Power politics had changed irrevocably by the end of the First World War. The empires of Russia, Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans had either collapsed or were so weak as to be of no strategic consequence, and the fortunes of the Allies – Britain, France and Italy, which had entered the war in 1915 – were in the ascendant. The war exhausted all parties, however, and the victors had more pressing concerns closer to home than the immediate fate of the Ottoman Empire, so a militarily-imposed post-war solution was out of the question. On the other hand, multi-ethnic empires had manifestly failed to satisfy the aspirations of large numbers of their subjects for many years, and national states were widely viewed as the wave of the future. Mandates and spheres of influence within a nation-state were seen to be the answer, allowing the Allies to continue to reap the economic and political rewards they desired, just as they had in the Balkans in the nineteenth century. Another critical factor in determining the configuration of the post-war settlement in the Ottoman Empire was the perceived opportunity to punish the Muslim state that had for so long defied European designs. To this end, ‘the Turk’, as the jingoistic idiom of the day in Britain, for instance, designated the Ottoman Muslim population, must be crushed for ever, and the remaining Christian and Jewish subject peoples of the empire set on the road to self-determination.

For the Ottomans the end of the war followed the collapse of their ally Bulgaria in September 1918, which left Istanbul open to an Allied advance. The cabinet sought an armistice, and negotiations were concluded on 30 October 1918 aboard a British ship moored off Moudros on the island of Lemnos in the northern Aegean. The most immediately alarming of the calculatedly vague provisions was Article 7, giving the victors the right to occupy ‘any strategic points in the event of a situation arising which threatens the security of the Allies’, while Article 24 allowed for Allied occupation, ‘in case of disorder’, of the six Armenian provinces in eastern Anatolia34 – Sivas, Elazığ (Mamuretülaziz), Diyarbakır, Bitlis, Erzurum and Van. Two days later leading CUP figures – Talat, Cemal and Enver among them – fled Istanbul for the Crimea, from where they went on to Berlin.35 On 13 November the Allies arrived to occupy Istanbul,36 in apparent contravention of the implications of an undertaking given by Admiral Calthorpe, Royal Navy commander in the Mediterranean and one of the two British principals in the negotiations, to inform the British government that this would not happen as long as the Ottoman government was able to ensure the security of Allied lives and possessions there.37

The Allies moved swiftly to establish their occupation of Istanbul; the British were first, and soon followed by the French and the Italians. In due course each power was allocated a district of the city to police: the British occupied Pera, Galata and Şişli, the French occupied Istanbul proper and the suburbs to the west, and the Italians the Asian shore of the Bosporus – but they were at odds with one another.38 Their inability to resolve even administrative matters in an amicable fashion was symbolized by the curious episode of the movement that emerged almost immediately to convert Ayasofya – occupied since before the Allied occupation by Turkish troops – back to a church from the mosque it had been for over four and a half centuries. Militant Christian opinion saw in the occupation a chance to reclaim the former Byzantine basilica, and the return of the building to the Oecumenical Patriarch, under the impetus of philhellenic sentiment in Britain, was seen as a means of cementing a strategic alliance with Greece. The first intimation that division between Orthodox and Latin Christians retained all its power to excite passions came with an unexpected proposal that the church should not be Greek Orthodox at all, but Greek Uniate, in union with Rome. The argument for this rested on an assertion that at the time of the conquest of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmed II in 1453, Constantinople had been in communion with Rome – moreover, since the rupture with Rome had occurred in the eleventh century, the church had been Catholic longer than it had been Orthodox. Ultra-Protestant champions of the Greek Orthodox position detected a popish plot, while some with more political feeling saw an attempt by their Italian or French allies to gain the upper hand. The propaganda war that ensued in Britain had strong overtones of the anti-Muslim rhetoric of the Crusades – the Foreign Office was cautious, the do-gooders strident. Most circumspect and anxious of all was the India Office, where officials fully realized the effect the dispossession of the Sultan-Caliph by the British might have on Indian Muslims. Another interested party soon showed its hand: a British pro-Ottoman pressure group, the Anglo-Ottoman Society, concurred with the India Office line of Britain as the protector of Muslims.39

On 24 May 1915 – as the Ottoman government decided that only through deportation of the Armenians of eastern Anatolia could it suppress the domestic insurgency which made fighting in an international conflict so much more intractable – the Allies had declared their intention to pursue ‘all members of the Ottoman government and those of their agents who are implicated in [the] massacres [of Armenians]’. Sultan Mehmed V Reşad died on 3 July 1918 and before the end of the year the new Sultan, his brother Mehmed VI Vahdeddin, had authorized the setting-up of military tribunals to try those responsible for economic crimes, and for the ‘deportations and massacres’ of Armenians – the fear of the defeated Ottoman government was that failure to punish war criminals would incite the Allied occupation forces to retaliate with a harsh application of the terms of the peace. In January 1919 began the preliminary investigations that led to the first war-crimes trials in history, and the proceedings were reported irregularly in the official government gazette, the Takvîm-i vakâyi. The trial of some 120 wartime cabinet ministers and top CUP functionaries began on 28 April 1919; the indictment was based on the testimony of Ottoman Muslims and on documentary evidence. It claimed that the massacres had been carried out with official complicity; Talat Pasha was named as the mastermind; the deportations and killings were said to have been carried out by CUP functionaries in the provinces, in particular by members of the clandestine, extra-legal Special Organization – as Ahmed Refik had reported at the time. The indictment noted that any state officials who had resisted orders were dismissed, while ordinary Muslims who sheltered Armenians had been threatened with death. A week later the court was informed that further crimes against the Armenian population had come to its notice, crimes committed in Istanbul as well as in the provinces, rape, torture and massacre among them. The court concluded that the deportations had been engineered by the CUP central committee, and at the end of May 1919 67 of those in custody were transferred to the British colony of Malta, for there was concern that the Istanbul prison where they were being held might be stormed and the accused released; another 41 suspects were freed at this time. Talat, Cemal, Enver and four other CUP leaders who had all fled Istanbul were found guilty in absentia in early July, and sentenced to death. A number of other trials relating to massacres in specific provincial locations – Trabzon, Harput, Mosul, for instance – followed. By October 1919, however, the momentum of the courts martial had abated, and a year later proceedings ceased altogether.40

The continuing presence of Allied forces in Istanbul and the surrounding area was ostensibly a temporary measure while peace terms were being agreed in Paris. In fact it seemed that what remained of the empire was already being divided, and that the majority Turkish population might be deprived of any territory where it was sovereign. By May 1919 the French were in occupation of Adana, the British were in Kilis, Urfa, Maraş and Gaziantep (all of which the French would take over from them by the end of the year), and the Italians occupied Antalya.41 On 15 May forces from mainland Greece landed at İzmir – the main city of Aegean Anatolia, an area with a significant Ottoman Greek population – with the encouragement of the British whose aim was to prevent further Italian advance.42 The Greek landing was contrary to Ottoman hopes, since in addition to his reassurances that there would be no military occupation of Istanbul, Admiral Calthorpe had told the Ottoman negotiatiors at Moudros that their request that Greek troops not be allowed to land either in Istanbul or İzmir had been forwarded to London.43 The landing caused alarm to all the parties to the Ayasofya dispute, for it raised fears that the Turkish army units in occupation of the basilica-mosque might destroy it rather than let it fall into the hands of the Greeks, should they move on to Istanbul; it spelled the end of the proposal to turn the mosque back into a church.44

The Ottoman government was supine in the face of the post-war crisis and Allied occupation of much of Anatolia, the Grand Vezir, Vahdeddin’s brother-in-law Damad Ferit, considering its task to be merely that of re-establishing order. A high-ranking officer and war hero, Mustafa Kemal, tried unsuccessfully in November 1918 to influence the political process against the occupation from behind the scenes through his contacts in parliament. Although he had long been a member of the CUP, he was untainted by association with the darkest wartime deeds of the Committee’s leaders or its associated underground organizations, and was known to be an opponent of Enver Pasha. With his closest allies – Ali Fuat, Refet (Bele), Rauf (Orbay) and Kazım Karabekir, hero of the eastern front, all of whom also disagreed with government policy, or lack of it – Mustafa Kemal laid secret plans for a military solution.45

Like its Aegean coast, the eastern half of Anatolia’s Black Sea coast was an area with sizeable Ottoman Greek communities, and thousands more Greeks fleeing the Bolshevik revolution arrived here after 1917 causing tensions with the local Muslim population to run high. British troops had arrived in March 1919 to restore order but had neither men enough nor the will to do so. When the Interior Minister suggested sending Mustafa Kemal to investigate, the cabinet agreed, and he was duly appointed inspector of the Ninth Army – whose base was at Erzurum – making him, in effect, the government’s commissioner in all of eastern Anatolia east of Ankara. On 16 May 1919 Mustafa Kemal boarded a steamer at Istanbul and arrived at Samsun, on the Anatolian Black Sea coast, three days later.46

During the course of the war Anatolia had armed itself under the guidance of the Special Organization, a task taken over after November 1918 by its successor, the equally secretive Karakol (‘Guardpost’), whose leaders were prominent CUP members.47 Besides his mission to calm the disturbances on the eastern Black Sea coast, Mustafa Kemal was also charged with disarming the population of the region under his aegis, and supervising the disarmament of the troops of the Ninth Army as required under the terms of the Moudros armistice. As soon as Mustafa Kemal had departed for Samsun, however, the British became suspicious that there was more to his mission than met the eye, and at their urging the Ottoman cabinet ordered his recall. During these same weeks Greek troops pushed forward from İzmir and the Aegean coast – with the consent of the Allies – to seize territory they considered their birthright; despite all they had suffered in the recent war, the Muslim population of western Anatolia mobilized again, determined not to allow them an inch.48

Mustafa Kemal disobeyed orders. Kazım Karabekir and Refet (Bele), his close associates and designated subordinates in his disarmament mission, had preceded him to the east and were based at Erzurum and Sivas respectively; the three men now set off down a path which led irrevocably to a severing of the link between the anti-occupation cause and the authority of the Istanbul government. An important element of this was the forging of an independent resistance movement, to which end Mustafa Kemal and his associates made extensive use of the telegraph to communicate with military officers all over Anatolia and in Thrace to disseminate their message.49 People from all walks of life responded, and congresses of ‘nationalists’, as they referred to themselves, were held at various locations in Anatolia, the most important being those in Erzurum and Sivas in the summer of 1919. The principles agreed amounted to a programme for future action: that the Ottoman lands should retain their independence and integrity within the armistice lines; that there should be no minority privileges and that Greek and Armenian territorial claims should be resisted; and that foreign aid was acceptable as long as it was freely given. It was intended that the Sultan-Caliph should continue to command the allegiance of the people – but the will of the people was supreme.50

In November 1918 the CUP had dissolved itself, and many of its members were under arrest as suspects in the ongoing war-crimes trials. In the elections for the new parliamentary session which opened in Istanbul in January 1920, only candidates sanctioned by the Society for the Defence of National Rights, the superior organ of the many such local societies founded from late 1918 by Muslims all over what remained of the empire to assert the principle of Ottoman national self-determination, had a chance to stand. The defiant sentiments of the Erzurum and Sivas congresses were reiterated in the new parliament on 17 February and adopted as a ‘national pact’ which demanded the inviolability and independence of the territories occupied by the Ottoman Muslim majority, making special reference to Istanbul and the Sea of Marmara; and the holding of plebiscites in areas with an Arab majority, in western Thrace, and in the areas lost to Russia under the Treaty of Berlin. Further, the pact required that the rights of minorities be subject to treaty arrangements.51 The idea of resistance to the occupation was slowly catching on in the corridors of power in Istanbul.

There were two significant features of this vision of the future. The name ‘Turkey’, by which the Ottoman state had for centuries been known in Europe, was adopted in the national pact to signify the territory remaining to the post-war empire. However, although it was now recognized as an inescapable fact – given the readiness of Armenian and Greek subjects of the empire to appeal for foreign support against their own government – that the non-Muslim population was a dangerous liability, and Ottomanism was therefore jettisoned as a legitimizing principle, it was not ‘Turkism’ which replaced it but a sincere appeal to Muslim sentiment. And as Mustafa Kemal made clear in a speech in December 1919, since the Arab future clearly lay elsewhere, it was specifically to the Muslim sentiment of Turks and Kurds that this appeal was directed.52 For the resistance movement at this time, nationalism meant that Muslim Turks and Kurds were the heirs to the Ottoman Empire.

The British were vehement in their condemnation of the nationalists and wary of the widening appeal and clandestine modus operandi of the resistance both in Istanbul and in Anatolia. The endorsement of the national pact by parliament gave it constitutional recognition, and determined the British to impose control in Istanbul in the hope that they could thereby control the government. They obtained approval from the other Allies, but the plan was leaked to the nationalists by French and Italian sympathizers. Nevertheless, on 15/16 March 1920 five leading nationalist deputies including Rauf (Orbay) and Kara Vasıf, leader of Karakol, were arrested by British troops in the parliament building: like the war-crimes suspects the previous year, they and sixteen other nationalists were deported to Malta. Parliament dissolved itself in protest, and 84 of its members fled the capital for the small walled city of Ankara, centrally-located on the Anatolian plateau on the railway line from Istanbul,53 and the headquarters of a nationalist committee that hoped to take over power when the increasingly redundant Istanbul government was no longer able to function.

On 23 April a Grand National Assembly composed of the parliamentarians who had made their way from Istanbul met for the first time in Ankara. The election of Mustafa Kemal as president of this parliament-in-waiting confirmed him as foremost among the nationalists, a development unwittingly connived at by the British in rounding up his associates. The lingering traces of the political Islam promoted by Abdülhamid II were slow to disappear, however. The Ankara nationalists proclaimed their loyalty to Sultan and Caliph – as yet, they offered no viable alternative to this regime – and used the rhetoric of this loyalty to good effect by celebrating the opening of the Assembly with customary verve. Sheep were sacrificed, the Koran was recited and relics of the Prophet were carried in procession.54

The convening of the Grand National Assembly was a momentous event: only twelve days earlier the Sheikhulislam had issued a juridical opinion execrating the nationalists as unbelievers and enjoining true believers to kill them. On 1 May Mustafa Kemal and his companions were condemned to death in absentia. But the Allies were hard-pressed and impotent, and as support for the Grand National Assembly in Ankara widened it came to be seen as a viable alternative to the parliament in Istanbul. With the Greek advance into Anatolia apparently unstoppable during the summer of 1920 – and Edirne and Bursa already captured – on 2 July Mustafa Kemal called the people to rise in a ‘holy war’.55 The counter-appeals of the organs of state in Istanbul – the Allies, the Sultan and the government – which aimed to rouse the people against the nationalists through the state’s claims to Islamic legitimacy, were thereby rendered ineffective.

While events in Turkey were moving fast, the Allies and the non-Turkish Ottoman parties with an interest in the partition of the empire were leisurely debating its future; the peace negotiations began in Paris in 1919, and continued in London and San Remo. The views of the vanquished Ottomans were barely considered: after much bargaining among the participants, an Ottoman delegation was summoned to Sèvres, outside Paris, to sign the treaty hammered out by the victors. At the ceremony on 10 August 1920 the Ottoman signatories agreed on behalf of their countrymen that Thrace be ceded to Greece, and that Greece would be sovereign in the İzmir area for five years – after which the League of Nations would decide whether it became a full part of Greece; the frontiers of an independent Armenian state were to be determined by the US President Woodrow Wilson; the Kurdish areas of south-eastern Anatolia were to remain under Ottoman sovereignty for the present, with the question of whether the Kurds might become independent left to the decision of the League of Nations; and so on. The empire had shrunk to comprise Istanbul and northern Anatolia – large swathes of which were presently under occupation. The capitulations revoked at the outbreak of the war were reinstated, and the Allies prepared to implement the harsh regime they had imposed on the defeated empire.

It was necessary for the Ottoman parliament to ratify the Sèvres treaty – but parliament had been dissolved. It was clear that nothing could be done without the agreement of the nationalists, but they were determined to make the treaty unworkable. The military threat facing the rump empire was very real: only the presence of the British prevented the Greeks from pushing on towards Istanbul, and Bolshevik Russia wanted the east Anatolian provinces of Van and Bitlis, where there had formerly been a significant Armenian population, to become part of an Armenian state.

The credit for masterminding the defence of Turkey must go to Mustafa Kemal as president of the Grand National Assembly, and for carrying it out to the exhausted Muslim conscript army and the people of Anatolia. Refusing Russia’s demands, Mustafa Kemal gave Kazım Karabekir orders to move against the Armenian forces in north-eastern Anatolia. On 30 October 1920 Karabekir and his troops took Kars – which had been lost to the Russians in 1878 – then continued their advance and forced the Armenians to surrender. Yet again Allied plans were set at nought by events on the ground: it was four days after this victory that President Wilson decided that the Armenian state he had been charged with defining should encompass a large area of north-eastern and eastern Turkey extending to Trabzon, Erzurum, Van and Bitlis: this determination was never published, however, so embarrassing was it thought to be. On 2 December the Bolsheviks declared what remained of Armenia a Soviet republic; their former differences with the Grand National Assembly were set aside and a treaty of friendship was signed in March 1921 by which it was agreed that the Turkish–Armenian border should be that decided after the Armenian defeat of the previous winter.56

British support for Greek aggression in Anatolia was particularly galling to the nationalist resistance: the Greeks already had a national state which the Turks did not, and the participation of this aggressor as an equal partner in the peace negotiations seemed unjust. Moreover, the Greek army, unlike the Armenians who had no reliable support in the region where they sought to establish their state, was well-supported locally and therefore far more dangerous to the defenders of Anatolia. Everywhere there was guerrilla fighting between irregulars of all complexions, bandits were ubiquitous, and local Muslims fled to Istanbul. The nationalists used the troops and armed bands whose support they could command to oppose those, whether they be royalists or foreign occupiers, who defied them. From Britain’s point of view, however, the Greek advance of 1920 isolated the nationalists in Anatolia, leaving the British unhindered to tutor the Ottoman government in Istanbul. The various Allies had different intentions with regard to their own future in Anatolia, which only served to deepen the rift between them apparent in their administration of occupied Istanbul. France and Italy were wary of British determination to put the Sèvres treaty fully into effect, and saw the Greeks as pawns in a plan for British control over the eastern Mediterranean. They showed themselves willing to negotiate with the nationalists in Ankara: in June 1921 Italy left its last base on the Anatolian mainland at Anatalya, and by the autumn, after coming under sustained attack from the nationalist forces in Cilicia, France had withdrawn from Anatolia, content with an undisputed mandate in Syria.

The Greeks themselves insisted on their rights in Anatolia as outlined in the Sèvres treaty. The war with the Greeks in 1921–2 – known to the Turks as the War of Independence – was a continuation of the bloody guerrilla struggle that had been going on since the invasion of May 1919. In March 1921 the Greek army suffered its first setback north of Eskişehir but soon regrouped, then in September, having advanced to within 80 kilometres of Ankara, again fell back to the west of the river Sakarya, after a 21-day battle along a 100-kilometre front. In this alien territory the Greeks were harassed on all sides by an unexpectedly tenacious resistance.57

The Greeks were the only party who succeeded in taking by force the territory promised them at Sèvres – and much more besides. That the Sèvres treaty was unenforceable and that the nationalists could no longer be ignored was slowly becoming apparent to Britain, which had for so long been the most dogged supporter of the Sultan and his government, and which saw the nationalists as so unpredictable that it was difficult for its politicians to make the necessary leap of diplomatic imagination and abandon the ‘legitimate’ Ottoman authority. Yet British policy gradually came to favour compromise, and in April 1921, together with France and Italy, Britain declared neutrality in the struggle between the Greeks and the Turkish nationalists.58 In August 1922 the Greeks were defeated by the nationalists and retreated to İzmir, which the victorious Turkish army entered on 9 September and set alight. About three-quarters of some 200,000 Ottoman Greeks who had left western Anatolia after the Balkan wars of 1912–13 had returned following the Greek occupation of the region in 1919; now, both they, and another quarter of a million who had remained throughout, fled to Greece for ever.59 Within ten days of the arrival of the Turkish forces in İzmir, all Greek troops had departed from Anatolia.60

The British were shaken by the nationalist victory, for the road to Istanbul was now open to the doughty defenders of Anatolia. It was the perspicacity of the nationalist commander İsmet (İnönü) and the Allied commander-in-chief in Istanbul, General Harington, rather than the London government, that was responsible for the conclusion of the warfare which had beset the Ottoman Empire intermittently for so many years. On 11 October 1922 an armistice was signed at Mudanya on the south coast of the Sea of Marmara, a short boat-trip from Istanbul. That the empire was represented by İsmet (İnönü), the commander of the western front and a loyal ally of Mustafa Kemal, and not by an envoy from Istanbul, demonstrated the redundancy of the sultan. History had moved on. A month later, the Assembly in Ankara voted to abolish the sultanate, and Sultan Mehmed VI Vahdeddin was succeeded as caliph by his cousin Abdülmecid, the eldest surviving male of the dynasty, who was elected to the office by the Assembly. Long and difficult negotiations with the Powers resulted in the Treaty of Lausanne, signed on 24 July 1923, by which Turkey acquired its present borders – with minor subsequent adjustments – and equal status with its longtime besiegers. All remaining detainees awaiting trial for the massacres of Armenians were released61 – a door had truly been closed on the past. The aspirations expressed in the national pact of 1920 were almost entirely achieved at Lausanne, more than vindicating the nationalists’ struggle, and on 23 August 1923, the Lausanne treaty was ratified by the Grand National Assembly. On 2 October the Allies evacuated Istanbul; on 13 October Ankara was proclaimed the capital; and on 29 October the Republic of Turkey was founded, with Mustafa Kemal as president and İsmet (İnönü) as prime minister.

The refusal of the nationalists to accept the humiliating future designed for Turkey by the architects of the Sèvres treaty was a more dramatic and prolonged expression of the same determination that had driven the Ottoman army to retake Edirne against the odds in 1913. The shadow of Sèvres hangs over Turkey to this day in the lingering fear that foreign enemies and their collaborators inside Turkey may again seek to divide the state which was defended with such tenacity and at such cost. Attitudes in some quarters of Turkish society to the possibility of entry to the European Union are also coloured by the spectre of Sèvres, and European intentions are closely scrutinized for signs of duplicity.


On 3 March 1924, six months after the foundation of the Turkish Republic, the Assembly voted to abolish the caliphate and ordered the Ottoman dynasty – some 120 members altogether62 – into exile. It was a decision that split the Assembly, for some of its members continued to esteem the Caliph and had been upset by the way the faction around Mustafa Kemal had pushed through the proclamation of the constitution. The abolition of the caliphate poisoned relations between more determined nationalists like Mustafa Kemal himself, and moderates like Rauf (Orbay) and Kazım Karabekir who had both visited Caliph Abdülmecid shortly before the office was abolished. It was only the most visible sign of the increasingly autocratic hold Mustafa Kemal and his most trusted colleagues exercised over the Assembly.63

Reaction to the abolition of the caliphate came from across the Muslim world – from India, Egypt and the Far East. Indian Muslims were the most numerous group to express their outrage, a reaction condemned by the more radical of the Turkish nationalists as foreign interference in domestic affairs.64 A proposal for Mustafa Kemal to adopt the title of caliph fell on deaf ears and others, such as the Imam of Yemen and the King of Afghanistan, were put forward as possible candidates. Abdülmecid, deposed and exiled to Switzerland, used his caliphal titles in inviting Islamic leaders to a congress – it never met, but his temerity provoked strong condemnation in Turkey.65 The devotion of most Muslims to their religion and to the Caliph was sincere; the abolition of the caliphate deprived the new republic’s citizens, at a single stroke, of a familiar focus of loyalty just at the time when the Assembly’s distaste for religiosity in general was deepening their sense of alienation from the radical project of modernization – which was equated with westernization – being directed from Ankara. Initially, indeed, the project of modernizing Turkey was, like that of reforming the Ottoman Empire, peculiar to an elite group, one with which many people had little reason to identify: it was easy for them simply to resent it, even while acknowledging that they had finally gained a secure homeland once more.

The trauma of defeat in the Balkan Wars convinced the Ottomans that they must defend Anatolia at all costs, or perish; this imperative had far-reaching demographic consequences, as lands forcibly abandoned by the Armenians of Anatolia were settled by Muslim refugees from the Balkans, who had themselves lost everything. The exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey which followed the Treaty of Lausanne was the final phase in an exodus of Muslims from former Ottoman territory now in the hands of Christian nation-states – or of avowedly atheist ones, in the case of the Soviet Union. By 1923 the population of what remained of the Ottoman Empire – the Republic of Turkey – was about 13 million, of which 98 per cent was Muslim; before the First World War it had been 80 per cent Muslim. With the disappearance of the more highly urbanized Christian communities, the population had also become more rural: before the war, 25 per cent had lived in towns of over 10,000 inhabitants; after the war the figure was 17 per cent.66

Official Ottoman and Turkish census figures illustrate the dramatic decline between 1900 and 1927 in the numbers of non-Muslims in major cities. The most striking statistic is that for Erzurum, at one time the home of many Armenians: here, the non-Muslim population decreased from 32 per cent of the total to 0.1 per cent. In Sivas the decrease was from 33 per cent to 5 per cent. In Trabzon, where historically there was a large Greek population, non-Muslims had declined from 43 per cent to 1 per cent of the total. The non-Muslim population of İzmir fell from 62 per cent to 14 per cent between 1900 and 1927. In Istanbul the change was less striking: the percentage of non-Muslims fell from 56 in 1900 to 35 in 1927.67 The success of the new nationalist republic in avenging itself on the Ottoman Armenians and Greeks who, as the victors saw it, had so treacherously turned against their Muslim compatriots was manifest.

Although the Muslim majority of Turkey included significant populations of Kurds, Arabs, Circassians, Georgians, Abhazians, Laz, Albanians and others, those who were ethnically Turkish predominated as empire gave way to republic. Once the caliphate had been so imperiously despatched, Islamism could have no further relevance: the future was redefined as secular, and religion was relegated to the private sphere of people’s lives. The idea that the Turks were the chosen people of the new republic, yet at the same time that this new republic – the final successor state to the Ottoman Empire – was not created to accommodate the identity of all the peoples within it but that they must conform to its requirements, was slow to mature. In its final form it was the result of political and social engineering drawing on long-existing strands in Ottoman Turkish culture as well as on contemporary western thought and a pragmatism appropriate to the times.

For legal and administrative purposes religion rather than ethnic origin had traditionally been the primary marker of the Ottoman subject population. For example, the only clue to ethnicity in the tax registers which were the backbone of Ottoman bureaucracy was the names recorded: the tax-payers’ ethnicity could be guessed at by assuming that the names they bore – Slav, Greek, Armenian or Turkish, for instance – accurately reflected their origins; it was clearer, however, that those bearing Slav, Greek and Armenian names were Christian, and those with Turkish names were Muslim. The Ottoman dynasty did indeed claim descent from the Turkic Oğuz clan, and a sense of being Turkish had existed from earliest times, but the dynasty had ceased to dwell on this facet of Ottoman identity from the sixteenth century onwards, when such emphasis became redundant as the rival dynasties claiming Central Asian antecedents were defeated. Ethnic categories were also employed in Ottoman writings, where the term ‘Turk’, like ‘Kurd’, and ‘Arab’, was typically used disparagingly – often with the qualifiers ‘ignorant’ or ‘dishonest’. At times ‘Turk’ had been used to denote the aberrant, those who resisted the dictates of the state, such as the adherents of the Safavid Shah Isma‘il in the sixteenth century, or those who raised the standard of rebellion against central government in the seventeenth. The seventeenth-century traveller Evliya Çelebi, for instance, referred to the Turkish peasants he encountered on his journeys as ‘witless Turks’.68

The insights of those who were inquiring into the Turkish past in the years around 1900 offered access to the cultural roots of the Turks, and led to a more positive idea of Turkishness; in this they were assisted by western orientalists preoccupied for some time past with the study of the history of ‘exotic’ peoples, their racial origins and their languages. The Ottoman press made the case for a more ‘Turkish’ language, shorn of its Persian and Arabic accretions, and dictionaries and grammars and geographies and histories of the Turks were published. The Young Ottoman Namık Kemal, whose patriotic writings seem to have inspired Mustafa Kemal,69 saw Turks as the inheritors of a proud past rather than as the vanguard of an emerging nation,70 while Sultan Abdülhamid II also appreciated those who were of ‘pure Turkish blood’, and honoured the Ramazanoğulları clan71which had been established in the Adana region for as long as the Ottomans had been in Anatolia. In the view of his contemporary, the statesman Ahmed Cevdet Pasha, ‘the real strength of the Sublime State lies with the Turks. It is an obligation of their national character and religion to sacrifice their lives for the House of Osman until the last one is destroyed. Therefore it is natural that they be accorded more worth than other peoples of the Sublime State.’72

The 1908 revolution aimed to rescue the remnants of the Ottoman Empire rather than establish a national state. As a basis for political community rather than merely an abstract idea, ‘Turkishness’ had been entertained in CUP writings in the first years of the century but was then downplayed73until, after the events of 1908, intellectuals felt freer to explore the concept further; cultural and patriotic societies with names including the word ‘Turk’ began to proliferate. The notion that Turkishness could be divorced from the Ottoman context came from abroad, from Russian Muslim intellectuals who were ethnically Turks – of Turkic origin, that is, rather than citizens of the Turkish Republic – and were trying to define a basis for their own identity in the turmoil of the final decades of the Russian Empire. Some settled in Istanbul, and were immensely influential in demonstrating to Ottoman Turkish intellectuals that Turkish identity could transcend the framework of the Ottoman Empire. An appeal to ethnic Turks outside Ottoman frontiers, in China, Iran, Iraq and particularly in Russia, who were also struggling to resist imperialism, was one strand of this new identity.74 As a political programme this pan-Turkism was of rather little importance in the Ottoman Empire, existing more as an aspiration in the imaginings of the romantically-inclined; it did not long outlast the empire, and was explicitly condemned by Mustafa Kemal in 1921.75 Its most enthusiastic adherent in Ottoman governing circles was Enver Pasha; thoroughly seduced by the idea, he met his end in 1922 leading a Muslim force against the Red Army in what is today Tajikistan.

The usefulness of the idea of Turkishness in promoting a new national consciousness became apparent after the First World War, when the ‘treachery’ of all other Ottoman peoples – Ottoman Christians at least – was revealed. The concept that what remained of the Ottoman Empire – Turkey – must be the homeland for the Turks was infinitely more durable than pan-Turkism; Turkish nationalism as a political force was efficiently built up and impressed upon the population by means of the iron fist – the crushing of opposition and political difference – in the velvet glove of mass education and military conscription. In the early years of the republic, nationalist intellectuals worked hard to define values that could be instilled in the people to provide a focus of loyalty to the new Turkish state, and at the same time employed to legitimize its creation.

The way Kurdish identity was subsumed within Turkish is an instructive example of the most extreme form taken by the redefinition of the population of the Republic of Turkey as entirely Turkish. The Treaty of Sèvres in 1920 had allowed for the possibility of a Kurdish state but there had been no reference to this in the Lausanne treaty signed three years later; in the same way, earlier plans for local Kurdish autonomy received no mention in the constitution of the new republic promulgated in 1924. No delegation representing the interests of the defeated Ottoman Empire had been invited to the negotiations leading up to the Sèvres treaty; at the Lausanne peace conference the foreign minister of the republic, İsmet (İnönü), led the Turkish nationalist delegation. The unravelling of the empire dissolved the bonds that had united Turks and Kurds – the sultanate, Islamic law and the caliphate – and the modern secular Turkey Mustafa Kemal hoped to create could not countenance a self-governing ethnic group, under leaders wed to their traditional ways: they must be dragged into the new era. The principle of the equality of all citizens without discrimination provided ideological justification for the policy of building a homogeneous nation, and Kurds thus became Turks by decree.76

The meaning of the Turkishness that is the cornerstone of the modern Turkish state is frequently misunderstood by those who fail to realize that it is not a marker of ethnicity but a commitment to membership of an ‘imagined’ nation of Turks in which all are supposedly equal. Since the only minorities historically recognized by the Ottoman state were non-Muslim, the Kurds – as Muslims and citizens of the Turkish Republic – are deemed to be as Turkish as any pure-blooded Turk. European Union recognition of a Kurdish minority is thus incomprehensible to many Turks.

The so-called Sheikh Said revolt that broke out north of Diyarbakır in February 1925 was only the first in a long series of rebellions in the Kurdish provinces between that date and 1930. It prompted the passage of a draconian law for the maintenance of public order subsequently used to silence political opposition to Mustafa Kemal and his close associates. The possibility of organizing an uprising had been under discussion by an underground Kurdish group since 1923; the abolition of the caliphate was only one grievance voiced by rebels interrogated by the British in 1924 – in addition to this, the use of the Kurdish language had recently been forbidden in public places; the use of Turkish in education prevented Kurds from being educated; the word ‘Kurdistan’ was banned from geography books; and Turkish soldiers raided Kurdish villages, taking away animals and food without paying for them. The rebellion began on 13 February when ten tribesmen of the Nakşibendi Sheikh Said of Palu refused to surrender to gendarmes sent to apprehend them for what officialdom termed ‘banditry’. The stand-off continued for three weeks during which a number of Kurdish tribes supported the rebels, and by 7 March they had the city of Diyarbakır under siege. The uprising extended over a wide area of eastern Anatolia to the west of Lake Van; local military forces proved unable to suppress it and martial law was imposed, but when this too proved inadequate, troops were brought in from elsewhere, and the uprising was put down with much bloodshed. The besiegers of Diyarbakır surrendered on 15 April, and by the end of May the rebellion had been stamped out. The rebellion – which was overtly both Kurdish and Islamist in character – was a response to the consequences of change – the apprehension felt by the large sheikhly landowners in the region that they would be the victims in the republican revolution now under way. Many Kurds were hanged, and many others were deported westwards. It has been said that the Turkish army lost more men in the suppression of the Sheikh Said rebellion than during the War of Independence.77

In the wake of the rebellion, opposition to the regime headed by Mustafa Kemal and İsmet (İnönü) was effectively silenced. Emergency measures to last two years were embodied in the ‘Law for the Maintenance of Order’ passed by the Assembly: many newspapers were closed; martial law continued in the east; the ‘independence tribunals’ set up to try those not convinced of the nationalist cause in 1920 were again pressed into service, and many dissidents were hanged – a minimum of 240 out of some 2,500 arrested by one reckoning,78 660 out of 7,500 by another.79 In 1924 the Progressive Republican Party had broken away from Mustafa Kemal’s People’s Party (founded in September 1923); it included many of his erstwhile close colleagues – among them Kazım Karabekir and Rauf (Orbay) – who were disillusioned with the uncompromising turn which politics was taking, and offered the only formal opposition in the Assembly. At the beginning of June 1925 the cabinet decided to close it down.80

With repression came fundamental changes intended to reorganize Turkish society, and it was in the east, again, that these innovations aroused a heightened public response. Even the enforced change of headgear from fez to brimmed hat had its victims, for it was as offensive to many as the earlier replacement of the turban by the fez under Sultan Mahmud II in the late 1820s. In the same week in November 1925 that the hat law came into effect, another ordinance closed dervish lodges and the graves and shrines of holy men and sultans – all of which had always played an important part in the everyday lives of ordinary people.* That December, the lunar Muslim calendar was abandoned in favour of the international Christian-era calendar, and the 24-hour clock replaced the system of numbering hours from sunset. The next year saw major legal reforms as foreign law-codes were borrowed from the West. The new civil code was Swiss in origin and allowed, inter alia, for sweeping changes in the position of women, awarding them a greatly improved status both at home and in the work-place. It is for this that the women of today’s Turkey express their lasting gratitude to Mustafa Kemal.81

For the two years from 1925 during which the Law for the Maintenance of Order was energetically applied, the press was intimidated: liberal and conservative, religious and communist papers alike were closed down – recalling Abdülhamid II’s periodic bouts of censorship; only those extolling the government line could be published.82 An attempt on Mustafa Kemal’s life in 1926 provided him with a pretext to rid himself of the last remnants of the old CUP. Although the party was officially defunct, some of its members had continued their activities through the period of resistance to Allied occupation and beyond. Their last burst had been a meeting of the party’s former leaders in 1923 which resulted in a manifesto proposing cooperation with Mustafa Kemal, an offer he rejected. Since all political opposition had effectively been outlawed in 1925, it was easy to manipulate the assassination attempt into an excuse for the trial and execution of leading CUP members. The tribunal trying them claimed that the 1923 meeting was the origin of the assassination plot.83

Over 36 hours between 15 and 20 October 1927, on the occasion of the first congress of the successor to the People’s Party, the Republican People’s Party (which was to monopolize power until after the Second World War), Mustafa Kemal delivered a speech replete with rhetorical and polemical passages in which he set forth his version of the story of the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the Turkish Republic. The chief protagonist in the drama was, of course, Mustafa Kemal himself. The speech is not a straightforward narrative history of events between 1919 and 1927 but begins on 19 May 1919, the day he reached Samsun from Istanbul. Its most reliable English edition runs to 724 pages, of which the first 657 take the story up to 29 October 1923 and the proclamation of the republic.84 In what remained of the speech Mustafa Kemal castigated those who were less than enthusiastic about the new order, including journalists (for giving space to expressions of opposition) and, in particular, his once close associate, Rauf (Orbay).85 Rauf and Kazım Karabekir and their fellows – in a section of the speech prefaced ‘Now . . . I will tell you something about a great plot’ – were also criticized at length for founding the breakaway Progressive Republican Party which had dared to challenge his authority in 1924. The forced dissolution of the PRP and, by implication, Mustafa Kemal’s inalienable right to set the terms of political debate ‘in accordance with the will of the people’ were thereby justified.86

The history of the Turkish Republic, whether written by Turks or foreigners, has invariably ignored the repression that accompanied the creation of the post-Ottoman state, and emphasized Mustafa Kemal’s part in it to the almost complete neglect of the other equally estimable individuals, from peasants to women to military commanders, who resisted the partition of the empire proposed by the Treaty of Sèvres and worked to save what remained of it to establish a homeland for the Turks. Yet until he won unreserved acclaim for masterminding the victory over the Greek insurgents in western Anatolia in 1921–2 it was not inevitable that Mustafa Kemal would emerge as Turkey’s undisputed political leader, or that he would achieve the power to dispose of those who did not wholeheartedly concur with his vision of the future. According to recent studies, the resistance struggle that followed the First World War was planned and carried out by the CUP: Mustafa Kemal and his supporters were not at first among its leaders. In the cause of throwing the figure of Mustafa Kemal into high relief, the extent of the break with the past associated with the transition from late empire to early republic has also been exaggerated. While the republic was in many ways very different from the empire – in its territorial extent and demography, for instance – there were also significant continuities from the Young Turk period, in political leadership, bureaucracy, and the army. Some other aspects, such as ideology, are more difficult to analyse: both Ottomanism and Islamism were jettisoned in favour of the pre-eminence of the Turks; the state was deemed supreme, and the voice of the individual or group was correspondingly diminished; elitism and a concomitant distrust of the people were manifest; and an emphasis on education and a belief in progress were aspects of late Ottoman thought that were retained at the core of republican ideology.87

Public life in modern Turkey is framed by the ideology known as ‘Kemalism’, the particular version of Turkish nationalism manifested in Mustafa Kemal’s actions and words and interpreted by the military ‘guardians’ of the state. To separate the man from the myth is no easy task. Mustafa Kemal promoted a cult centred on himself by encouraging the erection of statues in his honour across Turkey – commemorating, in particular, key events in the creation of the republic88 – and the practice has been continued by the keepers of his legacy to the almost total exclusion of any other heroes of the resistance and the early republic – indeed, of any other famous man or woman. During Mustafa Kemal’s lifetime the talented military commander Kazım Karabekir, a man to whom the republic also owes a large measure of gratitude for its existence, tried to publish a memoir of his part in the post-war struggle; it was promptly suppressed; and when an extended version of his memoirs was produced in 1960 (the year of the first of three military coups since the founding of the republic, the others being in 1971 and 1980) the publisher was sued, and the memoirs impounded and only released when the trial ended nine years later.89 Since 1953 the mortal remains of Mustafa Kemal have lain in a monumental mausoleum overlooking the city of Ankara, the focus of much state protocol; few remember the final resting-place of his associates, except of his henchmanİsmet (İnönü). Such a staunchly Kemalist inclination on the part of the Turkish Republic has not, however, been a constant phenomenon; it acquired exclusive pervasiveness in public life with the military coup of 12 September 1980.

A section of the speech Mustafa Kemal made in 1927 was devoted to the abolition of the caliphate, which as he realized was still a highly controversial issue. In a briefer section, the banning of the fez and the proscription of dervish orders were justified as attacks on ignorance, and the legitimacy of adopting draconian measures such as the ‘independence tribunals’ and the Law for the Maintenance of Order was asserted.90 Employing an argument which has echoed down the years in the wake of successive military coups, he maintained that

We never used the exceptional measures, which were in any case legal, to set ourselves in any way above the law. On the contrary, we applied them to restore peace and quiet in the country . . . as soon as the necessity for the application of the exceptional measures to which we had turned no longer existed, we did not hesitate to renounce them.91

The military and their civilian supporters who appointed themselves to share the burden of guarding the Turkish state and the fanning of the flame of Kemalism perpetuate and interpret Mustafa Kemal’s legacy to convince the citizens of the modern republic to conform to the values which he embodied – not only its secularism and forward-looking modernity in public life, but also such authoritarian inclinations as the crushing of dissent and constraints on the freedom of speech. Mustafa Kemal’s actions were informed by the perils of the years during which he was in power; but times have changed, and solutions prompted by the ideals and fears of the 1920s are not best suited to the problems and challenges of the twenty-first century. The past weighs heavily, however, and many Turks would disagree with the disparaging western view associating Kemalism with ‘militarism, authoritarianism and ethnic nationalism’: for them, Kemalism is ‘synonymous with progress and, therefore, with freedom’.92 There are encouraging signs today, however, that greater diversity of expression is becoming acceptable and the place of the military in Turkish public life is receding.

Like the Ottoman Empire, for which the vision of the future embodied in Osman’s dream supplied legitimation, the young Turkish Republic required a founding myth – and the speech made by Mustafa Kemal in 1927 provided it. He and his unsung allies achieved a great triumph in wresting victory from the jaws of despair, and gave the republic an unassailable legitimacy. The version of history so cogently expressed by Mustafa Kemal in his speech has survived great political changes in Turkey. A historian of the future, looking back and seeing the present as merely an instant in the longue durée, might find that the Turkish Republic eventually discovered it no longer had any need to emphasize Mustafa Kemal’s dream, and let it slip into history – alongside Osman’s dream and the various other myths that had sustained the Ottoman Empire before it.

* The government was ultimately as little successful as Mahmud II – the orders are again, today, a vibrant part of Turkish life.

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