‘The greatest single truth to declare itself in the wake of 1989,’ J.G.A. Pocock wrote two years afterwards,
is that the frontiers of ‘Europe’ towards the east are everywhere open and indeterminate. ‘Europe’, it can now be seen, is not a continent – as in the ancient geographers’ dream – but a subcontinent: a peninsula of the Eurasian landmass, like India in being inhabited by a highly distinctive chain of interacting cultures, but unlike it in lacking a clearly marked geophysical frontier. Instead of Afghanistan and the Himalayas, there are vast level areas through which conventional ‘Europe’ shades into conventional ‘Asia’, and few would recognise the Ural mountains if they ever reached them.
But, he went on, empires – of which in its fashion the European Union must be accounted one – had always needed to determine the space in which they exercised their power, fixing the borders of fear or attraction around them.
A decade and a half later, the matter has assumed a more tangible shape. After the absorption of all the former Comecon states, there remain the untidy odds and ends of the once independent Communisms of Yugoslavia and Albania – the seven small states of the ‘West Balkans’ – yet to be integrated in the EU. But no one doubts that, a pocket still to be mopped up behind borders that already extend to the Black Sea, they will enter it in due course. The great issue facing the Union lies further east, at the point where no vast steppe confounds the eye, but a long tradition has held that a narrow strip of water separates one world from another. No one has ever missed the Bosphorus. ‘Every schoolchild knows that Asia Minor does not form part of Europe,’ Sarkozy told voters en route to the Elysée, promising to keep it so: a pledge to be taken in the spirit of the conjugal reunion on offer in the same campaign. Turkey will not be dealt with in that way. Within the EU the official consensus that it should become a member-state in full standing has for some time now been overwhelming. Such agreement does not exclude arrière-pensées in this or that government – Germany, France and Austria have all at different points entertained them – but against any passage of these to action lies the formidable barrier of a unanimity of media opinion more complete, and more committed to Turkish entry, than that of the Council or Commission itself. There is also the simple fact that no country that has been accepted as a candidate for accession to the EU has ever, once negotiations were opened, been rejected by it.
The expansion of the EU to the lands of the Warsaw Pact did not require much political defence or illustration. The countries concerned were all indisputably European, however the term was defined, and all had famously suffered under Communism. To bring them into the Union was not just to heal an ancient division of the continent, anchoring them in a common liberal-democratic capitalism, but to compensate the East for its misfortunes after 1945, relieving the West of a bad conscience at the difference in fates between them. They would also, of course, constitute a strategic glacis against any resurgence of Russia, and offer a nearby pool of cheap labour, although this received less public emphasis. The uncontentious logic here is not, on face of it, immediately transferable to Turkey. The country has long been a market economy, held parliamentary elections, constituted a pillar of Nato, and is now situated further from Russia than ever in the past. It would look as if only the last of the motives in Eastern Europe, the economic objective, applies – not unimportant, certainly, but incapable of explaining the priority Turkey’s entry into the EU has acquired in Brussels.
Yet a kind of symmetry with the case for Eastern Europe can be discerned in the principal reasons advanced for Turkish membership in Western capitals. The fall of the Soviet Union may have removed the menace of Communism, but there is now – it is widely believed – a successor danger in Islamism. Rampant in the authoritarian societies of the Middle East, it threatens to stretch into immigrant communities within Western Europe itself. What better prophylactic against it than to embrace a staunch Muslim democracy within the EU, functioning as both beacon of a liberal order to a region in desperate need of a more enlightened political model and sentinel against every kind of terrorism and extremism? This line of thought originated in the US, with its wider range of global responsibilities than the EU, and continues to be uppermost in American pressure for Turkish entry into the Union. Much as Washington set the pace for Brussels during expansion into Eastern Europe, laying down Nato lights on the runway for subsequent descent by the EU, so it championed the cause of Turkey well before Council or Commission came round to it.
But although the strategic argument, for a geopolitical bulwark against the wrong kinds of Islam, is now standard in European columns and editorials, it does not occupy quite the same position as in America. In part, this is because the prospect of sharing a border with Iraq and Iran is not altogether welcome to many within the EU, however vigilant the Turkish Army might prove. Americans, at a greater distance, find it easier to see the bigger picture. But such reservations are not the only reason why this theme, central though it remains, does not dominate discussion in the EU as completely as in the US. For another argument has more intimate weight. Current European ideology holds the Union to offer the highest moral and institutional order in the world, combining – with all due imperfections – economic prosperity, political liberty and social solidarity in a way no rival can match. But is there not some danger of cultural closure in the very success of this unique creation? Amid all its achievements, might not Europe risk falling – the very word a reproof – into Eurocentrism: too homogeneous and inward-looking an identity, when the advance guard of civilised life is necessarily ever more multicultural?
Turkey’s incorporation into the EU, so the case goes, would lay such fears to rest. The greatest single burden, for present generations, of a narrowly traditional conception of Europe is its identification with Christianity, as a historic marker of the continent. The greatest challenge to this heritage long came from Islam. What then could be a more triumphant demonstration of a modern multiculturalism than the peaceful intertwining of the two faiths, at state level and within civil society, in a super-European system stretching, like the Roman Empire, to the Euphrates? That Turkey’s government is for the first time professedly Muslim should not be viewed as a handicap, but as a recommendation for entry, promising just that transvaluation into a multicultural form of life the Union needs for the next step in its constitutional progress. For its part, just as the new-found or restored democracies of the post-Communist East have benefited from the steadying hand of the Commission in their journey to normalcy, so Turkish democracy will be sheltered and strengthened within the Union. If enlargement to Eastern Europe repaired a moral debt to those who lived through Communism, inclusion of Turkey can redeem the moral damage done by a complacent – or arrogant – parochialism. In such dual atonement, Europe has the capacity to become a better place.
In this self-critical mode, a historical contrast is often drawn. Christian Europe was for centuries disfigured by savage religious intolerance, by every kind of persecution, inquisition, expulsion, pogrom resorted to in the attempt to stamp out other communities of faith, Jewish or Muslim, not to speak of heretics within the faith itself. The Ottoman Empire, on the other hand, tolerated Christians and Jews, without repression or forcible conversion, allowing different communities to live peaceably together under Muslim rule, in a premodern multicultural harmony. Not only was this Islamic order more enlightened than its Christian counterparts, but far from being an external Other of Europe, for centuries it formed an integral part of the European system of powers itself. Turkey is in that sense no newcomer to Europe. Rather its entry into the Union would restore a continuity, of mixtures and contacts, from which we still have much to learn.
Such, roughly speaking, is the discourse of Turkish entry into the EU that can be heard in chancelleries and chat rooms, learned journals and leading articles, on platforms and talk shows across Europe. One of its great strengths is the absence to date of any non-xenophobic alternative to it. Its weakness lies in the series of images d’Epinal out of which much of it is woven, obscuring the actual stakes in Turkey’s suit to join the Union. Certainly, any consideration of these must begin with the Ottoman Empire. For the first, and most fundamental difference between the Turkish candidature and all those from Eastern Europe is that in this case the Union is dealing with the descendant of an imperial state, for long a far greater power than any kingdom of the West. A prerequisite of grasping that descent is a realistic understanding of the originating form of that empire.
The Osmanli Sultanate, as it expanded into Europe between the 14th and 16th centuries, was indeed more tolerant – however anachronistic the term – than any Christian realm of the period. It is enough to compare the fate of the Muslims in Catholic Spain with that of the Orthodox in the Balkans under Ottoman rule. Christians and Jews were neither forced to convert nor expelled by the sultanate, but allowed to worship as they wished, in the House of Islam. This was not toleration in a modern sense, nor specifically Ottoman, but a traditional system of Islamic rule dating to the Umayyad Caliphate of the eighth century. Infidels were subject peoples, legally inferior to the ruling people. Semiotically and practically, they were separate communities. Taxed more heavily than believers, they could not bear arms, hold processions, wear certain clothes, have houses over a certain height. Muslims could take infidel wives; infidels could not marry Muslim women.
The Ottoman state that inherited this system arose in 14th-century Anatolia as one Turkic chieftainry competing with others, expanding to the east and south at the expense of local Muslim rivals and to the west and north at the expense of the remains of Byzantine power. For two hundred years, as its armies conquered most of Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, the empire it built retained this bidirectionality. But there was never any doubt where its strategic centre of gravity, and primary momentum, lay. From the beginning, Osmanli rulers had drawn their legitimacy from holy war – gaza – on the frontiers of Christendom. The subjugated regions of Europe formed the richest, most populous and politically prized zones of the empire, and the theatre of the overwhelming majority of its military campaigns, as successive sultans set out for the House of War to enlarge the House of Islam. The Ottoman state was founded, as its most recent historian Caroline Finkel writes, on ‘the ideal of continuous warfare’. Recognising no peers, and respecting no pieties of peaceful coexistence, it was designed for the battlefield, without territorial fixture or definition.
But it was also pragmatic. From the outset, ideological warfare against infidels was combined with instrumental use of them for pursuit of it. From the perspective of the absolutist monarchies that arose in Western Europe somewhat later, each claiming dynastic authority and enforcing religious conformity within its realm, the peculiarity of the empire of Mehmed II and his successors lay in its combination of aims and means. On the one hand, the Ottomans waged unlimited holy war against Christendom. On the other hand, by the 15th century the state relied on a levy – the devshirme – of formerly Christian youths, picked from subject populations in the Balkans themselves not obliged to become Muslims, to compose its military and administrative elite: the kapi kullari or ‘slaves of the sultan’.
For upwards of two hundred years, the dynamism of this formidable engine of conquest, its range eventually stretching from Aden to Belgrade and the Crimea to the Rif, held Europe in awe. But by the end of the 17th century, after the last siege of Vienna, its momentum had run out. The ‘ruling institution’ of the empire ceased to be recruited from the offspring of unbelievers, reverting to native-born Muslims, and the balance of arms gradually turned against the Porte. After the late 18th century, when Russia inflicted successive crushing defeats on it north of the Black Sea, and revolutionary France took Egypt in a trice, the Ott0man state never won a major war again. In the 19th century its survival depended on the mutual jealousies of the predator powers of Europe more than any inner strength of its own. Time and again, it was rescued from further amputation or destruction only by the intervention of rival foreign capitals – London, Paris, Vienna, in one memorable crisis even St Petersburg – at the expense of each other.
But though external pressures, ever more ominous as the technological gap between Ottoman and European empires widened, might in principle have continued to neutralise each other long enough to allow for an effective overhaul of state and society to meet the challenge from the West – the example of the Porte’s rebel satrap in Egypt, Mehmet Ali, showed what could be done – the rise of nationalism among the subject Christian peoples of the Balkans undermined any diplomatic equilibrium. Greek independence, reluctantly seconded by Britain and France from fear that Russia would otherwise become its exclusive patron, shocked the sultanate into its first serious efforts at internal reform. In the Tanzimat period (1839-76), modernisation became more systematic. The palace was sidelined by the bureaucracy. Administration was centralised; legal equality of all subjects and security of property were proclaimed; education and science promoted; ideas and mores imported from the West. Under successive pro-British viziers, the Ottoman order took its place within the European state system.
But the reformers of the time, however secular-minded, could not transform the religious foundations of Ottoman rule. Three inequalities were codified by tradition: between believers and unbelievers, masters and slaves, men and women. Relations between the sexes altered little, though by the end of the century preference for boys had become less frequent among the elite, and slavery was – very gradually – phased out. Politically, the crucial relationship was the first. Ostensibly, discrimination against unbelievers was abolished by the reforms. But disavowed in principle, it persisted in practice, as non-Muslims continued to be subject to a poll tax, now disguised as payment for draft exclusion, from which Muslims were exempt. The army continued to be reserved for believers, and all significant civilian offices in the state remained a monopoly of the faithful. Such protection of the supremacy of Islam was, however, insufficient to appease popular hostility to reforms perceived as a surrender to European pressures and fashions, incompatible with piety or the proper position of believers in the empire. Quite apart from unseemly displays of Western ways of life in the cities, unpopular rural taxes were extended to Muslims, while Christian merchants, not to speak of foreign interests, flourished under the free trade regime conceded by the reformers to the Western powers.
Neither consistently modern nor robustly traditional, the Tanzimat regimes were also fiscal failures. Tax-farming, officially disavowed, lingered on; rather than increasing, public revenues declined; capitulations – extra-territorial privileges granted to foreigners – persisted. Foreign borrowing ballooned, before finally bursting into state bankruptcy in 1875. Two years later, Ottoman armies were once again thrashed by Russia, and in 1878 – after a brief constitutional episode had fizzled – the empire was forced to accept the independence of Serbia, Montenegro and Romania, and the autonomy of most of Bulgaria. For the next thirty years, power swung back from the bureaucracy to the palace, in the person of Sultan Abdulhamid II, who combined technological and administrative modernisation – railways, post offices, warships – with religious restoration and police repression. With the loss of most of the Balkans, the population of the empire had become more than 70 per cent Muslim. To cement loyalty to his regime, the sultan refurbished the long neglected title of caliph, broadcasting pan-Islamic appeals, and topping up the ranks of his administration with Arabs. But no amount of ideological bluster, or fabrication of tradition in the approved Victorian style, could alter the continued dependence of the empire on a public debt administration run by foreigners, and a European balance of power incapable of damping down the fires of nationalism in the Balkans.
A broad swathe of Ottoman rule still extended to the Adriatic, in which various insurgent bands – most prominently, the Macedonian secret organisation IMRO – roamed the hills, and the cream of the army was stationed in garrison towns to hold what was left of Rumelia, the rich original core of the empire, its ‘Roman’ part. Here opposition to the sultan’s tyranny had become widespread by the turn of the century among the young of all ethnic groups, not least Turks themselves. In 1908 rumours of an impending Russo-British carve-up of the region triggered a military rising in Monastir and Salonika. The revolt spread rapidly, and within a couple of weeks had become irresistible. Abdulhamid was forced to call elections, in which the organisation behind the uprising, newly revealed to the world as the Committee of Union and Progress, won a resounding majority across the empire. The Young Turks had taken power.
The Revolution of 1908 was a strange, amphibious affair. In many ways it was premonitory of the upheavals in Persia and China that followed three years later, but with features that set it apart from all subsequent such risings in the 20th century. On the one hand, it was a genuine constitutional movement, arousing popular enthusiasm right across the different nationalities of the empire, and electing an impressively interethnic parliament on a wide suffrage: an authentic expression of the still liberal zeitgeist of the period. On the other hand, it was a military coup mounted by a secret organisation of junior officers and conspirators, which can claim to be the first in a long line of such episodes in the Third World. The two were not disjoined, since the architects of the coup, a small group of plotters, gained empire-wide support virtually overnight in the name of constitutional rule – their party numbering hundreds of thousands within a year. Nor, formally speaking, were the objectives of each distinct: in the vocabulary of the time, the ‘liberty, equality, fraternity and justice’ proclaimed by the first were conceived as conditions of securing the integrity of the empire sought by the second, in a common citizenship shared by all its peoples.
But that synthesis was not – could never be – stable. The prime mover in the revolution was the core group of officers in the CUP. Their overriding aim was the preservation of the empire, at whatever cost. Constitutional or other niceties were functional or futile to it, as the occasion might be – means, not ends in themselves. They weren’t liberals but nor were they in any sense anti-colonial, in the fashion of later military patriots in the Third World, often authoritarian enough, but resolute enemies of Western imperialism – the Free Officers in Egypt, the Lodges in Argentina, the Thirty Comrades in Burma. The threats to the Ottoman Empire came, as they had long done, from European powers or their regional allies, but the Young Turks did not reject the West culturally or politically: rather, they wanted to enter the ring of its Machtpolitik on equal terms, as one contestant among others. For that, a transformation of the Ottoman state was required, to give it a modern mass base of the kind that had become such a strength of its rivals.
But here they faced an acute dilemma. What ideological appeal could hold the motley populations – divided by language, religion and ethnic origin – of the Ottoman Empire together? Some unifying patriotism was essential, but the typical contemporary ingredients for one were missing. The nearest equivalent to the Ottoman order was the Habsburg Empire, but even it was considerably more compact, overwhelmingly of one basic faith, and in possession of a still respected traditional ruler. The Young Turks, in charge of lands stretching from the Yemen to the Danube, and peoples long segregated and stratified in a hierarchy of incompatible confessions, had no such advantages. What could it mean to be a citizen of this state, other than simply the contingent subject of a dynasty that the Young Turks themselves treated with scant reverence, unceremoniously ousting Abdulhamid within a year of taking power? The new regime could not escape an underlying legitimacy deficit. An awareness of the fragility of its ideological position was visible from the start. For the Young Turks retained the discredited monarchy against which it had rebelled, installing a feeble brother of Abdulhamid as a figurehead successor in the sultanate, and even trooping out, in farcical piety, behind the bier of Abdulhamid when the old brute, a King Bomba of the Bosphorus, finally expired.
Such shreds of a faded continuity were naturally not enough to clothe the new collective emperor. The CUP needed the full dress of a modern nationalism. But how was this to be defined? A two-track solution was the answer. For public consumption, it proclaimed a ‘civic’ nationalism, open to any citizen of the state, no matter what their creed or descent: a doctrine with broad appeal, greeted with a tremendous initial outburst of hope and energy among even the hitherto most disaffected groups in the empire, including Armenians. In secret conclave, on the other hand, it prepared for a more confessional or ethnic nationalism, restricted to Muslims or Turks. This was a duality that in its way reflected the peculiar structure of the CUP itself. As a party, it had won a large parliamentary majority in the first free elections the empire had known, and with a brief intermission in 1912-13, directed the policies of the state. But its leadership shunned the front of the stage, taking neither cabinet posts nor top military commands, leaving these to an older generation of soldiers and bureaucrats. Behind a façade of constitutional propriety and deference to seniority, however, actual power was wielded by the party’s Central Committee, a group of 50 zealots controlling a political organisation modelled on the Macedonian and Armenian undergrounds. The term Young Turks was not a misnomer. When it took over, the key leaders of the CUP were in their thirties or late twenties. Numerically, army captains and majors predominated, but civilians also figured at the highest level. The trio who eventually occupied the limelight would be Enver and Cemal, from the officer corps, and Talat, a former functionary in the post office. Behind them, publicly less visible, but hidden drivers of the organisation, were two military doctors, Selânikli Nazim and Bahaettin Sakir. All five top leaders came from the ‘European’ sector of the Empire: the coxcomb Enver from a wealthy family in Istanbul, the mastiff Talat and the clinical Sakir from today’s Bulgaria, Nazim from Salonika, the slightly older Cemal from Mytilene.
The CUP was soon put to the test of defending the empire it had been set up to defend. In 1911 Italy seized Libya, the last Ottoman province in North Africa, Enver vainly attempting to organise desert resistance. A year later, Serbia, Montenegro, Greece and Bulgaria combined to launch a joint attack on the Ottoman armies in the Balkans, which within a matter of weeks had all but swept them out of Europe. The CUP, which had been briefly dislodged from power in the summer of 1912, escaped the odium of this massive defeat, and when its enemies fell out with each other, was able to regain at least the province of Edirne. But the scale of the imperial catastrophe was traumatic. Rumelia had long been the most advanced region of the empire, the prime recruiting ground of Ottoman elites from the time of the devshirme to the Young Turks themselves, who kept their Central Committee in Salonika, not Istanbul, down to 1912. Its final loss, not even at the hands of a great power, reducing Ottoman domains in Europe to a mere foothold, and expelling some 400,000 Turks from their homes, was the greatest disaster and humiliation in the history of the empire.
The effect on the CUP was twofold. The empire was now 85 per cent Muslim, lowering any incentive for political appeals to the remaining quotient of unbelievers, and increasing the attraction of playing the Islamic card to rally support for its regime. But though the leaders of the committee, determined to keep hold of the Arab provinces, made ample use of this, they had before them the bitter lesson taught by the Albanians, who had seized the opportunity offered by the Balkan Wars to gain their independence – a defection by fellow Muslims that suggested a common religion might not be enough to prevent a further disintegration of the state they had inherited. The result was to tilt the ideological axis of the CUP, especially its inner circle, in an increasingly ethnic – Turkish, as distinct from Muslim – direction. The shift involved no cost in outlook: virtually to a man, the Young Turks were positivists whose view of matters sacred was thoroughly instrumental.
Nor were they disposed to accept a diminished station for the empire. Expulsion from Rumelia did not inspire a defensive posture, but an active will to avenge defeats in the Balkans, and recoup imperial losses. ‘Our anger is strengthening: revenge, revenge, revenge; there is no other word,’ Enver wrote to his wife. In a speech he exclaimed:
How could a person forget the plains, the meadows, watered with the blood of our forefathers; abandon those places where Turkish raiders had hidden their steeds for a full four hundred years, with our mosques, our tombs, our dervish retreats, our bridges and our castles, to leave them to our slaves, to be driven out of Rumelia to Anatolia? This was beyond a person’s endurance. I am prepared gladly to sacrifice the remaining years of my life to take revenge on the Bulgarians, the Greeks and the Montenegrins.
The lesson the CUP drew from 1912 was that Ottoman power could be upheld only by alliance with at least one of Europe’s Great Powers, who had stood aside as it was rolled up. The Young Turks had no particular preference as to which, trying in turn Britain, Austria-Hungary, Russia and France, only to be rebuffed by each, before finally succeeding with Germany on 2 August 1914, two days before the outbreak of the First World War. By now the CUP occupied the foreground: Enver was minister of war, Talat of the interior, Cemal of the navy. The treaty as such did not commit the empire to declare war on the Entente, and the Young Turks thought to profit from it without much risk. They banked on Germany routing France in short order, whereupon Ottoman armies could join up safely with the Central Powers to knock out Russia, and garner the fruits of victory – regaining a suitable belt of Thrace, the Aegean islands, Cyprus, Libya, all of Arabia, territory ceded to Russia in the Caucasus, and lands stretching to Azerbaijan and Turkestan beyond.
But when France did not collapse in the west, while Germany pressed for rapid Ottoman entry into the war to weaken Russia in the east, much of the cabinet got cold feet. It was only after weeks of disagreement and indecision that Enver, the most bellicose member of the junta now in control, succeeded in bouncing the government into war in late October 1914, with an unprovoked naval bombardment of Russian coastal positions in the Black Sea. However, the Ottoman navy, even manned by German crews, was in no position to effect landings in the Ukraine. Where then was Young Turk mettle to be displayed? Symbolic forces were eventually sent north to buff out Austro-German lines in Galicia, and half-hearted expeditions dispatched, at the prompting of Berlin, against British lines in Egypt. But these were sideshows. The crack troops of the army, led by Enver in person, were flung across the Russian border in the Caucasus. There, waiting to be recovered, lay the three provinces of Batum, Ardahan and Kars, subtracted from the empire at the Conference of Berlin in 1878. In the snowbound depths of the winter of January 1915, few returned. The Ottoman attack was shattered more completely than any comparable offensive in the Great War – fewer than one out of seven survived the campaign. As they straggled back, frost-bitten and demoralised, their rearguard was left exposed.
In Istanbul, the CUP reacted swiftly. This was no ordinary retreat into the kind of rear where another Battle of the Marne might be fought. The whole swathe of territory extending across both sides of the frontier was home to Armenians. What place could they have in the conflict that had now been unleashed? Historically the oldest inhabitants of the region, indeed of Anatolia at large, they were Christians whose Church – dating from the third century – could claim priority over that of Rome itself. But by the 19th century, unlike Serbs, Bulgars, Greeks or Albanians, they comprised no compact national majority anywhere in their lands of habitation. In 1914, about a quarter were subjects of the Russian, three-quarters of the Ottoman Empire. Under the tsars, they enjoyed no political rights, but as fellow Christians were not persecuted for their religion, and could rise within the imperial administration. Under the sultans, they had been excluded from the devshirme from the start, but could operate as merchants and acquire land, if not offices; and in the course of the 19th century they generated a significant intellectual stratum – the first Ottoman novels were written by Armenians.
Inevitably, like their Balkan counterparts, and inspired by them, this intelligentsia developed a nationalist movement. But it was set apart from them in two ways: it was dispersed across a wide and discontinuous expanse of territory, throughout which it was a minority, and it was divided between two rival empires, one of which posed as its protector, while the other figured as its persecutor. Most Armenians were peasants in the three easternmost Ottoman provinces, where they numbered perhaps a quarter of the population. But there were also significant concentrations in Cilicia, bordering on today’s Syria, and vigorous communities in Istanbul and other big cities. State suspicion of a minority with links across a contested border, latent popular hostility to unbelievers, and economic jealousy of alien commercial wealth made a combustible atmosphere around their presence in Anatolia. Abdulhamid’s personal animus had ensured they would suffer under his rule, which saw repeated pogroms against them. In 1894-96, anywhere between 80,000 and 200,000 died in massacres at the hands of special Kurdish regiments he created for ethnic repressions in the east. The ensuing international outcry, leading eventually to the theoretical appointment – it came to nothing – of foreign inspectors to ensure Armenian safety in the worst affected zones, confirmed belief in the disloyalty of the community.
The CUP’s immediate fear, as it surveyed the rout of its armies in the Caucasus, was that the local Armenian population might rally to the enemy. On 25 February, it ordered that all Armenian conscripts in its forces be disarmed. The telegrams went out on the day Anglo-French forces began to bombard the Dardanelles, threatening Istanbul itself. Towards the end of March, amid great tension in the capital, the Central Committee – Talat was the prime mover – voted that the entire Armenian population in Anatolia be deported to the deserts of Syria, to secure the Ottoman rear. The operation was to be carried out by the Teskilât-i Mahsusa, the ‘Special Organisation’ created for secret tasks by the party in 1913, now some 30,000 strong under the command of Bahaettin Sakir.
Ethnic cleansing on a massive scale was no novelty in the region. Wholesale expulsion of communities from their homes, typically as refugees from conquering armies, was a fate hundreds of thousands of Turks and Circassians had suffered, as Russia consolidated its grip in the northern Caucasus in the 1860s, and Balkan nations won their independence from Ottoman rule in the next half century. Anatolia was full of such mujahir, with bitter memories of their treatment by Christians. Widespread slaughter was no stranger to the region either: the Armenian massacres of the 1890s had many precedents, on all sides, in the history of the Eastern Question, as elsewhere. Nor was forcible relocation on security grounds confined to one side in the First World War itself: in Russia, at least half a million Jews were rounded up and deported from Poland and the Pale by the tsarist regime.
The enterprise on which the CUP embarked in the spring of 1915 was, however, new. For ostensible deportation, brutal enough in itself, was to be the cover for extermination – systematic, state-organised murder of an entire community. The killings began in March, still somewhat haphazardly, as Russian forces began to penetrate into Anatolia. On 20 April, in a climate of increasing fear, there was an Armenian uprising in the city of Van. Five days later, Anglo-French forces staged full-scale landings on the Dardanelles, and contingency plans were laid for transferring the government to the interior, should the capital fall to the Entente. In this emergency, the CUP wasted no time. By early June, centrally directed and co-ordinated destruction of the Armenian population was in full swing. As the leading comparative authority on modern ethnic cleansing, Michael Mann, writes, ‘the escalation from the first incidents to genocide occurred within three months, a much more rapid escalation than Hitler’s later attack on the Jews.’ Sakir – probably more than any other conspirator, the original designer of the CUP – toured the target zones, shadowy and deadly, supervising the slaughter. Without even pretexts of security, Armenians in Western Anatolia were wiped out hundreds of miles from the front.
No reliable figures exist for the number of those who died, or the different ways – with or without bullet or knife; on the spot or marched to death – in which they perished. Mann, who thinks a reasonable guess is 1.2 to 1.4 million, reckons that ‘perhaps two-thirds of the Armenians died’ – ‘the most successful murderous cleansing achieved in the 20th century’, exceeding in its proportions the Shoah. A catastrophe of this order could not be hidden. Germans, present in Anatolia as Ottoman allies in many capacities – consular, military and pastoral among others – witnessed it and reported home, many in horror or anguish. Confronted by the American ambassador, Talat scarcely bothered even to deny it. For its part the Entente, unlike the Allies who kept silent at the Judeocide in the Second World War, denounced the extermination without delay, issuing a solemn declaration on 24 May 1915, promising to punish as criminals those who had organised it.
Victory in the Dardanelles saved the CUP regime. But this was the only real success, a defensive one, in its war effort. Elsewhere, in Arabia, in Palestine, in Iraq, on the Black Sea, the armies of a still basically agricultural society were beaten by its more industrialised adversaries, with great civilian suffering and huge military casualties, exceeded as a proportion of the population only by Serbia. With the collapse of Bulgaria, the Ottoman lifeline to the Central Powers, at the end of September 1918, the writing was on the wall for the CUP. Talat, passing back through Sofia from a trip to Berlin, saw the game was up, and within a fortnight had resigned as grand vizier. A new cabinet, under ostensibly less compromised leaders, was formed two weeks later, and on 31 October the Porte signed an armistice with the Entente, three days before Austria on 3 November and two weeks before Germany on 11 November. It looked as if dominoes were falling in a row, from weakest to strongest.
The impression was misleading. In Vienna, the Habsburg monarchy disintegrated overnight. In Berlin, soldiers’ and workers’ councils sprang up as the last Hohenzollern fled into exile. In Sofia, Stamboliski’s Peasant Party, which had staged a rising even before the end of the war, came to power. In each case defeat was incontestable, the old order was utterly discredited by it, and revolutionary forces emerged amid its ruins. In Istanbul there was no such scenario. The Ottoman Empire had entered the war with a gratuitous decision unlike that of any other power, and its exit was unlike that of any other too. For the CUP leaders did not accept that they were beaten. Their handover of the cabinet was a reculer pour mieux sauter. In the fortnight between their resignation from the government and the signature of an armistice, they prepared for resistance against an impending occupation, and a second round in the struggle to assert Turkish might. Enver invoked the Balkan disasters of 1912-13, when redemption had been snatched with his recovery of Edirne, as inspiration for the future. Talat set up a paramilitary underground, Karakol, headed by close associates – they included Enver’s uncle – and equipped with arms caches and funds from the Special Organisation, which was itself hastily dissolved, and the Unionist Party renamed. Archives were removed and incriminating files methodically destroyed.
When surrender was signed off the island of Lemnos on 31 October, but Allied forces had not yet entered the Straits, the CUP leaders made their final move. Dispositions were now complete, and there was no panic. During the night of 1-2 November, eight top leaders of the regime secretly boarded a German torpedo-boat, the former Schastlivyi captured from the Russians, which sped them to Sebastopol. Germany, still at war with the Entente, controlled the Ukraine. The party included Enver, Talat, Sakir, Nazim and Cemal. From the Crimea, Enver made in the direction of the Caucasus, while the rest of the party were taken by stages in disguise to Berlin, which they reached in January 1919. There they were granted protection under Ebert, the new Social Democratic president of the republic. Unionism was not Nazism, but if an analogy were wanted, it was as if in 1945 Hitler, Himmler, Kaltenbrunner, Goebbels and Goering, after laying careful preparations for Werewolf actions in Germany, had coolly escaped together to Finland, to continue the struggle.
Ten days later, the Allies entered Istanbul. At the war’s end, the Habsburg Empire had spontaneously disintegrated; the Hohenzollern gave way to a republic that had to yield up Alsace-Lorraine and suffer occupation of the Rhineland, but no real loss of German territorial integrity. The Ottoman Empire was another matter, its fate far more completely at the mercy of the victors. In late 1918, four powers – Britain, France, Italy and Greece – shared the spoils, the first two dividing its Arab provinces between them, the latter competing for gains in south-west Anatolia. It would be another two years before any formal agreement was reached between them on how the empire was finally to be dismembered. Meanwhile, they exercised joint supervision in Istanbul, initially quite loose, over an apparently accommodating cabinet under a new sultan, known for disliking the CUP.
The postwar misery of a defeated society was much worse than in Germany or Austria, but its resources for resisting any potentially Carthaginian peace were greater. In the capital, Karakol was soon funnelling a flow of agents and arms into the interior, where plans had already been laid during the war to move the centre of power, and there was little foreign presence to monitor what was going on. And, crucially, the October Revolution, by removing Russia from the ranks of the Allies, not only ensured that Eastern Anatolia remained beyond the range of any occupation. It left the Ottoman Ninth Army, which Enver had sent to seize the Caucasus, intact under its Unionist commander, once the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk cleared the path for it to advance all the way to Baku.
In the spring of 1919, another Unionist officer stepped on stage. Kemal, who also came from Rumelia, was an early member of the CUP, who had risen to prominence in the defence of the Dardanelles, before spending the bulk of the war in Syria. Uneasy relations with Enver had excluded him from the inner core of the party, absolving him from involvement with its Special Organisation. Returning from Damascus in pursuit of a ministry in the postwar cabinet, he was offered instead a military inspectorate in the east. The proposal probably came out of discussions with Karakol, with whom he made contact on getting back. Once arrived on the Black Sea coast, he moved inland and began immediately to co-ordinate political and military resistance – at first covert, soon overt – to Allied controls over Turkey. In what would in time become the War of Independence, he was assisted by four favourable factors.
The first was simply the degree of preparation for resistance left behind by the CUP leaders, which included not only extensive arms dumps and intelligence agents underground, but also a countrywide network of Societies for the Rights of National Defence as a quasi political party above ground; plus – more by fortune than forethought – a fully equipped regular army, out of Allied reach. The second was the solidarity extended by Russia, where Lenin’s regime, facing multiple Entente interventions to overthrow it in the Civil War, supported Turkish resistance to the common enemy with arms and funds. The third lay in divisions of the Entente itself. Britain was the principal power in Istanbul. But it was unwilling to match its political weight with military force, preferring to rely on Greece as its regional proxy. But the Greek card – this was the fourth essential element in the situation – was a particularly weak one for the victors to play.
Greece was not only resented as an inferior rival by Italy, and suspected as a British pawn by France. In Turkish eyes a jackal scavenging behind great powers, who were worthy adversaries of the empire, it had made virtually no contribution to the defeat of Ottoman arms, and yet was awarded the largest occupied zones, where substantial numbers of Greeks had already been expelled by the Special Organisation before the war, and ethnic tensions ran high. On top of all this, Greece was a small, internally divided state, of scant significance as a military power. A better target for a campaign of national liberation would have been difficult to imagine. Four days before Kemal arrived on the Black Sea, Greek troops landed in Smyrna and took over the surrounding region, igniting anger across the country, and creating perfect conditions for an enterprise that still looked risky to many Turks.
Within a year, Kemal had set up a National Assembly in Ankara, in open defiance of the government in Istanbul, and assembled forces capable of checking Greek advances, which had occupied more and more of western Anatolia. Another Greek push was blocked, after initial gains, in the autumn of 1921, and a year later the aggressor, still stationed on the same lines, was routed. Within ten days, Kemal’s army entered Smyrna and burned it to the ground, driving the remaining Greek population into the sea in the most spectacular of the savageries committed on both sides. In Britain, the debacle of his protégé brought the rule of Lloyd George to an end. Philhellene to the last, when he threatened to take the country to war over Turkish successes in October 1922, he was ousted by a revolt in the Carlton Club.
The following summer Curzon, abandoning earlier Entente schemes for a partition of Anatolia, accepted the basic modern borders of Turkey and the end of all extra-territorial rights for foreigners within it, signing with his French, Italian and Greek counterparts the Treaty of Lausanne that formally ended hostilities with the Ottoman state. Juridically, the main novelty of the treaty was the mutual ethnic cleansing proposed by the Norwegian philanthropist Fridtjof Nansen, who was awarded, the first in a long line of such recipients, the Nobel Peace Prize for his brainwave. The ‘population exchange’ between Turkey and Greece reflected the relative positions of victor and vanquished, driving 900,000 Greeks and 400,000 Turks from their homes in opposite directions.
Hailed as liberator of his country, Kemal was now master of the political scene. He had risen to power in large measure on the back of the parallel state Unionism had left behind when the Schastlivyi slipped its moorings, and for a time had more the status of primus inter pares among survivors of the CUP regime than of an uncontested chief. As late as the summer of 1921, Enver had hovered across the border on the Black Sea coast, waiting to re-enter the fray and take over leadership from Kemal, should he fail to stem the Greek advance. Military victory made Kemal immune to such a threat, which Talat in Berlin anyway thought ill-advised, instructing his followers to stick with the new leader. But the CUP also represented another kind of danger, as a potential albatross around the legitimacy of his rule. For under the Allied occupation, trials had been held of the key officials responsible for the Armenian genocide by the government in Istanbul, and all eight of the top leaders who had sailed to Sebastopol were condemned to death in absentia.
The Weimar regime, fearing they might implicate Germany if extradited, had given them cover. In Berlin, they had developed their own ambitious schemes for the recovery of Turkish power, crisscrossing Europe and Asia – Talat to Holland, Sweden, Italy; Cemal to Switzerland, Georgia; Sakir and Enver to Russia; others to Persia and Afghanistan – with differing plans for a comeback. Had they remained at large, they would have been an acute embarrassment to Kemal’s regime, as reminders of what linked them, forcing it to take a public position it wished at all costs to avoid. By a stroke of irony, Kemal was spared this problem by the Central Committee of the Armenian Revolutionary Party, the Dashnaks. Deciding at a meeting in Erevan to execute justice on its own account, the party dispatched operatives to carry out the verdicts of Istanbul. In March 1921, Talat was felled by a revolver outside his residence in the Uhlandstrasse, just off the Kurfürstendamm, in the centre of Berlin; in April 1922, Sakir and Cemal Azmi were shot a few doors down the same street; in July, Cemal was assassinated in Tbilisi; in August, beyond the reach of Dashnak vengeance, Enver was tracked down – supposedly by an Armenian Chekist – and killed fighting the Bolsheviks in Tajikistan. No clean sweep could have been more timely for the new order in Ankara. With the CUP chiefs out of the way, Kemal could proceed to build a Turkey in his image, unencumbered by too notorious memories of the past.
Three months after Enver was buried, the Ottomans finally followed the Habsburgs, Romanovs and Hohenzollerns, when the sultanate that the CUP had so carefully preserved was abolished. A year later, after tightly controlled elections had been held, Kemal was proclaimed president of a Turkish Republic. The symbolic break with centuries of a dynastic aura to which Unionism had clung was sharp enough, but by then small surprise. No such predictable logic marked what ensued. In the spring of 1924, Kemal scrapped the caliphate, a religious institution still revered across the Muslim world (there was a wave of protest as far away as India), and was soon closing down shrines and suppressing dervishes, banning the fez, changing the calendar, substituting civil law for the sharia, and replacing Arabic with Latin script. The scale and speed of this assault on religious tradition and household custom, embracing faith, time, dress, family, language, remain unique in the Umma to this day. No one could have guessed at such radicalism in advance. Its visionary drive separated Kemal from his predecessors with éclat.
But systematic though it was, the transformation that now gripped Turkey was a strange one: a cultural revolution without a social revolution, something historically very rare, indeed that might look a priori impossible. The structure of society, the rules of property, the pattern of class relations, remained unaltered. The CUP had repressed any strikes or labour organisation from the start. Kemal followed suit: Communists were killed or jailed, however good diplomatic relations were with Moscow. But if there was no anti-capitalist impulse in Kemalism, nor was there was any significant anti-feudal dimension to it. Ottoman rule, centred on an office-holding state, had never required or permitted a powerful landowning class in the countryside, least of all in Anatolia, where peasant holdings had traditionally prevailed – the only real exception being areas of the Kurdish south-east controlled by tribal chiefs. The scope for agrarian reform was thus anyway much more limited than in Russia, or even parts of the Balkans, and no attempt at it was made.
Yet the social landscape hit by the cultural revolution was at the same time the opposite of a stable traditional order, in one crucial respect. If no class struggles lay behind the dynamics of Kemalism, ethnic upheavals on a gigantic scale had reshaped Anatolian society. The influx of Turks and Circassians, refugees from Russian or Balkan wars, the extirpation of the Armenians, the expulsion of the Greeks, had produced a vast brassage of populations and properties in a still backward agricultural economy. It was in this shattered setting that a cultural revolution from above could be imposed without violent reaction from below. The extent of deracination, moral and material, at the conclusion of wars that had continued virtually without interruption for more than a decade – twice as long as in Europe – permitted a Kulturkampf that might otherwise have provoked an unmanageable explosion. But by the same token the revolution acquired no active popular impetus: Kemalism remained a vertical affair.
Though it broke, sharply and abruptly, with Ottoman culture in one fundamental respect by abolishing its script and so at a stroke cutting off new generations from all written connection with the past, in its distance from the masses Kemalism not only inherited an Ottoman tradition, but accentuated it. All premodern ruling groups spoke idioms differing in one way or another, if only in accent or vocabulary, from those they ruled. But the Ottoman elite, for long composed not even principally of Turks, was peculiarly detached from its subjects, as a corps of state servants bonded by command of a sophisticated language that was a mixture of Persian, Arabic and Turkish, with many foreign loan words, incomprehensible to the ruled. Administrative Ottoman was less elaborate than its literary forms, and Turkish remained in household use, but there was nevertheless a huge – linguistically fixed – gulf between high and low cultures in the empire.
Kemalism set out to do away with this, by creating a modern Turkish that would no longer be the despised patois of Ottoman times, but a language spoken alike by all citizens of the new republic. But while it sought to close the gap between rulers and ruled where it had been widest in the past, at the same it opened up a gap that had never existed to the same extent before, leaving the overall distance between them as great as ever. Language reform might unify; religious reform was bound to divide. The faith of the Ottoman elites had little in common with the forms of popular piety – variegated cults and folk beliefs looked down on by the educated. But at least there was a shared commitment to Islam. This tie was sundered by Kemal. Once the state started to target shrines and brotherhoods, preachers and prayer meetings, it was hitting at traditional objects of reverence and attachment, and the masses resisted it. At this level, the cultural revolution misfired. Rejected by the rural and small-town majority, Kemalist secularism was, however, adopted with aggressive zeal in the cities by modernised descendants of the Ottoman elite – bureaucrats, officers, professionals. In this urban stratum, secularism became over time, as it remains today, in its blinkered intensity, something like an ersatz religion in its own right. But the rigidity of this secularism is a peculiarly brittle one. Not just because it is intellectually thin, or divorced from popular feeling, but more profoundly because of a structural bad faith that has always been inseparable from it.
There is no reason to suppose that Kemal himself was anything other than a robust atheist, of more or less French Third Republic stamp, throughout his life. In that sense, he is entitled to be remembered as a Turkish Emile Combes, scourge of monkish mystification and superstition. But in his rise to power, he could no more dispense with Islam than Talat or Enver had done. ‘God’s help and protection are with us in the sacred struggle which we have entered upon for our fatherland,’ he declared in 1920. The struggle for independence was a holy war, which he led as Gazi, the Warrior for the Faith of original Ottoman expansion, a title he held onto down to the mid-1930s. ‘God is one, and great is his glory!’ he announced without a blush, in a sermon to the faithful delivered in a mosque in 1923. When the constitution of the Turkish Republic was framed in the following year, Islam was declared the state religion. The spirit in which Kemal made use of Muslim piety in these years was that of Napoleon enthroning himself with the blessing of the pope. But as exercises in cynicism they moved in opposite directions: Napoleon rising to power as a revolutionary, and manipulating religion to stabilise it, Kemal manipulating religion to make a revolution and turning on it once his power was stabilised. After 1926 little more was heard of the deity.
Tactical and transient, the new regime’s use of Islam, when no longer required, was easily reversed. But at a deeper level, a much tighter knot tied it to the very religion it proceeded on the surface to mortify. For even when at apparent fever pitch, Turkish secularism has never been truly secular. This is in part because, as often noted, Kemalism did not so much separate religion from the state as subordinate it to the state, creating ‘directorates’ that took over the ownership of all mosques, appointment of imams, administration of pious foundations – in effect, turning the faith into a branch of the bureaucracy. A much more profound reason, however, is that religion was never detached from the nation, becoming instead an unspoken definition of it. It was this that allowed Kemalism to become more than just a cult of the elites, leaving a durable imprint on the masses themselves. Secularism failed to take at village level: nationalism sank deeper popular roots. It is possible – such is the argument of Carter Findley in his Turks in World History – that in doing so it drew on a long Turkish cultural tradition, born in Central Asia and predating conversion to Islam, that figured a sacralisation of the state, which has vested its modern signifier, devlet, with an aura of unusual potency. However that may be, the ambiguity of Kemalism was to construct an ideological code in two registers. One was secular and appealed to the elite. The other was crypto-religious and accessible to the masses. Common to both was the integrity of the nation, as supreme political value.
As Christians, Greeks and Armenians were excluded from the outset. In the first elections to the National Assembly in 1919, only Muslims were entitled to vote, and when populations were ‘exchanged’ in 1923, even Greek communities in Cilicia whose language was Turkish, so thoroughly were they assimilated, were expelled on grounds that they were nevertheless infidels – their ethnicity defined not by culture, but by religion. Such excisions from the nation went virtually without saying. But there remained another large community within the country, most of whom spoke little Turkish, that could not be so dispatched, because it was Muslim. In ethnically cleansed Anatolia, Kurds made up perhaps a quarter of the population. They had played a central role in the Armenian genocide, supplying shock troops for the extermination, and fought alongside Turks in the War of Independence. What was to be their place in the new state?
While the struggle for independence was in the balance, Kemal promised them respect for their identity, and autonomy in the regions where they predominated. ‘There are Turks and Kurds,’ Kemal declared in 1920, ‘the nation is not one element. There are various bonded Muslim elements. All the Muslim elements which make this entity are citizens.’ But once victory was assured, Kurdish areas were stocked with Turkish officials, Kurdish place names were changed, and the Kurdish language banned from courts and schools. Then, with the abolition of the caliphate in 1924, Kemal did away with the common symbol of Islam to which he had himself appealed five years earlier, when he had vowed that ‘Turks and Kurds will continue to live together as brothers around the institution of the khilafa.’ The act detonated a major Kurdish revolt under a tribal religious leader, Sheikh Sait, in early 1925. A full half of the Turkish army, more than fifty thousand troops, was mobilised to crush the rebellion. On some reckonings, more of them died in its suppression than in the War of Independence.
In the south-east, repression was followed by deportations, executions and systematic Turkification. In the country as a whole, it was the signal for the imposition of a dictatorship, with a Law for the Maintenance of Order that closed down opposition parties and press for the rest of the decade. In 1937, in the face of a still more drastic programme of Turkification, Alevi Kurds rose in the Dersim region, and were put down yet more ruthlessly, with more modern weapons of destruction – bombers, gas, heavy artillery. Officially, the Kurds had by now ceased to exist. After 1925 Kemal never again uttered the word ‘Kurd’ in public. The nation was composed of one homogeneous people, and it alone, the Turks – a fiction that was to last another three generations.
But if Kurds were no different from Turks, whatever their language, customs or sense of themselves, what defined the indivisible identity of the two? Tacitly, it could only be what Kemalism could no longer admit, but with which it could never dispense – religion. There were still tiny Christian and Jewish communities in the country, preserved essentially in Istanbul and its environs, and in due course these would be subjected to treatment that made it clear how fundamental the division between believers and unbelievers continued to be in the Kemalist state. But though Islam delimited the nation, it now did so in a purely negative way: it was the covert identity that was left, after every positive determination had been subtracted, in the name of homogeneity. The result has been that Turkish secularism has always depended on what it repressed.
The repression, of course, had to be compensated. Once religion could no longer function publicly as common denominator of the nation, the state required a substitute as ideological cement. Kemal attempted to resolve the problem by generating a legendary essence of race and culture shared by all in the Turkish Republic. The materials to hand for this construction posed their own difficulties. The first Turkish tribes had arrived in Anatolia in the 11th century, recent newcomers compared with Greeks or Armenians, who had preceded them by more than a millennium, not to speak of Kurds, often identified with the Medes of antiquity. As even a casual glance at phenotypes in Turkey today suggests, centuries of genetic mixing followed. A purely Turkish culture was an equally doubtful quantity. The Ottoman elite had produced literary and visual riches of which any society could be proud, but this was a cosmopolitan culture, which was not only distinct from, but contemptuous of anything too specifically Turkish – the very term ‘Turk’ signifying a rustic churl well into the 19th century. Reform of the script now rendered most of this heritage inaccessible anyway.
Undaunted by these limitations, Kemalism fashioned for instruction the most extravagant mythology of any interwar nationalism. By the mid-1930s, the state was propagating an ideology in which the Turks, of whom Hittites and Phoenicians in the Mediterranean were said to be a branch, had spread civilisation from Central Asia to the world, from China to Brazil; and as the drivers of universal history, spoke a language that was the origin of all other tongues, which were derived from the Sun-Language of the first Turks. Such ethnic megalomania reflected the extent of the underlying insecurity and artificiality of the official enterprise: the less there was to be confident of, the more fanfare had to be made out of it.
Observing Kemalist cultural policies in 1936-37, Erich Auerbach wrote from Istanbul to Walter Benjamin: ‘the process is going fantastically and spookily fast: already there is hardly anyone who knows Arabic or Persian, and even Turkish texts of the past century will quickly become incomprehensible.’ Combining ‘a renunciation of all existing Islamic cultural tradition, a fastening onto a fantasy “ur-Turkey”, technical modernisation in the European sense in order to strike the hated and envied Europe with its own weapons’, it offered ‘nationalism in the superlative with the simultaneous destruction of the historic national character’.
Seventy years later, a Turkish intellectual would reflect on the deeper logic of this process. In an essay of unsurpassed power, one of the great texts in the world’s literature on nationalism, the sociologist Çaglar Keyder has described the desperate retroactive peopling of Anatolia with ur-Turks in the shape of Hittites and Trojans as a compensation mechanism for the emptying by ethnic cleansing at the origins of the regime. The repression of that memory created a complicity of silence between rulers and ruled, but no popular bond of the kind that a genuine anti-imperialist struggle would have generated, the War of Independence remaining a small-scale affair, compared with the traumatic mass experience of the First World War. Abstract in its imagination of space, hypomanic in its projection of time, the official ideology assumed a peculiarly ‘preceptorial’ character, with all that the word implies. ‘The choice of the particular founding myth referring national heritage to an obviously invented history, the deterritorialisation of “motherland”, and the studious avoidance and repression of what constituted a shared recent experience, rendered Turkish nationalism exceptionally arid.’
Such nationalism was a new formation, but the experience that it repressed tied it, intimately, to the nationalism out of which it had grown. The continuities between Kemalism and Unionism, plain enough in the treatment of the Kurds under the Republic, were starker still in other ways. For extermination of the Armenians did not cease in 1916. Determined to prevent the emergence of an Armenian state in the area awarded it – costlessly, on paper – by Woodrow Wilson in 1920, Kemal’s government in Ankara ordered an attack on the Armenian Republic that had been set up on the Russian side of the border in the Caucasus, where most of those who had escaped the killings of 1915-16 had fled. In a secret telegram the foreign minister, later Kemal’s first ambassador to the US, instructed Kazim Karabekir, the commander charged with the invasion, to ‘deceive the Armenians and fool the Europeans’, in carrying out the express order: ‘It is indispensable that Armenia be politically and physically annihilated.’ Soviet historians estimate 200,000 Armenians were slaughtered in the space of five months, before the Red Army intervened.
This was still, in some fashion, happening in time of war. Once peace came, what was the attitude of the Turkish Republic to the original genocide? To interested foreigners, Kemal would deplore, usually off the record, the killings as the work of a tiny handful of scoundrels. To its domestic audience, the regime went out of its way to honour the perpetrators, dead or alive. Two of the most prominent killers hanged in 1920 for their atrocities by the tribunals in Istanbul were proclaimed ‘national martyrs’ by the Kemalist Assembly, and in 1926 the families of Talat, Enver, Sakir and Cemal were officially granted pensions, properties and lands seized from the Armenians, in recognition of services to the country. Such decisions were not mere sentimental gestures. Kemal’s regime was packed, from top to bottom, with participants in the murders of 1915-16. At one time or another his ministers of foreign affairs and of the interior; of finance, education and defence; and of public works, were all veterans of the genocide; while a minister of justice, suitably enough, had been defence lawyer at the Istanbul trials. It was as if Adenauer’s cabinets had been composed of well-known chiefs of the SS and the Sicherheitsdienst.
What of Kemal himself? In Gallipoli till the end of 1915, he was posted to Diyarbekir in the south-east in the spring of 1916, after the region had been emptied of Armenians. He certainly knew of the genocide – someone in his position could hardly have been unaware of it – but played no part in it. How he would have acted had he been in the zone at the time is impossible to guess. After the event, it is clear that he regarded it as an accomplished fact that had become a condition of the new Turkey. In this he was like most of his countrymen, for the elimination of the Armenians in Anatolia, who were at least a tenth of the population, unlike that of the Jews in Germany, who were little more than 1 per cent, was of material benefit to large numbers of ordinary citizens, who acquired lands and wealth from those who had been wiped out, as from Greeks who had been expelled, another tenth of the population. Kemal himself was among the recipients of this vast largesse, receiving gratis villas abandoned by Greek owners in Bursa and Trabzon, and the mansion on the hill of Çankaya that became his official residence as head of state in Ankara. Originally the estate of an Armenian family, there the Presidential Palace of the Republic stands today, it too planted on booty from the genocide.
Yet between taking part in a crime, and gaining from one, there is a difference. Kemal was one of history’s most striking examples of ‘moral luck’, that philosophical oxymoron out of which Bernard Williams made a delphic grace. By accident of military appointments, his hands were clean of the worst that was committed in his time, making him a natural candidate for leadership of the national movement after the war. Personally, he was brave, intelligent and far-sighted. Successful as a military commander, he was formidable as the builder of a state. Bold or prudent as the occasion required, he showed an unswerving realism in the acquisition and exercise of power. Yet he was also moved by genuine ideals of a better life for his people, conceived as entry into a civilised modernity, modelled on the most advanced societies of the day. Whatever became of these in practice, he never turned on them.
Ends were one thing, means another. Kemal’s regime was a one-party dictatorship, centred on a personality cult of heroic proportions. Equestrian statues of Kemal were being erected as early as 1926, long before monuments to Stalin could be put up in Russia. The speech he gave in 1927 that became the official creed of the nation dwarfed any address by Khrushchev or Castro. Extolling his own achievements, it went on for 36 hours, delivered over six days, eventually composing a tome of 600 pages: a record in the annals of autocracy. Hardened in war, he held life cheap, and without hesitation meted out death to those who stood in his way. Kurds fell by the tens of thousands; though, once forcibly classified as Turks, they were not extirpated. Communists were murdered or jailed, the country’s greatest poet, Nazim Hikmet, spending most of his life in prison or exile. Kemal was capable of sparing old associates. But Unionists who resisted him were executed, trials were rigged, the press was muzzled. The regime was not invasive, by modern standards, but repression was routine.
It is conventional, and reasonable, to compare Kemal’s rule with the other Mediterranean dictatorships of his day. In that wan light, its relative merits are plain. On the one hand, unlike Salazar, Franco or Metaxas, Kemal was not a traditional conservative, enforcing reactionary moral codes in league with the Church, an enemy of progress as the time understood it. He was a resolute moderniser, who had not come to power as a defender of landlords or bankers. For him, the state was everything, family and religion nothing, beyond discardable backstops. At the same time, unlike Mussolini, who was a modernist too – one from whom he took the penal code under which Turkey still suffers – he was not an expansionist, hoping to build another empire in the region. Recovery of so much more territory than had seemed likely in 1918 was sufficient achievement in itself, even if Turkish borders could still be improved: one of his last acts was to engineer the annexation of Alexandretta (now known as Iskenderun), with the collusion of a weak government in Paris. But the imperial bombast of a New Rome was precluded: he was a seasoned soldier, not an adventurer, and the fate of Enver was too deeply burned into him. Nor did Kemal stage mass rallies, bombard the nation with speeches on radio, go in for spectacular processions or parades. There was no attempt at popular mobilisation – in this Turkey was closer to Portugal or Greece than Italy. None was needed, because there was so little class conflict to contain or suppress.
But just because his regime could dispense with a mass basis, Kemal was capable of reforms that Mussolini could never contemplate. In 1934 Turkish women were given equal voting rights, a change that did not come in Italy or France till 1945, in Greece the mid-1950s, in Portugal the mid-1970s. Yet here too the limits of his cultural revolution showed: 90 per cent of Turkish women were still illiterate when he died. The country had not been transformed into the modern society of which he had dreamed. It remained poor, agrarian, stifled rather than emancipated in the grip of the Father of the Turks, as he styled himself in the last period of his life.
By the end Kemal probably knew, at some level, that he had failed. There can be no certainty about his final years, because so much about his life remains a closely guarded secret of state. Only surmises are possible. What is clear is that he had never liked the administrative routines of rule, and from the late 1920s delegated day-to-day affairs of government to a mediocre subordinate, Ismet later called Inönü, who looked after these as premier, freeing Kemal to devote himself to his plans, pleasures and fancies in the salons of Çankaya or the cabarets of the Ankara or Pera Palace Hotels. There he summoned colleagues and cronies for sessions of all-night gambling or rousting, increasingly detached from daylight realities. In these flickering conclaves, Kemal shared a predilection with Stalin and Mao: all three, at the end, nocturnal rulers, as if tyranny requires the secrecy of the dark, and reversal of the order of hours, to bind its instruments to it. Nor did similarities stop there. If Kemal’s style of detachment from government resembled Mao’s – in his case too, it was a distance that did not preclude tight attention to big political operations: the crushing of Dersim or the Anschluss in Alexandretta – the fantastic theories of language that occupied his mind had their counterpart in the linguistic pronouncements of Stalin’s decline. All three, as they withdrew from the day, ended by suspecting those who had to live by it.
But in the taxonomy of dictators, Kemal stands apart in one unusual respect. When Politburo members assembled at Stalin’s villa, liquor was poured throughout the night; but the general secretary himself was careful to keep control of his consumption, the better to force his entourage to lose theirs, with the chance of revealing themselves in their cups. Kemal’s sessions were more genuine revelry. He had always been a heavy drinker, holding it well in debonair officer fashion. But in his final years, raki took its toll of him. Normally, absolute power is an intoxicant so much stronger than all others that alcohol, not infrequently shunned altogether, is at most only a tiny chaser. But in Kemal, perhaps because some scepticism in him – an underlying boredom with government – kept him from a full addiction to power, continual drinking became alcoholism.
Once pleasures of the will started to yield to pleasures of the flesh, women were the other obvious consolation. But they were no shield against his solitude; he was at ease only with men. In habits a soldier formed by a career in the barracks, he would have liked to move with grace in mixed society, that symbol of Western civility ever since Lettres Persanes, but was too crude for it. A marriage to the Western-educated daughter of a wealthy merchant lasted a couple of years. Thereafter, random connections and incidents followed, sometimes involving foreigners. A reputation for increasingly reckless behaviour developed. Adoptive daughters, guarded – a less up-to-date touch – by a black eunuch, multiplied. Towards the end, photographs of Kemal have something of the glazed look of a worn roué: a general incongruously reduced to a ravaged lounge lizard, terminal blankness nearby. Stricken with cirrhosis, he died in late 1938, at the age of 57.
A ruler who took to drink in despair at the ultimate sterility of his rule: that, at any rate, is one conjecture to be heard among critical spirits in Turkey today. Another, not necessarily contradictory of it, would recall Hegel’s description of the autocrats of Rome:
In the person of the emperor isolated subjectivity has gained a perfectly unlimited realisation. Spirit has renounced its proper nature, inasmuch as limitation of being and of volition has been constituted an unlimited absolute existence … Individual subjectivity thus entirely emancipated from control, has no inward life, no prospective nor retrospective emotions, no repentance, nor hope, nor fear – not even thought; for all these involve fixed conditions and aims, while here every condition is purely contingent. The springs of action are no more than desire, lust, passion, fancy – in short, caprice absolutely unfettered. It finds so little limitation in the will of others, that the relation of will to will may be called that of absolute sovereignty to absolute slavery.
The picture is highly coloured, and no modern ruler has ever quite fitted it, if only because ideology has typically become inseparable from tyranny, where on the whole legitimacy sufficed in classical times. But in its portrait of a kind of accidie of power, it hints at what might, on another reading, have been the inner dusk of Kemal’s dictatorship.
His successor, whom he had wanted to discard at the end, was another figure altogether. Inönü had served under Kemal as a CUP officer in 1916, collaborated with Karakol in the War Ministry in 1919-20, and held a senior command in the independence struggle. He was dour, pious and conservative, in appearance and outlook not unlike a somewhat less plump Turkish version of Franco. With war in Europe on the horizon by 1938, his regime sought an understanding with Germany, but was rebuffed by Berlin, at that point angling for the favour of Arab states apprehensive of Turkish revanchism. To insure itself against Italian expansion, and the potential implications for Turkey of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Ankara then signed a defence treaty with Britain and France in the Mediterranean, shortly after the outbreak of war. When Italy attacked France in 1940, however, Inönü’s government reneged on its obligations, and within a year had signed a non-aggression pact with Germany. Four days later, when Hitler invaded Russia, the Turkish leadership was ‘carried away with joy’.
Enver’s brother Nuri was dispatched posthaste to Berlin to discuss the prospect of arousing Turkic peoples in the USSR to rally to the Nazis, and a pair of Turkish generals, Emir Hüsnü Erkilet and Ali Fuad Erden, were soon touring the front lines of the Wehrmacht in Russia. After briefings from Von Rundstedt in the field, they were flown to Rastenberg to meet the Führer in person. ‘Hitler,’ General Erkilet reported, brimming with enthusiasm,
received us with an indescribable modesty and simplicity at his headquarters where he commands military operations and dispatches. It is a huge room. The long table in the middle and the walls were covered with maps that showed respective positions at the battle zones. Despite that, they did not hide or cover these maps, a clear sign of trust and respect towards us. I expressed my gratitude for the invitation. Then he half-turned towards the map. At the same time, he was looking into our eyes as if he was searching for something. His dark eyes and forelock were sweeter, livelier and more attractive than in photographs. His southern accent, his formal, perfect German, his distinctive, powerful voice, his sturdy look, are full of character.
Telling the Turks that they were the first foreigners, other than allies, to be ushered into the Wolfsschanze, and promising them the complete destruction of Russia, ‘the Führer also emphasised that “this war is a continuation of the old one, and those who suffered losses at the end of the last war, would receive compensation for them in this one.”’ Thanking him profusely for ‘these very important and valuable words’, Erkilet and Fuad hastened back to convey them to the ‘National Chief’, as Inönü liked to style himself.
Their mission was not taken lightly in Moscow. Within a week, Stalin issued a statement denouncing Erkilet’s exchange with Hitler, and soon afterwards embarked on a high-risk operation to try and cut off the prospect of joint compensation for 1918. Determined to stop the Turkish army linking arms with the Wehrmacht in the Caucasus, he sent the top NKVD operative Leonid Eitingon – responsible for the killing of Trotsky two years earlier – to Ankara to assassinate the German ambassador, Von Papen, in the hope of provoking Hitler into a punitive attack on Turkey. The attempt was bungled, and its origin quickly discovered. But Moscow had every reason for its misgivings. In August 1942, the Turkish premier Saraçoglu told Von Papen that as a Turk he ‘passionately desired the obliteration of Russia’. Indeed, it was his view that ‘the problem of Russia can only be solved by Germany on condition at least half the Russians living in Russia are annihilated.’ As late as the summer of 1943, another Turkish military mission was touring not only the Eastern Front but the west wall of Nazi defences in France, before flying once more to an audience in the Wolfsschanze. The war had revived Unionist ambitions: at one time or another, Turkey manoeuvred to regain Western Thrace, the Dodecanese, Syria, the region of Mosul, and protectoral rights over Albania.
Nor was alignment with the New Order confined to policy abroad. In June 1941, all non-Muslim males of draft age – Jewish, Greek or residual Armenian – were packed off to labour camps in the interior. In November 1942, as the battle for Stalingrad raged, a ‘wealth tax’ was inflicted on Jews and Christians, who had to pay up to ten times the rate for Muslims, amid a barrage of anti-semitic and anti-infidel attacks in the press – Turkish officials themselves becoming liable to investigation for Jewish origins. Those who could not or would not meet the demands of local boards were deported to punishment camps in the mountains. The effect was to destroy the larger part of non-Muslim businesses in Istanbul.
The operation, unabashedly targeting ethno-religious minorities, was in the lineal tradition of Turkish integral nationalism, passed down from Unionism to Kemalism. ‘Only the Turkish nation is entitled to claim ethnic and national rights in this country. No other element has any such right,’ Inönü had declared a decade earlier. His minister of justice dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s: ‘The Turk must be the only lord, the only master of this country. Those who are not of pure Turkish stock can have only one right in this country, the right to be servants and slaves.’ New in the campaign of 1942-43 was only the extent of its anti-semitism, and the fact that the Inönü regime – hard pressed economically by the costs of a greatly increased military budget – levied any part of its exactions on Muslims at all. Jewish converts to Islam were not included among the faithful for these purposes. Such was the climate in which Hitler returned the compliment by sending Talat’s remains back to Turkey, in a ceremonial train bedecked with swastikas, to be buried with full honours in Istanbul, by the Martyrs’ Monument on Liberty Hill, where patriots can proceed to this day.
However, once the tide started to turn in Russia, and Germany looked as if it might be defeated, Ankara readjusted its stance. While continuing to supply the Third Reich with the chromite on which the Nazi war machine depended, Turkey now also entertained overtures from Britain and America. But, resisting Anglo-American pressures to come down on the Allied side, Inönü made it clear that his lodestar remained anti-Communism. The USSR was the main enemy, and Turkey expressly opposed any British or American strategy that risked altering Germany's position as a bastion against it, hoping London and Washington would make a separate peace with Berlin, for future joint action against Moscow. Dismayed at the prospect of unconditional surrender, Inönü issued a token declaration of war on Germany only after the Allies made it a condition of his getting a seat at the United Nations, a week before the deadline they had set for doing so expired, in late February 1945. No Turkish shot was fired in the fight against Fascism.
Peace left the regime in a precarious position. Internally, it was now thoroughly detested by the majority of the population, which had suffered from a steep fall in living standards as prices soared, taxes increased and forced labour was extorted in the service of its military build-up. Inflation had affected all classes, sparing not even bureaucrats, and the wealth tax had made even the well-off jumpy. Externally, the regime had been compromised by its affair with Nazism – which post-war Soviet diplomacy was quick to point out – and its refusal to contribute to Allied victory even after it had become certain.
Aware of his unpopularity, in early 1945 Inönü attempted to redress it with a belated redistribution of land, only to provoke a revolt in the ranks of the ruling party, without gaining credibility in the countryside. Something more was needed. Six months later, he announced that there would be free elections. Turkey, for twenty years a dictatorship, would now become a democracy. Inönü’s move was designed to kill two birds with one stone. Abroad, it would restore his regime to legitimacy, as a respectable partner of the West, taking its place in the comity of free nations led by the United States, and entitled to the benefits of that status. At home, it could neutralise discontent by offering an outlet for opposition without jeopardising the stability of his rule. He had no intention of permitting a true contest.
In 1946, a flagrantly crooked election returned the ruling Republican People's Party with a huge majority over a Democratic Party led by the defectors who had broken with it over the agrarian bill. The fraud was so scandalous that, domestically, rather than repairing the reputation of the regime, it damaged it yet further. Internationally, however, it did the trick. Turkey was duly proclaimed a pillar of the West, the Truman Doctrine picking it out for economic and military assistance to withstand the Soviet threat, and Marshall Aid began to pour in. Economic recovery was rapid, Turkey posting high rates of growth over the next four years.
These laurels, however, did not appease the Turkish masses. Inönü, after first appointing the leading pro-Fascist politician in his party – responsible for the worst repression under Kemal – as premier, then attempted to steal the more liberal clothes of the Democrats, with concessions to the market and to religion. It was of no avail. When elections were held in 1950, it was impossible to rig them as before, and by now – so Inönü imagined – unnecessary: the combination of his own prestige and relief from wartime rigours would carry the day for the RPP anyway. He was stunned when voters rejected his regime by a wide margin, putting the Democrats into power with a parliamentary majority, honestly gained, as large as the dishonest one he had engineered for himself four years earlier. The dictatorship Kemal had installed was over.