Against Imperial Nostalgia: Or why Empires are Kaka

I write in response to Fred Folvary’s post on this site, “Restore the Turkish Empire!” Living as I do in the largest city of the Republic of Turkey, Istanbul, which is its commercial and cultural centre, with a formidable concentration of universities (explaining my presence here), it made an impact, but of the most irritating kind I have to say. I find it bracing, to say the least, to find the foundation of the state where I live rejected, since I believe the foundation of that republic was a positive event in the twentieth century, which in its vices has been no worse than the Ottoman Empire and in its virtues considerably superior, even if much needs to be done by way of securing liberty here.

I will expand on the Ottoman Empire to Republic of Turkey transition and then move onto the other object of Fred’s nostalgia (the Habsburg Empire), and an explanation of the Kaka (not a typo for Kafka, but a literary allusion) reference in the title. A belief that the Ottoman state (the Turkish word for ’empire’; ‘Imparatorluk’ is imported, evidently coming from the Latin word for military chief which became associated with the rulers of Rome after Caesar) was better for liberty than the Republic has been expressed by a few scholars over here, most notably Mustafa Akyol, author of Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.

Akyol’s credibility on these matters was increasingly compromised though by his loyalty to the AKP government of Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan, now President of Turkey after 12 years as Prime Minister. The AKP  had some support from secular, and mildly religious, liberty advocates (not including me though) when it came to power in 2002 in the belief that a religious-based political party would correct the authoritarian aspects of secularism in Turkey. By the time the Gezi Park protests started in 2013, that kind of support was largely eroded by the evident determination of the AKP to concentrate economic and political power in the hands of a new religious conservative elite, which was no less authoritarian than its secular predecessors (which anyway often flirted with religious conservatism) and had built up more power than any government since the end of the one party system in the late 1940s.

Akyol was a hold out, providing apparently liberal intellectual credibility for the AKP’s international audience, as he writes in English and sometimes speaks at international pro-liberty events. Akyol, a neo-Ottoman liberal, initially condemned the Gezi activists for peaceful resistance, which undermined his credibility by showing he did not understand the place of non-violent civil disobedience in the liberty tradition, and certainly suggested, to me, that his view of ‘liberty’ was excessively tied to deference to traditional authority. He did, however, come to see that something was wrong with the AKP government, announcing that the problems would be resolved in a forum for AKP intellectuals. He was to learn the hard way that the AKP cared nothing for its remnant liberal intellectuals and did finally recognise that the AKP is a corrupt authoritarian nightmare.

That’s the story of one individual, but it illustrates the dangers of any kind of liberty thought defined with reference to traditional sources of authority, and indeed nostalgia for lost authority. Such dangers are why I do not support, at all, the most conservative aspects of liberty advocacy; that is, the tendency to think that past aristocratic and religious sources of authority can somehow provide a model for contesting the expansion and intrusion of the administrative state in the modern world.

Returning to the Ottoman case, the Akyol-style preference for Ottomanism over republicanism is linked to objections over the centralising nationalist-statist tendencies of the early Republican governments under Kemal Atatürk and then İsmet İnönü.

The process starts with the revolt of Turkish nationalists and various local interests against the occupation and proposed partition of the Ottoman Empire after World War One. An Ottoman general with republican and nationalist leanings, Mustafa Kemal (later adopting the surname Atatürk, which was his only surname since he received that name as a part of a law establishing surnames for Muslims for the first time in 1934) was able to leave occupied Istanbul, where the residual Ottoman government was collaborating with the occupying powers, for eastern Anatolia, becoming the political and military leader of the forces of the National Pact and first National Assembly, against the occupying powers and a Greek invasion of Anatolia.

The Ottoman government simply had no meaningful power base independent of Britain and the other occupying powers (who had ambitions to turn the Ottoman Empire into some mere central Anatolian sultanate), and was swept away from existence by Mustafa Kemal’s forces, which defeated those countries that the Sultan was unwilling or unable to resist.

The victory of the National forces was a very bloody matter, with ethnic violence deeply rooted in the long breakup of the Ottoman Empire on all sides. Anyway, it was the first major victory against the Imperial powers of the time, who had steadily eroded Ottoman territories and Ottoman sovereignty over what remained. The Turkish national movement received support from Muslims in southern Asia, living under British rule, and its success was noted by the Hindu population as well. It was part of the process behind the independence of India at the end of 1947, which was the beginning of the end for the injustice of European colonialism.

In power the nationalist-republicans under Mustafa Kemal abolished the sultanate and then the caliphate (the residual and never fully effective claim of the Ottoman dynasty to provide leadership to world Islam). Public segregation of the sexes was ended, women received the vote, religion was removed from political life, education became secular, legal codes were imported from the west, the official language was reformed to make it closer to colloquial Turkish and less of an elite literary-bureaucratic language, the economic policies were statist, but not socialist and private capital and a new Muslim entrepreneurial class did develop. The politics and methods were authoritarian and considerable state violence was directed against those not adapting to the state program.

However, much of what was achieved was what one would look for from a liberty standpoint (if not for the methods), and the worst aspects of what happened had already taken place under the Ottoman state, particularly Sultan Abdul Hamid II (ruling from 1876 to 1909) who destroyed an Ottoman constitution, began the intense persecution of Armenians, and constructed a more centralised, bureaucratised form of government. So we cannot say that the Ottoman system in the period for which we can make meaningful comparisons with republican national governments was any better from a pro-liberty point of view than the early Turkish republic.

Abdul Hamid II lost power in 1909 to a movement that was constitutional and pluralist at first, but turned into the domination of the Committee of Union and Progress under a three-man collective dictatorship. The trio and various CUP thinkers were influenced by republican and nationalist thought, but also by Ottomanist and Islamist identity, so really it mixed everything until it could become clear what the fate of the Empire was to be.

Persecution of the Armenians continued and increasingly there was persecution of Arabs, particularly in the province of Syria, so that any idea of an Ottoman Empire that could contain either substantial Christian or Arab populations was eroding though not as part of a preconceived plan, but because the ways that Ottoman power operated and reacted to opposing forces were already pushing in the direction of a centralised state dominated by the Turks of Anatolia. This all culminated in the 1915 deportations and massacres of Armenians, in which 1 500 000 Armenian subjects of the Sultan lost their lives, accompanied by high levels of state violence against an Arab population ready to listen to what turned out to be dishonest promises from the colonial European powers.

I hope that the above shows that the idea of rescuing to the Ottoman Empire, even as a confederation on liberal grounds, was a complete irrelevance at the end of World War One, and any attempt to have imposed such a thing would have ended in a mixture of political farce and mass killing as unwilling millions found themselves herded into a state system no one had wanted. The Ottoman Empire would have had to start liberalising and democratising in the eighteenth century before modern nationalism became a force for it to have had any hope at all of surviving as a multi-national confederation into our time.

1919 was far, far too late to hope that ethnic nationalism would be replaced by cooperation through liberal democracy and that the remaining Ottoman Empire could emulate Switzerland, which emerged as a confederation of self-governing cantons in the middle ages. Whatever else might be said about Atatürk, and certainly there are criticisms to be made, his leadership and the memory of it, founded and stabilised an independent state of laws with a modernising ideology, which used authoritarian means, but was willing to democratise.

Atatürk’s friend and successor İsmet İnönü accepted a multi-party system and his own ejection from power in a process during the late 1940s, which culminated in the elections of 1950. Turkey then emerged as the main democratic, moderate Muslim power in the world and became an important ally of the western democracies against Soviet totalitarianism.

Whatever can be said about Atarürk’s statism, including violence, it simply was not that extreme when compared with a Europe increasingly full of dictators who ran nationalist, corporatist, fascist, national socialist, and Bolshevik regimes, and neither was the violence extreme compared with that exercised by the leading liberal European powers of the time, France and Britain, in their colonies (including mandates directed at neighbouring Turkey).

I’ll have less detail to offer on the Habsburg Empire, but as with the Ottoman Empire, reform came far too late and far too cautiously for it to become a larger version of Switzerland. I doubt there was any chance at all given the survival of the Habsburg Empire, as the Austrian Empire, after Napoleon destroyed the Holy Roman Empire (the de facto German confederation loosely under the leadership of the Habsburgs who had their real power in hereditary territories of central Europe), since the old power structures remained with no question of federalisation, confederalisation, or cantonisation, or any movement for any such thing from anyone. The last vestiges of a chance were certainly destroyed in 1848 when Austria acted as the central force in the destruction of constitutional and national movements in the Spring Time of the Peoples in that year. Bright spring turned into a terrible winter as the Habsburg forces destroyed new constitutions in Italy, crushed resistance to its own rule in Italy, and crushed Hungarian revolutionaries, along with Austrian liberals.

In 1867, the Habsbugs did see the necessity for compromise with Hungary, by which time it had already lost territory in Italy and used particularly appalling violence in what is now Ukraine against a reformist and insurgent aristocracy. The Habsburg state became a dual monarchy (building on the dynasty’s titles which included King of Hungary as well as Emperor of Austria), so Hungary received its own assembly, and was at least formally an equal partner in the old state with Austria. Croatia also had autonomy and the title ‘King of Bohemia’ was newly emphasised to satisfy Czech sensibilities, but it was all too little too late. Since Vienna believed Budapest wished to secede and could not be trusted with its own strong army, there was very weak Habsburg army in Hungary by the time of World War One. So the Habsburg state could not even allow half the country to have a meaningful army.

So World War One? How did that start? Well first a Bosnian Serb believer in south Slav unity assassinated the heir to the dual monarchy, then the Emperor-King’s government decided to make demands that would destroy Serbian independence. It is true that Pirincep’s group the Black Hand was manipulated by the chief of military intelligence in Belgrade who ran a secret deep state in parallel with, but outside the control of, the legal government. That legal government did accede to just about all the Habsburg demands, asking for delay on just one question. In fact the government and general staff in Vienna wanted to invade Serbia anyway, did so, sparking a predictable reaction from Russia, sparking a further predictable reaction from Germany, which activated plans to invade France and Belgium with well-known results.

Now the Habsburgs were not solely responsible for the four-year catastrophe, but we could not have done it over here in Europe without the blundering irresponsible aggression of a government which, while afraid to allow a decent army to exist in half of its own land, still invited war with Russia! Austria-Hungary was a state bursting at the seams with nationalist demands, almost impossible to reconcile, and which the state had no means to deal with except to play one group off against another in the hope of better times. The assassinated heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, did have a plan for some form of federalisation, but even had he lived to implement it, the state would have broken up as violent, secessionist nationalities fought against what they believed was a Habsburg prison-house of nations (and against each other).

Of course the claim that the Habsburg Empire was breaking up violently one way or the other, whatever the Emperor-King’s government did is a hypothetical. I suggest that at any rate it is a far more plausible and modest hypothetical than Fred’s belief that the victorious powers of World War One should have patched up the Empire and helped it along.


The state was disintregrating in 1918 as Italian forces invaded Habsburg lands. It is not a hypothetical to say that the nationalities under the Habsburgs would no longer fight for the old Empire, it is what happened.

And how were Britain, France, Italy, and America to hold together an empire in central Europe which started the war with mobilisation against Serbia, which was an ally of Britain and France?

Were Serbia and Italy going to add to considerable preceding sacrifices by going to war to protect the Habsburgs from rebellious nations?

Were France and Britain going to add to a desperate four years of mass bloodshed by launching a war to protect an enemy power from people who wished to break away from it?

These are all preposterous ideas, and there is no remotely plausible idea for preserving the Habsburg Empire in 1918-1919. Those with a taste for comforting counterfactual history would do better to dream of a Habsburg confederation developing centuries before. That Empire was ready to collapse like a rotten old house in 1914 under any major impact with large force, never mind 1919.

And Kaka? That is the source of the name bestowed on the Dual Monarchy by one of the great Viennese writers, one of the great twentieth century writers, Robert Musil, who died in 1942 as the author of the unfinished masterpiece The Man Without Qualities, one of the major literary achievements of the last century. He refers to the dying Habsburg Empire’s designation of ‘Kaiserlich und Königlich’, that is to say Imperial and Kingly, frequently shortened to K.K., which when spoken sounds like ‘Kaka’, a childish word for faeces, something like poo poo in English. Inevitably this led to references to the Empire as ‘Kakanien’, Kakania, something like Crap Land. This bit of politically charged silliness became known to readers of modernist classics of literature, because Musil plays on it.

So the Ottoman and Habsburg empires, both Kakania, both rotten old state structures ready to collapse as they had proved unable to adapt to nationalist and centrifugal movements in a timely and effective manner for over a century. That a confederation under a residual  monarch would have been better than violent nationalist disintegration is beyond doubt; however, there is no possible way in which those empires were going to exist beyond a core national territory (Turkey and Austria respectively) after World War One, and the collapse of legitimacy in that core territory was anyway finally due to military defeat, so that we cannot even begin to discuss in any way that is at all realistic how they could have survived as the unifying factor in large complex confederations of many nationalities, languages, and religions. They were just both Kakania.


10 thoughts on “Against Imperial Nostalgia: Or why Empires are Kaka

  1. Thanks much for the detailed history. Yes, historically, these empires were already decayed in 1914. I still think confederations could have been adopted when the victors redrew the maps.

    • I still think confederations could have been adopted when the victors redrew the maps.

      Ah, and here I think you have an interesting argument, Dr Foldvary. I don’t see how, given all the butchery that was going on at the time in the name of the nation (and including the butchering of Muslims by Armenians), a confederation could have been cobbled together after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire unless there was an imperial power – whether British or French or the LoN – willing and able to serve as judge, jury, and executioner of the confederation’s law.

      That is to say, the only way a confederation would have been possible is if an imperial power had been able to subsidize the confederation’s monopoly on force. Nobody at that time had the capability to do such a thing, much less the desire.

      So, instead, we got the mess that is the current Middle East. Now, I agree with you that the Middle East would have been in much better shape if a confederation of sorts had been cobbled together after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire – and I don’t think anybody here disagrees with that sentiment – but given the situation at that time there was just no possible way for any sort of peace pact between the nations (which were, like Ottoman citizenship, fairly new human constructs themselves and aimed at grappling with a rapidly-changing world) of the Ottoman Empire.

  2. Ottoman Turkey was the only state in the world where murder was not only legal, but obligatory: When a new Sultan (Padishah) came to power, he was obligated to kill all his brothers, so as to ensure the new ruler’s stability. Again, he was legally obligated. Indeed, all over Istanbul there aer discrete memorials for 17 brothers here, 13 brothers there, that were usually “bowstrung,” often from their mothers’ arms.
    In that regard, what Erdogan is doing is really continuing the old tradition. As a new ruler, he is bowstringing the opposition, and all T urks understand in their gut that what he is doing is (in deep Turkish terms) legal.
    Of course in modern terms this is barbarity. But then Turkey has left barbarism only relatively recently, under Ataturk, and is now re-entering barbarism under Erdogan.

Please keep it civil (unless it relates to Jacques)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s