Ottomanism, Nationalism, Republicanism III

Previous posts in this series have looked at the preconditions for the proclamation of the Republic of  Turkey in 1923. The Ottoman Empire was in a very difficult situation from the early 19th century, effectively lacking the capacity to prevent erosion of its territory, extraterritorial legal rights for the stronger Great Powers which were extended to non-Muslim subjects the powers claimed to protect, and ‘mediation’ regarding break away groups within the Empire. The survival of the Empire was certainly in doubt by 1914 and World War One killed it, along with three other empires: Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian. In a more long term way, the war hastened the end of colonial European empires, though the French and British Empires gained territory from the Paris Peace Treaties.

It is hard to see how the Ottoman Empire could have survived except as a rump state, even without the war. It might have been smaller than the current republic and certainly would not have been larger. Had its German and Austro-Hungarian allies won the war, it would have survived with some territorial gains in north Africa, but as an effective dependency of Germany.

Defeat in the war destroyed the power of the Trio (Enver, Talat and Cemal) of military and bureaucratic figures who ran the Empire under the continuing nominal sovereignty of the Sultan in a secretive and unaccountable manner. They came of the Committee of Union Progress, the political party expression of the Young Turks who came to power in 1908. The methods of the trio are the culmination of the rapid movement of the CUP from a constitutional party to a conspiratorial and authoritarian political force: Kemal Atatürk was a member of the CUP but resigned because of its lack of republican radicalism, with perhaps some motivation from more personal kinds of dispute.

As World War I ended in 1918, the Sultan regained powers and followed a policy of appeasement towards Britain, continuing the logic of earlier dependency on Germany, that is the logic in which the state could only survive through appeasement of at least one Great Power. The government was superficially more liberal than what came before, but had so little basis in the residual Empire it’s hard to see any circumstance in which it would not have collapsed or resorted to state violence to replace the power of Britain, which was occupying Istanbul.

The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres gave all the remaining Arab provinces to Britain and France, who also occupied parts of Anatolia along with Italy and Greece (which was given most of eastern Thrace). An American backed Armenian state was envisaged in eastern Anatolia and a confederation of Kurdish majority provinces in the southeast with the British mandate in Mesopotamia-Iraq. As far as the elements of the Ottoman elite influenced by nationalism and republicanism were concerned, particularly those who were, or had been, active in the CUP this was entirely unacceptable, leaving a rump Ottoman state in the central and northern parts of Anatolia, separated from Istanbul in the southeast, the east, the south, and the west. A Greek invasion of Izmir and other parts of the west to enforce its Sèvres gains met with armed force.

Though the Ottoman state appeared to be completely defeated and helpless, the CUP had left a legacy of public and conspiratorial political and security organisation which led to considerable resistance. A general known as Mustafa Kemal Paşa, later Kemal Atatürk, was able to leave Istanbul and join up with anti-Sèvres forces in the east, under cover of ‘inspection’ of Ottoman forces, possibly with the connivance of elements of the residual Sultan regime. Atatürk’s strength of personality and political vision, along with military prestige from the Battle of Gallipoli, enabled him to become the military and political leader of these forces, so that a secularist radical vanguardist republican was at the head of a national assembly full of traditional Ottoman Muslims.

The consequences of this formative national movement (which had Kurdish as well as Turkish support) was that Mustafa Kemal was able to defeat the Greek expansion into Anatolia, push other occupying forces out, and that he was able to insist on a replacement for the Treaty of Sèvres, which is the Treaty of Lausanne. The whole process continued the ethnic violence which marked movements of rebellion against the Ottoman Empire and state counter-violence. It is very had to see how any postwar Ottoman or republican state could have avoided the continuation of early ethnic violence.

The republican regime emerged from a national movement against ethnically inspired partition and occupation, so was not going to aim for a consociational or federalist state to get ethnic groups to share a state. It was not even going to aim for pluralism within a unitary state. Turkish republicanism was based on nationalism, and ethnic nationalism at that, as the only likely basis for an enduring state. The means by which this was obtained during the War of Independence and the early republican regime were ugly, but the alternative was ugly attacks on Anatolian Muslims, principally Turks and then Kurds.

With all due respect to the dangers of ‘whataboutery’, the process in which parts of the Ottoman state kept breaking away to form Christian majority states was no more pleasant. The same applies to the Russian annexation of what had been Ottoman lands in the Caucasus, which appears to have led to the killing of one million, or more, Cherkez (Circassian) Muslims.

From the time of  Albanian revolts of the early years of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire was beginning to part ways with its Muslim population outside Anatolia and Thrace. The conflict between Arabs and the Ottoman state was extremely ugly on both sides. As I have mentioned, the Austria-Hungary fragmentation at the end of the First World War was unique in not leaving a state which represented the core of the Empire.

It is not an easy subject, but the evidence of the First World War and the 1920s is that a state needs some kind of core nationality and territory to survive, which we see even in a the multi-ethnic Yugoslav state, which had Serbs at its core. In Turkey the ethnic core of Turks, in alliance with a lesser number of Kurds and various ethnicities including Cherkez and Bosnşian which had been refugees from the post-Ottoman states, based in the territorial core of Anatolia, provided a basis for a national movement. The national movement was strongly influenced at elite levels by republican ideas of unified popular will, which could fit with nationalism.

To be continued

2 thoughts on “Ottomanism, Nationalism, Republicanism III

  1. […] The previous post in this series covered the early stages of the formation of the Republic of Turkey out of the debris of the Ottoman state on the basis of ethnic nationalism combined with republicanism. Ottoman reformers were influenced by the western model. The new republicanism expressed itself in the forms of constitutionalism and representative democracy on a strictly western model, with an elected national assembly, a prime minister responsible to the assembly, and a president elected by that assembly. This post continues with an account of the early Republic which is mainly descriptive and with the aim of more analytic and evaluative comments in later posts in this series. […]

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