Ottomanism, Nationalism, Republicanism V

Having covered the essentials of Atatürk’s time in power, I will discuss his death in 1938, and then his successor, İsmet İnönü, and the transition to a multi-party system. With regard to Atatürk, I will just note that his death was an opportunity to continue his veneration as the symbol and founder of the nation. He died in the Dolmebahçe Palace in Istanbul and was taken back to Ankara for a state funeral. The official moment of his death, 09:05 on the 10th of November is still commemorated by a blast on sirens throughout the country and an official national minute of silence. In the 1950s, Atatürk’s body was moved to a mausoleum know as Anıtkabir, where his coffin is held in a colonnaded building of some grandeur over a grand stone stairway, on a hill over Ankara. The complex contains a museum of the life of Atatürk and the history of the early Republic.

This is part of what can be described as a cultic attitude to Atatürk. It is a highly personalised version of the elements of civic religion every state has in order to symbolise its enduring nature and as a focus of national awareness. It is rather startling and even uncomfortable for many, but it has done what civil religion and national symbolism is supposed to do. Other ways of symbolising Turkey are necessary, but for better or worse, this is always going to be part of the symbolism of Turkey. Laws criminalising ‘insults’ of Atatürk are of course unacceptable in the extreme, otherwise my main thoughts about the ‘Atatürk cult’ is that if we see it as symbolism, it is an intriguing example of the personalisation of a nation and its state.

A well known liberal (in the classical sense) famously said at a fringe meeting of an AKP conference, during its early years in power, that in the future people will ask ‘who is this man?’. This lead to criminal action and threats to his safety, which is of course all utterly unacceptable. The whole miserable incident suggests to me something about the loss of judgement by Turkish liberals at the time.

Whatever you think of Atatürk it cannot be denied that was there at the beginning of the state and such people are remembered. If there is anything positive about the Republic of Turkey then Atatürk is part of this. I do not see any point in denying all value to nations, national symbols, and commemoration of the founders of states. Presuming one is not an anarchist, then the state provides some useful law and order function and is to be valued at least that far, as is symbolism round that state. More on these issues in the final post in this series.

Finally, getting onto İnönü, like Atatürk, he was an army general in the Independence War of 1919-1923. He was a close associate of Atatürk at that time and after, serving as Prime Minister for some years. Though Atatürk certainly had autocratic powers, he respected the forms and division of labour of a constitutional republic, so that İnönü did operate as a genuine prime minister, not just an instrument. İnönü continued with the great leader style, even adopting the title of Milli Jef (National Chief from 1938 to 1945).

The main event of İnönü’s period in power is clearly World War Two. Turkey remained officially neutral until a symbolic declaration of war on Germany (a condition of joining the United Nations). It lacked the military and transport capacity to maintain a major war effort in any case. Turkey in fact was not completely neutral, following a policy of supporting the west against Nazi Germany and supporting Nazi Germany against Stalin’s Soviet Union. İnönü sent aid to Greece during its conflict with Fascist Italy, while sending supplies to Germany on its eastern front along with military observers. Keeping Turkey out of the war is generally seen as prudent policy and one of İnönü’s major achievements.

The War was a time of emergency measures and the most unpleasant one was to apply a capital tax against the ‘Ottoman minorities’ (that is non-Muslim minorities: Jews, Greeks and Armenians) of more than a 100%. This was justified by the supposedly hidden wealth of the historically richest communities of the Ottoman Empire, which probably had some truth in it, but of course was no less a violation of basic rights motivated by a belief that, one way or the other, ethnic Turks should own the major economic resources of the country, in order for the national project to be complete.

The victory of the Allies in World war Two left Turkey caught between the Soviet bloc (including the USSR itself and Bulgaria, which both shared borders with Turkey), and the western allies. İnönü chose the west, seeking US support in a confrontation with Stalin over the Turkish straits. This led Turkey towards multi-party democracy, military and economic aid, membership of western institutions, and participation in the Korean War.

To be continued

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