Ottomanism, Nationalism, Republicanism VI

The end of World War Two placed Turkey between the Soviet Communist world and the western democracies. It’s Middle Eastern neighbours consisted of one outright colony (thinly disguised as a League of Nations mandate), French Syria; one de facto colony of Britain, Iraq (formally independent after a mandate period); one country whose sovereignty was highly compromised by United States and British ‘interests’, that is Iran. After decades of rule by the secularist-nationalist Republican People’s Party (CHP is the Turkish acronym), the idea of a Middle Eastern orientation was not a major one at any kind of obvious level, and had limited practical applicability even for those oriented towards the kind of traditionalist Islam which inevitably looks for some kind of connection with the original Muslim heartland.

The Muslim Brotherhood was formed in (British dominated) Egypt in 1928 and that becomes more important in Turkey over time. A Turkish version, National View, was founded by Necmettin Erbakan in 1969, and forms the core of the AKP today, led by Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan. Turkish history from the 1940s to the AKP coming to power in 2002 can look like an inevitable process, and with some qualifications that is probably a reasonable one-sentence way of thinking. Qualifications include the dangers of seeing history as the inevitable unfolding of a single unified process, and the constant possibility that better decisions by secular leaders at various time could have prevented this outcome. The decisions of the small numbers of self-defined liberals in Turkey were not really any better, sad to say.

İnönü’s response to the post-war world was to adopt multi-partyism. The Democrat Party was allowed to form under Adnan Menderes, who had been a member of the short-lived Free Republican Party and then a CHP deputy, and former prime minister Celâl Bayar. The DP contested the 1946 election, which was not all fully free and fair, but came to power in a more properly conducted election in 1950. Bayâr became President and Menderes became Prime Minister. This worked more as the Turkish constitution suggested than when the CHP was the only party in the national assembly. The result was that Menderes was the decision making person.

This political opening up helped Turkey into the Council of Europe (the grouping of European democracies) in 1949 and made it eligible for Marshall Aid under İnönü. Under Menderes, Turkey joined NATO in 1952. Acceptance into NATO was helped by substantial Turkish participation in the Korean War. The participation of conscript peasant soliders from Anatolia is still remembered in folk songs.

All these ways in which Turkey was acknowledged as part of the community of European democracies took place simultaneously for Greece, so the countries were taken as a pair during this period. The peaceful transfer of power through election from İnönü and the CHP to Menderes and the DP was the first such occasion in Turkish and Ottoman history. Some have seen İnönü as ‘only’ responding to US pressure and therefore denied him credit. This has, in the past, been the default position of most Turkish liberals though I believe that the latest historical work shows that İnönü was much more of an active enthusiast for the transition to genuine elections. On this matter, and others, it looks like time for the default ‘liberal’ position to change.

In any case, the whole idea that İnönü only responded to pressure is unsatisfactory. Of course he made his decision in a context of international balances of power of the time. Others made different decisions. In Spain, for instance, Francisco Franco stuck to ultra-conservative, Fascist-influenced dictatorship, accepting US military bases and continuing previous valuable trading relations. In Portugal, the corporatist dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar joined NATO after the adoption of an absurd imitation of party pluralism, with a purely token licensed opposition. Spain and Portugal were not aid recipients, but were able to get considerable trade advantages from the differing deals they made to associate with North Atlantic democracies. İnönü could have found ways to stay in power for ever, but did not.

There were limits to İnönü’s moves towards political pluralism and it was certainly not the ideal process. To some degree, it was one part of the CHP agreeing to the demands of the other part (which left to form DP) to have its turn in power after the current, most favourable to state-led joint secularism and modernity had been in power for so long. More on the DP in the next post.

Returning to İnönü’s rule after the war, the left became victims after a period relative tolerance in the latter years of World War Two, when it looked like the western allies would win in alliance with the US, so the Turkish state showed more tolerance of leftists and less of pan-Turkish nationalists who had the most tolerance of Fascism and Nazism (there has never been a self-identified fascist or national socialist political movement in Turkey).

Not only did İnönü oppress leftist groups outside the CHP as he moved towards genuinely contested elections, he identified left-Kemalist loyalists to the regime as communists who needed to be purged. This was at least in part to gain favour in the US by presenting himself as the main enemy of a real communist threat. Left-Kemalist academics who lost their university jobs at the time included Neyazi Berkes, the most notable Kemalist intellectual of any kind, who went onto an academic career in the west. Measures against left groups outside the CHP included using a religious conservative gang to smash the printing presses of a left newspaper. The willingness of the state to tolerate, and even promote, illegal violence by far right groups supposed threats to the regime and has been a frequent occurrence ever since.

To be continued

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