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Those Crazy Turks

Nicholas Birch

Books referred to in this article:



Su Cilgin Turkler, by Turgut Ozakman, Bilgi Yayinevi, Istanbul, November 2005 (231st print run)

A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, by David Fromkin, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1989

The Well-Protected Domains: Ideology and the Legitimation of Power in the Ottoman Empire, 1876-1909, by Selim Deringil, IB Tauris, London NY, 1998

A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility, by Taner Akcam, Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2006

The description of the Smyrna fire is taken from Ionian Vision, Greece in Asia Minor 1919-1922, by Michael Llewellyn Smith, Hurst & Company, London, 1973

What I see ... is an unbroken wall of fire, two miles long, in which twenty distinct volcanoes of raging flames are throwing up jagged, writhing tongues to a height of a hundred feet. Against this curtain of fire, which blocks out the sky, are silhouetted the towers of the Greek churches, the domes of the mosques, and the flat square roofs of the houses … The sea glows a deep copper-red, and, from the densely packed mob of many thousands of refugees huddled on the narrow quay, between the advancing fiery death behind and the deep water in front, comes continuously such frantic screaming of sheer terror as can be heard miles away.

Everybody knows that the First World War started in the Balkans. Some would say it ended there too, on the night of September 13th, 1922. What Ward Price of the Daily Mail was describing in his dispatch from the deck of the Iron Duke was the burning of Smyrna, the second city of the old Ottoman Empire. For the Turks, the destruction marked the victorious end of a three-year liberation struggle against an invading Greek army. Threatened by the Great Powers with having their once vast empire reduced to a slender patch of steppe, they now knew their hold on their Anatolian homeland was beyond dispute. For the Greeks, defeat was a double catastrophe, signalling not only the end of dreams of a Hellenic empire spanning the Aegean Sea, but also of nearly three millennia of Greek civilisation in Asia Minor. Within three months of the fire one and a half million Orthodox Christians (many of whom spoke no Greek or dialects incomprehensible to Athenian ears) had been uprooted from their homes under a population exchange agreed between the two countries. Four hundred thousand Muslims were shunted the other way. Rebuilt out of the ashes, the once cosmopolitan Smyrna re-emerged as Izmir, a Turkish city in a new nation-state all but purged of its non-Muslim minorities.

Tellingly, Smyrna’s fate warrants only three lines in Turgut Ozakman’s 750-page blockbuster on the Turkish liberation war, Su Cilgin Turkler (Those Mad Turks), which has been a publishing phenomenon since it came out in 2005. One of over 500,000 to buy a legal copy of the book (nobody knows how many black market editions have been sold), President Ahmet Necdet Sezer personally congratulated Ozakman on “translat[ing] our feelings”. One party leader, meanwhile, called for the book to be added to the secondary school history syllabus.

The suggestion isn’t quite as silly as it sounds. With fifty pages of notes at the back and a ten-page bibliography, Su Cilgin Turkler is a self-consciously serious book, written to educate as much as to entertain. And while the bibliography may not be as wide-ranging as Ozakman claims (there is little evidence of the Greek and British sources he says he used), the 77-year-old author has clearly put in a lot of reading since he first toured the Anatolian battlefields in 1948, notebook in hand. Above all, he has an almost Polonius-like passion for giving advice to young people (a popular pursuit in Turkey since Republican founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk gave the famous “Address to Youth” that continues to adorn school walls around the country). “For some time we have not explained the National Struggle to young people as we should,” Ozakman writes in the foreword. “Yet the enlightenment and union of Anatolia began with the struggle. Without knowing that period, we can neither read the present nor see the future.” He leaves his own version of Ataturk’s speech to the last paragraph of the postscript: “Dear youngsters! The War of Liberation is one of the world’s most legitimate, just and sacred of wars … Feel pride in your grandfathers. Do not allow liars to trample on the honour of the martyrs and the veterans.”

It’s stirring stuff, but it makes for partial history. Ozakman’s chief claim is that his characters are fighting not just the Greeks but western imperialism too. In a sense he’s right. It was Britain, France and the United States that gave the go-ahead for mainland Greek troops to disembark in Smyrna in 1919 as part of plans to place the city and its immediate hinterland under a Greek mandate. In August 1920, in the French town of Sèvres, the victorious powers forced a treaty on the government of the defeated Ottoman Sultan that would have handed eastern Anatolia to the Armenians and given the Kurds autonomy. Even today, Turks see Sèvres as a symbol of European perfidy. As one French treaty delegate remarked at the time though, it is also the name of a notoriously fragile porcelain.

Its interests in Asia Minor in conflict with Greek ones, Italy never supported the Greek invasion. France, exhausted by a war that killed two million of its men, did so only half-heartedly, and pulled out its troops after their defeat at the hands of Turkish forces near what is now the Syrian border early in 1920. A convinced turcophobe in the best British liberal tradition (he once described Turks as “a human cancer, a creeping agony in the flesh of the lands they misgoverned”), prime minister David Lloyd George backed the Greeks to the bitter end. But it was a lonely campaign. From the start, his generals, foreign office regional experts, the High Commission in Istanbul and most of his cabinet opposed him. With 6,000 soldiers on Ottoman territory in 1919, Britain had neither the capacity nor the will to fight an Anatolian war.

Ozakman’s determination to portray the Turks as innocent victims of imperialist aggression is evident as much in his omissions as in what he actually writes. His bald description of the Ottoman Empire’s entry into the war in 1914 is a case in point. “The day after [the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo], the leaders of the Ottoman Empire were invited to dinner on the [British] admiral’s flag-ship. But the British Mediterranean fleet left Istanbul in the morning without giving word to anybody ... The Ottoman Empire went to war on the side of Germany and Austro-Hungary. Then Britain’s Minister of War Lord Kitchener made a statement [Ozakman inserts here the first of his novel’s many photos – the well-known recruiting poster “Your Country Needs You!” – showing a walrus-moustached Kitchener pointing his gloved finger straight out of the page]: ‘we will fight until Turkey is destroyed!’”

The implication is clear: faced with Britain’s annihilatory intentions, Istanbul had no choice but to side with Germany. In fact, the Young Turk triumvirate that had run the Empire since 1908 saw war as an opportunity both to protect what remained of its vast domains and to regain full control over its economy. The empire was bankrupt and had been since 1875, when it defaulted on a public debt of a thousand million dollars. Since then a quarter of its finances had been handled by an international commission, which had exclusive authority over the customs duties on such basic items as alcohol, stamps, salt and fish. Even more resented by the Ottomans were the Capitulations, concessions that had begun in the fifteenth century as economic privileges for Venetian and Genoese merchants. By the late nineteenth century, these had swollen into full diplomatic immunity for foreigners. As David Fromkin notes in his excellent A Peace to End All Peace, Turkish policemen had to get consular permission to enter European or American property.

Determined to get rid of these impositions, the Young Turks had been scouring an increasingly tense Europe for allies since 1911. Britain, the main protector of the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century, rebuffed them. Convinced like most that the coming war would be over by Christmas, French leaders did likewise in 1914. The German Kaiser was less short-sighted, accepting offers of a military alliance with alacrity. But even the Germans, who understood the Ottomans better than their European rivals did, proved no match for the Young Turks’ subtle diplomacy. The alliance was concluded, but still Istanbul did nothing. To chivvy the Turks along, Berlin gave them two brand-new battleships and two million pounds in gold. In vain. Eventually, the German admiral of one of the ships took it upon himself to bomb Russian Black Sea ports, triggering a Russian declaration of war against the Ottomans. The Young Turks had tangled themselves in their own web. War enabled them to scrap the Capitulations, but it would also destroy the empire.

Against the background of international politics, Ozakman’s efforts to portray the Turkish nationalists’ war as a lone struggle against the world often enough seem mere whimsy. When it comes to the internal dynamics of the dying Empire, though, his tone is altogether less savoury. Early in the book, the nationalists’ political opponents are written off as “members of religious communities and pseudo-intellectuals devoid of patriotic feeling, collaborators, exploiters of religion and fanatics”. Ozakman’s virulence misses two important points. First, what brought the opposition together as much as anything else was distaste for the centralising authoritarianism of the Young Turks, of which Kemal Ataturk had been a member, and whose reforms, to a certain extent, he was to continue. Second, the Turkish independence war was in many ways a religious war between Muslims and Christians. Ataturk may best be remembered today for his great secularising reforms but they did not begin until he had cemented his political supremacy after the war. Back in 1919 he was more aware than anybody of the galvanising power of religious sentiment, courting religious leaders avidly in his efforts to mobilise support. The latter made up one in five of deputies in the first nationalist parliament, opened in 1920.

Ozakman is even more unjust to the empire’s non-Turks. “Rather than taking up arms against the British”, he tells us in a footnote, the Arabs “preferred … to shoot Ottoman forces in the back, behaving more brutally ‘even than British and French deemed appropriate’”. He does not bother to source the quotation, or the rest of the footnote, but he has clearly watched David Lean’s Laurence of Arabia one time too many. In reality the vast majority of the Arab population remained loyal to Istanbul.

But it is when he comes to the Greeks that Ozakman really excels himself. From the start their political leaders are labelled “opportunists … from a small, inexperienced state … with an overweening desire for expansion”. When their armies marched into Anatolia, the novelist tells us, “they crushed grass and steppe flowers, trampled on ants’ nests and sent birds shrieking into the air”. Faced with the Greeks’ foolhardy though (in historical and demographic terms) not entirely outrageous claims to some of western Asia Minor, Ozakman uses the clever device of introducing a foreign voice. “But Jean,” Madame Amiel tells her French husband as their ship passes through the Bosporus on its way to the Black Sea, “Monsieur Konstantinidis is wrong. However you look at it, this is a Turkish city. It’s got nothing to do with Greekness at all.” It’s a strange way to describe a city 400,000 of whose 900,000 inhabitants were Greek, according to contemporary censuses. The tone darkens further as Ozakman moves on to describe the acts of brutality committed by the retreating Greek army. “The Greek soul could find no peace without burning Turkish property,” he tells us in the pages leading up to the Smyrna fire. The implication in his one-sided catalogue of infamy (Turkish troops looted and plundered too, sparking uprisings among Muslim peasants in places) is that Smyrna was burned by the Greeks. In fact the fire was almost certainly started and fanned by Turkish irregulars. No fan of atrocity-mongering, Ataturk himself would probably not have approved of this tireless recounting of outrages. When a painting depicting a Turkish soldier bayoneting a Greek was put up in his presidential lodgings at Cankaya, in Ankara, he is reported to have ordered “that disgusting thing” to be taken away.

Throughout Su Cilgin Turkler, Ozakman’s nationalist narrative is built on an uneasy contradiction. While the Turks’ fight for self-determination is justified, when other nations within the Empire try to do the same, they are traitors who stab the Turks in the back. The nearest we get to a justification of this largely unspoken double standard comes in an episode when Turkish nationalists in Istanbul kidnap an Armenian working as an agent for the British. The passage is worth quoting in full.

“Mr Pandikyan, you are a guest of the Turkish national forces,” said Aziz Hudai, who was sitting in the middle. Pandikyan trembled. “Like us [Hudai continues], you were born on this land, grew up here, studied here. You were neither belittled for being an Armenian, nor tormented for being a Christian. For centuries we played together, ate, drank, wept and laughed together. Then a few plotters came between us, powers that believed the world was theirs only, men who had sold themselves, dreamers. Bitter things happened. Now we are here.”

It’s a classic example of Ottoman history seen through Turkish nationalist eyes. The “bitter” events Hudai refers to are, of course, the Armenian massacres of the 1890s and the ethnic cleansing of the entire Armenian population in 1915. Like all the other ills to befall the dying Empire, they are portrayed as the result of foreign meddling and local treachery.

Of course, like all good propaganda, there is an atom of truth in all this. For a start, the nationalism that speeded the break-up of the Ottoman Balkans in the nineteenth century was imported from the West. More specifically, Christian powers’ (above all Russia’s) calls for reform of the Ottoman Empire and greater rights for Christian minorities there were often little more than a thin humanitarian veil hiding hopes of territorial expansion. Yet what Ozakman’s (and Hudai’s) thesis totally ignores is the radical transformation of the Ottoman Empire in the last hundred years of its life, as it lengthened its stride to catch up with the West and struggled to come to terms with its increasingly straitened geographical circumstances.

For much of Ottoman history the empire’s subject peoples had been split along denominational lines, with Christians of various denominations, Jews and Muslims divided into millet (“nations”) run by religious leaders. Like most cosmopolitan empires, the Ottoman Empire was in many ways remarkably tolerant. When Spain expelled its Jews in 1492 the Sultan opened his arms to them. Yet it was never truly egalitarian. Muslims, the millet-i hakime or ruling people, alone had the right to bear arms. Exempt from the army, non-Muslims paid more taxes and were banned from riding horses and wearing green, the colour of Islam.

All this began to change in the nineteenth century as Ottoman leaders set about replacing the millet system with something closer to French Revolutionary concepts of equality. “From now on, I wish to recognise Muslims only in the mosque, Christians in church and Jews in the synagogue,” Sultan Mehmet II is supposed to have said. It was under his rule, starting in 1856, that reformist bureaucrats produced universally applicable legal codes. Yet the creation of a secular homo ottomanicus that was at the heart of these so-called Tanzimat reforms was to prove extraordinarily difficult. For a start, the newly empowered secular intellectuals tended to be more nationalist than their religious counterparts. Above all, Muslims of the empire were often unhappy at being deposed from their position of dominance.

The last half-century of the empire sped by in the shadow of Tanzimat. Ottomanists, strong among the Istanbul intellectuals so reviled by Ozakman, militated somewhat faint-heartedly for a secular citizenship in a loosely-strung empire. Admired by Bismarck as the greatest statesman of his day, Sultan Abdulhamid II (who reigned from 1876 until his deposition in 1909) tried to make Islam the cement holding his realms together, building a railway to Mecca and opening primary schools whose syllabuses were liberally sprinkled with religious instruction. Today’s republican secularists revile him as a fundamentalist (wrongly, according to the historian Selim Deringil, who convincingly portrays him as a modernising autocrat), yet ironically they have done pretty much the same, making imams state officials and imposing obligatory religious classes on schoolchildren.

Turkish nationalism, meanwhile, which had begun to grow in the last decades of the nineteenth century, only came to the fore with the Young Turks of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). The CUP had begun its life in the 1890s as a cosmopolitan band of Muslim Albanians, Bosnians, Circassians, Arabs and Kurds as well as Turks. Right up to the First World War and beyond, it remained attractive to members of ethnic communities with no obvious territorial claims on the empire. (The significant number of Jews among its members goes some way towards explaining the theory popular among today’s Turkish Islamists that the secular republic was a Jewish plot.) But the party’s centralising zeal irked those who wanted a more federal-looking empire. So did its increasingly overt ethnic nationalism, which grew as the empire shrank. “Whatever is said, in this country, the dominant nation is the Turks, and it will be the Turks alone,” the prominent Young Turk journalist Huseyin Cahid wrote in November 1908 in a reworking of the old Ottoman idea of millet-i hakime. Cahid’s mix of modernism and völkisch nationalism was to find a more radical echo in Mahmud Esat Bozkurt, justice minister under Ataturk in the 1920s. Bozkurt is remembered for introducing the state of the art Swiss civil code to Turkey, but he was also an outspoken racist. “All those who are not pure Turks have only one right in the Turkish homeland: the right to be servants, the right to be slaves,” he said in 1930 after yet another Kurdish revolt.

To a large extent, Turgut Ozakman’s historical elisions are typical of the secularist republican tradition of which he is a leading exponent. Like Kemal Ataturk himself, whose republic was based on a rejection of what came before, today’s Kemalists tend to see the Ottoman Empire (like Islam) as an unrelieved, unchanging mass of ignorant backwardness. It is a view that is facilitated by Ataturk’s decision in 1928 to introduce the Latin alphabet. As the contemporary Turkish novelist Elif Safak puts it: “Turks are a people who cannot read their own tombstones.”

What makes Ozakman slightly unusual is the emphasis he puts on his story’s contemporary relevance. From the start of the republic, he tells us in his afterword, enemies of the regime have written books “full of lies and calumny, ignorant and unjust”, to undermine its achievements. As a result, “Turkish young people today believe in two distinct histories: the real history that this novel has taken as its foundation… and a false history… fabricated by those intent on destroying the Republic.” Remarks in the novel’s footnotes leave us in little doubt as to who these false history-makers are. Ozakman draws a direct parallel between today’s conservative government and the Istanbul-based “fanatics … devoid of patriotism” who opposed Mustafa Kemal. Another footnote quotes a 1919 article by journalist Refi Cevat Ulunay saying that “unless the British hold their hands, Turks will not even manage to walk”. “Are there intellectuals who think like this today?” Ozakman asks, with heavy irony. Legatees of a top-down revolution par excellence, today’s Kemalist thinkers are nowhere more bilious than when writing about intellectuals who have jumped ideological ship.

This slant goes a long way towards explaining the extraordinary popularity of Su Cilgin Turkler. The fear that devlet elden gidiyor (the state is slipping away) has gripped hearts in this part of the world since Ottoman times. Now it is the urban middle classes (the bulk of Turkey’s reading public) who have caught the bug. For them, the government (and its liberal backers) is not just a threat because of its roots in political Islam. They also see its pro-European policies, the tidal wave of privatisations it has initiated and its failure to clamp down sufficiently hard on Kurdish terrorism as putting foreign interests ahead of Turkey’s. At the vast secularist protests earlier this year, anti-imperialist rhetoric was if anything more in evidence than traditional secularist slogans like “Turkey is secular and will stay secular”. Protesters carried banners punning on the name of the moderate Islamists’s presidential candidate – ABDullah GUL, they called him, or “American Rose”. Others compared Gul’s party to Damad Ferit, head of the Ottoman administration in British-occupied Istanbul after 1919. (Ozakman calls Ferit “Turkey’s most heinous traitor”.) Many drew parallels between European Union pressure on Turkey to reform and the Great Powers’ interference in the nineteenth century. “I sense that the Turks will go mad again soon,” the chief editor of the Kemalist daily Cumhuriyet wrote in an editorial during the marches, referring to Ozakman’s book. As reasons for the coming madness, Ilhan Selcuk cited EU calls for rights for Kurds and Turkey’s tiny Armenian community.

Judging by the arrest in recent months of paramilitary gang members, some Turks have already turned the corner. In a number of raids around the country, police have found stashes of grenades, bomb-making material and machine guns. The newspapers have been full of stories of secret ceremonies where aspiring members (“Turkish sons of pure Turkish stock”) clasp a gun and a copy of the Koran as they vow to protect their country. Those arrested include former military officers and a well-known secular nationalist author whose books “proving” the Jewish origins of senior government members are currently bestsellers. Suspects are being questioned in connection with the murder of a High Court judge last year and a bomb attack on the secularist Cumhuriyet daily which – as its perpetrators no doubt intended – was at first blamed on Islamists.

Many Turks interpreted the arrests as the latest evidence of the existence of the “Deep State”. The term, used to describe a nebulous clique of civilian and military bureaucrats opposed to democratisation, became popular in the 1990s as evidence mounted of state involvement in mafia activities and extra-judicial killings in the Kurdish southeast. What the Deep State debate however tends to ignore is that gangs – or çete as they are called here – are and always have been as organic a part of the Turkish political landscape as the Mafia has been in post-war Italy. As the political scientist Hakan Yavuz puts it, only half-jokingly, “çete in Turkey are failed political parties, and political parties are successful çete”.

The Young Turks, for a start, were a çete par excellence. Strongest in the Balkans and based in what is now the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki (Mustafa Kemal’s home town), they imitated from the word go the secrecy and ruthlessness of the Serbian, Bulgarian and Greek gangs active at the same time. New members swore upon their “religion, conscience and honour … not to disclose the Committee’s secrets or the names of any members … and be willing to die if [they] were, by chance, shown to have committed treason …”

The cloak and dagger tone was dissipated slightly after 1908, when the CUP gained a majority of seats in the re-opened Ottoman parliament. But its fondness for secrecy never disappeared. Throughout the war years, as diplomatic records make clear, CUP leaders became adept at issuing secret orders to countermand official declarations made twenty-four hours before. And by the time the Young Turks took absolute power in 1913, senior members of the party had almost certainly already set up the Teskilat-i Mahsusa or Special Organisation. The Teskilat appears to have sprung into life during the Balkan wars of 1913, but it soon moved on to greater things. Its ranks swollen with released prisoners, it is seen by most historians – including Taner Akcam in his recent A Shameful Act – as a key actor in the deportation and mass murder of Ottoman Armenians in 1915.

Ataturk publicly distanced himself from the CUP in 1926, and several senior Young Turks were executed by the newly installed nationalist government. But in many ways the republican regime was a continuation of Young Turkism. For a start, nationalist forces benefited from weapons caches left by Karakol (Regional Guard), a secret organisation founded by Young Turk leaders in the dying days of the First World War to focus resistance in Anatolia. More importantly, many senior Young Turk officials were able to continue their careers pretty much unheeded in the new republican administration. Take the Committee hardliner Sukru Kaya, for instance. As Minister for Tribes and Immigrants under the CUP’s war administration, he had had a direct role in the Armenian clearances. An admirer later in his life of Hitler’s Germany, he went on to become foreign minister and interior minister under Ataturk’s single party regime. The Teskilat-i Mahsusa, meanwhile, was transformed into the new Turkish republic’s intelligence agency, the Milli Istihbarat Teskilati.

Following the landslide electoral victory of the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party some would say Su Cilgin Turkler has had its day. The book had become something of a symbol of the wave of secular nationalism that swept the country after 2004. Its success, like the size of the secularist demonstrations this April, had convinced many that Kemalist parties would emerge from the polls if not victors then at least considerably strengthened. In fact the vast majority of voters showed they neither shared the elites’ fear that Turkish secularism was on its way out nor the belief that globalisation constituted an existential threat to the Turkish state.

Yet while Ozakman’s oddly anachronistic vision of a war-torn Balkan world whose clock stopped somewhere between 1910 and 1930 is shared by only a minority of Turks, the nationalist version of history his book presents is accepted to a greater or lesser degree across pretty much the entire ideological spectrum and forms the basis of what schoolchildren are taught. Contrary to some analysts’ claims that a liberalized media encourages opposing views, newspapers and television channels serve only to encourage its reproduction.

The Czech novelist Milan Kundera once wrote that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” He obviously doesn’t know Turkey. A Balkan brain implanted into an Anatolian body, Turkey’s state has proven remarkably successful at manufacturing its own memories. For many Turks, it is not just the state that needs to be protected (the din elden gidiyor mantra mentioned above) but its history too.


Nicholas Birch, a freelance reporter, has been based in Turkey for the past five years. His work has appeared in The Irish Times, The Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post and the Times Literary Supplement.

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