USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

From Empire to Nation-State: The Rise of Turkey

Mustafa Kemal assumed control of the Turkish army at a point of crippling despair in the Ottoman Empire, when Greek forces, driven by a desire for revenge against centuries of Turkish dominance of the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean, invaded Turkey with a large force to secure their claims outlined in the Treaty of Sevres. The treaty had granted portions of Anatolia (central and eastern Asia Minor) to the Greeks, French, and Italians. When local militias rose up to defend the territory, the Ottoman government lost control and sent Kemal, hero of the battle of Gallipoli (the most glorious military moment for the Ottomans in WWI), to suppress the rural rebellion. Instead of putting down the revolt, Kemal took charge of it, advanced from central Anatolia, and defeated the Greeks in battle. Two years later, after he had successfully battled back the foreign invaders, Kemal turned his sights on the sultan and the Ottoman capital of Istanbul. There was nothing the sultan could do. In the negotiations between Kemal, the sultan, the Greeks, and the British, the sultanate was officially dissolved. The nation of Turkey was born.

Turkey would become a very different nation than the Ottoman Empire. Kemal—or Ataturk (father of the Turks) as he came to call himself—was, above all, a western-style secularist reformer. He wanted nothing to do with Muslim traditions and Muslim law. His first measures were a collective attempt to wipe away the nation’s Islamic past. He abolished religious schools, eliminated shariah (Islamic law), banned the wearing of the fez, and made hats a mandatory part of male dress. Kemal himself made his public appearances wearing a panama hat to emphasize his break with traditional Islamic dress and, thus, his radical break with the imperial past. Kemal went further. He replaced the Muslim calendar with the European Gregorian one; he moved the weekly day of rest from the traditional Islamic Friday to the Western Sunday; and in 1932 he went so far as to decree that all prayer must be conducted in Turkish, not Arabic. This was an unpardonable offense to orthodox Muslims. More reforms came. The Turkish language was switched from its traditional characters to the Latin alphabet. A Turkish Historical Society was founded whose aim was to promote the history of the Turkish people before the spread of Islam. Women were given increased rights throughout Turkey and the right to vote in 1934. In general, Ataturk supported massive educational, political, legal, and economic reforms that transformed Turkey into a secular, western-style society. The Ottoman Empire, the last remaining heir to the idea of the unified Islamic Caliphate, seemed by the coming of the Second World War like a distant memory.

The transformation of Turkey into a secular and “westernized” state led to significant divisions within Turkey, some of which engendered massive reactions from the increasingly centralized state. The impulse toward Turkish nationalism promoted a focus on Turkish language and history on the one hand, but it also provided the main rationale for the expulsion of well over a million Orthodox Christians, who had been living in Turkish territory for generations. This expulsion was part of an exchange with Greece, which itself expelled nearly 400,000 Muslims to Turkey. Such exchanges, justified by nationalism and progressive principles of national self-determination, are just two examples of a more general move of nation-states to “ethnically-cleanse” their territories in the years before and after the First World War.

Beyond the ethnic cleansing of Christians and the brutal slaughter of Armenians, the Turkish state encountered resistance among more devoutly Islamic groups and among ethnic minority peoples, first and foremost the Kurds. The tense relationship between the Kemalist state and Islam would be a defining feature of Turkish society, one that would gradually become more acute as the initial wave of Kemalism faded. While the myth of Kemal’s greatness stood largely undiminished, the movement toward pure secularism was bound to be re-balanced in the coming decades. The last two decades of Turkish history attest to the power the Islamic faith in the realm of politics.

Finally, Kemal ruled as a state centralizer, as a military man, and as an economic planner. As we see, the era between the wars was less one of laissez-faire in the 19th century sense and more one of economic rationalism, state intervention, and even state domination of the economy—an era defined by the two poles of state economic intervention: the Soviet model of collectivization and planned industrialization and Nazi Germany’s quest for total autarky for its war economy. The legacy of Kemalist economic planning would be profound for the history of Turkey throughout the twentieth century.

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