Youth and Sports Day, 1944

[Image: İsmet İnönü Speaking in Parliament, 1938. Source:]

Since 1935, Turks have commemorated Atatürk’s landing at Samsun on May 19, 1919 — the official beginning of the Independence War effort. Originally known as “Atatürk’s Day” the name was changed in 1938 to “The Youth and Sports Holiday” [Gençlik ve Spor Bayramı], and has normally occaisoned with parades, displays of gymnastics, and an official address by the Turkish President. What I’ve presented below is an excerpt, in translation, of one such speech of particular importance — President İsmet İnönü’s address on May 19, 1944.

This address is significant for a number of reasons, but most prominently because it was a crucial turning point in the ruling CHP’s articulation of Turkish nationalist identity. For nearly four years, the Turkish government had an oscillating, and often conflicting set of alliances with each of the belligerents in the Second World War. As the tides of the war shifted, perceived shifts in Turkish diplomacy often had the effect of exciting certain segments of the Turkish intelligentsia. What makes the content of this speech so interesting is that it represents the final ideological turn of the CHP against German fascist and racist ideology. At the opening of parliament the previous year, August 1943, months before the USSR would turn the Nazi’s back at Stalingrad, Prime Minister Şükrü Saraçoğlu had given a very different speech that was perceived at the time of being supportive of the more irredentist and racist segments of the Turkish nationalist intelligentsia. In that speech, Saraçoğlu clearly invocated a racist vision of Turkish nationalism, stating, “We are Turkish, Turkist, and shall ever remain Turkist. For us, Turkism in essence is related to blood in as much as it concerns conscience and culture.” Racist-Turanist groups, led by figures like Nihal Atsız and Reha Oğuz Turkkan jumped on this language and used it to reinvigorate their burgeoning movement — which had been supported, to small degrees, by German interests in Turkey.  In early 1944, after Stalingrad and as German defeat became a seemingly inevitable outcome, positions like Saraçoğlu’s became increasingly problematic for a Turkish government that was hoping to stave off Russian claims on its territory. As such, İnönü and other government figures — Education Minister Hasan Ali Yücel in particular — began to distance themselves from these more aggresive nationalist elements. A series of open letters and high profile demonstrations involving Atsız and his associates in April and early May resulted in the arrest of more than two dozen intellectuals, teachers, and members of the military on charges of forming a secret society with the intent to overthrow the government. This would be the beginning of a series of trials from 1944-1947 that would see the defendants handed severe prison sentences that were ultimately overturned on appeals in 1945 and 1947 (but not before several of the defendants, including Turkkan and future founder of the MHP Alparslan Türkeş would experience torture).

Along with a number of other scholars, I have been trying to work out the relationship between Turkish nationalism and racism. At different times, prevailing ideals of Turkish civic nationalism has borne uncomfortable similarities to racial ideology. This speech, however, is the strongest denounciation of racist thinking by a Turkish statesman in the single party era, and an example of how the realpolitik of Turkey’s neutral position in World War II had significant repercussions for the development of Turkish nationalism as a political ideology.

[The following is excerpted from a Education Ministry Publication produced in 1944: Irkçılık-Turancılık Ankara: Maarıf Matbaası, 1944 p. 6-8]

“We are Turkish nationalists; however, we are the enemy of the principles of racism in our country. Those in our country who have held political grudges under the pathetic guise of racism are still alive in our memory. In the years of 1912, those who supposedly went to every effort to hold onto Rumelia for Turkish troops, they were proved to have schemed behind the backs of the Grand National Assembly together with the Albanian Hasan from Pristina and Derviş Hima to spread racist politics. These men claimed “political necessity” without the slightest difficulty, they believed their words and an even bigger disaster was visited upon us: while they shouted “political necessity!” they would not refrain from spreading a new sinister principle…

Turanist thought has in recent times once again been shown to be harmful and sickening. From this perspective it is necessary to understand the Republic well. In the last days of the National Liberation struggle, we were only friends with the Soviets and the hostility of our neighbors was alive in all of our minds…

The Turanists, in an example that would have been fatal to the Turkish nation and all its neighbors, were immediately found making enemies in the charming name of sovereignty. To be sure, the Republic is taking every precaution against the lies of such unconscionable and unscrupulous troublemakers so that the fatality of the nation will not be given a free reign. The troublemakers suppose that we will not dispute ideas that oppose the nation and cheat young children and pure citizens. They are cheaters and they will continue to cheat.

Now, I would like to answer two questions that are on the minds of our citizens: The racists and Turanists have attempted to make secret arrangements and organizations. Why? Are thoughts of secret sinister organizations walking amongst the kinsmen in the country? Especially, have the Secret Turanian Societies been captured from countries East and West? These are such a thing we can only begin to trample under foot by the laws of the state and its fundamental organization. In this case, the gilded thoughts are behind the curtain, we are directly opposed to attempts against the existence of the Republic and the Grand National Assembly. The conspirators are accused of gradually and secretly cheating all of us, from our ten-year-old children all the way to ourselves.

Let me ask a second question to our citizens: Given the situation of world events, to which nation are those who claim Turkey must be racist and Turanist appropriate, to whose purposes are they benefitting? It is true that those who wish to spread ideas that will only bring scourge and disaster to the Turkish nation are not doing any favors to the Turkish nation. These actions can only benefit foreigners. Are the troublemakers in service of foreigners? Are the foreigners in a relationship of control over the troublemakers? It is impossible to prove these assertions. But, it is an indisputable truth that those who deliberately serve foreigners and who have close relationships with foreigners only bring to the fore actions which harm the Turkish nation and the Turkish motherland, only for the benefit of foreigners.

My dear citizens!

You can be sure that we will powerfully defend our motherland against these troublemakers.”

Writing Turkish History After 15 July

Image: Adnan Menderes addresses the Yassıada Trbunal. Source: 

I’ve been hesitant to write or say very much about the failed coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016, and its aftermath. So much of my worry and concern in the past week and a half has been with friends and colleagues who are there and living and working in the face of an increasingly unsettled future. Between a compulsion to check Twitter for updates on the situation, and reading the literal deluge of analysis in the past week, it has been nearly impossible to work on my dissertation. That work must continue, and soon, but increasingly over the past week I’ve been asking myself, how?

I know the title of this post checks a fairly explosive statement — Theodor Adorno’s famous phrase “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz” — but I mean it in a slightly more banal sense. Writing history is always plagued by the problems and the politics of the present. Even if we historians do our utmost to check our personal biases, leave no stone unturned in the archive, and commit to the most fact-laden analytical path we can, our ways of researching and writing are ultimately conditioned by our personal situations and the politically inclined structure of state archives. Turkish history is no exception here.

Many have wondered when, if ever, we’ll know what really happened on the night of July 15th. The only real answer to that question is that we’ll know when it is politically convenient for us to know. What I mean by this is that we won’t have full view of the state’s archives, their internal view on the situation, the finer details of the coup attempt and the efforts to counter it until some future Turkish government decides to open the archives on this question, if that ever comes to pass. Even then, much will have been lost in the ether — so much of the coordination of the coup and counter-coup effort seems to have taken place digitally, a much more ephemeral record of events that might not be properly archived by the time the state’s archives are opened — but suffice it to say, no answer to the biggest questions raised by these events given by the numerous, very intelligent, analysts in the past week can be considered more than an educated guess. In this respect, we have only begun to understand what occurred during Turkey’s first coup — which ousted Prime Minister Adnan Menderes’ government in 1960 — quite recently, as it was only under AKP rule that files in the Prime Ministry’s Republican Archives concerning the Yassıada Trials (the tribunal which tried Menderes and Democrat Party leadership) have been opened. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of course, has often styled himself after Menderes and there are strong parallels to be drawn between the two figures’ politics. Thus it’s no big surprise that it is only now that we’ve got a chance to look at them. This is what I mean about political convenience and knowing things about coups.


(A page from the files seized during the Yassıada Trials housed in the Prime Ministry’s Republican Archives in Ankara. This document, found amongst a set of folders marked “documents taken from rooms” [odalarından alınan evrak] concerns accusations of suspicion and insults against the Democrat Party made by Ahmet Emin Yalman.)

But I actually want to set the very sticky politics of the most recent coup attempt aside for a moment in order to reflect on the ways in which the writing of Turkish history has often been written through the prism of the kinds of transformational historical events like the one through which the country currently seems to be passing. Like I wrote in an earlier post, Ahmet Emin Yalman couldn’t help but write his history of the Ottoman Press through the lens of the 1908 Constitutional Revolution, and his eerie optimism about Turkish democracy in the wake of the Balkan wars and before the conflagration of World War I is an exemplary lesson in the nature of historical contingency. The first “official” history of the War of Turkish Independence is in many respects Ataturk’s famous six-day speech (“Nutuk”), and it certainly doubles as an attempt to settle scores with his political opponents and signify the ways in which his republican experiment was a break with the Ottoman past. Much of the renewed attention to and contestation over the Ottoman and pre-Ottoman Turkish past in the 1930s occurred in the fallout of the failed Liberal Republican Party experiment of 1930 and the Menemen Incident, and in reaction to the formulation of state-driven ideological projects like the Turkish History Thesis and the Sun Language Theory. These contestations were further intensified in the environment of World War II when many historians and intellectuals were coopted to various degrees by the embassies of the war’s belligerents. The outcome of these conflicts between historians and intellectuals in the 1930s and 1940s was significant, as it helped cement the basic narratives that would fill history textbooks in Turkey for decades afterward.

The election of Adnan Menderes’ Democrat Party in 1950 was, and has been, celebrated as a remarkable and transformational step in Turkey’s long march towards democracy. Most historians and political scientists of the time saw the election as the culmination of the Kemalist experiment, proof that a ‘tutelary democracy’ could in fact be successfully put into place in the modern world. It acted as the prism through which the first generation of Anglo-American historians (this goes for Turks working in Anglo-American universities too) began to write the works which represent the foundational texts of modern Turkish historiography. Bernard Lewis, Niyazi Berkes, Kemal Karpat, Stanford Shaw, and others came of age in the field by experiencing the crucible of the Second World War, observing a Turkey that nimbly managed to remain neutral, and emerge as a more democratic country, and a reliable western ally in the Cold War to boot. Most of those texts were written after 1960’s “Gentle Coup,” but they largely saw that event as a mere speed bump on the road to establishing a more durable liberal democracy. They saw the 1960 coup this way because they had seen these “speed bumps” before — most recently in the four years of multiparty wrangling that had preceded the Democrat Party’s election in 1950.

Writing on the eve of the coup in 1959, Kemal Karpat — then housed at New York University — wrote in his book Turkey’s Politics: The Transition to the Multiparty System, “probably at no time in the history of Turkey, except in 1908-1911, has there been such intense political activity and debate as in 1946-1950.” Perhaps none of these writers knew this as well as Karpat did — during that period he was a student at Istanbul University’s Law School, which was a hotbed of political activity. I had the privilege of spending a few hours with Professor Karpat last year in Istanbul to talk about this period, and while I won’t share my full notes here, even seventy years later the sense of fear and suspicion that pervaded his memory of that time was palpable. He told me how so many of his fellow students were suspected of being spies for the CHP, reporting on students like himself who supported the new opposition party, who might be perceived as disloyal to the regime, or worse, communist sympathizers. He remembered participating in the infamous riot that destroyed the printing house of the leftist daily Tan in December 1945, just days after it was announced that Celal Bayar and Adnan Menderes would form a new party, but leaving when he saw the utter rage and violence that anti-communist rhetoric had stoked in many members of the crowd.

And yet, despite having first hand experience of this tumult, as well as observing the authoritarian spiral of the final years of Menderes and without the benefit of observing the coup, Karpat would conclude that the study of the early multiparty period, “however frank and objective, constitutes on the whole a compliment to the political maturity of the Turkish people and to their successful efforts toward modernization and democracy.” This is the common refrain among this generation of Turkish historians. Niyazi Berkes, himself a staunch leftist and a frequent contributor to Tan who experienced his fair share of political venom, wrote in his study of The Development of Secularism in Turkey (1964) that the DP’s election passed “the laboratory check-tests of democracy.” Bernard Lewis, whose classic work The Emergence of Modern Turkey (1961) has served as so many historians’ introduction to the field, saw many difficulties in the multiparty transition but ultimately concluded that there was ample hope for democratization based on, “the personal quality that has been shown by so many Turks of different allegiances and from different walks of life — a quality of calm self-reliance, of responsibility, and above all, civic courage.” The strongest any expression of doubt about the prospects of Turkish democracy in the American academy perhaps came from the political scientist Frederick Frey, who had the benefit of a little more distance, and wrote in his 1965 book Turkey’s Political Elite that, “Turkey has floundered badly in the process of transferring power back again the second time,” but followed by saying, “…if Turkey, with her many advantages of able leadership, discipline, and capacity for self-sacrifice, could not work out these problems, what other emerging nation can do so?”

If anything, this rosy optimism about Turkey’s adventure in multiparty democracy is a lesson in the captivating sway that modernization theory and developmentalist ideology held over so many writers of this period, much in the same way the liberal moment of the early years of the second constitutional period did over Yalman. It is indeed hard to blame them for thinking this way, since the progression of the Kemalist single party state seemed to fulfill so many of the wildest conjectures that these theories offered. Doubly so for these writers whose relationship with, and investment in Turkey during this time was deeply personal, even for the foreigners. It has only been recently, with the benefit of several decades of slowly opening archives, the end of the Cold War’s ideological conjectures, relative political and economic stability in Turkey, and the blossoming of writing on this period both in the Euro-American world and, more importantly, in Turkey itself, that we have come to fully understand, and correct, the deficiencies of these early works. Largely, those deficiencies might be characterized as the study of everyone who was left on the outside looking in of the Kemalist project. Religious and ethnic minorities, women, political and ideological opposition, the poor, the provinces, indeed vast swathes of what made up Turkish society are blurred over in these works in favor of privileging the Kemalist narrative of progress towards secularism and democracy.

The work of making up these deficiencies has been long and slow, but the flowering of histories of the single party era that highlight such ignored subjects as the fate of Armenians in the wake of the establishment of the republic, or the often violent imposition of the Kemalist cultural policies in the provinces, or studies  that take a closer look at social underclasses, women, children, and other disadvantaged groups. I can’t help but feel that a big part of why these histories were ignored for so long was because of the prismatic effect the events of 1950 and 1960 had on the historians who first took up this task, and returning to our present moment, it seems fair, at least to me, to offer a word of warning about viewing both the recent and farther flung history through the lens of the current convulsions in Turkey and the regime’s attempt to bury Kemalism once and for all. Personally, I wrote this piece to motivate myself to get back to writing more about the people left out of the Kemalist project, and to remind myself to be on the lookout for who might be left out of the new undertaking of the AKP. Now back to work.

Sabiha Sertel’s 1930 Municipal Election Platform

Image Caption: Sabiha Sertel (wikimedia) 

Today is International Women’s Day, and so I thought it fitting to post here my translation of one of the more interesting women’s rights-related sources I’ve been working with recently. In my last post I wrote about the 1930 municipal elections in Urla, and today we’ll come back to Istanbul to look at the platform of Sabiha Sertel, who ran unsuccessfully as an independent in the elections there. Sabiha, about whom myself and others have written about elsewhere at length, was a progressive journalist with a background in sociology and child welfare who spent the early 1920s at the New York School of Social Work, wrote frequently for Cumhuriyet and her own magazine Resimli Ay, and was instrumental in organizing new kindergartens and campaigning on behalf of the Children’s Protection Society (Himaye-i Etfal Cemiyeti).

Her run for the municipal council is startling to read about for many reasons, but perhaps most of all because she had declined the support of the Liberal Republican Party (SCF), for which her husband’s newspaper Son Posta was an unofficial mouthpiece. From reading Sabiha’s memoir, it is quite clear that despite her support for multiparty democracy, she had little love for the liberals who supported the SCF. As you will see in her platform, she took up issues that even today, at least in an American context, would be considered very progressive if not categorically socialist. This is important because while Sabiha Sertel was indeed an outspoken feminist, she saw the struggle for women’s rights as only a part of a larger struggle for social equality for everyone; she knew it was critical to fight on behalf of children, the infirm, the elderly, and the impoverished in the same breath as demanding equality for women. Given that International Women’s Day is itself a holiday with deep roots in labor and socialist movements, and that as I type this Turkish women are marching towards Taksim Square in protest of an apparent ban on IWD celebrations, this feels like an appropriate piece of Turkish women’s social and political history to share.

Before sharing, it should be noted that I’m only reproducing my translation of the introduction and nine plank platform, which itself was part of a slightly larger pamphlet that went into much further detail on the specific issues facing the citizens of Istanbul in that election. The pamphlet itself is reproduced in Cemil Koçak’s collection, Belgelerle İktidar ve Serbest Cumhuriyet Fırkası (Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 2006) p. 271-2.

“Why am I announcing my candidacy for city council?”


I am announcing my candidacy neither in the name of the Republican People’s Party, nor the Liberal Republican Party. As an independent, I am announcing my candidacy to be a representative of the people, in the name of the workers who make up the majority of Istanbul’s population, the poor villagers living on the outskirts of the city, the small tradesmen, and the low level bureaucrats. In truth, the thing I will work for is the vote of the poor people in order to defend their authority as well as their economic and social rights.

A Summary of the Program I will Strive For:

  1. A sociological examination to determine and classify the needs of the city.
  2. Elections must be held for the positions of bureaucrats in the city council and the municipality.
  3. The general welfare of the the public is the basic goal. Concessions for necessities like water, milk, public transit, electricity, natural gas, telephone should be canceled and returned to the municipality. We should struggle against the foreign companies.
  4. Struggle for the social needs and rights of the people. The society’s insurance and organization comes before all else. Homes for working children, unemployment offices, inexpensive soup kitchens, pensions for workers, hospitals for the poor, homes for the villagers, poor people’s residences, homes for the old, homes for orphans, and a bureau for complaints should all be established.
  5. The press should publish a brochure every year documenting the Municipality’s performance to the people, a brochure on public health should be published, the people should be enlightened through conferences and exhibitions that are both fixed and mobile.
  6. The people’s economic benefits should be defended.
    • Essentials and rent prices should be fixed.
    • Municipal cooperatives should be opened.
    • Taxes on the poor in the Municipality should be lifted.
    • Weights and measures should be inspected and sealed.
    • There should be a change to the overtime law coming from the Parliament. An eight hour workday, accident insurance, a paid week’s vacation, accident compensation, maternity leave, the establishment of unemployment offices, the number of children should be limited, the provision of documents to child workers from the municipality, all these provisions should be delivered to children and workers through a new overtime and employment law coming from the parliament and enforced. In homes, gas, water, and electric utilities should not only be provided by private companies, the municipality should also provide these things.
  7. Health rights should be defended. For every home that uses water works, there should be an examination for bacteria, scientific distribution, food supply, poor person’s hamams, hospitals, clinics, and in the city’s exam offices, and especially in the health stations of the poor neighborhoods, beds for poor sick people in convalescent homes, open air schools, the opening of sanitariums, and house inspections should be assured, it should be mandated that household trash be placed in tin cans, those suffering from epidemics like malaria and tuberculosis should be quarantined under cover every day and night.
  8. City spending on theaters, horse races and pleasure trips should be prevented.
  9. The budget should be made according to needs. Public development should not be made only for the places that are growing, it is preferred to also develop the most needy places. Only after the poor areas have been redeveloped should the new neighborhoods be constructed.




The Urla District Hearth of the Liberal Republican Party, 1930

Image Caption: The Port of Urla (wikimedia)

I’ve never been to Urla, a rural district just outside of Izmir that comprises the stretch of coastline extending from Izmir proper out to the resort town of Çeşme, but I imagine it’s a rather nice place. The Urla of my imagination is rather idyllic, sloping farmlands where, amongst other crops, grapevines twirl their way out from a dusty country road, small towns and local shops periodically pop up, off in the distance there’s a textile factory, a bit further there’s a local garrison, and in all, it’s a place where time passes slowly. Most of the time, my research is squarely focused on the happenings in the bustling metropolises like Istanbul and Ankara but lately it’s been taking me to Urla.

What’s brought me there is the compelling story of the Liberal Republican Party (Serbest Cumhuriyet Fırkası, SCF). I will probably write much more about this episode in early republican history later, but the short version is this: Following the 1929 crash and increasing economic pressure and dissension within the ruling Republican People’s Party (CHP), Mustafa Kemal decided to try and let off steam by allowing some of the adherents to economic liberalism in the government to form a new party to compete in upcoming municipal elections. The party, formed in August 1930 by former Prime Minister and then-Ambassador to France, Ali Fethi Okyar, would not be allowed to contradict the core tenets of the Kemalist revolution, but would be allowed to present dissenting views on economic policy in favor of greater privatization, opening up of trade, and other fronts. However, the party attracted a wide swath of support from all sorts of people who were upset with the ruling party — including socialists and pious conservatives. Support for the SCF was vocalized through the press, political rallies, and was occasionally violent. The SCF built a party organization largely on top of the existing Turk Ocakları (Turkish Hearths), and won a great deal of support from the rural bourgeoisie of western Anatolia. They competed, but not particularly strongly, in municipal races throughout the country in September and October, but rising support from pious reactionaries, and an intense set of disagreements with CHP leader İsmet İnönü led Mustafa Kemal to close the party down in November, just four months after it was founded. It’s a fascinating story, and one I’m wrestling with in the larger work of my dissertation. For now, however, let’s get to Urla.

Urla was one of the districts the SCF was able to win in the municipal elections, and in many ways it was typical of the SCF’s constituency — a rural area on the Aegean with more conservative social leanings, run by a few large landholders who ran farms and a few manufacturing outfits. In my research I’ve come across the internal files of the local SCF organization – they were also called “Hearths”- in Urla, including the document below, which lists the Urla Hearth’s membership and administrative council.


Urla Screenshot


The roster, which was sent from the Urla Hearth to the Regional Hearth Presidium in Izmir on November 11, 1930, lists the President, Secretary, Treasurer and four regular members, along with their level of education and their occupations. The President of the party branch, Hacı Hafız zade Ibrahim Hakkı (actually, the second president, he took over from local merchant Mustafa Nuri sometime in early October) is clearly the most credentialed of the party members – a graduate of the law faculty, a trader and manufacturer. There’s a clear professional elitism – or meritocracy – at work in the organization, professionals with close ties to the town center like Hakkı and the secretary Hulusi Ahmet (a dentist) were elected to more prominent positions than the less educated members like Baltalı oğlu Adil Bey, who made it one year through law school before leaving to join the Independence War effort, and now working as a farmer.

Military connections, largely as reserve officers, seem to also have been a sought after credential for party membership. It’s unclear if there were any military barracks directly located in Urla province but it would have served the SCF’s interest in proving its loyalty to the regime, which was the concern that ultimately brought the party down. It also goes to show that the dissatisfaction with the Kemalist-led government amongst the elite veterans of the Independence war was indeed shared by at least a few lower ranking officers and conscripts. But besides that, these documents show that there were indeed social ties in Urla between officers, farmers, and businessmen.

What is clear from reading through rafts of other files on this short lived opposition party is that they were quickly able to tap into social and business networks across the country and establish a fairly well functioning party operation in the span of a month or two. This is astounding particularly for a region like Urla which was decimated a decade earlier in the wake of the Greek invasion of Izmir and the subsequent retaking of the city by the Atatürk-led Turkish forces. Even in a time of economic depression, in a region whose population had experienced a steep decline, these kinds of networks persisted and were activated with relative ease when the right political organization came along. It is a helpful reminder that these rural spaces are never as empty as the can seem some times.

The full story of the Urla Hearth is something I’m going to continue working on, and perhaps some more glimpses will come through in future posts.



Ahmet Emin Yalman’s 1914 Columbia Dissertation

Image caption — Ahmet Emin Yalman, date unknown, from Vikipedi. 

I’ve recently been going back to Ahmet Emin Yalman’s 1914 Political Science dissertation, entitled “The Development of Modern Turkey As Measured by its Press”, which is perhaps still the clearest, most accessible work in the English language on the history of the press in the Ottoman Empire. Yalman was, at the time, a fledgling journalist and in the course of his time at Columbia had the opportunity to hone his reporting chops in regional markets across the United States. Little did he know that less than a year after submitting his dissertation in the spring of 1914 that he’d be in Germany reporting on the front lines of the first great global conflagration of the 20th century. While much of the dissertation remains an invaluable resource – Yalman was able to collect statistics on the Turkish press in the Ottoman period that would be more difficult to collect today – the fact that it was submitted in the brief interlude between the close of the Balkan wars in 1912-3 and the outbreak of World War I in the fall of 1914 leads to the rather spectacular juxtaposition of his sound analysis and benighted optimism in paragraphs such as these, where he writes about the struggles for reform following the 1908 overthrow of Abdülhamid II:

“As long as the external dangers kept the general attention and the largest part of the empire’s energy had to be devoted to the maintenance of order in and the defense of European Turkey, the rapid changes taking place in every branch of Turkish life could not go beneath the form and surface, and meant in the long run mere destruction and annihilation instead of improvement…”

So far, so good, as certainly the outburst of political, cultural, and intellectual expression that famously followed the 1908-9 revolution had been severely sequestered following the outbreak of war, first with Italy in Libya in 1911 and later in the Balkans, and saw the rise to power of the infamously heavy-handed CUP Triumvirate of Enver, Talat, and Cemal Paşa. But then you get the very next paragraph:

“The recent misfortune of the Balkan War and the accompanying amputation of the sick and energy-absorbing parts of the territory have changed the whole outlook. Freed from the most dangerous part of her imperial burden, Turkey may freely look forward to an era of democratic development.”

One can imagine the sad trombone playing in Ahmet Emin’s head if he himself ever read these lines in the proceeding years. Kidding aside, I do think this points to one of the pernicious, but fascinating paradoxes of the development of Turkish nationalism in its relation to liberalism. In these paragraphs we can observe at once the Turkish nationalist fixation on the “imperial burden” — which in Yalman’s worldview not only consisted of geopolitical designs of the likes of Russia, Britain and France, but also the problems posed by the fact that “European” Turkey’s predominantly non-Muslim population continued to be ruled by a Muslim-Turkish government — and the closely-held belief that peacetime would inexorably lead to the advancement of “democratic development.”

Yalman certainly was not alone in believing that a homogenous nationalism was somehow a precondition for liberal government, like many liberals of his time who saw the rise of nationalism as the primary reason for the loss of territory in Europe he felt the Ottomans, or at least the Turkish parts of the Ottoman Empire, ought to have responded in kind. The problem this presents, of course, is that the self-conscious creation of a nationalist “imagined community” makes an awkward vessel for liberalism. Surely, the Kemalists would trade heavily on nationalism to achieve a kind of modernization in the cultural, social, and political fields once the dust settled after a decade of war, but it was achieved through decidedly illiberal methods such as the banning of articles of clothing, strict limits on free speech, an étatist economic outlook, and a heavy-handed “Independence Tribunal” established to suppress supposed enemies of the state. Indeed even in this period of peace, it is hard to say whether the amplified social reforms of Kemal, like those of the CUP revolutionaries, could go “beneath the form and surface” and forcefully transform society into the sort that would suit a liberal government.

Yalman, for his part, would eventually hew closer to his liberal principles than his nationalist ones, as he eschewed offers to join government posts in the Kemalist regime, and would become an outspoken critic of İsmet İnönü’s government in the 1940s. Like many supporters of the nationalist cause who broke with the establishment, Yalman’s conception of nationalism was both expansive, and self-conscious of the ways in which nationalism was a fiction, a useful one but a fiction nonetheless. Perhaps this outlook could be credited to his upbringing in Salonica’s Sabbatean Jewish — or dönme — community, in that it is harder to fully buy into an ethno-centric narrative when you yourself are somewhat on the fringe of that group to begin with. Whatever the reason, Yalman certainly found himself on the fringe more often than the center as history unfolded for him after getting his doctorate.

Yalman’s career after gaining his Ph.D. in Political Science could be summed up as that of a peripatetic champion of Turkish liberalism. He would travel extensively over the next several decades, and along the way maintain a very prominent position in the Istanbul press helping establish newspapers like Tan and Vatan, and enjoyed a particularly extended time in the international spotlight following the victory of the Democrat Party in 1950 — of which he was, at least at first, an outspoken champion. He published an English-language memoir Turkey in My Time in 1956, four years after surviving an assassination attempt in Malatya. In the late 50s, he’d turn against the Democrats and was given to a fifteen month jail sentence in 1959 — he was 71 years old — in a period when the Menderes government turned harshly against the press. The sentence was cut short only by the May 27 coup the following year. Yalman’s journalistic career would never really recover, and he died in 1972.

Today, in the midst of a civil conflict in the southeast, and a renewed appeal toward entrenched nationalist feelings — and coming from a figure who was once heralded as a liberal icon — we can see how Turkey continues to struggle with its twin legacies of liberalization and homogenous, ethno-centric nationalism.

“Tünel” – Ömer Bedreddin Uşaklı

Image Caption: The Tünel descends along its single line. (Photo: Şevket Uygun, from R. Sertaç Kayserilioğlu Osmanlı’da Ulaşımın Serüveni Vol. I, page 238)

In the course of my dissertation research I’ve spent a good deal of time down one particular side-alley that is only tangentially related to my project, but has served as a way of exercising some different historical muscles in my brain when the dissertation starts to overwhelm me. That subject is public transit in Turkey, and I’m sure there will be more posts along this line in the future.

One of the many things that fascinates me about the history of public transit in Turkey – particularly tramways, ferries and funiculars in Istanbul – is the way these technologies worked their way into the literary and visual culture of their times. In the course of reading press from the late Ottoman and early republic period, it’s surprising how often public transit is the setting for short stories, poetry, cartoons, and political commentary.

Which brings me to a poem written by a quite young Ömer Bedreddin (Uşaklı) [1904-1946] that I recently came across while working through the early republican era journal Hayat [Life], called “Tünel”. Hayat was a fairly popular literary and intellectual journal published in the mid-1920’s and routinely featured new poetry alongside long editorials that usually focused on sociological issues facing Turks in that time (Necmettin Sadık’s famous essay “Are women becoming men?” was published in Hayat in 1927). This poem, which I’ve presented below in modern Turkish transliteration and my own humble translation, is written from the perspective of an Anatolian villager who is encountering Istanbul’s famous underground funicular, the titular “Tünel”, for the first time. It’s an interesting, comical, and somewhat derisive take on the rapid modernization of Istanbul’s cityscape, and the changing demographics of a city recovering from a decade of war and occupation. Enjoy!

Tünel – Ömer Bedreddin
Originally Published in Hayat December 30, 1926

Ey daha dört ay evvel hasretle yolculara,
Büz gibi kaynaklardan taşan sulara
“Geçit vermem!” diye dik başını sallayan dağ!

İşte beklediğin dev soluyarak yaklaştı;
Yamacın arkasından siyah saçları taştı;
İşkenceye hazır ol; işkenceye dayan dağ!..

Çınlayan tiz sesiyle, demirden etek ile;
Paslı bir güneş kadar korkunç tekerleğile;
İşte o dev içinden zulmeti sürdü geçti

Aç kartal seslerini bülbül diye dinleyen,
Şu taştan zincirlerin kasvetiyle inleyen
Zalim kalbine “too! too!” diye tükürdü geçti…

English translation (by James Ryan)

Ah! As it had said four months ago to the yearning travelers,
Like the ice cold spring to the boiling waters,
At the foot of its slope the swaying mountain said, “No Entrance!”

Ah ha! The giant approached the waiting passengers panting;
Its black head descending from the back of the slope…
Prepare for torture; this mountain brings torture!…

It rang with a shrill sound; with slopes made of steel;
With a rusty rolling as frightful as the sun;
Ah, that giant drove with a darkness inside him, and halted…

Listening to the hungry eagle’s voice cry like a nightingale,
Boarding these stony shackles gloomily,
It passed into the heart of darkness spitting, “toot! toot!”…

The Ironic Origins of Cumhuriyet

Photo Caption: Cumhuriyet 1 June 1924

Since I recently published an article on Al-Jazeera about the long struggle for press freedom in Turkey, I thought I’d post something here that is part of the deeper background of that piece. In the piece, which deals with the recent arrest of Can Dündar, editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization, I mention that Dündar’s own paper was founded on less than independent grounds. Today, of course, Cumhuriyet is one of the only papers in Turkey that is run on a charitable trust and not by a holding company or plutocrat, meaning it is probably the most independent paper going, in addition to be the nation’s longest-running daily. With that in mind, let me take you back to the very first days of the newspaper’s founding.

Cumhuriyet was founded in early 1924 as a partnership between three men: Yunus Nadi, a prominent journalist who would become the most influential voice in shaping the paper in the early years, Nebizade Hamdi (aka Ahmet Hamdi Ülkümen), a member of parliament and a close political collaborator with Mustafa Kemal, and Zekeriya Sertel, a veteran journalist who had just recently been named the first Director General of Turkey’s Press Ministry. Sertel, a big character in my dissertation, prior to being appointed to that post had just returned from a three year stint in New York studying at Columbia’s newly founded School of Journalism. Sertel was clearly the young upstart in the bunch, and his aggressive, American-influenced approach clashed early and often with Kemalist insiders in Ankara.

In one early instance, Sertel noticed that there was a lot of concern, particularly amongst the leading Istanbul newspapers, that Mustafa Kemal was out to establish a dictatorship. In order to counter this, Sertel suggested to his superiors that the new president of the republic hold weekly press conferences, just as the American president did, where domestic and foreign journalists could hear him recap the events of the week and then ask direct questions. The response from Mustafa Kemal’s desk: “If the President is made to provide information or answer questions about confidential information, that information or news must in no way be published.” And later, in taking this issue up with İsmet İnönü, “Yes, if you look at it this way: what if these attacks from journalists are continuing, or if they do not comply with confidentiality agreements, or if they misquote me?”

This fear of the press irked Sertel considerably, “By expressing these words of concern, the Pasha would no longer approach the subject of press conferences. Because he wasn’t accustomed to press freedom. The first thing to come to his mind was not enlightening the press, it was to forcefully silence them.” He’d continue to be abrasive with his superiors, and by early 1924 was on his way out of the Press Directorate when he received an invitation to come to Istanbul and found Cumhuriyet. No doubt, Mustafa Kemal was pleased with the way this unfolded, and to ease the transition of one of his more cantankerous appointees into a position where he’d be ensconced by moderating voices like Nadi and Nebizade Hamdi, he presented the owners with an old building in the Çağaloğlu section of Istanbul known as the Kırmızı Konak [The Red Mansion], which had previously served as the party headquarters of the Committee of Union and Progress. In addition to being founded with this gift, the paper took an explicit line against the harshest critics of the regime – which had, at that time, come from some stalwarts of the Istanbul press scene like Ahmet Emin Yalman and Hüseyin Cahit Yalçın. This is why, as I say in the Al Jazeera piece, the newspaper was founded with a “gift” from Mustafa Kemal, and why it was often referred to as an “official” press organ.

For his part, Zekeriya Sertel would leave the paper for financial reasons less than a year after he had helped to establish it. He and his wife, Sabiha Sertel, would occasionally write for the paper in later years, but would go on to acclaim for founding a number of other newspapers and journals, including Resimli Ay and Tan. 

For more on this, you should check out the new edition of Zekeriya Sertel’s memoirsHatirladıklarım, from Can Yayınevi and visit the exhibit on the Sertels and Tan at the Halil Lütfü Dördüncü İş Merkezi in Çağaloğlu.



What is the Other Republic?

Image Caption: “Do You Want to Take a Trip Around the World?” from Resimli Perşembe, November 29, 1928.

As the about page suggests, this space is going to consist mostly of the side-alleys I’ve been taking on the way to writing a dissertation about opponents of Kemalism in Turkey’s single party period (1919-1950). Along the way to collecting the material I’ve been using in my dissertation, there’s a lot of disconnected, but fascinating pieces of culture, history, politics that I’m guessing will ultimately wind up on the cutting room floor, so to speak. Yet I collected these things for a reason, and that’s because they’re often interesting to think with, if only briefly. So a blog it is.

Before I dive in to posting odd photos, stray archival documents, and translations of poetry (there will be a fair amount of this, I’m sure), it is probably worth taking a post to describe what I mean by the title of this blog: The Other Republic.

The title of my dissertation is “The Republic of Others” and I will spare you the convoluted reason I’m going by that name (in short: I’m a sucker for Said), but The Other Republic is meant as a catch-all term for what was going on in Turkey in this period that was outside the bounds of the Kemalist modernization project. In general terms, we like to understand that Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) as a benevolent sort of dictator whose singleminded commitment to modernization dragged Turkey by the ear out of a “traditional” mode of society and culture and into a “modern” (meaning western) one. This of course is a gross oversimplification, but it sets up a dichotomy  that has been used to explain Turkish history in the Kemalist period and after by historians since the 1950s, if not earlier. Even today, Turkey seemingly can’t avoid being described as some sort of liminal zone between an idealized “East” and an “West”. Part of the project I’m embarking on here is to try and smash that cliche.

The reason for this is one of the problems at the heart of my dissertation, though it’s a much bigger than one dissertation can digest efficiently, and that is that when you start examining the history of this period closely, you begin to see that even though the Kemalists themselves employ these broad terms “East” and “West” when they talk about modernity and civilization, the places, people and things they have in mind are actually quite particular. So even though the “West” might have begun, geographically at least, just past the far banks of the Danube as it did in Ottoman times, when Kemalists employed the term they clearly meant the urban centers in France and Germany where many of them had been educated or resided a few decades earlier before Abdülhamid II was deposed in the 1908/9 Young Turk Revolution. This time and place is important because when you look closely, even the radical modernization of Mustafa Kemal was itself just a step behind the times. Mustafa Kemal’s western culture devoured opera when the rest of Europe and America were digging into jazz, frock coats and top hats were the uniform of modernity to Kemalists, but as demonstrated in shows like Downton Abbey, they were symbols of a stodgy, outdated aristocracy elsewhere, even in purely intellectual terms, Kemalists idealized positivist continental thinkers like Auguste Comte and Ludwig Büchner but by the twenties the cutting edge had far surpassed them for the likes of Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Sigmund Freud.

But just because these are the ideas and cultures the Kemalists put on a pedestal, doesn’t mean the more contemporary, and even more radical, ones weren’t finding their way into Turkey and making a significant impact on daily life for many thousands, if not millions of Turkish citizens. Jazz clubs were prevalent in Istanbul by the mid-20s, it was even a haven for a few African-Americans who found it a friendly respite from the Jim Crow south (just as James Baldwin or Eartha Kitt would a few decades later). With a greater emphasis on unveiling and the denigration of the fez, fashion took off in myriad directions in the mid-20s, drawing influences from all over the globe. Film and poetry became venues for radical new methods of expression, bringing abstract modernism, futurism, socialist realism and their attendant political movements to Turkey. This is the stuff of The Other Republic – the people who were committed to different visions of society than the political elite.

Finally, it’s important to remember that this “stuff” was definitely held at arms length by the Kemalists. The young Turkish Republic did not exactly have a lock-tight protection of free expression, and the government could at times be ruthless in prosecuting artists, intellectuals, journalists, novelists, and other cultural figures for disseminating propaganda. Many viewed the young men and women at jazz clubs as immoral, or signs of “superwesternization” and the quickening pace of life truly disturbed many across the country. The space between the Republic and The Other Republic was indeed a battleground, and remained so throughout the single party era.

These are the guiding ideas and principles of this blog, but hopefully they aren’t so heavy as to distract from the innate curiosity of many of the items I’ll post and discuss here. Thanks for dropping by, feel free to chime in through the comments if you feel inclined.