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.