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.

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