[Image: İsmet İnönü Speaking in Parliament, 1938. Source: http://www.gazetebilkent.com/2014/07/07/resmi-tarihin-golgesinde-bir-cumhurbaskanligi-secimi-1938-secimleri/]
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.”