On the Road to EU

Turkey and the West: From the Ottomans to the EU-Part 1

Athens News

Though the tanzimat period of reform failed to halt the Ottoman decline, it did result in a period of limited constitutional government. A parliament, albeit one of severely limited power, was established. However, despite their attempts at reform and in the Jace of mounting humiliations and defeats, the Ottomans had little incentive to continue a process of modernisation along Western lines.
As the Russian presence continued to threaten the very survival of the empire, the sultan, Abdulhamit II, suspended the constitution, abolished the parliament and resumed rule as an absolute monarch.

Both European and Turkish historians have characterised his reign as backward, blood thirsty and despotic; although this opinion is hardly universal.Some see him more favourably, as are former fighting an increasingly steep uphill battle. He was able to improve and centralise the administrative functions of the govemment, in part, simply by taking advantage of such technological innovations as the telegraph. Like his predecessors, he recognised that the empire's only "longterm hope was to incorporate European inventions and methods; while at the same time resisting political and intellectual trends deemed threatening to the empire's stability, a precarious balancing act indeed.

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An unlocated document shows a man standing besides
the bodies of Armenian victims of Turkish deportation
in the second part of the 1910s

What the telegraph could do for communication, the sultan realised, railroads could do for transport. He therefore set about an ambitious programme of railroad construction, aided by European allies eager to expand their influence. The first lines, built with the help of the French and British, were short stretches connecting areas of agricultural production to coastal ports. The French and British also built lines in Syria and Palestine.

Berlin to Baghdad

However; the rise of German industrial and military might at the end of the 19th century suggested a shift in the European power structure which the Ottomans wished to accommodate. This curiously manifest itself in the arena of railroad construction. In the 1890s, a German company laid down the Anatolian railway. In1903, a concession was granted to a German firm to extend the line to Baghdad and Basra. As the line expanded, linking cities in the MiddleEast to the heart of Europe, it came to be known as the Berlin-Baghdad Railway Project.

We may not today dwell upon the remarkable economic, indeed strategic, significance of train lines. However, particularly before the era of the automobile, railroads, along with steamships, absolutely transformed methods of transportation, having significant implications for economic and military undertakings. Given the British dominance of the seas, the Germans saw the Berlin-Baghdad railway as a means to increase economic and diplomatic ties with the Middle East Conversely, as an ascending power in Europe, Germany offered itself as an attractive new ally to the sultan. At that time it laid no claim to territories or influence in Balkans. Its primary interest lay in the importat of goods and raw materials from the Balkaris and the Near East.These regions could also serve as natural markets for German products which could be exported along the same rail lines. From the sultan's point of view, Germany offered a useful alliance which would give the Ottomans greater access to European markets and technology without the dreaded conditions so often imposed by other Western powers. Germany thus replaced France and Britain as the Ottoman's chief European ally and advisor, an event that would be of profound consequence as Europe approached the First World War.

The Young Turks

Sultan Abdulhamit II's abandonment of any move towards democracy, coupled with his embrace of Pan-Islamic sentiment, which he hoped would help to unify the empire's disparate Muslim populations, led to the I emergence of a constellation of revolutionary associations known collectively as the Young Turks. Comprised primarily of military officers, intellectuals and civil servants, they sought national salvation by undertaking a thoroughgoing campaign of secular reform. They also worked to define Ottoman identity as a matter of nationalistic rather than religious identity. Though the empire had long pursued a measure of westernisation, the power of the ulema, the clerical authority, combined with the general population's suspicions, played a large role in hampering such reform. The Young Turks, having been trained in Westernised military and civil service academies, developed a fascination with liberal, nationalist and constitutional ideas.

The Young Turks were particularly active in Macedonia, the region most likely to be lost to Ottoman control. Fearful of German influence, the Russian tsar and King Edward the VII of Britain met in 1908 and devised a plan for what would be, in effect, foreign control of Macedonia. Learning of this plan, the Young I Turks, under the auspices of their most powerful organisation, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), launched their own Balkan rebellion, demanding the reinstatement of the Ottoman constitution. The sultan sought to crush them, but his military forces were riddled with sympathetic officers. In July of 1908, under the cover of night, the sultan had little choice but to restore the constitution.

The Young Turks expected the restoration of constitutional rule to win the approval and support of the Western powers, but were mistaken. Austria-Hungary annexed the Ottoman provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina, while Bulgaria laid claim to territory adjoining its border. Britain refused to intervene. Insurrections followed in Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Yemen. Following a by-now established pattern, the pressures on the empire were primarily the result of its subjects defining themselves increasingly as victimised minorities pursing national freedom, aided and abetted by foreign powers calculating how to best play the divisions with the empire to their own advantage.

Despite the success of the Young Turks andgeneral popular support for constitutionalism within the empire, the CUP chose not to abolish the sultanate. They consolidated their power in parliamental elections and remained vigilantin guarding the constitution, and waited. Perhaps because they feared complete national collapse were they to push to hard, they allowed the old Ottoman political structure, with the addition of the restored parliament, to remain more or less in place. Several figures emerged in the Young Turk rebellion who would later play major roles in the establishment of the Turkish republic, none more important than a young officer, Mustafa Kemal (later to be known by his adopted surname, Afaturk, or Father of the Turks).

Greek artillery in action during the
Afyonkarahisar battle - the last
battle won by the Greek forces in
Asia Minor before their full retreat
and total defeat in the summer of

From the Balkan War to World War I

In 1911 and 1912, Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Greece concluded agreements designed to end Ottoman presence in Europe. They delivered an ultimatum on the administration of Macedonia, which the Ottomans rejected. None of the major European powers supported this effort, but they did nothing to restrain it. In the ensuing conflict, Ottoman forces were driven back almost to Istanbul itself. This disaster inspired the CUP to launch a coup d'etat in January of 1913, in which they effectively took control of the government. They shot the war minister and imprisoned cabinet members to emphasise the need for a more vigorous resistance of the Balkan states. In the aftermath of the coup, the empire managed to regain some of its lost territories, but the consequences of the BalkanWar were catastrophic.
The Ottomans had been all but driven out of Europe, losing their richest and most developed territories. Istanbul was flooded with refugees, triggering epidemics. The immense losses born in the Balkan war would soon be enormously overshadowed by those of the First World War.

The now CUP-controlled Ottoman government knew quite well that it was unprepared to fight a war against European forces. Economically depleted and technologically outgunned, it watched the progress towards the First World War with increasing trepidation. Seeking a protective alliance with what it took to be Europe's most imposing force, the Young Turk leadership signed a secret agreement with Germany in1914. While the motivations for this are still debated, one may reasonably conclude, that the Ottomans failed to anticipate the scale of the conflict that would follow. They believed that Germany's main adversary would be Russia, a longstanding threat to Ottoman interests and a state which they believed the Germans could defeat. Finally, Germany was the only European power willing to grant the Ottomans the status of an equal state, rather than to impose upon them a semi-colonial status which they resented and feared. British attitudes can be gauged by the words of Prime Minister Lloyd George, who in 1914 saw the Turks as, "a human cancer, a creeping agony in the flesh of the lands which they misgoverned".

For the Germans, the alliance was attractive not so much because of the Ottoman forces it would deliver - clearly, they had been shown to be anaemic - but because of the effect that they believed an alliance with the empire would have on Muslim subjects within French and British colonial empires. Furthermore, the Ottoman navy could effectively block Russian Black Seashipping. When war broke out, the Ottomans delayed entry for as long as possible, claiming the lack of preparation and the need for armaments from Germany. Pressured by Germany to join the fighting, the Ottomans eventually did so, suffering devastating losses and leaving their Eastern territories open to Russian advance. Armenian nationalists in Eastern Anatolia sensed the opportunity presented and looked to the Russians for help in establishing an independent Armenian state. This led in turn to a long series of anti-Armenian attacks and forced relocations resulting in hundreds of thousands, if not over a million, deaths. The precise number, of course, is still a topic of international debate. The Armenian Crisis is described by some as the 20th century's first act of genocide and by others as a regrettable tragedy born of the chaos of war. In any event, one may conclude that it attests to the desperate actions of a dying empire.

Many leaders of the CUP, facing defeat and fearful of retribution for their handling of the Armenian crisis, fled to Germany. With no choice but to sue for peace, an Ottoman delegation signed an armistice with the commander of the British Black Sea squadron in October of 1918. The terms of the peace allowed the Ottoman stare to carry on, but only just. The Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia, secured the right to occupy any part of the empire where they felt security or law and order were under threat. In effect, they had the right to occupy Ottoman territory where and when they pleased. The CUP placed its hopes for national renewal on a resistance movement with the Anatolian heartland.

The Turkish War for Independence

In the aftermath of the First World War, finalising the exact terms of the peace treaty took time, primarily due to power struggles between the victors. The eventual result of these negotiations, the Treaty of Sevres, was signed in 1920. It divided the Ottoman territories among the Western powers, the Greeks, the Armenians and other allied peoples, leaving the Ottomans little more than a token state, with Istanbul as its capital. Even before the Treaty of Sevres, the national resistance movement brewing in Anatolia realised that its greatest adversary was no longer the Triple Entente, but rather Greece, which in 1919 had been granted the right of occupation in Izmir and the surrounding region. Greece offered itself as a force which ctould quell the CUP-led resistance movement by pressing into Anatolia and defeating the insurgents.

Remnants of the Ottoman army scattered throughout Anatolia soon joined forces with the Unionists' resistance. Officially, authority within the empire lay with Mehmet VI Vahdettin, the last of the
Ottomam sultans. However, his policies reflected the struggle simply to appease the Triple Entente, and what little credibility he had among the nationalist Turks had evaporated. Many of those serving in the sultan's government, however, were secretly sympathetic to the Unionist uprising and were able to smuggle weapons and fugitive military leaders to the resistance. Although the leadership hierarchy emerged slowly and with muchinternal dissension, Mustafa Kemal eventually assumed the reins of power.

In May of 1919, four days after the Greek landing in Izmir, Ataturk arrived in the Black Sea town of Samsun and immediately began organising the various resistance organisations into a unified force. Officially stilI an officer in the Ottoman army, Ataturk attracted the attention of the Triple Entente authorities, who summoned him to Istanbul. Sensing the end of his commission as inspector General of the Third Ottoman Army, Ataturk resigned. Although no longer an officer, he continued to enjoy the loyalty of most in the army. Soon thereafter, Ataturk was elected president of an executive committee which in effect served as the governing body of the national resistance. Its headquarters were established in Ankara.

Increasingly, what was left of the crumbling Ottoman administration folded itself into the nationalist movement. Military officers and common soldiers joined the resistance. Ottoman parliamentary representatives fled Istanbul and joined the Grand National Assembly in Ankara. They continued to offer formal recognition to the sultan, but it was clear that the sultan no longer commanded a viable government, and that a war would be necessary to fend off subjugation to the Western powers.

The movement of Greek forces across western and central Anatolia in 1920-21 triggered full-scale military resistance. France and Italy were not as enthusiastic about the Greek expansion as were the British, and began to negotiate with theTurkish nationalists. The British continued to back the Greeks, who reached to within 50 miles of Ankara itself. Here, at Sakarya, the Turkish forces halted the Greek advance, and although complete victory was not yet within grasp, the nationalists slowly drove the Greek forces into retreat. In1921, the nationalists signed what amounted to a separate peace agreement with the French, who turned over arms and ammunition to the resistance. In 1922, Ataturk launched a final drive to dislodge the Greeks. Taken by surprise, Greek forces were routed and ultimately driven back toIzmir, and then to Greece itself. At this point, even the British had to recognise that the nationalists had defeated their Greek allies and won their independence. In July of 1923, the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne established theTurkish republic.

A new mode of thought

Recognising the bankruptcy of the old Ottoman system and the need to make a clean break with the past, the new government, led by Ataturk, sought to implement a sweeping set of changes that would as quickly as possible bring the new Turkish state into a condition of viability. The nationalist sentiment that had brought Turkey its independence was put into service towards this end. The word 'Turk', which in Ottoman times had suggested a backward, illiterate peasant, was consciously redefined to embody nationalist pride. At the same time that Ataturk cultivated nationalism, he launched into a crash programme of Westernisation. This was meant not only to strengthen the country's economic and milttary potential, but also to forge a modern Turkish identity wedded to the modern world, which Ataturk essentially took to be the Western world. However, these two strains, Turkish nationalism and Western modernism, have never been wholly fused in the Turkish psyche. Tensions manifested themselves at the inception of the Turkish republic, and continue to do so today.

Given the role of the military in previous modernising efforts and in the establishment of the current state, it was inevitable that it play a central role in Ataturk's reforms. However, he was wary of granting complete control to the military. He recognised that a full-fledged military dictatorship could reproduce all of the failings of the sultanate and wished instead to move Turkey towards a civil society with eventually a democratic representative government. In order for this to happen, Ataturk tried to marginalise the role of religion within the government administration. He took responsibility for education out of religious hands and made it one of the functions of the state. In 1924, he abolished the caliphate, as well as religious courts and the dervish orders. He subsequently outlawed the fez -associated with Islamic prayer - and discouraged the wearing of veils. Sharia, or Islamic law, was replaced by a legal code modelled on that of the Swiss.

These and other reforms were not universally embraced by the populace but, having come so close to the brink of utter defeat, many Turks, even those of conservative temperament, acknowledged the need for change and were swept along by Ataturk's already formidable personal charisma. Under Ataturk, the state attempted a dramatic set of social and structural reforms, while democracy lay idle. An experiment in multi-party democracy was tried in 1924, but Ataturk believed the nation to be as yet too embryonic to make of it a functioning system, and the experiment was put on hold fora decade-and-a-half. Ataturk justified this by claiming that democracy was alien to the majority of Turks and would require a change not only in civil codes but also in national temperament. Any criticism of his one-partystate was dismissed with the saying, "I am dictating democracy to my people."

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