What history is taught in Turkey


Dr. Mehmet Ö. Alkane

Dr. Mehmet Ö. Alkan is Professor of Political History at Istanbul University. His main research interests are elections, civil society organizations, social and industrial history, and the relationship between the Ottoman and German empires. He has published numerous books and essays on these topics. From 2000 to 2001 and from 2009 to 2010 he was visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin and from 2008 to 2009 at the University of Cologne.

After the defeat in World War I, the Ottoman Empire fell apart. Large areas remained under the control of the Allies and the first peace treaty even provided for the territorial division of the empire. This led to the Turkish Liberation War and to the negotiation of a new treaty: the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923.

Kemal Ataturk leaving the Grand National Assembly in Ankara in the early 1930s. To the right of him, the then Prime Minister Ismet Inönü. (& copy Wikimedia)

When the Young Turks rebelled against Sultan Abdülhamid II (ruled 1876-1909) in 1908 and forced him to reinstate the constitution of 1876, the Ottoman Empire had lived through a nearly thirty-year period of despotism and the restriction of political and social freedoms. Large parts of the population therefore welcomed the revolution as the "proclamation of freedom".


Young Turks

The Young Turks invade Istanbul in 1908. (& copy picture-alliance)

The Young Turks (Turkish: Jön Türkler) were a nationalist-reformist group that had been working towards reforming the form of government since 1876. In 1908 they forced the sultan to adopt a constitution, and between 1913 and 1918 they de facto ruled the Ottoman state. The party of the Young Turks was the Committee for Unity and Progress (İttihat ve Terakki Cemiyeti). The Young Turks inspired various nationalists in the Middle East, including the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, who later distanced himself from them.
Thus began the second constitutional period (II. Meşrutiyet dönemi) in the history of the Ottoman Empire. The Committee on Unity and Progress (İttihat ve Terakki Cemiyeti), related to the movement of the "Young Turks" (Jön Türkler), had previously led the political struggle against the sultanate as a secret society and now holds power in the country. However, his attempts to reform the Ottoman Empire into a consolidated modern and constitutional monarchy were unsuccessful. It was not least this inner weakness of the multi-ethnic empire at the time of the Young Turks that led neighboring states to try to enforce territorial claims on the empire. These conflicts and the associated massive territorial losses - including today's Libya and the island of Crete - led to the overthrow of the Young Turkish government in 1912.

While an ideology of Ottoman patriotism [1] initially prevailed during this period, the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) created the basis for a new Turkish nationalism. In 1912 and 1913, the Ottoman Empire had lost all areas in the Balkans to Albania, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece, with the exception of today's European part of Turkey, which led to a homogenization of the remaining Ottoman population.

Another coup and World War I

On January 23, 1913, the Young Turk Committee for Unity and Progress undertook another coup and set up its own government. When the Young Turkish Grand Vizier Mahmut Şevket Paşa [2] fell victim to an assassination attempt on June 11, 1913, the Young Turks set up a regime of oppression and cracked down on their political opponents. The time of democratic parliamentarism and the multi-party system of the second constitutional period was thus over. The following year the First World War began in Europe.

The Ottoman state was now headed by the Central Committee of the Young Turkish Party, which was established externally by the triumvirate Talat Paşa (1874-1921), Enver Paşa (1881-1922) and Djemal
The Turkish War Minister Enver Paşa in conversation with General Arnold von Winckler, Commander in Chief of the 11th German Army in Macedonia, 1916. (& copy picture-alliance)
Paşa (1872-1922) was represented. This new state leadership considered the participation of the Ottoman Empire in the war as inevitable. The political and social upheavals and upheavals that ushered in the 20th century had almost heralded the First World War. The Balkan Wars in particular appeared like the regional foreword to it. On August 2, 1914, the German and the Ottoman Empire signed an alliance treaty.

The First World War brought destruction to the Ottoman Empire in many ways and ended with its defeat in 1918. The population loss in the empire was also great, especially among the Muslim Turks, Circassians, Albanians and Kurds. The main victims of the war, however, were the Armenians above all others: it is still not clear how many Armenians died or were murdered in 1915 and 1916 when they were expelled from their homeland. Estimates vary between 800,000 and 1.5 million victims.

Entry into the First World War

Despite Turkey's long republican tradition, the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I is still a part of Turkish history that is not dealt with casually.
In Turkey there is therefore still its own way of narrating the entry into the First World War; to this day it is also taught in schools:

According to this story, two German warships passed through the Dardanelles one day and reached Istanbul after escaping the British fleet in the Mediterranean. However, their names "Göben" and "Breslau" were changed to "Yavuz" and "Midilli" on the journey to the Black Sea
The German warships "Göben" and "Breslau" in the Bosporus. (& copy picture-alliance / akg)
and the garrisons of the Fez, wearing the typical headwear of Turkish men of that time. The ships crossed the Black Sea and bombed the Russian fleet in the port of Sevastopol, the largest city on the Crimean peninsula. Unintentionally and unknowingly, the Ottoman Empire got into the war in this way. On all fronts of the war - especially on the Dardanelles - the Ottoman soldiers fought successfully and heroically, but due to the defeat of Germany, on whose side the war had gone, the Ottoman Empire was also counted among the defeated.



Armistice and dictated peace

The Moudros armistice of October 30, 1918 meant the end of fighting for the Ottoman Empire. The Committee for Unity and Progress, which had drawn the Ottoman Empire to war because it had seen it as an opportunity to recapture lost Ottoman territories, dissolved a week after the armistice. Its leaders, including the former triumvirate, fled the country. The fate of the declining Ottoman Empire was now directed by a government under Sultan Mehmet VI, who was to remain the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire (1918-1922).

Only the peace treaty of Sèvres meant the real end of the First World War for the Ottoman Empire. The treaty was signed near Paris on August 10, 1920, and only apparently left an "Ottoman Empire" on the map: After the agreed new demarcation, only a rural-agricultural state in Central Anatolia with a coastal strip on the Black Sea remained . [3] The remaining parts were to be divided between the victorious powers Russia, France, Italy and Greece. When these plans and the fact that the Sultan's government would not oppose them became known to the Turkish public, the "National Resistance" (Milli Mücadele). At its head was Mustafa Kemal, the victorious general of the Battle of Gallipoli [4], who took the surname in 1934 Ataturk should receive.

His supporters and other national forces had already won a majority in the parliamentary elections in December 1919 and passed a number of laws that ran counter to the interests of the Allies. When Istanbul was occupied by Great Britain in March 1920 and leading MPs were arrested, the Sultan dissolved parliament. Under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, the MPs met in what is now Ankara and on April 23, 1920 founded the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (Türkiye Büyük Millet Meclisi). She declared the Treaty of Sèvres invalid and the Istanbul government officials high traitors. From then on, two governments faced each other in Ankara and Istanbul. In January 1921, the deputies in Ankara then passed a new constitution in which they declared the people to be sovereign. With this, the new government emancipated itself for the first time not only from the old Ottoman government but also from the sultanate and the monarchy as a form of government.

The Turkish Liberation War

The "National Resistance" (Milli Mücadele or Kurtuluş Savaşı) began as partisan warfare: armed resistance groups that Kuvayı Milliye (Turkish for "National Forces"), began to fight the Greek army in a decentralized manner in May 1919, which had recently occupied Izmir. The Kuvayı Milliye consisted of deserted officers of the Ottoman army, former supporters of the Young Turks and other volunteers. They were organized by the "Society for the Defense of the Rights of Rumelia and Anatolia" under Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk). After the establishment of the Grand National Assembly in Ankara, the Kuvayı Milliye then united with the newly formed Turkish army.

From the clashes the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) developed, which was marked by ethnic hatred on both sides. The British-backed Greek troops continued to advance towards Ankara after the occupation of Izmir. Decisive battles took place at Inönü [5] (January and April 1921) and Sakarya (August to September 1921), as a result of which the French, Italians and finally also the British left the areas of Turkey they had occupied after the Peace Treaty of Sèvres withdrawn.

In September 1922 Mustafa Kemal finally recaptured Izmir, which had been occupied by the Greeks since May 1919. In the days after the ingestion, around 40,000 people were victims of anti-Greek attacks. On October 11, 1922, the Mudanya Armistice Agreement was signed.

The Turkish Liberation War had aroused the desire for further political changes and the Mudanya armistice resulted in the negotiation of a new peace treaty at the end of the First World War: Als
The last sultan of the Ottoman Empire goes into exile: Mehmed VI. when leaving the Dolmabahçe Palace on November 17, 1922. (& copy Wikimedia)
When the Entente powers invited both the government in Istanbul and the government in Ankara to Lausanne, Switzerland, Ankara reacted immediately and made the first radical political change: the Grand National Assembly, i.e. the parliament in Ankara, declared on November 1, 1922 all contracts signed by the government in Istanbul since 1920 were invalid and decided the end of the sultanate. Mehmet VI. lost his ruler title "Sultan" and was expelled from the country. His cousin Abdülmecid II became the caliph, the religious head.
Group picture of the participants in the Lausanne Conference on June 24, 1923. Front, from left to right: British Foreign Minister George Curzon, Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini and Raymond Poincare, French Prime Minister. (& copy picture-alliance)
The political system was henceforth defined as a caliphate dominated by parliament.

The subsequent peace talks finally led to the signing of the Lausanne Treaty on July 24, 1923. The treaty is significant in two ways: First, from the Turkish point of view, it finally ended the First World War. And secondly, the new state was politically codified and legitimized at the international level by the text of the treaty. The borders of the new empire and its legitimacy would henceforth no longer be discussed.

Founding of a republic

The end of the four-year war of liberation (Kurtuluş Savaş) and the proclamation of the Turkish Republic on October 29, 1923 forced the separation from the old regime and strengthened the position of Mustafa Kemal, who became its first president.

At the same time, the country was in a strange transitional situation. The sultanate was abolished, but the caliphate remained. The political system of these days could be described as a hybrid "caliphate republic". This scenario lasted for about five months. On March 3, 1924, it ended with the abolition of the caliphate and the expulsion of the Ottoman ruling house.

Elimination of the opposition

While Mustafa Kemal was still considered the primus inter pares at the beginning, over time he took on the clear leadership position: initially as Parliament President and Commander-in-Chief, then from 1923 as President of the State. In addition, the victory in the Turkish Liberation War was primarily attributed to his person in public. As early as 1924, comrades-in-arms Mustafa Kemal, who were increasingly critical of him and his abundance of power, founded the Republican Progressive Party (Terakkiperver Cumhuriyet Fırkası) the first opposition party. The Kurdish uprising that broke out in 1925 ended this chapter early, however, as the government used it as an opportunity to ban the party and opposition newspapers. In addition, prominent party members were brought before an "independence court" in the following year for alleged connections to the "Izmir attack" on Mustafa Kemal and executed or sentenced to prison terms.

The Kemalist "Cultural Revolution"

The elimination of the political opposition, as well as the ban on religious brotherhoods (tariff) and convents (tekke) in 1925 as well as the introduction of the civil code based on the model of the Swiss law of 1926 and the conversion of the script to the Latin alphabet in 1928 were intended to promote social change in Turkey. The same goes for the hat reform in 1925, which banned Turkish men from wearing the traditional Ottoman headgear - the Fes - and prescribed western hats as headgear, the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1926, the abolition of Islam as the state religion in 1928 and the abolition of religious education in schools in The following year was one of the reforms of the Kemalist cultural revolution, with which Kemal Ataturk codified Turkey's western orientation.

In the course of this process, the Republican People's Party (CHP) founded in 1923, the Mustafa Kemal's party, was established. It emerged from the "Society for the Defense of the Rights of Rumelia and Anatolia" formed in 1919. Organizations and associations that had been founded for social and professional purposes and which, due to their size, had the potential of political opposition, have been closed since the early 1930s. This included teachers' associations, the nationalist circles of the Türk Ocakları, Masonic lodges and women's associations.

Today the Serasker Tor is the entrance to the Istanbul University (Turkish: İstanbul Üniversitesi) with over 100,000 students and 5,000 academic staff, one of the largest and most renowned universities in Turkey. Until 1923 it was the headquarters of the Ottoman Ministry of War. Then (& copy LOC / News Dog Media) / Today (& copy Timur Fadıloğlu)

New identity

By dissolving first the political and then also the social forms of opposition, the construction of a new "national Turkish identity" was to be promoted. Theories on Turkish history and language played just as central a role as the conversion of the Arabic script and the alphabet as well as traditional clothing: The connection to the Ottoman past was to be severed for good and a new national, Turkish identity and the modern citizen created.

History and language as the basis of national identity

History is the basis of every identity. In the construction and definition of "Turks" and "Turkishness" it therefore had a very central meaning:
In this context, for example, the theory arose that the Turkish tribes had left Central Asia because of drought and had emigrated to different regions of the world, but especially to Anatolia. They would have carried civilization to all of these places - that is, to the whole world.A second thrust of the theory of history went against the existence of a separate Kurdish identity: When emigrating from Central Asia, there were some stray Turkish tribes who were scattered into the mountains and forgot their language. The idea was brought into the world that these "mountain Turks" were called "Kürt" because their steps in the snow of the snow-covered mountain landscapes evoked the sound of "kürt, kürt".

The central element of the linguistic identity was the "solar language theory" propagated from 1935, according to which the origin of all languages ​​was Turkish. During this time, too, the idea arose that the Turkish language had to be freed from all words taken from other languages. Both the theories of history and the thesis that Turkish as the mother of all languages ​​should help Turkishism to achieve a homogeneous identity and that pride that is inherent in all nationalisms.

The "Citizens, Speak Turkish!" Campaign launched at the end of the 1920s. belongs in this series. The appeal was not only directed against all non-Muslims in the country, as a homogenization measure it was also directed against Muslim Adygians, Albanians, Kurds and Bosnians who came from other ethnic roots and who continued to speak their mother tongues.



In this attempt, however, preference had been given to an authoritarian regime over a democracy according to today's understanding: At the same time, due to the party ban in 1925, the Republican People's Party (CHP) not only remained as the only political organization but was also fully interwoven with the state. All professional and social organizations were also connected to the CHP. And finally, a single universal definition of Turkish was created.

This development led to excessive Turkish nationalism spreading in society at the end of the 1920s - in the liberal professions as well as in the chambers of commerce, industry and lawyers and in the public sector. Against this background, the anti-Semitic pogrom of Thrace took place in 1934 (Trakya olayları). With Ataturk's death on November 10, 1938, the period of radical changes ended.

Translation: Georg Danckwerts