From the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic: Vacillating between heritage and prospects
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For the workshop “Teaching the Post-Empire State in Europe: National Historiography and History Teaching”, 10-12 June 2011, at the University of Huddersfield.


By Dr. H. Millas – Draft only



From the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic:

Vacillating between heritage and prospects




    The Ottoman Empire took its name from the founder of this state, Osman (Othman, 1258-1324). This dynasty lasted six centuries (1299-1923) and is legally succeeded by the Turkish Republic. In modern Turkish historiography the Ottoman period is perceived in three phases: expansion, standstill and decline. The years 1300-1600, 1600-1700 and 1700- 1918 mark roughly these periods. Various historical events, such as the death of the Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmet (1579), the siege of Vienna (1683), the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji (1774) etc., are also used as landmarks of these stages or to add sub stages. However, the tripartite perception is generally central.    

     The Turkish Republic was founded as a nation-state, its leaders taking a critical position against the legacy of the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural empire. The Ottoman Empire was seen as outdated, backward, too traditional, corrupt and unproductive. The heirs of the Ottoman dynasty were expelled from the country. The Ottoman legacy was considered contrary to the national one and a campaign was launched to press on new “national” ideals and practices. After a few decades, however, gradually the political and social debates gathered around issues that are connected to the legacy of the Empire and reminiscent of its heritage: Islam and its discourses, the romantic retrieve of the mutli-cultural, mutli-ethnic society, the recognition of the merits of some Sultans, etc. In present day Turkey the daily political controversy is heavily marked by a direct or indirect clash which is related to the social and political past and its interpretation.  The discussions are carried out as issues of identities.  

     Modernity, tradition, conservatism, national, ethnic or religious identities are issues connected to the past, to Ottoman legacy and to the prospected future.  Here I will try to summarize the political and cultural developments of these crucial years of nation-building and the related counter reactions. I will refer to historiography, textbooks, literary texts and political discourses. I will try to show that various ethnic, religious, human rights and other legal issues are advanced or supported claiming alliance to “traditional” values or to “modern” ones.





     In 1904 Yusuf Akçura, a militant intellectual, published a thesis titled “Three political routes” which is considered by many as the manifesto of the Turkish nationalism. The Ottoman Empire was desperate to halt the decline and the continuous loss of land and Y. Akçura argued that the efforts exerted by the Ottoman state to realize the social unity based on “Ottomanism” or “Pan-Islamism” are not realistic; according to him “Turkism” was the answer. Together with another intellectual, Ziya Gökalp (1876-1924), he advanced the idea that the country can be saved by nationalism and specifically by “Turkism”.  The word “Turk” until the end of the 19th century had a pejorative meaning: “ignorant peasant”; now it was gaining a very positive one.

     Turkism and Turkish nationalism spread among the young officers that were organized as the Young Turks. Their military coup in 1908 was a political milestone. The Young Turks managed to control the Parliament, to limit the authority of the Sultan and in practice to rule the country. It was during these years that various national organizations and institutions were founded in order to strengthen the “national consciousness”. In 1909 a state organization was set up to study the Ottoman history (Tarih-i Osmani Encümeni); in 1912 “The Turkish hearths” (Türk Ocakları) spread along the country to “educate” the population. The applied “Turkification” changed drastically the status of the “citizens”. The non-Muslims were treated as foreigners and/or as potential enemies: they were economically discriminated and politically and culturally deprived of their rights. The main social target was to facilitate the Muslims to replace the non-Muslim middle classes.[1] During the First World War most of the Armenians who comprised a large portion of the population of Anatolia were deported to the Middle East and/or died during these operations.[2]

          The rule of the Young Turks, organized in a political party called “Union and Progress”, was disastrous for the Empire which was defeated in the end of the First World War. The Allied Powers occupied many areas of the Empire and the Turkish armies had to fight a “War of Independence” (1919-1922) under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) to establish the Turkish Republic (1923), a modern nation-state. The connection between the party of “Union and Progress” and the movement of Mustafa Kemal and the extent the two movements were associated are still issues that are debated. According to the main stream historiography the two movements are not associated; on the other hand, it is known that many of the Young Turks fought on the side of M. Kemal and many of their practices were tried after 1923.





      The new regime initiated reforms to “modernize” and “westernize” the society. Some actions were rather symbolic, demonstrating Mustafa Kemal’s will to cut the ties with the previous regime. In fact, M. Kemal had to go up against the reconciliatory Sultan and its government when he started to fight the foreign invaders. The new regime ended the sultanate and a republic was declared. The caliphate (the high Islamic authority) was ended. The capital of the country was moved to Ankara; Istanbul was seen probably as too Ottoman. M. Kemaal enforced European style clothing prohibiting the fez and other similar traditional and eastern outfits. A language reform, which targeted to create a “pure” Turkish lexicon and grammar freeing Turkish from the Arabic and Persian influence, went hand in hand with enforcing the Latin alphabet instead of the old Arabic script. M. Kemal imposed “secularism”, prohibiting the religious Sufi orders and bringing religious practices under state control. Men and women were declared equal and women were encouraged to participate in public sphere. The regime operated until 1945/1950 as a republic where only one political party was allowed.

     The most important changes occurred in education and the publicized national identity. Turkishness and love for the home country became the highest ideal and virtue. In the new constitution all citizens were considered equal irrespective of their language or religion; but in practice there were two inadequacies which lasted for decades: ethnicities other than the Turkish one (for example the Kurdish) were not recognized, and in practice non-Muslims were discriminated. Actually one of the first actions taken by the new regime was to “exchange” the Christian/Greek population that lived in Anatolia with the Muslim population that lived in Greece. After the expulsion of the Armenians and the Greek speaking groups a more homogeneous society was secured. 

     Ironically, even though the new state was promoted with reference to its constitution  as secular and as not discriminating based on belief, language, ethnic origin and race and claiming that it was the “ancient regime” which was passionately religious and undemocratic, the national unity of the modern nation-state was rather achieved forcefully on a religious basis. In practice with the vanishing of the Ottoman State, the multi-religious, multi-ethnic society grew fainter. 





     A central and state-controlled education system was a novelty compared with the decentralized schooling of the Ottoman society. Actually the textbooks of the first years of the Republic (1931-1937) are of special importance since the ideology and the interpretation of the history of the new state were best presented in a comprehensive way in these high school textbooks, prior to historiography and literary texts that followed. A new theory on the origin of Turks, on their superiority and on their legitimate rights was introduced through these school books. Also four history and language conferences (1932-1937) organized by the state supported these views. This new theory is directly associated with Mustafa Kemal, the new unquestionable leader of the new state; it was inspired by him and therefore it was difficult for dissidents to oppose it. 

      This theory of “genesis” or “ontology” has two parts and two names: The Turkish Historical Thesis and the Sun-Language Theory. According to this new answer to the question “who are we?”, and with the apparent desire to promote national self-esteem, the Turks were seen as the oldest nation on earth and as having contributed decisively and positively to the world civilization. The Turkish language was presented as the oldest one on earth and almost all other languages having spread from Turkish. The Turks are not associated to Ottomans or to Islam anymore; the Turks belong to a much wider group that lived thousand years ago and in various regions of the world. Thus all ancient civilizations of Anatolia (Hittites of bronze age, Greek Ionians, etc.) were seen as the ancestors of the present-day Turks.[3]

      The “home country” (anavatan) of the Turks was claimed to be Central Asia. In unspecified “old times” the Turks moved to various centers where civilization flourished: Mesopotamia, the Aegean basin, even the Americas. The superior prehistory of the Turks in Asia and especially the Asian “ancestors” were emphasized. The Ottomans appeared in two axis. The Empire was praised as powerful and benevolent in connection to the period of “expansion” but was condemned for the period of “decline” - that is, for the very recent past and with whatever was connected to it: the old political regime, its sources of its legitimacy, the Sultan, the Islamic references, its multi-ethnic society, its decentralized multi-cultural base. Especially the non-Muslim citizens of the Ottoman state were presented as foreign bodies and as a threat.[4]     

       Even the reforms of Tanzimat (1839) which were initiated to modernize the Ottoman state and its relation with its citizens were criticized because they were enforced by the Great Powers of Europe with the intentions to “increase the rights of the non-Muslims”.[5] The argumentation in the textbook of 1931 continuous as follows:


“The leaders of the Ottoman state believed that providing rights to the Christians equal to the Muslims, and by tying  them to the Ottoman society they could secure the existence of the Empire… They dreamed of creating an Ottoman nation where all people, irrespective of their religion would share equal rights and interests”.


      The textbook concludes that this was not a realistic endeavor because it was not easy to change the views and understanding of the people, of the majority as well of the dignitaries. In other words, the reader understands that the only realistic option is the modern Turkish Republic and its preferences and choices.   

      These supposed “anti-orientalist” theories were gradually abandoned after the death of Mustafa Kemal (1938) but their part that was related to the national self-esteem survived. Also the anti-Ottoman interpretation of history stayed unshaken for decades, too, drawing attention to the superiority and benefit of the new regime.





     The efforts of nation-building did not develop as smoothly as it was planned by the Turkish intelligentsia. The Ottoman legacy was too weighty to be transcended readily. Centuries-long habits and social structures changed only to the extent they proved really useful and functional. All through the period of secular, modern, national and state imposed reforms and changes mentioned above, there was resistance by different dissidents. The Kurds, in the first place, a population speaking a different language, which could refer to its antiquity and which gradually altered its identity from communal to ethnic, often opposed violently to the assimilatory efforts. The different sects and orders whose religious freedoms were restricted were dissatisfied and continued functioning in secret. Many conservative and aged citizens were opposed to the new enforced outfits, language and script. All Muslims felt that their religion was not as respectful as before: mosques were not built at a satisfactory rate and religious education stayed behind. The small number of non-Muslim minorities which remained felt that they were not wanted in the country having faced a series of discriminatory operations in the 1930s, 1940s and 1960s. The liberal and socialist citizens, on the other hand, were dissatisfied with the lack of democratic rights.  

     After the Second World War, the defeat of the NAZI powers and Turkey’s participation in the NATO group, the political regime changed substantially. A multi-party parliamentary system gave its fruits by bringing to power an alternative political party in 1950, replacing the Republican People’s Party (CHP) which ruled the country uninterruptedly from 1923 up to that year. The existence of an alternative candidate to rule and govern changed the relations of the state with its citizens. The rulers had to win the consent if not the approval of the voters. All parties thereafter tried to satisfy, each at different degree, the expectations of the people. The strict oppressive nation-building operations slowed down. However, a new tension and two unique fronts arose: on one hand the dedicated defenders of the Kemalist reforms and on the other hand, the dissatisfied members of the society who recalled the past four decades.

      The political and cultural history of Turkey after 1950 and until today has been tense. The “establishment”, mostly identified with the bureaucracy and the military, carried out a series of coups d’état (in 1960, 1971, 1980), closing down political parties, imprisoning leaders, even in one case executing by hanging the prime minister. In each case the explanation has been the same: the secular character of the modern state was at stake. The enemies were the “conservative, fanatical religious powers”, the “counter-revolutionists”.

     Progressively these coups proved more difficult to carry out, especially after the strengthening of the political parties, mostly known as “Islamist”, in the 1980s and onward. After 2002, the “Islamist” Justice and Development Party (AKP) is in power. It is anticipated that in the parliamentary elections of 12 June 2011 AKP will easily win again. The last three years many things changed in Turkey. The army and the Kemalist bureaucracy had serious setbacks. Many of the opponents of the Islamists are under trial for planning military coups. The state apparatus is controlled by the government rather than the bureaucracy as it used to be.






      The Islamists identify themselves as “conservatives”, even though they have changed (revolutionized) Turkey politically, socially and economically. What they actually mean by being “conservative” is that they have an inclination to a traditional way of life. They are closer to rural voters and their origin is Anatolia; whereas the Young Turks and the founders of the Republic were mostly from the European part of the Empire, e.g., Thessalonica. The vision, liking, sympathy and identification of the “conservatives” are elsewhere: they feel closer to the religious past, more distant to nationalism which divides the believers into ethnic groups, closer to the traditional everyday life of their parents and grandparents and opposed to the modern “extreme western” practices, they are at ease in the East and feel awkward in the West. In other words they feel in solidarity with the Ottoman past and they identify themselves with the positive aspects of the Empire.

     The changes that occurred in Turkey starting from 1950, but especially in the last two decades, mostly in the cultural sphere, are impressive. There is a revival of religious practices, a change which for the one side (the Kemalists) is considered a return to “backwardness”; but for the other side, religious practices are seen as an expression of the use of basic human rights. What is mostly discussed is if women should be allowed to dress in a traditional way (covered, with turban, with veil) or if this dress symbolizes the abolition of the achievement of the Republic. The past is rediscovered. The Ottoman past is reevaluated and some of its aspects are judged as exemplary: The multi-ethnic and multi-religious past is seen as positive. The Islamist (and many liberals and democrats who side with the Islamists) take pleasure in communicating with the non-Muslim minorities of Turkey, the Kurds and the other Muslim sects and orders. They are not in urge to assimilate the “other” but to live with the “other”– as it used to be in the Ottoman Empire.[6]

    The leaders of the Empire are assessed anew. Two of the last Sultans, Abdülhamit and Vahdettin, for example, who were demonized by the “Republican/secularist” side are presented in the press and in some publications as misunderstood and/or as able statesmen. On the contrary there is a tendency to criticize the Young Turks – the nationalists. During the last campaign for the election of 12 June 2011, the clash between the Islamists and the “nationalists”, the National Movement Part (MHP) was acute.

     The conflict over the language is of interest, too. In the 1970s the language reform that was initiated in the 1930 had reached its peak. The intellectuals were speaking and especially writing in an unintelligible Turkish full of newly created words. This tendency has receded the last years and a balance has been achieved. Still, however, one can easily distinguish political groupings by just hearing them talking on any subject. There are two languages side by side, the traditional one spoken by the majority and the new one spoken and understood by a smaller group, sometimes referred pejoratively as “the white Turks” by their opponents.[7]

    The admiration for the Ottoman legacy is paramount in the book by the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmet Davutoğlu Strategic Depth in which he states his vision of making use of the positive practices of the Ottoman understanding and worldview to develop a peaceful and productive foreign policy.[8]

    This anti-nationalist discourse is used when dealing with the Kurdish issue, too. It is quite often reminded that “once we lived next to each other peacefully”. In this kind of ethnic issues the Ottoman practices are reminded. The difference with the “Republican” practice is that the Islamists have no reservations recognizing the  existence of ethnic groups in the country – as it was in the Ottoman State – whereas the “secularists” stick to the idea that a single nations exists within the modern state, all citizens enjoying equal rights.









     Split into two big groups, a large section of the Turkish society discusses issues of identity and legacy:              


A- The “secularists/republicans” and

B- The “Islamists/conservatives (plus some liberals)”.


      The above are each group’s own labels and self-identifications. When these groups talk about the “other”, however, they refer to “fanatically religious/backward” groups or to “white Turks/militarists/anti-democrats”, respectively. The first group perceives the citizens as individuals on an equal status (in theory at least) with a desire and expectation to secure a society where all will be united under one Turkish identity. The second group perceives the society on a communal bases (according to religion and/or language), each community being a part of a greater multi-identity state. Both however will feel quite surprised if one calls the Ottoman Empire “colonialist” or “imperialist”. In this matter both agree that the Ottomans were neither; only a grand and benevolent empire with no ulterior motives.      

    The Ottomans faced Europe quite often as the “infidel” and/or the “West” for about six centuries. Modern Turkey has an ambiguous image of the “West”. It admires the technical and some political accomplishments of the “West” and wants to imitate and follow these experiences. However, many in Turkey, and especially the Kemalists are uncomfortable and on guard perceiving a potential threat: The “West” is seen sometimes as imperialistic and sometimes as the Great Powers who administer the fate of weaker countries. The Islamists, too, have contradictory feelings vis-à-vis the West: the European Union, for example, on one hand “is so different”, but on the other hand, EU is a community where human rights and especially religious liberties are respected. In this conjecture they are for the EU since it is the EU that will secure human rights and religious freedom in Turkey.

     The educational system is debated in present-day Turkey, too. The issues which cause tense disputes are two:

1- The schools that provide religious education in the intermediary level are one source of debate. The conservative Islamists promote them, the Kemalists want to limit their influence. 

2- The issue of what kind of textbooks is to be used in teaching “religion” and/or “ethics” in public schools – as an obligatory lesson- is another issue that is discussed widely.

     The legacy of the Ottoman Empire and especially its comparison with modern Turkey is not being discussed in public and especially in connection with schooling. The image of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, his leading role, his authority and his legacy is not challenged openly by any. Officially nothing has changed nor is it wanted to be changed with respect to the general official evaluation of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey. The discussion is not open but a covert one, where sporadic re-evaluations are attempted. However, one can sense that more and more utterances of appraisal are heard which are in favor of the Ottoman Empire. Especially by one section of the society. The Ottoman legacy proved quite enduring.   




[1] See: Zafer Toprak, Türkiye’de ‘Milli İktisat’ (1908-1918), (‘National Economy’ in Turkey (1908-1918), Yurt Yayınları, İstanbul, 1982.

[2] See: Eric J. Zürcher, Turkey, A Modern History, I.B. Taurus, London, 1993. M. Şükrü Hanioğlu, Α Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire, Princeton University Press, 2008.

[3] Actually this approach is an “answer” to the Greek national historiography which had developed the counter argumentation: The Greeks have legitimate claims on Anatolian soil because the ancestors of the present day Greeks, the Ionians for example, once lived in this region. For a detailed account of the above nationalist history war see: H. Millas, -“History writing among Greeks and Turks: Imagining the Self and the Other”, in The Contested Nation, Ethnicity, Class, Religion and Gender in National Histories, Edit. by Stefan Berger & Chris Lorenz, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 


[4] This understanding persisted until today. See for example: Salahi Sonyel.  Minorities and the Destruction of the Ottoman Empire, Publications of Turkish Historical Society, Ankara, 1993.

[5] Tarih 3, Yeni ve Yakın Zamanlarda Osmanlı-Türk Tarihi, İstanbul, Devlet Matbaası, 1931, p. 122.

[6] The days these lines were written in an article published in Zaman (Islamist) newspaper, A. Kurucan asks a rhetoric question, expressing his yearning for the Ottoman legacy: “Why not all of us live again, hand in hand, next to each other, in good heart, as it was in the times of the Ottomans, each remaining himself, without exaggerating his religion, his nation, his cultural differences?” (Neden herkesin kendi olarak, kendi kalarak, dini, milli, cinsi, harsi farklılıkları abartmadan tıpkı Osmanlı döneminde olduğu gibi ne olur yeniden el ele, diz dize, gönül gönüle birlikte yaşasak diyorsunuz)

[7] The Turkish speakers can compare these two sentences: a) Vaziyeti tetkik için lisana bakmak lazım (old language); b) Durumu irdelemek için dile bakmak gerekir (new language). Both mean “one needs to look at the language to investigate the situation”.  

[8] See: Ahmet Davutoğlu. Stratejik Derinlik, Türkiye’nin Uluslararası Konumu, Küre yayınları, İstanbul, 2001.


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