Delving into the Past: The Young Turks

This Article was written for Istanbul expat site Yabangee.com
They are the questions that come up time and again regarding Turkey’s foray into the First World War: What would have happened had it not ended in defeat? What if it had not given birth to a modern state? And indeed, the most elusive: What if it had never happened at all?

In fact, these kind of questions are the object of such fascination that they provided the theme for the 2008 hit comedy Ottoman Republic.

Not wishing to rock the boat on official historiography, the film presents the differences between reality and ‘what could have been’ as inevitably dystopic: A hereditary sultanate, weak and powerless against American gunship diplomacy and European economic machinations, made all the more worse somehow by the presence of silly hats.

The film has plenty of ironies, and says more about the paranoias of modern Turkey then it does about taking a serious look into the crystal ball, ending with a clip of Atatürk to assuage the audience’s horror at the alternate reality.

However popular history likes to put it, in attempting to answer these questions, one must delve a little further back than Atatürk. Indeed, where would an Atatürk have been found if not for the vacuum left by the fall of the pashas three, Celal, Enver and Talat – leaders of the movement known to the world as the Young Turks?

The Stirrings of Revolution

The city of Thessalonica, in present-day Greece, was very much the centre of intellectual debate about the future of the waning Ottoman Empire. The multicultural hub was the home of military academies where the lower cadres of the Ottoman state discussed and debated an increasing influx of European ideas about nationalism and the power of a unified state.

Here, a number of young Turkish intellectuals met in secret as part of the reformist group The Committee of Union and Progress. Events came to a head in March 1908, when the Young Turks, backed by Thessalonian troops of the 3rd Army, marched into Istanbul and forced the emperor to accept the re-convention of parliament, and the declaration of a radically liberal constitution which posited the equality of all imperial citizens as well as enshrining other rights, such as universal suffrage and state education – this, years before Atatürk’s reforms.

The event was celebrated by many as a sign of better things to come. Even the country’s minority groups were in overwhelming support. According to historian Robert Chambers, “Christian stood shoulder to shoulder with Moslem in a triumphant onslaught for the recovery of liberty and the reinstatement of the Constitution.”

However, as is the nature of political alliances, once the common enemy is removed they rarely last – especially in the city that gave birth to the phrase ‘Byzantine politics.’

The Dictatorial Triumvirate

The Young Turks became increasingly intolerant to opposition, and ideologically compromised. When the Arabs complained about the education reforms only being provided in Turkish, they argued for ‘pan-Ottomanism’, when the minorities complained that their privileges were being eroded, they took an ‘Islamist’ stance. However, a new brand of fire was also being kindled that would have repercussions throughout the coming war and its aftermath – Turkish nationalism.

Many Young Turks revelled in the fantasy of a new, all-powerful world empire combining the Turkic and Islamic worlds. The ‘Turanian’ ideal would become a characteristic of Turkish nationalism for the foreseeable future, and many governments of the Turkish Republic have since aimed for closer economic ties with central Asian countries in order to win votes amongst a nationalist electorate. The post-war influx of neighbouring Turkic and Muslim peoples to Turkey would engender this mentality in advancing assimilation policies for much of the twentieth century.
The imagined empire of Turan

However, the Ottoman Empire’s entry into World War I on the side of the Central Powers would mean dire consequences for the country, not least of all its minorities. The Young Turks decided the best way to get rid of the multiple problems arising from their presence, under the pretext of Armenian side-switching in the East, was to get rid of them completely. The pashas rounded-up Armenian intellectuals and transported the rest of the populace to camps in the East, from which many would never return. Whatever the legal term for this course of action, Atatürk himself would later surmise it simply as “a shameful act.”

These events, and the war’s aftermath, have blighted Turkey’s struggle to come to terms with its past, and have also had a knock-on effect on its diplomatic relations around the world. Last year, France became a dirty word in Turkey as that country’s parliament voted to outlaw denial of the ‘genocide’ perpetrated by the Young Turks.

The Young Turk Legacy

Atatürk’s republican mission had a great resonance with the Young Turks’ earlier ideals. A nationalist unitary state run along Western lines, with a monopoly on the two engines used to change the mentality of the nation: education and the military.

Had the Young Turks not set the agenda, the foundations for the republic would arguably not have been laid. However, the Young Turks themselves were too ambitions from the outset. Their particular brand of egalitarianism would not stand the test of a divided populace. For this reason, perhaps, the nascent Turkish Republic chose, for better or worse, to bypass idealism in the name of progress.

As for their grand geo-political ambitions, they would have to be shelved for good. For if a Turkish state was to survive it would have to be content with its borders.

After the war, all three fled the country. Enver Pasha took on the title of ‘Commander-in-Chief of all the Armies of Islam, Son-in-Law of the Caliph and Representative of the Prophet’ and went charging around Central Asia until he was shot by Russian forces in 1922. Talat was shot by an Armenian survivor of the war in central Berlin, and the trial which followed his assassination marked the beginnings of international moves to define a new legal concept called ‘genocide.’ Cemal was assassinated in Tbilisi around the same time.

Young Turks of Today

The Young Turks certainly carve controversial figures in today’s Turkey. School history textbooks present them as patriots who didn’t quite get it right politically or ideologically, and certainly not militarily. But unlike many aspects of Ottoman history, neither have they been completely divorced from the history of the Republic. This fact alone whispers that, whilst the idea of Atatürk single-handedly building a nation-state from the ground-up cannot be tampered with, Turkey as it is today would not exist without the game-changing dynamism of the Young Turk revolution.

Had they not existed, perhaps the idea of the Ottoman Empire would not have been so disgraced amongst the Turkish political elite, and a new republic would not have been an attractive option. Perhaps the seat of the Ottoman Empire would have clung to a spiritual power similar to that which the Vatican holds today. Perhaps modern Turkey would have embraced Western-style multiculturalism, or perhaps it would have been paralysed by inter-ethnic conflict. Perhaps it would have retained some of its hats.

In a nation where nostalgia for the past is such a powerful force in the politics of the present, these questions are as likely to go away as they are close to being answered.

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