Ninety Years Since What? Framing the Birth of the Turkish Republic


On a Sunday night in late October 1923, eight men met for dinner in the Ankara home of Mustafa Kemal, the president of the Turkish assembly. These included the president himself as well as the prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister, two generals, and the commandant for the city.[1] The following morning, the People’s Party, of which Mustafa Kemal was the head, was scheduled to hold a meeting to choose a new cabinet. At Kemal’s demand, the previous government had resigned en masse after Hüseyin Rauf, a former prime minister and opponent of Kemal’s, had been elected deputy president of the assembly. Following their resignations, Kemal had forbidden his allies in the assembly from joining any new government. The government was now in the throes of an “artificially created crisis” and these men had met to strategize a way out. [2]



I. A Young Officer Rises, An Empire Crumbles

II. Istanbul Occupied, Anatolia in Revolt

III. Mustafa Kemal Consolidates Power

IV. A Revolution in Politics

V. A Revolution in Society ?

VI. Conclusion


Hüseyin Rauf, the theoretical target of all this intrigue, was a forty-three year old ex-soldier not so different from the men plotting against him. Like the rest of these men, he had joined the Ottoman officer corps in the late 1890s and moved up through the ranks. Like them, he had grown involved in the conspiratorial army-politics of the era, as part of the Committee for Union and Progress (CUP), or “Young Turks.” A decade’s worth of plotting led in 1908 to a direct confrontation with the reigning sultan and a revival of the long-suspended Ottoman parliament.

It was while suppressing a revolt against the CUP in 1909 that Rauf had first met Kemal. The two men, both in their late twenties at the time, found themselves in agreement on the fundamental debate within the CUP—namely the degree to which military officers should involve themselves in politics. Kemal and Rauf believed that officers should remain separate and resign their commissions if they wished to take on political roles. In the years to come, they (and like-minded fellow officers) formed “an opposition faction within the CUP.” [3]

Military men of their generation were filled with visions of a modernizing Ottoman state. Looking west to countries like England, France, and Germany, young officers dreamed of reforming the state so as to stem the hemorrhaging of territory the Empire had experienced in the past several decades—this included the loss of eastern territories to the Russians, North African territories to the British, and Balkan territories to indigenous nationalist movements. Territories on the western and eastern borders remained particularly unstable as surrounding countries encouraged minority groups within the Empire to look beyond the imperial borders for support and protection. In the eastern provinces, for example, the Russia tsar’s assertion of his protective role over the Empire’s Christian minorities worried Kurdish tribesmen. Many tribal leaders, who already resented the growing Armenian bourgeoisie, now feared that the Ottoman state might throw its institutional support behind the region’s Armenian population in order to deny Russians any pretext for intervention. [4] Such inter-communal tensions had led to the murder of over 100,000 Armenians in the late 1890s.

Young officers like Kemal and Rauf, as well as Ottoman intellectuals, all hoped to solve this instability one way or another. Rauf, for example, was an admirer of the British model and backed policies—like the separation of the military from politics—that were fairly standard in in the UK. Moreover, he and Kemal opposed the growing influence of Germany in Ottoman affairs in the years leading up to WWI. Over those years, they built strong ties to a number of other officers, including Musa Kâzım, Mustafa İsmet, İbrahim Refet, and Ali Fethi. Though generally eschewing political conspiracy, these men remained in close contact up until WWI. When Italy occupied Ottoman Libya in 1911, for example, Kemal and Fethi led guerrilla campaigns while Rauf ran guns and supplies to them. In the Balkan Wars, the following year, Rauf in particular made a name for himself as the commander of the ship Hamidiye. [5]

While most of these officers disliked the tactics, alliances, and methods of the CUP leadership, they continued to serve with distinction during WWI. However, as a result of his continuing criticism and scheming, Kemal was kept at an arm’s distance from the upper echelons of the CUP throughout the war. Others, like Fethi were included in the CUP’s Central Committee. Rauf too rose to high rank during the war—Chief of the Naval Staff—and in 1918, when Ottoman hopes for victory had vanished, he was given the duty of traveling to the town of Moudros to negotiate the terms of surrender.

The CUP leadership had entered the war on Germany’s side intending to win back territories that the Empire had lost to Russia and, perhaps, those lost to Britain as well. CUP leaders had imagined that the Sultan could use his role as Caliph—the head of the global Islamic community—to rally Muslims in the Allied colonial holdings, like India.

Quickly, however, all these imagined advantages faded: Russian forces actually took more Ottoman Black Sea territories, and an Ottoman offensive against the British was repulsed. Less than a year into the war, Ottoman armies were left in a solely defensive position, fending off Allied attacks such as the amphibious landing at Çanakkale [Gallipoli]. Moreover, controlling the Caliphate proved no advantage as the British co-opted Husayn, the Arab notable responsible for Mecca, and convinced him to revolt. [6] The collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 allowed Ottoman armies to occupy Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia, but this hardly made up for the loss of all the Arab territories. [7] Nor were they allowed to hold theses lands—as part of the armistice terms, Ottoman forces were required to withdraw from all these territories.

Most significantly, the war had revealed the Ottoman Empire’s inability to serve as a strong bond between diverse people. Since the Greek Revolt in the1830s, an increasing number of Ottoman subjects had rejected the Empire as being worthy of their allegiance. Despite such departures, on the eve of the war, the Empire remained home to Turks, Arabs, Armenians, Kurds, Greeks, Assyrians, Circassians, Laz, and Jews among others. By the war’s end, reconciliation between many of these groups had become difficult to imagine.

Both the Ottoman Empire and its opponents supported separatist movements among each other’s minority populations—often these were the same minority populations, merely on opposite sides of a border. The CUP’s main tool in these attempts was the Special Organization, an institutionalized version of informal networks that had previously connected CUP leaders to criminal networks and local strongmen in the Balkans during their formative years. Previously, the Organization had been used to “undermine” Bulgarian claims in the Empire’s European lands; now it was directed at the Russian Empire’s Caucasian borderlands. [8]


Map of Eastern Front c. 1918-1920

For its part, the Russian Empire attempted to stir similar unrest within its Ottoman neighbor. Fierce partisan fighting was occurring by September of 1914 and, by April 1915, Armenian fighters had seized Van. [9] The capture of the city was brief and the Ottoman response was brutal and systematic—nearly all Armenians outside Istanbul (and some community leaders there as well) were rounded up and shipped off to the Syrian desert. Lacking sufficient supplies, the relocations resulted in mass death. Moreover, Ottoman officials connived with local bandits to attack and rob parties of Armenians as they made their way south. [10] In total, well over a million Armenians were relocated and/or murdered under the supervision of Ottoman officials during WWI. Nor were they the only group that came in for reprisals—Pontic Greeks and Assyrians were also targeted. [11] How the Empire could have retained its legitimacy after sponsoring such a level of violence against its own people is hard to imagine. Then again, it was never to face the task.



The Moudros Armistice was not the first such negotiation Rauf had attended: a half-year earlier, he and his superior, Ahmed Izzet Paşa, had represented the Empire at Brest-Litovsk, when the newly formed Soviet state had withdrawn from the war, ceding the Empire its Black Sea territories as far as Batumi. Now it was the Ottoman Empire giving up its claims in the Caucasus; allowing the Allies to occupy its territory; and demobilizing its armies. Rauf was chosen to attend because his known opposition to Germany made him a preferable face to represent the Empire to the victors. [12] In fact, his new position as Minister of Navy was also a result of the imminent surrender: the CUP leadership had decided that the Empire’s bargaining position would be improved were it represented by known CUP critics. [13]

It made little difference. Just as the Allies intended to strip Germany of its colonial territories, so too did they plan to take from the Sultan many of his subject peoples. The Allies’ wartime agreements had divvied up all of the Arab lands and much of the coastal territory of Anatolia; envisioned the creation of a Kurdish state under European trusteeship; and assumed the transfer of Istanbul to Allied control. The Empire would be left with little more than a rump Turkish state centered in Anatolia.

The following six months were a period of uncertainty. Ottoman cities remained largely unoccupied—excluding areas that had already been lost (the entire Middle East) or given up (like the Caucasus). Less than two weeks before signing the armistice, the CUP leadership had announced that Armenian deportees could return to their homes. [14] These returnees often arrived home to discover that their property had been seized by local Muslims. Moreover, they returned to hometowns where order had broken down. Along the west coast, for example, wartime economic hardships had emboldened both local strong men and masses of unemployed deserters to organize gangs to terrorize Christian minorities. In the south of the country—like Adana and Urfa—communal violence was spreading.

Although the CUP’s wartime leadership had departed Istanbul, its members and associates retained high offices in the military and bureaucracy of the Empire. During the six-months following the armistice, it is unclear to what extent these interconnected networks of men actively laid the groundwork for a long-term resistance movement, but they certainly remained in close contact. [15]

From the beginning of the armistice, Kemal and others had opposed giving any further ground to British forces, but they ultimately followed the orders of his superiors. [16] As it became clear that the Allies intended to carve up the remaining portions of the Empire, however, the officer corps became increasingly nervous. In early May, ostensibly responding to Allied demands that Christian communities be better protected from Muslim gangs, Kemal was sent to lead the 9th Army stationed in eastern Anatolia. Like Rauf, his appointment was acceptable to the Allies because of his known opposition to Germany and the CUP leadership. From his arrival on May 19, Kemal began working to organize resistance—including meeting with Bolshevik representatives. [17] Similar initiatives were being pursued by Musa Kâzım in the east and Kazım Fıkrı in the west.

The spread of a national resistance movement was greatly assisted by the Greeks, who decided to occupy the city of Izmir in May of 1919. The move, followed by further advances inland and the British occupation of Izmit several days later, left no doubt of Allied intentions. The Greek occupation encouraged Christian’s to organize their own gangs—and Muslim gangs to redouble their efforts—all of which contributed to increased communal violence.

Within two months, Kemal had organized a meeting in Erzurum for representatives of the “National Forces,” both to show unity and to plan the resistance. After much delay, nation-wide parliamentary elections were called for October. Since the end of the war, censorship laws had been repealed and the capital had experienced a flowering of political parties and organizations. [18] In the election, however, the largest opposition party to the CUP boycotted the elections, claiming that the CUP (technically disbanded by this time) was still influencing the campaign. As a result of this boycott, parliamentarians connected to the “National Forces” dominated the assembly—both Kemal and Rauf were among those elected, though the former remained in Anatolia.

When the assembly opened in early January 1920, its members quickly passed a series of resolutions—“the National Pact”—which called for referendums in areas the Allies were intending to annex. Fearing that the assembly was becoming a source of nationalist ferment, the Allies occupied Istanbul. [19] A number of parliamentarians, including Rauf, were arrested and sent to Malta. The Sultan-Caliph, ill disposed to any nationalist agitation that might complicate his attempts to maintain his throne (and in no position to resist Allied demands), dissolved the assembly and issued a fatwa against the Nationalist movement in Ankara. Parliamentarians who had not been arrested fled to Ankara where they reconstituted the assembly on April 23 and declared Kemal its president.

For a year and a half, Rauf remained on Malta, separated from affairs in Ankara. [20] During this time, the Nationalists won a number of important battles against the Greeks and came to understandings with the French and Soviets. Over the course of 1921, the British too softened their attitude toward the Nationalists and, in mid-1921, they allowed the Malta exiles to return to Anatolia as part of a prisoner swap. [21] Upon reaching Ankara in November, Rauf was appointed as a representative for Sivas. Four days after arriving in Ankara, he was made Minister for Public Works and, three days after that, voted deputy president.

From Ankara, Kemal, Rauf, and their allies directed a war on multiple fronts. Between April 1920 and February 1921 the Ankara government and the Soviet Union reached an understanding regarding the Caucasus. Because the Nationalist’s main concern was to deny the British influence in the region and allow the Soviets to supply weapons through it, they supported Soviet control of Azerbaijain, allowed the Armenians to choose incorporation into the USSR, and accepted (after a brief battle) Soviet control of Batumi. [22]


Map of Greco-Turkish War

By late 1921, French forces had been pushed out of Urfa and Adana and, over the course of 1922, Greek forces were also forced into retreat—along with huge numbers of the Empire’s Greek subjects who feared reprisals. The rout of Greek forces climaxed in the burning of Izmir in September. By October, the Ankara government had reached an armistice agreement with the various belligerent countries, and Kemal was beginning to speak of post-war considerations, such as turning the National Forces organization into a political party.

In October 1922, the Empire still had two sources of authority: one was the Sultan-Caliph in Istanbul, with whom the Allies had already signed the 1920 Treaty of Severes, granting them spheres of influences throughout Anatolia. The other was the assembly in Ankara, which controlled the army and the countryside, but was ostensibly fighting in the Sultan’s name. [23] When the Allies suggested that representatives of both attend treaty negotiations at Lausanne, however, Kemal determined to settle the issue of authority. With the help of Rauf, Kemal introduced legislation separating the offices of Sultan and Caliph, and abolishing the former. The assembly approved and the Sultan complied.

In the technical sense at least, the Ottoman Empire was at an end.



Naively or not, many in Turkey did not see the abolition of the monarchy as such a definitive step away from the imperial tradition. The sultan may have outlived his purpose and “betrayed the people by collaborating with the British,” but many “conservatives assumed that the caliph with spiritual powers would continue to rule as head of state” and, in this way, perpetuate the culture of the Empire into a new era. [24] Rauf was among these conservatives when he argued:

My devotion to the Caliphate is imposed on me by my upbringing . . .It is hard for us to control the general situation. This can only be secured by an authority that everyone is accustomed to regard as unapproachably high . . .To abolish this office . . .would lead to failure and disaster. It is quite inadmissible. [25]

Kemal certainly agreed that “the general situation” required a greater deal of direction. As established in 1920, the assembly was hard to control. Throughout the course of the war, Kemal had maintained unity by appealing to a sense of shared religion. The “nation” that Nationalists were fighting for was not a “Turkish” nation, but an Islamic one. Only such a formulation kept Turks and Kurds fully on one side and western powers, Greeks, and Armenians fully on the other. Moreover, it justified the demands of the National Pact, which had called for elections in non-Turkish parts of the former Empire, like Mosul, to determine their post-war status.

As victory in the war became more assured, appeals to unity lost their power. Throughout much of 1922 and 1923, Kemal faced opposition from a collection of parliamentarians banded together under the name “The Second Group”—the first group being the Defense of Rights parliamentarians loyal to Kemal. [26] For a diversity of reasons, men in this faction disliked Kemal’s goals and his tactics. One member, for example, Mustafa “Black” Vasıf, had founded an organization called the Karakol in Istanbul intended to resist the Allied occupation. Until the British cracked down in 1920 and sent him to Malta, he had resisted Kemal’s efforts to assert control his organization. After joining the Ankara assembly in late November 1921, he had continued to chafe under Kemal’s leadership.

Another Second Group member, Ali Şükrü, was even more vocal in his opposition and, through his newspaper Tan, published articles criticizing Kemal. In late March 1923, however, he disappeared. Several days later his body turned up, buried only a short distance from Kemal’s house on Çankaya hill. The prime suspect in the murder was “Lame” Osman, the head of Kemal’s personal corps of bodyguards. Kemal claimed no connection with the murder and dispatched police to seize Osman and his followers. The ensuing firefight left Osman dead. Although members of the Second Group wanted to send Ali Şükrü’s body back to his hometown of Trabezon circuitously via Istanbul, Kemal’s supporters blocked such a move in fear that the funeral procession would become a focal point for protest. Additionally, Kemal’s supporters denied “a pension to Ali Şükrü’s family” [27]

The treaty negotiations at Lausanne continued throughout these events. Turkey was represented by Mustafa İsmet, one of the war’s most successful generals. To the distress of many conservatives, İsmet seemed willing to barter away large chunks of the Empire in the order to secure a treaty—especially in the Arab south of the country. Although the Nationalists had demanded elections in the regions around Antakya and Mosul, these were (at least temporarily) handed over to France and England. [28] Rauf, the prime minister at this time, spoke for those who hoped that victory in battle would allow for the preservation of something resembling the Ottoman Empire—an Empire that he himself had helped sign away at Moudros four years earlier. On several occasions when he and İsmet disagreed, the latter went over his superior’s head and appealed directly to Kemal. The treaty signed on July 4 reflected Kemal’s wishes, not Rauf’s. Dissatisfied with the resulting treaty, and seeing it as undermining his authority, Rauf avoided İsmet’s return celebration and submitted his resignation on August 4. Kemal’s ally, Ali Fethi, was elected prime minister and İsmet, foreign minister.

Rauf’s resignation followed closely on the heels of the national election—the first since 1920. Following the abolition of the sultanate, Kemal had begun suggesting he would transform the Defense of Rights organization into an actual party. By the time of the July elections, however, this reorganization had not yet occurred. Instead, Kemal issued a list of nine principles that candidates could pledge to support. These included National Pact demands and already realized achievements. In April, the assembly passed a new High Treason Law banning criticism of itself or its decision to remove the sultan; the law effectively limited the grounds on which opposition candidates could campaign. [29]

Candidates supporting the nine-points swept the election, ejecting the entire Second Group. This rout did not leave Kemal free from opposition, however, as he had included a number of important figures with whom his relations were souring. Among these were Musa Kâzım (general on the eastern front), İbrahim Refet (general on the western front), and Rauf.

The election concluded, Kemal established the People’s Party and was promptly elected its leader. The extensive money and property belonging to Defense of Rights organizations were seized by the new party on the grounds that one group was the evolution of the other. [30] These developments struck many other leaders of the resistance as ominous. At the time of his resignation, Rauf had asked Kemal to stay above politics. In subsequent weeks, other leaders, like army commander Mustafa Fevzi, pleaded with İsmet to speak with Kemal and convince him to be more inclusive in developing policy—İsmet rebuffed them.

With opposition becoming more organized, October proved to be a month packed with political maneuvering. The Treaty of Lausanne had been ratified on August 23, and by October 6, Allied armies had turned Istanbul over to Turkish forces. [31] Ankara was named the capital on October 10 and the national army command was reorganized into three inspectorates; Musa Kâzım was given the first (based in Istanbul) while Ali Fuat, another “conservative,” was given the second (based in Konya). At the time, Fuat was also serving under Kemal as deputy speaker. Although active military commanders were allowed to serve in the assembly at the time, there remained a general distaste among the leadership for mixing the army with politics. [32] This political view had bound many of these men together a decade earlier and it continued to motivate them. [33] Feeling the need to choose between his roles, Fuat resigned his position as deputy speaker.

In the October 25 election to replace Fuat (and the open position of Interior Minster), the candidates that Kemal supported were defeated and Rauf was elected to the post of deputy speaker. This failure to direct the votes of the general assembly motivated Kemal to decisive action. He demanded that Fethi and all his ministers resign and “refuse re-election to [any] new administration.” [34] On October 27th, the cabinet resigned en masse. Kemal additionally demanded that all his supporters in the assembly reject election to a new cabinet. As he controlled a large majority of the assembly, his opponents were unable to secure the election of their own ministers. The assembly was deadlocked and a meeting of the People’s Party was set for October 29.

This was the situation on the night of October 28 when Kemal, Fethi, İsmet, and several military commanders met for dinner at Kemal’s house. That evening, Kemal announced his intention to declare Turkey a republic the following day. After assigning duties to the men and wishing them goodnight, he and İsmet remained behind to draw up the necessary legislation.

At the following day’s meeting, the People’s Party was unable to reach a consensus. One of the generals from the previous night, Kemalettin Sami, suggested that the party invite Kemal to join the meeting and help it resolve the situation. Upon arrival, Kemal presented his suggestion—that Turkey be declared a republic with a president elected by the assembly and empowered to designate a prime minister, who in turn would choose a cabinet. The party fell in line behind these proposals. By the evening, Turkey had become a republic, Kemal its president, and İsmet its prime minister.

Opponents like Kâzım and Rauf were away from Ankara on October 29. In Istanbul at the time, Rauf learned of the republic’s declaration the same way the rest of the city’s population did: from hearing a volley of cannon’s firing in celebration.



But what does it all mean? What is the actual significance of the events that occurred on October 29, 1923?

Viewed at close range, the declaration of the republic appears as just one political maneuver in an ongoing power struggle. The various actors did not change. The men running Turkey after 1923 were not different from those in 1922—or, more significantly, 1914. Kemal, İsmet, Kâzım, Fethi, Fuat, and Rauf had all been broadly supportive of the CUP. All of them had risen to their positions in Turkish society through the institutions of the Ottoman state—military schools, the army, and Ottoman-era assemblies. Thus, they were not liberals in the “European” sense; they did not emerge from a commercial class existing outside the state. Instead they saw the state as the key to social change. [35]

Establishing a “republic” was not an end in itself, but rather a means of re-establishing control over a post-imperial society. Over the following three years, Kemal made a series of moves aimed at marginalizing critics and (often) criminalizing dissent. The morning after the declaration, Rauf gave an interview to Istanbul journalists in which he questioned the speed at which the republic had been declared. [36] For these “criticisms” he was called back to Ankara to stand before the People’s Party and explain his actions. [37] Other opponents of Kemal made similar critiques—Musa Kâzım, for example, decried “personal rule”—and several made visits to the Caliph to emphasize the persistence of other centers of authority in the country. But when Istanbul newspapers printed a letter from Indian Muslims calling for the defense of the Caliphate, the government arrested several editors and the head of the Istanbul Bar Association. Within months the office of Caliph had been abolished.

Attempts by Rauf and others to organize against Kemal amounted to little: an opposition party they formed in 1924 was banned in 1925, when uprisings in the Kurdish southeast led the government to pass a law for the “maintenance of order, ” banning opposition movements and giving Kemal additional powers. An assassination attempt against Kemal in 1926 spurred a more general prosecution of opponents in which Kâzım, Refet, and Fuat were found innocent, but Rauf was convicted in absentia. Their opponents defeated after 1926, Kemal and his allies were in full control of the Turkish state.



The political significance may be clear, but what of the social significance?

The declaration of a republic and the creation of a strong executive were not the only amendments passed on October 29, 1923. On the same day, the assembly passed amendments declaring the official religion of Turkey to be Islam and the official language to be Turkish. The former is no surprise: throughout the war, Kemal had used Islamic rhetoric to strengthen his arguments and unite various factions within the resistance. Moreover, a declaration in support of Islam was reassuring to assembly members still loyal to the Caliphate as they agreed to give Kemal more power.

Emphasizing Turkish as the official language, however, ran contrary to reality. Despite territorial loses and population transfers, significant segments of the population still spoke Greek, Arabic, Armenian, and Kurdish. While the government viewed Christian minorities as traitorous by this point, Kurds would have been a different story. [38] Maintaining good relations with southeastern tribal leaders had been key to victory in the war.

Taken together, these declarations suggest the long-term ambitions of Kemal and his “Kemalist” supporters. Rather than a series of emergency measures cobbled together as new situations arose, or cynical attempts to retain power for power’s sake, Kemalist policies amounted to a concerted, conscious project to create a “national” consciousness where none had previously existed. Kemalists imagined themselves to be breaking with Ottoman tradition and leading the nation into modernity. Then again, how to turn such abstract concepts into reality was unclear. During the 1920s, Turkish leaders were far from alone in trying to answer these questions; around the world, leaders sought to create symbols and institutions that would bind together populations not wholly disposed to imagining themselves as part of a “nation.”

Efforts by Turkish leader to address this deficit in national consciousness using education and imposed uniformity have received a great degree of scholarly attention. Yet focusing on the Kemalist project of national creation and its failings tends to give the project itself the most active role in any account of modern Turkish history. Moreover, the focus projects the future effects of Kemalist policies backward; the “Kemalist project” was, at best, in its infant stages by 1923. With these criticisms in mind, a more intriguing question might be: if national consciousness was weak in 1923, and the “national” events thus far discussed rather removed from the daily concerns of the majority, then what were those daily concerns, and how did citizens of Turkey experience October 29, 1923?

The area defined as “Turkey” in the Treaty of Lausanne was still diverse in 1923. The vast majority of its population considered themselves Muslims, but their identies beyond that might be familial, tribal, or ethnic before they were national. Most of these people were also agricultural and illiterate. Their political interests and worldviews were often distinct from those of urbanites.

Beyond class-interests, demographics differed greatly between rural and urban. Istanbul, the largest city, had a drastically different demography from any other part of the country. At WWI’s end, the city still served as home to thousands of Armenians and Greeks—as well as influxes of Russians fleeing the revolution. [39] Always a space for heightended cultural mixing, the occupation had stimulated the city nightlife and introduced new aspects of western culture, like jazz. [40] As the seat of secular and religious power, a great deal of resistance to Kemal was centered in Istanbul. For many residents, the turnover of control from Allies to Nationalists was bitter sweet—not helped by the fact that the Ankara assembly had instituted a prohibition on alcohol, which now came into effect in Istanbul.

World War I and its aftermath had greatly affected the countryside as well. Around a quarter of the population that had inhabited Turkish territory in 1913 “[was] no longer there in 1925.” [41] Armenians and Greeks had either fled or been forcibly removed from their homes across the country. Their property had been either confiscated and redistributed by the government or directly taken over by locals. [42] Although the post-CUP government in Istanbul had permitted Armenians and Greeks to return to their homes, they were often met with attacks by local gangs, working in league with remnants of the CUP. [43]


Istanbul and the Marmara Region

Population changes led to economic upheaval. Minority populations had long played an outsize role in the Ottoman merchant class. As Ottoman agriculture had become more tied to the global economy, minorities had successfully acted as intermediaries between producers and the world market. [44] Though the CUP had consciously worked to create a Muslim class of small merchants, it took the war to accelerate the process. The lack of a middle class capable of arguing for property rights and liberties in 1919 meant that few elements existed in Turkish society to oppose the Kemalist vision of a strong state. [45]  

Not that a strong state was a break from tradition: whatever might be changing in the centres of power, outside the cities, many structures remained the same. In the unoccupied portions of Anatolia, Nationalists had maintained Ottoman provincial structures and used them to raise much-needed tax revenue. [46] In many areas, the same elites continued to dominate. The two-stage electoral process for the assembly also helped ensure that only the provincial elites—and only ones backed by Kemal at that—entered the government.

Finally, the extent to which Kemalist dominance of the government in 1923 served to push society in wholly new directions is also less than clear. Certainly, the emphasis on creating a uniform, national sense of belonging among Turkish people grew much stronger in the years to come, but whether this was new or merely an acceleration of previous policies is the question. The desire to create a Turkish bourgeosie through control of the economy had actually started before WWI; wartime policies only served to strengthen the government’s hand. As a primarily agricultural country, employing less advanced technology than its wartime rivals, the Empire expanded its armies only at the cost of its rural labor force. In order to achieve the desired economic balance, the government significantly tightened its control over the agriculture market. The government distributed access to the Empire’s limited railroad capacity among its preferred supporters, thus enriching a select group to Muslim merchants. It also used the crisis to justify suspending debt payments, ending trade concessions to Allied powers, and raising tariffs. [47]

As for government policies designed to subordinate ethnic and cultural differeces in order to create a new “Turkish” citizen: well before 1923, minority populations across the country had become familiar with such policies. Already, the government had altered the populations of many regions, moving minorities out and Muslim Turks in. Armenian children left orphaned by the removals and massacres of 1915-16 had been placed with Muslims families. [48] South of Istanbul, along the sea of Marmara, both the government and partisans were settling scores: Circassian leaders who had resisted the Nationalists were exiled or killed [49]; Greek populations were deported.

These sweeping alterations of the social structure were depicted as defenses of tradition, not as efforts to remake society. In closing a missionary school in Antalya that had emphasized Turkey’s Greek heritatge, for example, Rauf explained, “Every Turk should learn that Smyrna has never been Greek; an alien minority, protected by foreign powers, have been the cause of all our troubles.” [50]



Celebrating the October 29, 1923 declaration of the republic reinforces the notion that something happened on that day; it strengthens the sense of rupture with the imperial past that Kemalists were quite content to play up. After WWI, depicting the Turkish Republic as a distinct “nation,” whose people had a “national consciousness,” placed the government in a stonger position on the world stage than had it continued to emphasize its imperial roots. [51]

But the past persisted regardless. The “Kemalists”—or, as many scholars prefer to call them, “Young Turks”—grew up in the Ottoman Empire and dreamed of perpetuating a strong state, not necessarily a Turkish one. As more of the Empire fell away through war and communal violence, an emphasis on Muslim-Turkish identity became more feasible. The government that Kemal and his supporters established in 1920 and revised in 1923 was supported by the same bureaucracy, military, and provincial structures that had propped up its Ottoman predecessor.

A political account of the republic’s declaration, then, is not without its uses: factional fighting between Kemal and Rauf was not about competing visions of the future; it was about who, in the present, would control the vast apparatus of the Ottoman state. An inclusive social history of the era cannot ignore who controlled the instruments of coercion in the society. What is missing from a political account, however, is a sense of how removed political visions were from the daily life of the majority. Then as now, Turkish society remains diverse. Were many of its inhabitants in 1923 asked to periodize their own lives, few may have chosesn that year as a meaningful divide.


[1] The eighth, Ruşen Eşref Ünaydın (1892-59), was a close friend of Mustafa Kemal’s. He worked as a correspondent in the Caucuses for Yeni Gün, a nationalist newspaper, after the end of WWI. He had also written about Sivas for Tasviri Efkar, another nationalist paper, before working for the Turkish foreign ministry in Uzbekistan and attending the Lausanne Conference.

[2] Kemal Karpat, Studies on Turkish Politics and Society: Selected Articles and Essays, Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2003, p. 217.

[3] Gwynne Dyer, “The Origins of the ‘Nationalist’ Group of Officers in Turkey 1908-18,” Journal of Contemporary History, 8 (4), October 1973, p. 125.

[4] Janet Klein, Margins of Empire: Kurdish Militias in the Ottoman Tribal Zone, Stanford University Press, 2011, p.170-1 and Michael A. Reynolds, “The Ottoman Russian Struggle for Eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus, 1908-1918: Identity, Ideology, and the Geopolitics of World Order,” Unpublished Thesis, Princeton University, 2003, p. 103. As Reynolds details, the Russians also actively attempted to co-opt Kurdish notables.

[5] “Hüseyin Rauf Orbay’ın Hayatı (1880-1964),” Atatürk Araştırma Merkezi Dergisi, No. 58, March 2004, Accessed 10/19/23. Available:

[6] Hasan Kayali, Arabs and Young Turks: Ottomanism, Arabism, and Islamism in the Ottoman Empire, 1908-1918, University of California Press, 1996, pp. 141-44.

[7] For an account of events in Azerbaijan, see Bülent Gökay, “The Battle for Baku (May-September 1918): A Peculiar Episode in the History of the Caucasus,” Middle Eastern Studies, 34 (1), January 1998, pp. 30-50.

[8] Ryan Gingras, “Last Rites for a ‘Pure Bandit’: Clandesine Service, Historiography and the Origins of the Turkish ‘Deep State,” Past and Present, No. 206, February 2010, p. 159.

[9] Reynolds, p. 264.

[10] Uğur Ümit Üngör, “Rethinking the Violece of Pacification: State Formation and Bandits in Turkey, 1914-1937,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 54 (4), 2012, pp. 754-55.  Üngör gives a striking example of Diyarbakir’s CUP governor, Dr. Rashid, encouraging a pair of bandit brothers to rob and execute six-hundred Armenian notables and dump their bodies in the Tigris River in May 1915. The deed done, Reshid had the brothers killed too!

[11] Lerna Emekçioğlu, “Improvising Turkishness: Being Armenian in Post-Ottoman Istanbul (1918-1933),” Unpublished Thesis, NYU, May 2010, p. 9 fn. 15. Ryan Gingras also discusses the nation-wide extent of the “deportations” in “Imperial Killing Fields: Revolution, Ethinicity and Islam in Western Anatolia, 1913-1938,” Unpublished Thesis, University of Toronto, 2006, pp. 71-19.

[12] Rauf was also the only negotiator who spoke English according to Gwynne Dyer, “The Turkish Armistice of 1918: 2: A Lost Opportunity: The Armistice Negotiations of Moudros,” Middle Eastern Studies, 8 (3), October 1973, p. 326. However, Dyer explains in detail, Rauf’s language skills did not help him secure the best possible deal for Turkey. Even after Mourdros, Rauf continued to be an anglophile—or at least play up that angle to Engligh interloqutors. According to one, “[Rauf] has never disguised his love for England, nor what he owes to her education. The disillusion after Mudros and at Malta was hard to bear. He had not only to mourn for a shattered idol, but to suffer abuse from his country-men for a trust which he had been so proud.” (Grace Ellison, An English Woman in Angora, New York: EP Dutton and Company, 1923, p. 194)

[13] Bülent Gökay, “Turkish Settlement and the Caucasus,” Middle East Studies, 32 (2), April 1996, p. 46. Not the full CUP leadership; the decision was recommded by Talât Paşa and opposed by Enver. By that point, however, as a consequence of defeat, “his influence was gone” (Dyer, 155).

[14] Ryan Gingras (2006), p. 122.

[15] In The Unionist Factor : The Role of the Committee of Union and Progress in the Turkish National Movement, 1905-1926, Leiden : Brill, 1984, Erik Jan Zürcher argues that the national resistance movement was developed and led by CUP linked organizations, based on contingency plans the CUP leadership had been mulling for some time. If such a thesis is true, then the break between CUP government and Republic narrows even more.

[16] Dyer, “The Origins of the ‘Nationalist’ Group,” p. 162.

[17] Gökay (1996), p. 53-60.

[18] For a discussion see Hasan Kayali, “Liberal Practices in the Transformation From Empire to Nation-State: The Rump Ottoman Empire, 1918-1923, Social, Economic and Political Studies of the Middle East and Asia, Volume 104 : Liberal Thought in the Eastern Mediterranean : Late 19th Century until the 1960s, Cristoph Schumann ed. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2008, pp. 175-94.

[19] Bilge Criss’s İşgal Altında İstanbul, 1918-1923 (Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 1993) covers the Allied occupation with a focus on the various resistance movements active in the city.

[20] Dankwart Rustow, “The Army and the Founding of the Turkish Republic,” Men of Order: Authoritarian Modernization under Ataturk and Reza Shah, Touraj Atabaki and Erik Zürcher eds, Lodon: I.B. Taurus, 2004, p. 195

[21] A swapped UK soldier, Lt. Col. Rawlinson, upon reporting home, attempted to convince his superiors to support a Kurdish uprising in Anatolia. Robert Olson, “The Second Time Around: British Policy Toward the Kurds (1921-22), Die Welt des Islams, Bd. 27, Nr. 1/3, 1987, pp. 91-102.

[22] Gökay (1996), p. 66-69.

[23] Nurullah Ardiç, “Islam and the Politics of Secularism: The Abolition of the Caliphate (1908-1924),” Unpusblished Thesis, UCLA, 2009, p. 420

[24] Feroz Ahmad, The Making of Modern Turkey, London: Routledge, 1993, p. 54.

[25] Ibid, p.56.

[26] Excellent resources on the first Ankara assembly and the Second Group include Ahmet Demirel’s  Birinci Meclis’te Muhalefet: Ikinci Grup (Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 1994) and İlk Meclis’in Vekillleri: Milli Mücadele Döneminde Secimler (Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 2010). Also good is Rivdan Akin’s TBMM Devleti (1920-1923): Birinci Meclis Döneminde Devlet Erkleri ve Idare  (Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 2001).

[27] Andrew Mango, Ataturk, London: John Murray, 1999, p. 379-83.

[28] In the case of Antakya, Turkey eventually regained it on the eve of WWII. The story of how Kemal pressured France into returning the territory is very well told in Sarah Sheilds’ Fezzes in the River (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[29] Zürcher suggests that the law was pushed through abruptly (on 4/15/23) in response to attempts to revive the CUP. Two days earlier, former CUP members had met in Istanbul to discuss running candidates. Ultimately, they decided to offer the leadership role to Kemal himself. He ignored the offer, clearly hoping to keep his distance from such a discreited (but still powerful) faction. Erik Jan Zürcher, Political Opposition in the Early Turkish Republic: The Progressive Republican Party, 1924-1925, Leiden: EJ Brill, 1991, pp. 26-7.

[30] Erik Jan Zürcher, “Institution Building in the Kemalist Republic: The Role of the People’s Party,” Men of Order: Authoritarian Modernization under Ataturk and Reza Shah, Touraj Atabaki and Erik Zürcher eds. London: I.B. Taurus, 2004 p. 105.

[31] The British foreign service, rather curlishly, observed that, “The [Turkish troops assuming command] were neither numerous nor impressive in appearance. The enthusiasm of the populace was well-organized rather than spontaneous” (Ingiliz Yillik Raporlarında Türkiye 1923, Ali Satan ed. Istanbul: Tarihci Kitapevi, 2012, p. 170).

[32] In December 1923, the assembly passed laws prohibiting officers from serving as members. Currently serving officers were exempted, but those holding commands were barred from participating in parliamentary debates. Thus, İsmet (no longer active, but still an officer) could participate, but Fuat (in command of an army) could not (Mango, 399).

[33] During WWI, Rauf often rebuffed Kemal’s attempts to play politics and challenge the CUP leadership on the grounds that, as soldier, they should not question the policy of their leaders—at least this is how Rauf remembers events in his memoirs (Dyer, “The Origins,” pp. 133, 141, 143, and 151).

[34] Mango, p. 393.

[35] Erik Jan Zürcher, “How Europeans Adopted Anatolia and Created Turkey,” European Review, 13(3), July 2005, p. 391. Similarly, M. Şükrü Hanioğlu argues that “[C]ontemporaries as well as later scholars identified the Young Turk Revolution as a constitutional movement and the Young Turks as constitutionalists . . . [but] they viewed themselves above all else as the saviours of an empire. They were not constitutionalists or advocates of the reinstatement of a constitutional regime” (Preparation for a Revolution: The Young Turks, 1902-1908, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 313).

[36] Or, as he recalled saying, “What’s the rush?” (Rauf Orbay, Siyasi Hatıralar, Istanbul: Örgün Yayınevi, 2003, pp. 562.)

[37] See CHP Grup Toplantisi Tutanaklari (1923-1924), Yücel Demirel and Osman Zeki Konur ed. Istanbul: Istanbul Bilgi Universitesi Yayınları, 2002 for a full transcript of the debate (17-107) and the text of the newspaper interview (23-30).

[38] According to British consular reports, “Xenophobia is rampant, and it is a spirit of which even men like Mustafa Kemal and Ismet Pashas cannot exercise themselves. The elimination of a large portion of the non-Moslem elements, as a rule more intelligent, more industrious and better educated then Turks, has left a gap” (Ingiliz Yillik Raporlarında Türkiye, 159)

[39] For example, see Lerna Emekçioğlu, “Improvising Turkishness.”

[40] See G. Carol Woodall, “Sensing the City: Sound, Movement and the Night in 1920s Istanbul,” Unpublished Thesis, NYU, 2008 and “Awakening a Horrible Monster”: Negotiating the Jazz Public in 1920s Istanbul,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, 30(3), 2010.

[41] Çağlar Keydar, State and Class in Turkey, New York: Verso, 1987, p. 79.

[42] “Much of the property formerly belonging to Greeks and Armenians passed into the hands of friends of the government in Ankara . . .Mustafa Kemal himself paid the treasury36,000 lira for a 3,000-acre estate originally belonging to a Greek called Bodosakis, near Silifke on the south coast.” (Mango, 391).

[43] Gingras, “Last Rites, p. 94.

[44] Reşat Kasaba, The Ottoman Empire and the World Economy: The Nineteenth Century, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988, p. 114.

[45] Keydar, pp. 79-80.

[46] Erik Jan Zürcher, “Institution Building,” p. 101. The continuance of tradition between Empire and Republic, is a focus of many recent works including Benjamin C. Fortuna, Learning to Read in the Late Ottoman Empire and the Early Turkish Republic, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011 and Michael Meeker, A Nation of Empire: The Ottoman Legacy of Turkish Modernity, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

[47] Şevket Pamuk, “The Ottoman Economy in World War I,” The Economics of World War I, Stephen Broadberry and Mark Harrison eds. London: Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 119 and 121-23.

[48] Uğur Ümıt Üngör, “Orphans, Converts, and Prostitutes: Social Consequences of War and Persecution in the Ottoman Empire, 1914–1923,” War in History, 19(2), 2012, pp. 179

[49] Gingras, “Imperial Killing Fields,” p. 335.

[50] Grace Ellison, An English Woman in Angora, New York: EP Dutton and Company, 1923, p. 194.

[51] Erik Jan Zürcher, “Institution Building,” p. 99.