The Şükrü Kaya Problem

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Mehmet Şükrü Kaya

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Mehmet Şükrü Kaya


Mehmet Şükrü Kaya’s political career came to an end on November 11, 1938.[1] A day earlier, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s first president, had passed away, leaving Kaya in a difficult position. Since 1927, Kaya had served as Ataturk’s Minister of the Interior and, during those years, his power had grown. Understandably, as Ataturk had grown increasingly ill, Kaya and his allies had begun to worry about the leadership transition. [2] Since the founding of the Republic in 1923, the day-to-day management of the government had been largely in the hands of Mustafa İsmet İnönü. In 1938, however, he and Ataturk had butted heads, leading İnönü to resign. Out of office, İnönü remained very popular with the bureaucracy, the parliament, and the military—but not with men like Kaya.

In the weeks before Ataturk’s death, Kaya and the Foreign Minister had floated the idea of making İnönü ambassador to England and, failing that, holding early elections that would leave him off the party list. Among İnönü and his supporters, there was fear that Kaya might even be planning an assassination.[3] None of these intrigues came to fruition and, on the day following Ataturk’s passing, İnönü was elected president and promptly approved a new cabinet that did not include Kaya. It was a precipitous fall for a man who had climbed so high and played such a key roll in the formation of the modern Turkish state.

Kaya’s rise was impressive for another reason: only seventeen years earlier, he had been a prisoner on Malta, awaiting trial for his role in the wartime removal and mass murder of Turkey’s Armenian population.


Kaya was born on the Aegean Island of İstanköy in 1883—within a year of both Ataturk and İnönü. While those men (and many of the Republic’s founders) pursued careers in the Ottoman army, Kaya groomed himself for the bureaucracy. He attended the prestigious Galatasaray High School and then Istanbul University’s law school, graduating in 1908. That same year, young Turkish officers stationed in the war-torn Ottoman province of Macedonia marched on the capital, forced the reigning sultan to resign, and reestablished a constitutional monarchy. Within five years, these “Young Turks” had taken firm control over the government, with three leaders—Enver, Cemal, and Talat—predominating. The latter, arguably the most influential, served as Ottoman Interior Minister from 1913 until the end of WWI.

Initially, Kaya was not involved in these political intrigues: until 1912 he was attending the Sorbonne, earning an advanced law degree. Upon his return, he was appointed to a low-level job in the Foreign Ministry’s commerce division and then as a judge in Edirne, only 20 miles from the border with Ottoman Empire’s recently independent Balkan neighbors. As recently as 1911, Muslims had constituted a majority of the Balkan population and Ottoman territorial losses during the Balkan War (1912-1913) inundated the empire with Muslim refugees fleeing attacks from Bulgarians, Greeks, and Serbs. Within a decade, their numbers would fall by 60%—nearly half of this decline due to death; survivors were resettled in the Empire.[4]

Balkan Refugees

Muslim Refugees From the Balkans

The job of assisting these refugees fell to Ottoman bureaucrats like Kaya, who was appointed to a joint Ottoman-Bulgarian committee overseeing population exchanges of nearly 100,000 Muslims and Christians.[5] Absorbing large numbers of refugees was not easy for the Ottoman state, but it had become routine: as the empire had shrunk, gobbled up by Russians in the east and atomized by nationalist movements in the west, hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees had arrived. Settling them throughout the empire had caused tensions—Circassians and Cretans had a particularly bad reputation, for example (though that might be because the Ottoman state used them to suppress unrest).[6]

Tensions were particularly high in the east where the empire’s Armenian and Kurdish populations were concentrated. In the northeast, Kurdish landlords and their militias extracted heavy taxes from the Armenian population. Further south towards Adana, Armenians were more successful financially—for which they were highly resented. The region around Adana had been the site of pogroms in 1894 and 1908.[7]

The skill Kaya showed on the population exchange committee impressed Talat Paşa, who invited him to join the Interior Ministry and promptly assigned him to another committee; this one dealing Greek-Ottoman exchanges. The Ottoman Empire still had a sizeable Greek population-especially in its major cities and along its Aegean coast. In order to make their departure a fait accompli, the Ottoman government organized special military units to attack Greek communities and speed up their exodus.[8] The first meeting of the committee was scheduled for July 7, 1914. Archduke Francis Ferdinand was shot on June 28.


The First World War—particularly on the Eastern Front—was an imperial war. Belligerents like the United Kingdom sent their Indian and Australian subjects to fight while the multiethnic Ottoman and Russian Empires hoped to encourage fifth columns among their opponents (such was the Ottoman ambition in officially declaring the war a “holy war”). Whereas the Ottoman government hoped that the Allies’ Muslim populations would take its side, Russian planners had similar hopes for Kurdish and Armenian populations.[9] Encouraged by Russian gains, Armenian irregulars seized the city of Van in April 1915, killing large numbers of Muslims.[10] In response, the Ottoman army leveled the surrounding countryside and initiated the deportation of Armenians. Though there had been deportations earlier in the war, they were limited in scope; those that began after the revolt in Van took on a different character.[11] First, Istanbul intellectuals were rounded up on April 24; then Armenians in the eastern provinces in May and June; then Armenians in the western provinces in August. Their destination was the Syrian desert.[12]

This neat four-stage process was far messier in reality. Many of the deported Armenians never reached their destination; many were simply marched off into the countryside to be shot or bayonetted. Trains and caravans of refugees were halted at various staging points where armed gangs robbed, raped, and murdered them. Those that did make it to the Syrian desert lacked sufficient food or adequate sanitary conditions. Death from starvation and disease was rampant for settlers.[13] And Kaya was the director of the government agency responsible for this settlement. From 1915 to 1916 he was in charge of the Aleppo branch of the Directorate for Settlement of Tribes and Immigrants (İAMM); the following year he was the director of the entire agency.


Armenian Deportees

Kaya’s agency focused in large part on settling Muslim refugees in areas previously inhabited by Armenians. Deported Armenians had been forced to sell their businesses and belongings to local Muslims at firesale prices in the days before their departure. Armenians that kept valuables were quickly robbed of them by gangs; those who placed their money in banks had their assets seized. Using these funds and properties facilitated the government’s goal of securing its eastern territories. To ensure that surviving Armenians did not dominate in their new territories, the government declared a 10% cap on Armenian populations in a given area, no more than fifty houses per settlement, and no settlement closer than five hours from another settlement.[14]

Concentrations of Armenians circa 1877

Concentrations of Armenians circa 1877

In his position, Kaya found himself clashing with Cemal Paşa, the Ottoman commander on the Syrian front.[15] Cemal and a number of other Ottoman officials, like the governor of Aleppo, Bekir Sami, resisted the rapidity of these deportations, arguing that there was insufficient time and material to implement them properly. Given that the Interior Ministry was set on “solving” the Armenian question once and for all, regardless of consequences, their calls fell on deaf ears. Tellingly, although Ottoman officials on the receiving end of the deportations might have hesitations, the government had seen fit to appoint more reliable officials to those provinces with sizeable Armenian populations. Though Cemal outranked Kaya, other officials who resisted—like the governor of Aleppo—were removed and replaced. By October 1915, Kaya had effectively assumed many of Bekir Sami’s responsibilities. [16] Massacres were still occurring through 1917.[17]


In the last months of the war, Kaya left the government to work as a teacher in Izmir. Such a change of careers may have been due to the political defeat of his superiors; at the war’s end the CUP leaders fled the country and their opponents took control of the government, promising to punish those responsible for wartime atrocities. On the other hand, the resignation may have been his choice; sensing defeat, the CUP had begun organizing a resistance movement throughout the empire. In either case, Kaya quickly joined the Izmir branch of the resistance.[18]

In February 1919, he was arrested by the Allies and sent to Malta alongside a number of other CUP members either tied to wartime massacres, suspected of plotting the resistance movement, or both.[19] During the next two years, Kaya and his fellow prisoners waited on events in the Ottoman Empire where Mustafa Kemal had taken charge of the resistance movement and succeeded in pushing back Greek, French, and Armenian forces. Despite these advances by Mustafa Kemal and his nationalist forces, the British refused to release Kaya and officially charged him with involvement in the massacre of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population. These official charges prompted Kaya and several other prisoners to escape the island on a cattle transport bound for Sicily, before making their way to Ankara, where the nationalist forces had established an alternative government to the sultan in Istanbul (who was supporting Kaya’s prosecution).[20]

Now part of the nationalist government, Kaya participated in the peace negotiations at Lausanne (1922-1923) which ended the allied occupation, recognized Mustafa Kemal’s government, and set the stage for population exchanges between Greece and Turkey. While attending the talks, Kaya was elected mayor of Izmir, a job he initially performed in absentia. During his brief term (he was quickly elected to parliament in 1923 and became Minister of Agriculture), Kaya began the process of rebuilding the city, which had been decimated in a massive fire and whose sizeable Greek population had fled the advancing Turkish army. Notable—at least according Kaya’s biographer, Mustafa Solak—was Kaya’s opposition to labor movements in the city. In the face of Turkish construction workers hoping to leverage the city’s labor shortage, he brought in outside workers; when bakers tried to hike prices, he procured flour from another Turkish city.[21]

In his first year and a half in parliament, Kaya served as Agriculture Minister in the first cabinet and Foreign Minister in the second. That second government ended amid a series of Kurdish uprisings in the eastern provinces. Although Kaya was out of the cabinet for the following two years, he remained active in high-level policy-making. In the aftermath of the Kurdish uprisings, Kaya served on the task force responsible for crafting the republic’s new eastern policies: these included the deportation of Kurdish notables to western Turkey and settling ethnic Turks in the east to dilute Kurdish populations and instill “modern” values in these feudal societies.[22]

In the eleven years he served as Interior Minister, Kaya remained deeply involved in efforts to establish a shared national Turkish culture. These efforts included a campaign to spread Turkish. Starting in 1927, the government and municipalities began to pressure citizens to speak Turkish. In western Turkey, with Greek populations dwindling, Jewish citizens, many of whom still spoke Ladino, were the main targets. Although the language campaign lost intensity by the late 1920s, efforts to Turkify the population did not end. In May 1934, Panturkist magazines called for a boycott of Jewish businesses. Though Jewish leaders complained to Kaya’s Interior Ministry, they were told to have patience while the issue worked its way through the bureaucracy. By late June, vigilante groups were carrying out attacks on Jews in western Turkey, causing thousands to flee to Istanbul and then onwards to Palestine.[23]

Amid these events, the parliament passed a new Settlement Law empowering the state to resettle populations that had not fully imbibed Turkish culture.[24] A separate law mandated that all Turkish citizens take on “Turkish” last names. Standing to defend the bill, Kaya explained, “When it comes to foreign names, a country’s greatest duty is to add those who live within its borders to its society and represent them . . .If the Ottomans had changed the languages and the religions of the folk [in their European lands], then Turkey’s borders would still start at the Danube . . .If a small difference remains within [a citizen], it should be erased in schools and society.”[25]

In December 1935, the government turned its attention to the eastern province of Dersim, inhabited by Kurds who followed Alevi Islamic practices and spoke Zaza. Dersim and several other provinces were placed under military administration in order to accelerate their development and the government set about building infrastructure and new army posts. The increased military presence led to local unrest. Beginning in March 1937 and growing over the following month, locals cut phone lines, burned strategic bridges, and raided military garrisons. The army responded with an aerial bombing campaign that targeted the villages and caves where rebels (and civilian refugees) were hiding. The leaders of the uprising were captured and executed. Met with continued resistance the following year, the state initiated a second military campaign that removed nearly eight-thousand rebels “dead or alive.”[26]

The objective of Turkish leaders in Dersim—as in western Turkey, as in the Kurdish east—was to avoid further territorial loses. Many Turkish leaders had come from regions of the Ottoman Empire that were now either independent states or ruled by the French and British, and they were committed to avoiding a repeat of such loses.[27] From their perspective, promoting a shared sense of Ottomanism had been insufficient—as had efforts to rule a multitude of ethnicities through an increasingly centralized government. Homogenization, they came to believe, was necessary as well. To this end, citizens were made to take Turkish names and speak Turkish; towns and provinces were likewise given more “Turkish” names; and the Turkish aspects of science, art, literature, and history were privileged.


Provincial Map Showing Percentage of Locations with Name Changes (From Bianet)

In the cultural realm, anything that might suggest the division of Turkish society was discouraged. The communist poet Nazim Hikmet, for example, found himself the focus of government concern in the late thirties. In order to assure authorizes that Nazim was no threat, one of his well-connected friends arranged meetings with several high-level state officials, including Kaya. Though Nazim won over some of these men, Kaya was less solicitous. “Europe is under a heavy black cloud,” he explained to Nazim, “We also need to feel secure about our rear-guard . . .We have warned you several times.”[28] In January 1938, Nazim was arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced to twenty-eight years in prison. Though Kaya encouraged Nazim to apply to Atatürk for a pardon, he did not pass on the petition before Atatürk’s death and his own fall from power.[29]


The sole responsibility for Turkey’s heavy-handed security measures and the removal of Armenians, Greeks, Jews, and Kurds does not belong to Şükrü Kaya or any other specific government official. Though Kaya was more directly involved in the deportation of Armenians than were many leaders of the early Republic, he was far from alone. For decades after 1923, the state was administered by men who had risen to their positions through the army, bureaucracy, and schools of the Ottoman Empire—all of which contributed to intellectual climate that made the implementation of deportation policies imaginable. Likewise, in the years that followed the war, policies aimed at Turkifying the nation may have been championed by Kaya, but they were embraced by leaders at all levels of government. Focusing on Şükrü Kaya is not meant to focus blame so much as to generalize it.

Readers familiar with the deportation of Armenians will have noticed that I have avoided using the term “genocide” thus far, instead using terms like “massacres” and “atrocities” that were used in newspapers at the time. Moreover, I have tried to avoid emphasizing the most controversial aspects of the issue—the existence of specific orders to execute Armenian communities and the validity of documentation presented in the post-war trials. Such evasion is not done to avoid a heated debate, but rather to give readers a chance to come to their own conclusions based on more commonly accepted details. Even so, the foregoing account may still be accused of imbalance. There are thoughtful scholars who argue that massacres of Muslims by Christians during this period—murders that left nearly 3 million Muslims dead between 1914 and 1922—should be given more weight.[30]

Yet history is not a zero-sum-game in which mentioning such details negates other details. In 1915, there were 1.7 million Armenians in the Empire; by 1918, there were 284,000 within the Empire and another 165,000 in Russia. According to historian Hilmar Kaiser, “This suggests that over 1.1 million Armenians had lost their lives due to government policies.”[31] That is a mid-range estimate; more conservative calculations put the number around 664,000.[32] Regardless of which figure is more precise, how else can one characterize these events?

Currently the debate centers around how the Turkish government answers this question. But, I would argue, what matters more is how ordinary Turkish citizens answer this question. Reviewing Şükrü Kaya’s career is useful for considering the limits of the current debate about government responsibility: Kaya directly oversaw a settlement program that categorized people by religion and ethnicity. Those whom it categorized as “Armenian” often ended up dead. The most charitable explanation is that simple bureaucratic incompetence led Ottoman authorities to send hundreds of thousands of imperial subjects to areas that could not sustain them, leave these deportees with insufficient food and medical supplies, and provide them with insufficient military protection against marauding gangs. Were this unacceptable to the state—a sign of Kaya’s gross incompetence as a bureaucrat—it is hard to imagine that he would have been promoted to ever-higher positions.

On the other hand, Kaya did not personally kill a single Armenian. They were killed by their Turkish, Kurdish, Albanian, and Circassian compatriots; they were killed by soldiers; they were killed by neighbors; they were killed by intentional actions; and they were killed by neglect. If the Turkish government were to declare tomorrow that the CUP had pursued genocidal policies, the acknowledgement would hardly capture the scope of this violence.

What is necessary is for Turkish citizens to come to terms with this moment of collective, genocidal violence, inextricably tied to the formation of the modern Turkish state through the involvement of men like Şükrü Kaya. In saying this, I am not suggesting that citizens of Turkey and their government are retrograde in their attitudes toward the issue of genocide—quite the contrary: it takes time for a society to come to terms with its past sins. All the more impressive, therefore, that over the last hundred years, Şükrü Kaya has faded from memory and Turkish citizens have begun to reject the model of forced Turkification he championed. In America, by contrast, a hundred and seventy-seven years since the Trail of Tears, Andrew Jackson is still on the twenty-dollar bill.

Mehmet Şükrü Kaya

Mehmet Şükrü Kaya


[1] It would be remiss to not mention that, while finishing up this piece, I came across a similar piece by Mehmet Polatel in Agos. Both it and another piece he wrote on Abdülhalik Renda are worth looking at (“Social engineer: Şükrü Kaya,” Agos, 3/27/15).

[2] Two years earlier, the ruling Republican People’s Party had fully integrated itself with the Turkish state; governors became provincial party leaders and Kaya, the Interior Minister, became head of the ruling party—in point of fact, the only party in Turkey.

[3] Cemil Koçak, Turkiye’de Milli Sef Dönemi (1938-1945): Dönemin Iç ve Dış Politikası Üzerine Bir Araştırma (Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 1996), 118.

[4] Justin McCarthy, Death and Exile: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922 (Princeton: Darwin Press Inc., 1995), 164. According to McCarthy, there were 1,445,179 fewer Muslims in the Balkans in 1923; of these, 632, 408 cannot be accounted for as refugees or as part of the post-war population exchanges.

[5] Mustafa Solak, Atatürk’ün Bakanı Şükrü Kaya: Uluslaşma, Laiklik, Toprak Reformu (Istanbul: Kaynak Yayınları, 2013), 26.

[6] Nicholas Doumanis, Before the Nation: Christian-Muslim Coexistence and Its Destruction in Late Ottoman Anatolia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 136-142; Ryan Gingeras, Sorrowful Shores: Violence, Ethnicity, and the End of the Ottoman Empire, 1912–1923 (Oxford University Press, 2009), 57-59.

[7] See Stephan Astourian, “The Silence of the Land: Agrarian Relations, Ethnicity, and Power” in A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire, (Oxford University Press, 2011), 55-81.

[8] Ryan Gingeras, Sorrowful Shores: Violence, Ethnicity, and the End of the Ottoman Empire, 1912–1923, Oxford University Press, 2009, 40-41.

[9] Michael Reynolds, Shattering of Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908–1918 (Cambridge University Press, 2011) 115-122, 131-134.

[10] “Of the original 575,000 Armenians in the four provinces, 339,000 survived when the fighting ended, a mortality rate of 41 percent . . . Of the 313,000 Muslims who had lived in Van before the rebellion and war, only 119,000 were present at war’s end. The other 194,000 (62 percent, nearly two-thirds) had died.” Justin McCarthy, et al, The Armenian Rebellion at Van (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2006), 246.

[11] Hilmar Kaiser, “Regional Resistance to Central Government Policies: Ahmed Djemal Pasha, the Governors of Aleppo, and Armenian Deportees in the Spring and Summer of 1915,” Journal of Genocide Research, 12(3–4), Sept–Dec 2010: 176-182.

[12] Hilmar Kaiser, “Genocide at the Twilight of the Ottoman Empire,” in The Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies, eds. Donald Bloxham and A. Dirk Moses, Oxford University Press, 2010, 373-379.

[13] See Ibid. and Taner Akcam, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Armenian Responsibility (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006), 174-183.

[14] Fuat Dündar, “Pouring a People in the Desert: The ‘Definitive Solution’ of the Unionists to the Armenian Question” in A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire, eds. Ronald Suny, Fatma Muge Gokcek, and Norman Naimark (Oxford University Press, 2011), 283.

[15] Fuat Dündar, Crime of Numbers: The Role of Statistics in the Armenian Question (1878-1918) (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2010), 113-114.

[16] Hilmar Kaiser, “Regional Resistance,” 207.

[17] Kaiser, “Genocide,” 381; Donald Bloxham, The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians (Oxford University Press, 2005), 88.

[18] See Eric J. Zurcher, The Unionist Factor: The Role of the Committee for Union and Progress in the Nationalist Movement, 1905-1926 (Leiden: Brill, 1984) and Ryan Gingeras, Sorrowful Shores, 68-71.

[19] Hüseyin Cahit Yalçın, Tanıdıklarım (Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2001), 165-167; Yalçın Toker, Malta Sürgünlerinden Portreler (Istanbul: Toker Yayınları, 2006), 142-143; Bilâl Şimşir, Malta Sürgünleri (Istanbul: Milliyet Yayınları, 1976).

[20] Mustafa Solak, Atatürk’ün Bakanı, 32-33; for a Turkish account of the Malta prisoners, see Bilal Şimşir, Malta Sürgünleri (İstanbul: Milliyet Yayınları, 1976); for an account of the prosecutions, see Vahakn N. Dadrian, “The Documentation of the World War I Armenian Massacres in the Proceedings of the Turkish Military Tribunal,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 23(4) (November, 1991): 549-576.

[21] Mustafa Solak, Atatürk’ün Bakanı, 33-37.

[22] Uğur Ümıt Üngör, The Making of Modern Turkey: Nation and State in Eastern Anatolia, 1913-1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 133-135.

[23] Soner Çağaptay, Islam, Secularism, and Nationalism in Modern Turkey: Who is a Turk? New York: Routledge, 2006, 25-27, 143-144; Rifat Bali, “The Politics of Turkification During the Single Party Period,” in Turkey Beyond Nationalism: Toward Post-Nationalist Identities, ed. Hans-Lukas Kieser, New York: I.B. Taurus, 2005, 45; Dilek Güven, Cumhuriyet Dönemi Azınlık Politikaları ve Stratejileri Bağlamında 6-7 Eylül Olayları, Istanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları, 2005, 96-101.

[24] T.B.M.M. Zabıt Ceridesi, 6/14/34.

[25] T.B.M.M. Zabıt Ceridesi, 6/21/34, 249.

[26] Cumhuriyet Ansiklopedisi (1923-1940), Vol. 1, eds.Ersel, Hasan, Ahmet Kuyas, Ahmet Oktay, and Mete Tuncay, ed. Istanbul: Yapi Kredi Yayınları, 2002, 277-278; Nicole Watts, Routes to Ethnic Resistance: Virtual Kurdistan West and the Transformation of Kurdish Politics in Turkey, Phd Dissertation: University of Washington, 2001, 84.

[27] See recent work by Erik J. Zurcher, such as “How Europeans Adopted Anatolia and Created Turkey,” European Review, 13: 379-94 and “Macedonians in Anatolia: The Importance of the Macedonian Roots of the Unionists for their Policies in Anatolia after 1914,” Middle Eastern Studies, (50)6: 960-975.

[28] Saime Göksu and Edward Timms, Romantic Communist: The Life and Work of Nazım Hikmet (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 136-137.

[29] Even though he supported it, the prosecution of Nazim Hikmet was not a project of Kaya’s; rather it was a priority for Fevzi Çakmak, the head of the Turksh armed forces. Çakmak remained in power after Kaya—and, in fact, it was his support for İnönü that had undermined Kaya’s efforts to affect the presidential succession (Göksu and Timms, Romantic Communist, 151).

[30] Justin McCarthy, Death and Exile, 339.

[31] Hilmar Kaiser, “Genocide,” 382.

[32] Fuat Dündar, Crime of Numbers, 151. Michael Reynolds uses this number as well in Shattering of Empires, 155.