Ottomans are not so sick after all
It is Sunday 25 April 1915. It is the 44th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.
South Africans and Rhodesians give the Germans in Southwest Africa a beating.
Italian diplomats sign the secret London Pact: if Rome chooses the side of the allies, it is entitled to claim parts of Austria-Hungary, among which South Tyrol, Gorizia, Istria and half of Dalmatia.
An Austrian submarine, commanded by Georg Ritter von Trapp, succeeds in eliminating French cruiser Leon Gambetta in the Adriatic Sea, killing 547.
A new type of Zeppelin bombs the Sussex coast of England.
Germans and Austrians prepare for an attack at Gorlice in Galicia.
Despite warnings of the German embassy, ocean liner Lusitania leaves New York, destination Liverpool.
A French attack at Ypres results in heavy losses, in spite of support by the British artillery.
The Germans continue to target the allies with chlorine gas.
And the allied invasion of Gallipoli paints the sea red, while on the Turkish side a true hero emerges, Mustafa Kemal.
A lot has perished because of the First World War. Even headwear has been subject to demolition. Think of the Pickelhaube, the spiked symbol of the Prussian military. Or the fez, the round red felt hat – leftover of Byzantine culture in the Ottoman empire.
In post-First World War Turkey the fez was banned. It was Mustafa Kemal who was behind the Hat Law of 1925. He was the strong man, especially honoured by secular Turks as Atatürk, Father of Turks. No Turkish living-room would be complete without his portrait on the wall. Insulting him would be the equivalent of lese-majesty, hence forbidden by law. Atatürk was in the hearts of all the Turks and it was he who made a town in the heart of Turkey its capital: Ankara. His sarcophagus is there, too.
Back to the fez. Why does a head of state want to interfere with headwear? For the same reason why Atatürk exchanged Arabic script for the western alphabet. The reason also why he granted women the right to vote, but forbade them to wear veils. Why he closed down monasteries of the Dervishes. Why he introduced family names and abolished all sorts of titles and nicknames and epithets. Why he established a civil code. Why he founded museums and stimulated the arts. Why he adopted the international calendar and time indications. And why he, above all, separated mosque and state. Atatürk wanted Turkey to become a modern European nation.
Historian Bernard Lewis describes it as follows in ‘The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years’: ‘Atatürk, the master of social symbolism, was not pursuing the idle caprice of a despot when he decreed that the fez and all other forms of traditional headgear must be abandoned and European hats and caps adopted in their place. This was a major social decision, and he and those around him knew perfectly well what he was doing.’ Says Lewis.
The Turkey of Atatürk radically broke with the traditions of the Ottoman Empire, the once so mighty realm of the sultans. The First World War had been the fatal blow, but the decline had begun much earlier. When the peoples of Europe tried to find their way out of the Middle Ages in utter blindness, the civilization of the Ottomans had been at an unprecedented level for ages. Medically, mathematically, chemically, astronomically, philosophically and even theologically speaking, the islamic world was a long long way ahead of Europe.
In 1453 Constantinople had fallen into the hands of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror. That signified the end of the Byzantine Empire as advanced post of Europe. The Ottomans had already earlier managed to penetrate Europe via the Dardanelles. The Balkans were overrun, but in the sixteenth century the Ottomans were also at the gates of Vienna and even made attacks on the Spanish coast. Everywhere in Christian countries Allah’s hordes were feared.
However, in 1699 after a battle against a Holy League the Ottomans are forced to sign the Treaty of Karlowitz. It is the first time that they have to face a real defeat. The realization has dawned upon them that only the western way of waging war can be successful. Military reforms will precede a cultural merger. It is the French Revolution – with its ideals of equality, liberty and fraternity – that really breaks open Ottoman civilization. Napoleon brings the printing press to the Middle East.
A new western principle is introduced past the Bosphorus: nationalism. It is the aim of merging a state with a people. The Ottoman Empire has been organized differently. Numerous cultures have lived together there for centuries relatively harmoniously. Compared to Europe the Ottoman Empire was the epitome of tolerance and cultural diversity in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Persecuted minorities from other countries found a place there and minorities from their own empire enjoyed a lot of freedom.
However, in the nineteenth century more and more ethnic groups – Greeks, Kurds, Armenians, Arabs and Jews – began to experience Ottoman rule as tyranny. This made the realm of the sultan sick. The eastern Question was put on the map. In 1853 the Russian czar Nicholas I expressed his worries: ‘We have a sick man on our hands, a man gravely ill, it will be a great misfortune if one of these days he slips through our hands, especially before the necessary arrangements are made.’
Despite the caring words of the czar, the Russians repeatedly wage war with the Ottomans in the nineteenth century. The sultans succeed in holding their own thanks to the European powers. They are opposed to a Russian extension at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. In the Crimean war, between 1853 and 1856, the French and the British even fight together with the Ottomans against the Russians.
Six decades later the situation is completely different and the Ottomans stand between the Russians on one side and the British and the French on the other. They do not allow an allied rapprochement across the water, via the Dardanelles, and across the land, via Gallipoli. The common Turk appears to be a lot more vigorous than the sick man of Europe for which the Ottoman Empire had been held.
When the allied forces land on the Gallipoli peninsula on 25 April 1915, a German by the name of Liman von Sanders is in command of the Ottoman troops. But commander Mustafa Kemal will be the star on the front. It seems that Australians and New Zealanders chase the Turks away from their slopes and their trenches, but then Mustafa Kemal straightens his back. The beach where the Anzacs land turns into a bloodbath. Every Turkish child learns how Mustafa Kemal Atatürk encouraged his men never ever to give up: ‘I don’t order you to fight, I order you to die.’ And these words proved to be very successful. In nine months’ time around a hundred thousand were killed during the batlle of Gallipoli. More than half of them were Turkish martyrs. The number of wounded soldiers on the side of the Ottomans is calculated to be another 140,000.
Mustafa Kemal was born in the Ottoman town of Salonika, which is now known as the Greek town of Thessaloniki. His surname ‘Kemal’ means something like ‘the perfect one’. His father was a government official, who later went into the wood trade. Mustafa Kemal was born in 1880 or 1881. Due to the absence of a proper civil registry, there has always been some disagreement about the exact date of his birth. The theory that Mustafa’s father was of Jewish descent is not accepted by everyone either.
Mustafa Kemal joins the Committee of Union and Progress, better known as the Young Turks. He serves as a professional soldier in the Turkish-Italian War of 1911-1912 and in the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913.
Strong man Enver Pasha does not like the heroic role of Mustafa Kemal at Gallipoli, where he has also been hit by shrapnel. Mustafa Kemal has also spoken against the commitment to Germany in the first year of the war, though this has not prevented him from serving in the Ottoman army. After Gallipoli he is first sent to Edirne and then to the Caucasus front, far away from Enver’s power base in Constantinople. When he is in command of the Turkish Second Army after being promoted general in 1916, Mustafa Kemal made life for the Russians very difficult. After that things become tougher for him on the Arab front. Syria and Palestine offer very little perspective for him.
Meanwhile he accompanies on a tour through Germany the heir apparent of the throne of the Ottomans, the later sultan Mehmet VI. On his return he first takes sick leave and goes to Vienna and Karlsbad to recuperate. He is not only plagued by kidney problems, but also has to cope with the remnants of the venereal disease gonorrhoea. During his rehabilitation in Austria he becomes more familiar with the western lifestyle. Once returned to active service Mustafa Kemal, too, has to acknowledge defeat. On 31 October 1918 the armistice of Mudros is signed on board the British warship Agamemnon. The Ottoman Empire is left completely stripped.
On 8 February 1919 French general Franchet d’Espèrey parades through Constantinople on a white horse, just as Mehmet the Conqueror had done in 1453. The pride of the Turks is wounded. Their defeat is finalized in the Treaty of Sèvres, which will be signed by the new Turkish sultan, but which is rejected by an alternative government in Ankara. That government is led by Mustafa Kemal. He will gloriously lead the Turkish war of independence, which will result in the Treaty of Lausanne. In 1923 the Republic of Turkey is composed of Asian Anatolia and Eastern Thrace, which on the other side of the Dardanelles is considered to be a part of Europe.
Mustafa Kemal then remodels his country. Above all, he shows himself to be a Turkish nationalist. Threfore his name is not hallowed in Greek, Kurdish or Armenian circles. But whoever claims that Atatürk’s ruthless modernization has gone hand in hand with ethnics cleansing, will be addressed by any true Kemalist with the words of Atatürk: ‘It is not important that you are a Turk, but that you feel Turkish’.
He gets married in 1923, but the marriage is dissolved after two years without issue. He will, however, adopt seven daughters and a son. In 1934 Mustafa Kemal accepts the title Atatürk, Father of Turks. Four years later he dies at the age of 57 of cirrhosis of the liver, a disease that must have been the result of his consumption of large quantities of raki. In that respect, too, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was far removed from straight Islam.
The Turks have erected a memorial at Anzac Cove, the bay of Gallipoli where so many Australian and New Zealand boys were killed on 25 April 1915. It carries the following words that Atatürk spoke to them and their loved ones in 1934: ‘Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours… You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace, after having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.’
Next week: Alfred Vanderbilt
Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)