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Ataturk’s Challenge: Consolidating Vatan, Nationalism, Patriotism, and State as Turkey

David Flick

Arizona State University


State: A human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a given


- Max Weber (Gerth & Mills, 1958, p. 78).

Addressing the challenges faced by Mustafa Kemal after the ‘disintegration’ of the Ottoman Empire

presents many difficulties, not the least of which is trying to contain the volumes of analysis available

within these brief pages. How are we to consider the ‘disintegration’ of the Ottoman Empire? Where or

when did it begin? How does this consideration affect how we analyze the motivations of revolutionaries

and their shifting alliances? An empire in decline being divided as spoils after war inspires more

immediate concerns than lofty ideals considered and developed by an intellectual elite over time. It must

certainly focus the same educated attention of a single, proud, military man.

This concise framework mandates painting with broad strokes. The Mustafa Kemal Ataturk of

popular history is certainly more complex than popular attitude, no matter positive or negative. It is safer

to suggest we consider the problems faced in revolution more as a confluence of ideals where the past

forcibly, if barely, eked into its future by the lens of the determined. How he came to bear the mantle

Ataturk and the hurdles overcome could hardly have been foreseen.

Italy, which is inhabited by a single race and speaking the same language and professing the same religion,

experiences so many difficulties in its unification. For the moment all it has achieved is disorder. Judge what would

happen in Turkey if free scope were given to all the different national aspirations...It would need a century and

torrents of blood to establish even a fairly stable state of affairs

- Ali Pasha from an 1862 letter (Lewis, 1995, p. 5978)

The seeds of modernization for the Turkish National Movement came 300 hundred years earlier with

the Ottoman Empire’s first defeat at the hands of the Europeans. The basic premise of the empire had to

adapt to the technology represented in ‘treaty,’ an idea that a duality in absolute rule could exist was

unknown. The modernization, militarization, and intellectual elite classes would “fundamentally

transform in mind concerning what empire and international exchange means” (Lewis, 1995, p. 5294).

The treaty-as-technology was an outside mandate to be filtered primarily through Constantinople for the


next three centuries. It would not disseminate widely through the countryside of the pluralist empire. It

would breed new political ideologies in the Republic of Turkey, centered between Ankara and

Constantinople, and itself in the only position to operate self-contained, “with strong ties to both Europe

and the Middle East” (Atabaki & Brockett, 2009, p. 1). The debate of ‘empire’ was contained in the inner

circles of the “Ottoman officials, officers and intellectuals while the great mass of the population

remained blissfully unaware of the changed world situation” (Lewis, p. 5293).

What eventually followed would be known as the Tanzimat period (1839-1876), a time of

modernizing reforms that would bolster the political and social positions of the intellectual and military,

already elite. “Many reforms required that administrators undergo specialized training and education. A

new generation of technocrats arose who began to respect the West, for it was there that the needed

knowledge was stored. Along with technical knowledge, this new class also absorbed the political

philosophies of nationalism and democracy” (Andersen et al., 2012, p. 49). Spawning the Young Turk

movement at the end of the 19th century, it was essentially elitist, though always espousing and cultivating

a populist cause and character. Under the Sultanate, the Young Turks would demand concessions for the

‘people.’ A constitution at once accepted, suspended, and reinstated after the revolution of 1908. The

movement’s legacy, however, would be in a forced future.

Development was diverted by the Ottoman entry into the First World War, “the resulting end of the

Empire-the collapse of the state and the fragmentation of its territories” (Lewis, 1995, p. 6494). World

War I devastated many of the initial system reforms. Aligned with the defeated Central Powers, the

Empire was on the verge of entering the ‘modern’ world not as a sovereign entity but as a prize to be

divided. Nowhere would this be more immediately experienced than by those in the gateway to the West

that had been Anatolia/Turkey, the seat of the elite. Undoubtedly, this was the Allied motivation behind

the imposing “a particularly harsh rule on Turkey” (Andersen et al., 2012, p. 50). While the past provided

the Young Turks the ability to contemplate revolt, their socially constructed alliance somewhere between

a modernity of Islam and European models of sovereignty and nationalism, Mustafa Kemal was afforded


no such grace period. This is how we begin to understand his becoming Ataturk. The reconciliation of

sovereignty and nation with the outside world by force.

Influenced by Turkish social theorist Ziya Gok-Alp, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s vision was defined

solely by the idea of the Western nation-state. “Turkey could adopt whatever outward forms of

Government and elite culture were most progressive at the time without compromising its national

character; the ascendant Western Culture forms could serve Turkish development as a world power in the

twentieth century, just as the Persian Arabic civilization had served the purposes of centuries earlier”

(Andersen et al., 2012, p. 151). The same forces that lead the revolution of 1908, The Young Turks, lead

now by Mustafa Kemal, would supplant the Empire’s treaty with Allied occupiers by force and resolve,

repel the Europeans, and establish an independent Turkish state. It was not until October 1923 that the

nation-state of Turkey would exist.

“The [national] struggle was waged to the benefit of the people in spite of the people”

- Selek, historian of the national liberation movement (Sadiq, 1976, p. 528)

If one were to only consider the texts that inspired this research, Andersen et al. (2012), and Lewis

(1995), they could assume the Turkish National Movement was a minor disagreement, skirmish, and

negotiation; an afterthought of war, and an attempt to bring democracy to the masses with the blessing of

the West and statehood to follow. As “deeply symbolic” (Andersen et al., p. 152) it may have been,

outlawing the fez in order to promote the dissolution of social distinction and promote ‘homogeneity’

under a Turkish banner, seems an oversimplification of the actors involved.

If the opposition military intelligence accounts were to be believed one could assume something more

akin to an epic war tale told on the big screen. Clooney as Ataturk and Pitt as Raouf Bey waging clever

battles, capturing telegraphs, riding the crest of a popular revolt already in motion and crashing,

successfully, headlong, into the Allies and winning the day - emancipating to song. The CUP acting as the

outdated mechanism of foil, a propaganda machine producing ad hoc messages for ‘who-knows,’ with an

“inveterate instinct for intrigue” (Macfie, 2002, p. 30), the rebellion a tiny portion of a great international

and well-orchestrated conspiracy. This, taken from a recent summation of primarily British Intelligence


reports: “These plans could not be carried out until arrangements had been made for the organization of

the national elements in Turkey, Syria and Mesopotamia, the alliance of the pan-Arab movement with the

Turkish national movement, the co-operation of the tribes and the unification of the whole on a pan-

Islamist basis. When unification was completed and all the plans were ready, a signal would be given and

a simultaneous action undertaken…of so widespread a nature as to force the withdrawal of the Entente

Powers from the Middle East, and possibly even from Asia” (Macfie, 2002, p. 30).

Many contradictions became obvious in the dissection of the doctoral dissertations and academic

journals, revisionism as well as simplification. The National Movement someday to be understood out

from under the idealized loom of Turkey’s founding president. “This includes the emergence of a new

social history of Turkey, one that explores the experiences of the people who actually lived through and

underwrote the end of the empire and the establishment of a new nation-state” (Atabaki & Brockett, 2009,

p. 3). There is no one picture to be painted, as there is no one vantage by which the Movement could have

been experienced.

This, to address the problem Ataturk faced and the accepted backdrop of objective setting for the

ideas that fueled The National Liberation Movement: The Ottoman Empire was defeated, the Mudros

Armistice signed in October 1918. In November, Allied forces occupied Istanbul, the seat of the Ottoman

Sultan-Caliphs, to enforce the dissolve the Ottoman Empire. In May 1919, Greek forces, former subjects

of the Turks landed at Izmir. Days later, Mustafa Kemal, sent by the Sultan as inspector-general, landed at

Samsun in Anatolia. His orders were to dismantle the army in order to complete the surrender and restore

provincial peace. Resistance groups, already in existence and hoping to preserve national independence,

were many and active. Counter to his instructions, Mustafa began to organize these groups and plan

liberation from occupation. A recall from the government was ordered. “Mustafa Kemal did not obey the

order. Having resigned from the Army on 8 July 1919, he felt free to prepare for the mission ahead. He

took up the arduous task of organizing the national forces and merging them into a united struggle. Thus

began the national movement variously named The National Struggle, the War of National Liberation, the

Anatolian Revolt” (Sadiq, 1976, pp. 513-4).


The Turks would achieve the first successful nationalist revolution in Africa or Asia, providing a

glimpse for the masses what had been apparent in the elite’s study of the West. Nationalism in a Western

sense, a State sense, and a modern sense was the future. “For a while, the modernizing Turkish republic

like the Islamic Ottoman Empire before it seemed to be showing the way for the whole Islamic World.

But Kemal Ataturk had no such desire” (Lewis, 1995, p. 6559). Ataturk’s was not a problem of empire

but a problem of unified nation-state. Unification meant a Turkish national identity.

“Not only was the national movement led by an elite, but it also derived its features from the outlook

of that elite; it did not become a mass upsurge.” (Sadiq, 1976, p. 519). The undiscerning Anatolian

villager could not be considered a willing participant in the liberation movement. The leadership of the

movement was broadly bureaucratic, intellectual, religious, and secular, military and aristocratic. The

diversity in the elite was represented in the villager without either the vantage or ability to comprehend

the end-game as seen from the seat of the privileged intellectual. “It was only as a result of the emergence

of new social forces during the long course of the liberation struggle that the common people were

brought to the forefront of Turkish society” (Sadiq, 1976, p. 524). To establish Turkey, the ruling elites

thought and assumed they would transform the existing imperial consciousness into a Turkish national


Unification depended upon bridging a social as much as technological gap between the old and the

new. The transformation that had taken hold over the course of sixty years for the elite had to be made

tangible within a year for the villager. Forgoing that, old ideas would be cast off in favor of pragmatic

means. The future approached an already autonomous Turkey that need not suffer the Empires fate. The

occupation of ‘homeland’ by European powers and Greece played a crucial role in the nationalist

discourse, mobilizing and “defending the miserable country and territories against the foreign and

aggressive powers, who are seeking to invade and carve it out through the illegitimate policies of

imperialism and colonization” (Ozkan, 2012, p. 59). It was a bandage of unity, if not identity.

The Western nation-state was the ideal, with its borders and national identity coterminous. By any

means necessary it would provide the National Movement with the foundation for statehood. The Sivas


Congress stood as a revolt against the partition of the Turkish heartland. The Congress put forth the

concept of national will for ascertaining a national future. “Though the Erzurum and Sivas Congresses

decisively consolidated the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, he had not yet formulated his ideas in a form in

which they could be unhesitatingly endorsed by the Congresses” (Sadiq, 1976, p. 520). Rhetoric as much

as force was the tool of the movement. “There can be no dividing; our national unity, historic rights and

traditions and religion must continue, and all efforts against this must not succeed.” (Shaw & Shaw, 1976,

p. 2:696).

Mustafa’s military leadership was equaled in his political ability, speaking for and as the people while

courting the elite. The resistance under his command defeated Armenia by the end of 1920, a treaty with

the Soviet Union was made in March 1921, the Italians were forced to withdraw, and the Greeks were

fought to stand still in the summer. In October, Turkey forced a French withdrawal from Cilicia.

“Thenceforth, all ideas that had been accommodated for political convenience or which smacked of

opportunism were dropped…It was then that Mustafa Kemal was able to repudiate the past institutions in

these words: ‘Ottoman State, its independence, the Sultan, the Caliph, the government [the Ottoman

Government]-all these were meaningless words devoid of any sense’” (Sadiq, 1976, pp. 512-3). An

armistice with Greece and Britain was reached the following month. These victories required the Sèvres

treaty to be renegotiated. “However, for Turkey the real problem of yesterday, today, and tomorrow is

the question of Anatolia, which is the matter of life and death. The Anatolian question has to do with

reviving Anatolia” (Ozkan, 2012, p. 64).

When both Istanbul and Ankara were invited to send representatives to the conference in Lausanne in

1922, the Grand National Assembly lead by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk responded by abolishing the

Sultanate. The Treaty of Lausanne concluded in 1923, predominately, on the Assembly’s terms. It was

“followed that October by the declaration of the Turkish Republic and the following March by abolition

of the caliphate” (Halabi, 2012, pp. 21-2). The movement’s successful liberation of Anatolia gave a sense

of self-confidence to the Turkish intellectuals, reflected in the open discussions regarding the old Ottoman

institutions. Contrary to the Young Turks, the distinction between culture and civilization faded away as


the new regime began to take shape. For Ataturk, ideological exercises were meaningless without a

mandate for the marriage of culture and the civilized state. “This conception alone…Community of ideas

was not a determining factor” (Sadiq, 1976, pp. 519-20). Turks would not be permitted the luxury of

romanticizing their Ottoman past. The national identity would have to face a future where their Ottoman

past was unequivocally “worthy of shame and rejection; Turkish identity, therefore, had to be rooted in

the present and the future, wrought by Mustafa Kemal, and the source of immeasurable pride” (Atabaki &

Brockett, 2009, p. 10).

Vatan— which, in Arabic, means the place of one’s birth— can be translated as “homeland” in English.

(Ozkan, 2012, p. 2)

The nation-state, national identity, and vatan in Turkey are not already existing and pre-political entities. On

the contrary, competing political groups always contest them (Ozkan, 2012, p. 8)

“Both patriotic and nationalist ideas, when introduced to the Middle East, were associated with

libertarian and opposition movements. In general, patriotism tended to reinforce, for nationalism to

subvert, the existing political order…both country and nation subject to foreign, sometimes also divided

rule” (Lewis, 1995, p. 6252). It is my opinion that what is most overlooked in the analysis is this core

idea: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk seemed keenly aware of, in a pragmatic way, what the intellectual elite

could only muse over. At the particular crossroads of Anatolia, the temporal dissolve of the Ottoman

Empire, and the Western march over cultural heritage and identity, Anatolia alone was in a position

(albeit still not wholly accounted for) to leap rather than fumble into modern civilization. Ataturk was

faced with updating without sacrificing what the previous 470 years of pluralist Ottoman Dynasty and the

700 years prior to those of Islam’s golden age had provided. He would need to force the modern

adaptation of accepting the patriotic and the nationalistic as well as the vatan as the same. It is as if he

alone understood the power of Western Europe, “Where country and state on one hand, and nation on the

other became virtually identified” (Lewis, 1995, p. 6248). Modernization would be a forcible act for

“transformation of the politically meaningless subjects of the empire (the rea’ya) into citizens – a


politically meaningful category…The identification of the party with the state and the nation with the

party” (KarabeliAs, 2009, pp. 63-4). Overlooked is that Ataturk seems keenly aware of an opportunity

that he should not have been able to see. Unless this is hindsight overlay, his main problem was not the

allies, or the Sultanate, or selling politics. His main hurdle was remaining singularly aware of the

technology that lay in mandating that vatan, nationalism, patriotism, and state become synonymously

observed. “The aggressive secularism, nationalism, and republicanism of the post 1923 Turkish Republic

has obscured the fact that the Kemalist movement presented itself as one for the defense of Ottoman

legitimacy, Islamic identity, and Muslim solidarity” (Halabi, 2012, p. 23).


Works Cited

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Independence 1919-22. Journal of Palestine Studies, 19-37.
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Ozkan, B. (2012). From the Abode of Islam to the Turkish Vatan, The making of a national homeland in
Turkey. New Haven: Yale University Press Books.
Sadiq, M. (1976). Intellectual Origins of the Turkish National Liberation Movement. International
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Shaw, S. J., & Shaw, E. K. (1976). History of the Ottoman Empire. New York: Cambridge University

*Lewis citations represent electronic locations