In 1936, two months after arriving at Istanbul University from Hitler’s Germany, the philologist Erich Auerbach reported back to Walter Benjamin in Paris, offering his first impressions of Kemalist Turkey.
Charmed by his ‘glorious’ new house on the Bosphorus, Auerbach viewed the cultural policies of the ‘sympathetic autocrat’ in Ankara more warily.
Official replacement of Arabic by Latin script, and the ‘purification’ of alien loanwords from the language, seemed to the German scholar to have brought cultural deracination.
The Turkish young had been severed from any link to their Persian, Ottoman and Arabic past:
They have thrown all tradition overboard here, and they want to build a thoroughly rationalized—extreme Turkish nationalist—state of the European sort.
The process is going fantastically and spookily fast: already there is hardly anyone who knows Arabic or Persian, and even Turkish texts of the past century will quickly become incomprehensible since the language is being modernized and at the same time newly oriented on “Ur-Turkish,” and it is being written with Latin characters…
According to official mythology Turks were, indeed, the very originators of human language and spreaders of civilization to the world.
A few months later, Auerbach sketched out the programme of the Kemalist state and its ‘fanatically anti-traditional nationalism':
Rejection of all existing Islamic cultural heritage, the establishment of a fantastic relation to a primal Turkish identity, technological modernization in the European sense, in order to triumph against a hated and yet admired Europe with its own weapons: hence, the preference for European-educated emigrants as teachers, from whom one can learn without the threat of foreign propaganda.
Result: nationalism in the extreme accompanied by the simultaneous destruction of the historical national character…
Istanbul itself was a ‘a wonderfully situated but also unpleasant and rough city consisting of two different parts':
The old Stambool, of Greek and Turkish origin, which still preserves much of the patina of its historic landscape, and the “new” Pera, a caricature and completion of the European colonization of the 19th century, now in complete collapse.
A year later Auerbach again complained, this time to Johannes Oeschger, of ‘a purist nationalism that destroys the living tradition, and that bases itself in part on completely fantastical conceptions of ur-times, and in part on modern-rationalist ideas':
Piety is combated, Islamic culture despised as an alien Arabic infiltration, one wants to be at the same time modern and purely Turkish, and it has gone so far that through the abolition of the old script, through the elimination of Arabic loan words and their replacement by Turkish neologisms and partly by European loan words, the language has been totally destroyed: no young person is any longer able to read the older literature — and there reigns a spiritual lack of direction that is extremely dangerous.
In 1926 Kemal had notoriously imported Mussolini’s penal code from Italy, embracing it as ‘compatible with the needs of our century’.
Abolition of the Caliph, suppression of dervishes, etc., was necessary, Kemal proclaimed, ‘in order to prove that our nation as a whole was no primitive nation, filled with superstitions and prejudice.’ The fez had ‘sat on our heads as a sign of ignorance, of fanaticism, of hatred to progress and civilization.’
He is pictured below at a blackboard marked with the new alphabet.
By the mid-1930s, placed in European context, Turkish autocracy presented alarming signs to the émigré Auerbach.
What was ‘not yet a certainty for everyone’ in fascist Italy and Germany, ‘steps forth here in complete nakedness':
The language reform—at once fantastical ur-Turkish (“free” from Arabic and Persian influences) and modern-technical—has made it certain that no one under 25 can any longer understand any sort of religious, literary, or philosophical text more than ten years old and that, under the pressure of the Latin script, which was compulsorily introduced a few years ago, the specific properties of the language are rapidly decaying…
I am more and more convinced that the contemporary world situation is nothing other than the cunning of providence to lead us along a bloody and circuitous route to the Internationale of Triviality and Esperanto culture.
I thought this already in Germany and Italy, especially in the horrifying inauthenticity of Blut und Boden propaganda, but here for the first time it has become a certainty for me.
Such was not merely the familiar tendency of German exiles, easily discomposed, apt to detect worrying similarities to Hitler’s regime in places of refuge.
Across Europe, the invented traditions of late-Victorian nationalism — the ceremony of flags, anthems, rituals and insignia — as well as compulsory schooling in a common language, the fusing of national markets by domestic transport and communication infrastructure, and the assumption by national bureaucracies of administrative and tax-raising power over a henceforth homogenized territorial jurisdiction, had famously converted peasants into Frenchmen.
In both the European metropoles and their colonial possessions, ‘modernization’ proceeded through the dragooning of diverse peoples into a unitary national culture. ‘Annihilate the patois!’ ran the project.
Yet the particular grandiosity and vacuity of Turkish nationalism after 1923 rested on a blank slate, both territorial and cultural, created by erasure and ethnic cleansing.
In the same year that Kemal abolished the Caliphate, launched his Kulturkampf and imposed the Turkish Republic’s enlightened new constitution, he addressed an audience in Adana:
The Armenians have no rights whatsoever in this fertile land. The country belongs to you, the Turks. This country has been Turkish in history, and thus is Turkish and will eternally live as Turkish…
The Armenians and others have no rights in this place. These fertile places are a profoundly and quintessentially Turkish country.
In 1916 the grand vizier Talaat Pasha had issued an edict concerning the ‘Turkification’ of assets confiscated from Armenians deported and killed during the genocide.
Looted wealth was to be assigned to the local Muslim elite, urban merchants and peasantry:
The movable property left by the Armenians should be conserved for long-term preservation, and for the sake of an increase of Muslim businesses in our country, companies need to be established strictly made up of Muslims. Movable property should be given to them under suitable conditions that will guarantee the business’ steady consolidation.
The founder, the management and the representatives should be chosen from honourable leaders and the elite, and to allow tradesmen and agriculturists to participate in its dividends, the vouchers need to be half a lira or one lira and registered to their names to preclude that the capital falls in foreign hands.
The growth of entrepreneurship in the minds of Muslim people needs to be monitored, and this endeavour and the results of its implementation needs to be reported to the Ministry step by step.
The plunder of Armenian property in Anatolia included farms, houses, livestock, factories, workshops, plantations, shops, schools, churches, tools and equipment — all officially designated as ‘abandoned properties’ after the land had been denuded of Armenians, massacred under cover of war.
Under Kemal, agents of genocide were rewarded for services to the fledgling nation, with the president’s own official residence lifted from an Ankara merchant:
[The] family of district governor of Muş, Servet Bey, who in 1915 had annihilated the Armenians of that city, was awarded a composite package of Armenian property.
The family of Cemal Azmi, the murderous governor of Trabzon, was also assigned considerable ‘reparation’, specifically from Armenian properties.
Hafız Abdullah Avni, a hotel owner who had collaborated in the genocide in Erzincan, was executed for his crimes in 1920 by the Istanbul tribunal. His wife, Hatice Hanım, was compensated with a house and a field from the Armenian villages of Şuhe and Kani.
The fanatical district governor of Boğazlıyan, Mehmed Kemal Bey, had left behind a family in Yozgat. They received a large apartment and a house from the available Armenian property in that area.
Dr. Bahaeddin Shakir Bey’s family received a house in the upmarket Şişli district of Istanbul.
The former district governor of Urfa, Mehmed Nusret Bey, had played a key role during the genocide and was executed in 1919 for his crimes. His wife, Hayriye Hanım, was compensated with a shop and a house in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district, on Cadde-i Kebîr (the current İstiklâl Caddesi) on numbers 264 and 266. The property was located in the Aznavur Han and originally belonged to a merchant named Bedros.
Cemal Pasha’s heirs and family were compensated with the property of Vicken Hokachian, a merchant in Istanbul. A shop and a strip of land in Beyoğlu across the French cemeteryas large as 1,450 square metres, was assigned to his wife Senice, his daughter Kamran, his sons Ahmed Rüşdü, Hasan Necdet, Hasan Behçet, his big sister Şaziye and little sister Bakire.
The list is long…
All are signed by President Mustafa Kemal Pasha and his cabinet of veteran Young Turks…
Along with the local Turkish population, new Muslim settlers to Anatolia (from the Balkans and Caucasus) picked over the booty left behind in suddenly vacant Armenian villages:
In 1915 the amount of property allocated to settlers was 20 545 buildings, 267 536 acres of land, 76 942 acres of vineyards, 7 812 acres of gardens, 703 491 acres of olive groves, 4 573 acres of mulberry gardens, 97 acres of orange fields, 5 carts, 4 390 animals, 2 912 agricultural implements, 524 788 planting seeds.
The objective, in the words of the Turkish Army in 1922, was that Greek and Armenian ‘material ties to Anatolia will be disconnected.’
By 1924 the non-Muslim population of Anatolia, 20 percent in 1912, was down to 2 percent.
One upshot of this severing was that Turkish nationalism, inheriting razed earth, would be likewise unbound by preexisting constraints or obstacles.
Kemal’s state-led modernization, leaving property relations untouched and making no attempt at agrarian reform, would aim to drive an ethnocultural clean sweep through the smouldering Ottoman ruins.
The fanciful mythology of ur-Turkey, about which Auerbach complained, was both compensation and boast by a new state whose territory had been emptied at birth by the killing of one-tenth of its inhabitants, whose founding act was the expulsion of another tenth, followed by the internal displacement, ‘Turkification’ and bloody repression of Kurds, another one-fifth of the population.
While adulation of the national founder remains a mainstay, over the decades other elements of the Kemalist recipe have been trimmed, adapted and discarded according to the exigencies of the hour.
Yet the homogenizing element in the republic’s founding ideology has endured as a bedrock: official pursuit, according to the Interior Minister in 1934, of ‘a country speaking with one language, thinking in the same way and sharing the same sentiment.’
The confessional turn in the electoral scene, most pronounced since the 1980 military coup and the premiership of Turgut Özal, has brought sharp modifications to Turkey’s public life: growing numbers of religious schools, flagrant displays of devoutness, the Crescent rivalling the sword for symbolic preeminence, as a powerful executive branch stamps its mark on all agencies and directorates of the state.
Movement towards EU membership, meanwhile, has obliged some ecumenical gestures and concessions to Kurdish and Alevi cultural rights. Erdoğan lifted the state of emergency in the southeast, and wound back language proscription in 2004.
But the basic formula is unchanged, Copenhagen criteria notwithstanding. Education, bureaucracy and media remain zones free of linguistic or cultural impurity. The Armenian genocide, likewise, is officially a non-topic.
In today’s Turkey, the decidedly post-secular AKP leadership nonetheless vaunts an integralist slogan of ‘one nation, one flag, one religion, one language’, and a notorious penal article that makes ‘insulting Turkishness’ a criminal offence.
This detour through the recent history of Turkish nationalism helps to clarify current arrangements, explaining how matters reached such a pass in the Caucasus, Black Sea and Caspian basin, Cyprus and eastern Mediterranean, Balkans and Levant.
These are the former contested borderlands of Russian tsar, Ottoman sultan and Persian autocracy.
Today, in the words of its prime minister, the AKP’s former foreign minister and eminent grand strategist, Turkey is ‘a country with a close land basin, the epicentre of the Balkans, the Middle East and the Caucasus, the centre of Eurasia in general and is in the middle of the Rimland belt cutting across the Mediterranean to the Pacific.’
Within elite circles this view, at least publicly, has its detractors.
Turkey, Nicolas Sarkozy once declared on the campaign trail, ‘is in Asia Minor':
I will not explain to little French school children that the borders of Europe extend to Iraq and Syria.
Once safely installed in the Élysée Palace, Le Pen’s voters having been tossed a few verbal sops, the French president’s pedagogic concerns evaporated.
Sarkozy treated his population to a demonstration of Dassault’s aerial might over North Africa, later striking a triumphant pose atop a Benghazi podium.
His Socialist successor extended the Libyan campaign to Mali and the Central African Republic.
A ‘Europe of values’ (Blair’s oily phrase, found useful by Cameron and Sarkozy) acknowledges few boundaries. If the Maghreb, why not Thrace?
The European continent, the concept a recent invention, may be demarcated however you like. But the frontiers of Christendom are firm. They do not extend to the Euphrates.
Ocean littorals, on the other hand, are free to expand or retreat as required, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization supplemented with whatever ‘add-on’ Washington wishes for its Eurasian beachhead.
Turkey’s frontiers with Syria, Iraq and Iran thus present NATO with a boundless operational vista in the Mashreq and beyond.
Referring to ‘challenges we’re facing in the east and the south’, today’s incoming secretary-general says: ‘NATO has a strong army after all. We can deploy it wherever we want to.’
US Patriot missiles may thus be placed east of Jerusalem in the name of European and North American security. (The US air base at Incirlik is itself built on expropriated Armenian land. The Air Force’s approved history of the site ends discreetly in 1921).
And, if today’s armed conflict in the Levant threatens Ankara’s security, ‘NATO will be there’, says the secretary-general.
The ‘post-Cold War enlargement of NATO and EU’, said the US Vice President earlier this year, ‘is not complete, in my view.’
What task remains undone, what destiny unfulfilled?
To the post-1923 status quo that had prevailed in the Black Sea-Caucasus-Central Asia region following the collapse of Ottoman and tsarist empires, the retrenchment of Moscow’s power since 1991 has threatened disruption.
Washington’s objective, laid out unblushingly by its strategists, is to hinder the local powers from reaching convivial terms, and to prevent, at all costs, any state outside its own military alliance structure — Moscow, Tehran, Beijing — from attaining regional predominance.
There exists, explained Turkey’s current prime minister Davutoğlu to the US Council on Foreign Relations, ‘a compatibility’ between this need of the United States and Ankara’s ‘unique’ ability, arising from its convenient location.
Washington is a non-Eurasian power that hopes to remain the dominant power on the Eurasian continent. Turkey can help ‘close this gap of geographical discontinuity':
Turkey is right at the center of Afro-Euro-Asia, having multidimensional characters of geopolitics. Turkey is a European country, an Asian country, a Middle Eastern country, Balkan country, Caucasian country, neighbor to Africa, Black Sea country, Caspian Sea… all these geopolitical challenges are in the agenda of American global strategy…
The United States needs allies in Africa-Eurasia, and Turkey needs a cooperation with a global power.
Thus has Europe’s Eastern Question been resolved, if only temporarily and after a fashion.
To the apparent satisfaction of the continent’s elite and with Washington’s benevolent approval, Ankara’s EU candidature was placed in prolonged abeyance, even as Turkey assumed new regional prominence, becoming NATO’s geographic fulcrum for ‘out of area’ missions in the eastern Mediterranean, Caucasus and West Asia.
On its eastern border, the Turkish state acts as faithful proxy in Syria, seeking to overthrow Assad’s Iran-friendly government. In the Black Sea basin, it facilitates continued thrusts and harassing operations against Moscow.
Washington, seeking to conduct a proxy war at two removes in Syria, has relied on its local agents in Ankara and the Gulf monarchies to supply weapons, funds, training and cross-border transit.
Turkey’s intelligence chief was recorded, in conversation with Davutoğlu, musing over how best to ‘make up a cause of war’ with the Syrian government by staging a false-flag operation against Ankara.
Atmospherics from the US Vice President, aimed plainly at a domestic rather than diplomatic audience, convey the nature of Turkey’s helpful efforts in the Levant:
The Turks, who are great friends — I have a great relationship with Erdoğan , whom I spend a lot of time with. The Saudis, the Emiratis, etc. What were they doing?
They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad — except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world…
Now they’re sealing their border.
To Ankara’s role as NATO proxy is added that of ’emerging market’ debtor.
Since 2002, under the AKP Turkey has become increasingly dependent on short-term external borrowing, mostly portfolio investment in search of speculative gains. This has increased financial fragility, exposing Turkey to asset-price inflation and the risk of worse if capital is withdrawn.
International borrowing rests ultimately on a promise to pay US dollars. Issues of the Turkish domestic currency are a form of debt: the credibility of the borrower depends on its ability to pay the ‘best’ money: the liabilities of the global hegemon.
Should Turkish growth founder, capital inflow cease, and local banks become unable to refinance their debts, international creditors will no doubt be found in a compassionate mood. A stabilization loan, arriving swiftly, will come attached with less onerous conditions than those applied to Cyprus.
Turkey, as a ‘geopolitical pivot,’ is too important for the IMF (behind it the US Treasury) to countenance domestic upheaval on any great scale.
Just as credibility of the Turkish lira rests on a promise to pay US dollars (the ultimate international means of settling debts), behind Turkish arms Washington sits in poised reserve, ready to back up its NATO proxy whenever Ankara’s Ostpolitik in the Mediterranean and Levant goes awry.
In NATO parlance, this is known as ‘extended deterrence.’ US solicitude is manifested in the form of radar installations (since 2011) and (since 1961) nuclear missiles deployed on Turkish territory, aimed at Russia and Iran.
On this foundation, grandiose regional ambitions flourish. The latter focus on Turkey’s strategic potential as an energy corridor, reducing Moscow’s bargaining power in Europe.
Turkey is Iraq’s ‘gateway to the European Union’, Davutoğlu has noted. And ‘Erbil is our gateway to Basra.’
In Istanbul, three months ago, the World Economic Forum held a Special Meeting on Unlocking Resources for Regional Development, the Turkish president and prime minister contributing to that noble cause by demanding, in keynote addresses, armed overthrow over the Syrian government.
There an Emirati oil CEO, with investments centred on Iraqi Kurdistan, suggested that ‘if Turkey became a price-setting centre for the region [that] could really bring on much more supply from Middle East resources, which would not only meet Turkish needs, but go on to meet European needs as well.’
Ankara’s energy minister deplored political difficulties in Iraq and Iran: ‘You can’t have a growing economy and a shrinking energy sector.’
A fortnight ago the Atlantic Council held its Energy and Economics Summit in Istanbul.
There the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, long touted by the Energy Ministry as ‘the natural direction for exports of hydrocarbons from the region [of Iraqi Kurdistan] to the world’s market’, received a boost.
Alongside President Erdoğan in Ankara, the Russian leader announced that Gazprom’s planned South Stream pipeline was to be abandoned, after EU thwarting efforts and US sanctions.
The US Vice President was on hand to salute the news, calling for ‘development of a strategic pipeline from Basra to Ceyhan.’
The Turkish state, its line of strategic credit secure in Washington, has leveraged its momentary good fortune to pursue regional initiatives otherwise beyond its reach. A permanent military presence in Cyprus has been declared not negotiable. EU accession, less urgent, has been allowed patiently to simmer, safe for another day.
Yet what realities lie behind the salesmanship about ‘Anatolian Tigers’ and a ‘boom on the Bosphorus’?
In the past three decades, the Turkish economy’s capital-labour ratio, or capital intensity, rose at a distinctly lower rate (6.6% annually from 1964-1978, compared to an average of 3.7% over the next thirty years).
Taking account of the business cycle, there has been a steady fall in the output-capital ratio, or what may be termed ‘capital productivity.’
Technical change has followed a labour-saving, capital-using pattern familiar elsewhere.
Turkey’s development, all in all, has been modest. Agriculture retains a high share of employment (24%); female labour-force participation is abysmal (29%, below Sudan and well below Armenia).
State-led modernization by a republic descended from one of Europe’s largest imperial powers, with a population greater than France or Britain at its disposal, has produced unscintillating results.
Not needing to displace a landlord class in any agrarian revolution (small independent farms long predominated), nor did industrialization of the classical modernizing sort follow.
The Turkish army — the most numerous in Europe besides Russia’s, and occupying Cyprus since 1974 — and a traditionally hefty state officialdom absorb much of the investible surplus. The familiar features of the externally indebted economy — credit expansion, consumption growth, speculative bubbles in real estate and asset prices — further discourage productive expenditure. Patronage networks and political clientelism siphon the residue, all impeding local formation of a substantial capital-goods sector.
Small wonder, amid such frustrations, that the consoling appeal of religion plays a growing part in Turkish electoral politics.
Yet not every plan has gone awry.
Kemal’s language reforms were recently described as a ‘catastrophic success’. A linguist noted, amid the general poverty of Turkish expression, that a mere 26 years after it was delivered, Kemal’s great speech already needed to be ‘translated into the present-day language’ so that it could be intelligible to the young.