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5 issue areas confronted by the Republic of Turkey during Atatürk years

Some of the few major issue areas are discussed below.

National Identity:

            Ottoman Empire contained a diverse population with multitude of lingual, ethnics and religious affiliations. This diversity was a product of the vast territory that Ottomans controlled – held together by the virtue of Islamic identity of the Empire. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent struggle for independence, people of Turkey were able to secure a relatively small territory and rather homogenized populace. Getting rid of the a pluralistic – as well as religious – identity inherited from the Ottoman Empire was a big challenge for the founding fathers of Turkey who envisaged a nation state that would have been a total break away from the Empire. They decided to shift their focus from ümmet to millet to achieve this objective.[1] According to the tide of time, the Republic elites attempted on constructing a nation that bears allegiance to the state only and nothing else.[2] They fulfilled this goal in two paradoxical moves. Firstly, by secularizing the state and asserting dominant Turkish identity over the populace, and secondly, by cleansing the state from non-Muslim citizens. The outgoing non-Muslims deportees were balanced by the incoming Muslim refugees from Balkan, Greece and other adjacent territories by the means of population exchange. By doing this, the Republican elites were able to overcome the deficiency of population – particularly male – lost during the last wars of the Ottoman Empire as well as they were able to get rid of ‘suspicious citizens’ whose affiliations might had been more stronger with the foreign powers or religious orders than with the Republic.

            After the population issues were settled, the Republican elites proceeded with the collective indoctrination or national identity building through various ‘mechanisms focused on secularizing and modernizing the populace.[3] The article particularly mentions the role of Halk Evleri in educating people about the secular Republican code of conduct in attempt to make the Turkish people civilized and compatible with the so-called modern or civilized nations of the West. The idea of superiority of Turkish nation was asserted through ludicrous ideas like ‘Sun Language Theory’ and ‘Turkish History Thesis’.[4] Several radical and revolutionary steps like change in written script of the Turkish language or the Hat revolution were implemented in the same regards. Moreover, several ‘civil society movements’ like ‘Vatandaş Türkçe Konuş’ were also inspired by the motives of Turkish ruling elites who tried to generate a homogenous national fabric through a top-to-bottom human engineering. In a nutshell, Mustafa Kemal and his colleagues focused a great deal of attention on constructing the identity of the nascent nation.

Foreign Relations:

            Managing the foreign relations of a country that has recently been torn apart and subsequently reclaimed must have been a challenging task. As a new state that seek a breakaway from its past, a new foreign policy framework had to be forged. Atatürk, in this regards, replaced the fundamental principles of foreign policy: the imperial-Ottomanism, pan-Islamism, pan-Turkism were replaced by Republicanism, Secularism and Nationalism, respectively.[5] Atatürk and other Republican elites might also have been in a constant state of paranoia due to their limited capability and resources via-a-vis the great powers of the time. After all, the possibility of war and reoccupation remained alive and well during the interwar period. A skeptic and rather frightened attitude – in addition to unrivaled attention to the identity formation and domestic issues – led the early Republic to adopt an isolationist foreign policy. Turkey did not join League of Nations, which reflects these isolationist tendencies.[6] However, the Republican elites were able to amend several legacy treaties of the Ottoman Empire as well as sign a few new ones like Sadabad and Balkan Pacts. Thus, I would like to call it as an inward looking foreign policy instead of isolationism.

            In the Atatürk’s period, the threat has displaced from Russia to Italy.[7] Atatürk maintained a friendly relationship with the Bolsheviks who on various occasions supported Turkish Republic directly or indirectly in achieving its objectives and ensure its independence.[8] The relations with Russia started deteriorating when Atatürk provided refuge to Trotsky, which in the long run motivated Stalin to push for territorial claims over Turkish land (discussed in later section). On the other hand, Italy – under the fascist regime of Mussolini – became the single most threatening state for the Republic. Mussolini dreamt of extending his rule on Asiatic lands and expressed special interest in controlling Antalya.[9] Moreover, close naval and military presence of Italy in Rhodes Islands and its advances in Balkan motivated the Republican elites to execute various agreements and treaties for containment of Italian threat. Balkan Pact of 1934 was one of those achievements against Italy. Atatürk was also mentally prepared for a war with Italy; this preparedness was expressed in his discussion with Italian Ambassador. He also allowed British and French ships to use Turkish naval bases against Italy.[10] It is also worth mentioning that Atatürk oversaw rapprochement with former enemies of Ottoman Empire – Britain and France – to seek new friends in international arena. A significant event of that period is normalization of relations with Greece that had been soared due to forced population exchange and a war for reclaiming Turkish territories.[11] Greeks who faced the same threat in the Mediterranean joined hands with Turks. Moreover, several other pacts with the neighboring countries in East like the Sadabad pact and others were the reflection of domestic challenges – discussed in details in the next section. Thus, Atatürk promoted a skeptical foreign policy that remained ensconced in the minds of Turkish policy makers for several decades. However, this period was not a time of complete isolation as demonstrated above.

The Kurdish Challenge:

            Right after the inception of the Republic and imposition of a forced secular-Turkish identity on the populace, Atatürk and his colleagues were confronted by a tough domestic challenge that keeps shaping the foreign policy of Turkey till the present day. The idea of a Muslim minority was rejected totally.[12] Kurds who had been the brothers in arms of Turkish people did not like the idea of top-to-bottom Turkification.[13] Three Kurdish rebellions that happened one after another were a bitter response to the coercive social engineering undertook by the state.[14] The Kurdish people who had been loyal subjects of the Ottoman Empire and adherent to the Sunni Islam picked their arms – arguably for the political-religious reasons rather than ethnic ones. The most significant rebellion led by a religious leader – Sheikh Said – and carried out by former Ottoman Militia – Hamidiye Regiments – certainly indicated that the subjects of Ottoman Empire were not happy with the abolishment of the ‘Caliphate’ as well as the aimed homogeneity of the nation. However, the regime responded with an iron hand; bombing several cities, executing the perpetrators and even renaming the cities. The Kurdish issues soon Turkish into an international issues forcing Turkish Republic to forge working relations and agreements with the neighboring countries.

            Saadabad Pact of 1937 was totally motivated by the Kurdish question. Turkey signed an agreement with Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan – the latter being a remote party – to contain Kurdish insurgents and curb their rebellious activities.[15] It was also significant due to Turkey’s leadership role in the pact. Moreover, Turkey executed a border modification agreement with Iran to address the intra-border movement of the Turkish rebels. A district in Van was exchanged for the Ağrı Dağı region as per the deal.[16] Thus, the use of force and diplomacy allowed the Turkish Republic to silence the Kurdish issue for a while, but the cinders kept alive and burning underneath the ashes and came back to haunt the Republic in pervious decades.

Territorial Claims and Integrity:

            The biggest objective for the Turkish freedom fighters after the World War I was the independence of Turkish territories from the claws of the allied powers. They drafted a Naitonal Pact or Mısak-ı Milli to carve out the territories that would form the modern geography of Turkey, but in the long run fail to achieve that objective completely.[17] Thus two areas that included the aimed territory – Mosul and Hatay – remained in the minds of the Republican elites who started untiring efforts to reclaim those territories to fulfil the unfinished task. As the heat increased during the inter-war period, France surrender the Hatay region to Turkey to lure the Turks to join the alliance or at least remain neutral. Hatay that was declared Republic before, decided to side with Turkey in a referendum in 1937 that won strategic port of Alexandretta and historical city of Antioch for the latter.[18] Mosul, on the other hand, remained annexed with Iraq as Atatürk and colleagues decided to abandon it due to their inability to manage a risky Kurdish territory.[19] Thus, the Mısak-ı Milli remained unrealized and often the memories of Mosul resonate in the domestic politics as well as foreign policy of Turkey – something that manifested itself during the Mosul hostage crisis.

            On the other hand, territorial integrity remained on the high agenda during the early period of Turkish Republic. How to defend Turkey and save it from aggression has been the main objective of the ruling elite.[20] The aim was to create a strong and stable Turkish nation within permanent boundaries. Turkey learnt a great deal from involving in the unnecessary conflict as World War I and remained aloof of war during the Atatürk period. In the minds of the Republican elites, conflict meant reoccupation and further dissection of country. For a country with an imperial past, Turkey became too peaceful a nation state that it abandoned its expansionary aims. Instead of becoming a party to the international conflict that took place in very close vicinity of Turkey, the Republican elites retained their neutrality as per the famous dictum of Atatürk: “Peace at home, peace in the world.” Thus, the spotlight was put on the domestic affairs and counter-insurgency instead of international conflicts. It was the demand of territory by the British and the Russians that made Turkey to abandon its claims over Mosul and join the ‘Free World’ respectively. In short, Republican elites tried to win the territories defined as well as made sure that the territorial integrity of Turkey remains intact.

Self-Reliance / Independence:

            Ottoman Empire went prone to continuous direct and indirect intervention by global powers due to various political conflicts with rival state like Russia. Moreover, its dependence on foreign capital left it vulnerable to the exploitation of trading nations.[21] The powers were granted extra-territorial rights/capitulations and were often seen as allies of the Empire. Yet, they were the cause of hostilities against empire and led to its dissection. This situation induced a bitter and dismal psyche among the intelligentsia of the Empire. Most of these people would later became the ruling elites of the nascent Republic and became fixated at their economic and political independence from the foreign influence. Amid this process, the elites saw non-Muslim minorities as the major mean of intervention in the affairs of the state, because they had been used in the past by the foreign powers to blackmail the Ottoman Empire.[22] As a response, the Republican elites tried to eradicate the non-Muslim minorities from their territories, however, the Treaty of Lausanne obliged them to granted special rights to them. Atatürk and his colleagues could not digest this decision of the Allies powers and perceived it as a probable intervention. However, they initiated various indirect mechanisms to get rid of those ‘undesired elements’. First among them is the population exchange that has been discussed above briefly. Secondly, the imposition of Varlık Vergisi bankrupted most of them and forced them to migrate from the Turkish soil. Some were even put in work camps based on Nazi model.[23] Moreover, the non-Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire prospered in trade and industry due to the favorable circumstances of the time – an attribute that would cost them everything in Republican times.

            The Republican elites were quite aware of the fact that a healthy economy was invaluable input during the process of modernization aimed at compete-ing with European nations. Thus, after the establishment of the Republic, there was a strong need of a bourgeoisie class that is loyal to the Republic. This started the coordinated effort to produce Muslim and Turk capitalist class under the statist policies endorsed by Atatürk for quite a long period of time. The displacement of minorities provided space for so-called loyal citizens to invest and prosper. Thus, the secular ruling elites consciously carried out the Muslimificaiton of the economy. It is also worth mentioning that Turkey had always remained skeptical of the Western powers and sought not to depend on their assistance for the defense of its territories. In fact, Turkish Army prepared to fight any probable aggression on its soil alone until 1937.[24] This included expansion in the size and resources of the military to prepare it to operate in land, and if necessary, in the neighboring region. Things, however, changed during the WWII and subsequently in the Cold War. As a result, a very insignificant number of non-Muslim minority groups are present in modern Turkey, thanks to the policies adopted by Atatürk and his colleagues.

References & Footnotes


[1] (Kösebalaban, Ottoman Origins of Turkish Identity Discourses, 2011, p. 33)

[2] (Ahmad, 1996, p. 245)

[3] (Ahmad, 1996, p. 250)

[4] (Kösebalaban, Kemalist Nationalism and Foreign Policy Isolationism (1923–1950), 2011, pp. 50,51)

[5] (Aydin, 1999, p. 171)

[6] (Kösebalaban, Kemalist Nationalism and Foreign Policy Isolationism (1923–1950), 2011, p. 59)

[7] (Millman, 1995, p. 485)

[8] (Ahmad, 1996, p. 17)

[9] (Millman, 1995, p. 486)

[10] (Ahmad, 1996, p. 21)

[11] (Ahmad, 1996, p. 16)

[12] (Kösebalaban, Kemalist Nationalism and Foreign Policy Isolationism (1923–1950), 2011, p. 50)

[13] (Aydin, 1999, p. 158)

[14] (Kösebalaban, Kemalist Nationalism and Foreign Policy Isolationism (1923–1950), 2011, p. 56)

[15] (Kösebalaban, Kemalist Nationalism and Foreign Policy Isolationism (1923–1950), 2011, p. 57)

[16] (Kösebalaban, Kemalist Nationalism and Foreign Policy Isolationism (1923–1950), 2011, p. 56)

[17] (Kösebalaban, Kemalist Nationalism and Foreign Policy Isolationism (1923–1950), 2011, p. 47)

[18] (Kösebalaban, Kemalist Nationalism and Foreign Policy Isolationism (1923–1950), 2011, p. 58)

[19] (Kösebalaban, Kemalist Nationalism and Foreign Policy Isolationism (1923–1950), 2011, p. 59)

[20] (Ahmad, 1996, p. 244)

[21] (Hale, 2002, p. 6)

[22] (Aydin, 1999, p. 163)

[23] (Kösebalaban, Kemalist Nationalism and Foreign Policy Isolationism (1923–1950), 2011, p. 52)

[24] (Millman, 1995, p. 492)


Ahmad, F. (1996). The Historical Background of Turkey’s Foreign Policy. Middle Eastern Studies, 2(4), 302-329.

Aydin, M. (1999). Determinants of Turkish foreign policy: Historical framework and traditional inputs. Middle Eastern Studies, 35(4), 152-186.

Hale, W. (2002). Turkish foreign policy, 1774-2000. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Inalcik, H. (1996). The Meaning of Legacy: The Ottoman Case. In Imperial Legacy: The Ottoman Imprint on the Balkans and the Middle East. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kösebalaban, H. (2011). Kemalist Nationalism and Foreign Policy Isolationism (1923–1950). Turkish Foreign Policy, 47-68.

Kösebalaban, H. (2011). Ottoman Origins of Turkish Identity Discourses. Turkish Foreign Policy, 25-46.

Millman, B. (1995). Turkish foreign and strategic policy 1934–42. Middle Eastern Studies, 31(3), 483-508.

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