From the Sultan to Ataturk: ethnic tensions in Turkey today
It was an ordinary football match in Turkey between Bursaspor, from the northwest of Turkey, and Diyabakirspor, from Diyabakir in the southeast, a city home to over a million Kurds. Tension rose during the game when supporters from the host team Bursaspor brandished Turkish flags and banners calling supporters from the opposite team PKK militants. The match ended with 4 goals and 20 casualties.
This is a current picture of the tension between Turks and Kurds, at a time when the Turkish government intends to restore better ties with its ethnic minorities. Ever since the birth of the new Turkish Republic in 1923, Turkey has been criticised by the international community for the way it has treated its minorities. The most recent and historically relevant criticism is whether a more humanitarian approach could have been adopted towards Ottoman subjects on the way up to the building of new Turkish nation.
Andrew Mango, author of various books on Ataturk and Turkey, seeks to take part in this current debate in his latest book From the Sultan to Ataturk: Turkey. He describes the state of the Ottoman Empire during the negotiations of the Paris Peace Treaties and the ensuing three-year war with Greece. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, Allied Forces gathered in Paris to divide the territory that was known at the time as the ‘Sick Man of Europe’. Anatolia was occupied by Greece and Istanbul was under Allied administration. In 1919, Mustafa Kemal, the founder of modern Turkey, and his friends started the Turkish War of Independence in an attempt to revoke the terms of the Treaty of Sevres. The war ended in July 1923 with the signature of the Treaty of Lausanne.
Mango describes in great detail the fate of the ethnic minorities in Turkey during the war years. The Greek Orthodox population notably fell from 2.5 million in 1914 to 5,000 today. After the last battle in Smyrna (western Turkey) in 1922, 213,000 Greeks, Armenians and other Ottoman subjects were evacuated and replaced with returning Muslim refugees from the Balkans.
According to Andrew Mango’s research, just before the collapse of the Empire, Ottoman officials sought to conclude an armistice with the Allied Forces by using two intermediaries from ethnic minorities. One was the Armenian notable Boghos Nubar Pasha; the other was the secretary to the Greek Patriarchate. However, at the end of the negotiations the Ottomans were left disillusioned as both men pressed for separate states to be carved out of Ottoman territories.
In a speech at his book launch, Mango sought to explain the reasoning behind the decisions taken by Mustafa Kemal and his commanders to extricate Greek and Armenian minorities from Ottoman society.
Mustafa Kemal was clear sighted enough to see that in the division of
spoils the Turks had to fight for their rights. But he was clear sighted enough
also to see that separation did not imply perpetual enmity, that once the Turks
and their erstwhile partners in Ottoman society had regrouped in their separate
national homes, they could and should establish friendly relations across the
In Mango’s words there is also a lesson to be learnt from this episode of Turkish history.
The break up of mixed societies is continuing, bringing with it the tragedy of
ethnic cleansing. The history of the late Ottoman Empire and of modern Turkey
suggests that the best way to avoid the tragedy is to shore up mixed societies
before they break up. The nationally mixed societies of Bosnia could perhaps
have been preserved before hostilities started. Now the best that can be hoped
for is that the national communities having regrouped in their own areas should
learn to live peacefully side by side. Efforts to mixed them up together in the
old pattern are doomed to failure.
Andrew Mango’s book From the Sultan to Ataturk: Turkey is published by Haus Publishing in the Maker’s of the Modern World series.
In Catastrophe at Smyrna , Matthew Stewart traces the roots of the Greco-Turkish war of 1921-22, and the consequent refugee crisis, to the postwar settlements of 1919-20.
For further information on the impact of Kemal Ataturk, read our article Turkey's Fundamental Dilemma
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