FOLDED CORNER > 'The Making of Modern Turkey' by Uğur Ümit Üngör

William Armstrong - william.armstrong@hdn.com.tr

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‘The Making of Modern Turkey: Nation and State in Eastern Anatolia, 1913-1950’ by Uğur Ümit Üngör (Oxford University Press, $45, 336 pages)

The photo on the jacket tells you where the emphasis lies in this book. Uğur Ümit Üngör argues that from 1913 to 1950, ethnically heterogeneous Eastern Anatolia was subjected to violent population policies aimed at transforming it into a completely homogeneous space. Of course, that argument is now well-established, but it's Üngör’s masterly command of the sources - and his marshaling of them to make such a tight argument - that make this book a tour de force. Although the Committee of Union and Progress (Young Turks) officially left power at the end of the First World War, Üngör argues that their ideology remained in power until 1950 – a “nationalist, colonial, totalitarian, and violent dictatorship.” At the sharp end, this meant massacres and deportations on an unprecedented scale, but it also involved myriad cultural and educational social engineering policies. Good things also happened during the early republican years, but Üngör's focus is elsewhere, and he never flinches from giving the grisly details.

The book’s three sections deal with the three major policy areas inspired by Young Turk ideology over the period in question: The massacres of Armenian and Christian minorities in the eastern provinces from 1915-16, the repeated waves of Kurdish deportations as part of state “Turkification” attempts, and the reinforcing cultural measures implemented by the young Turkish republic. Clearly, however, these things didn’t just emerge ex nihilo, so Üngör takes the time to describe the preceding social and political environment in order to frame what later took place. In particular, this means exploring the cataclysmic psychological effect of the Ottoman Empire’s retreat from the Balkans. Üngör diagnoses the expulsion of Ottoman Muslims from the Balkans as leading to feelings of humiliation, helplessness, anger, loss of dignity, lack of self-confidence, anxiety, embarrassment, and shame. Combined with already strident nationalist sentiment, this toxic mix “contributed to the growth of collective hate and destruction fantasies.” As Ottoman leader Enver Pasha would chillingly write to his wife in 1913, with the empire being routed in the Balkan Wars:

If I could tell you the savagery the enemy has inflicted … a stone’s throw from Istanbul, you would understand the things that enter the heads of poor Muslims far away. But our anger is strengthening: revenge, revenge, revenge; there is no other word.

Collective vengeance against Ottoman Christians was consecrated by the idea of the Ottoman-Turkish state as victim, and the personal stories of barbarism brought back by the terrified Muslims fleeing Rumelia. Üngör’s book centers on Diyarbakır, far away from the direct heat of the Balkan Wars, but Ottoman revanchism also found fertile ground there. Indeed, a version of the narrative brought back by Balkan refugees could also be heard in the east, where many Muslims had fled massacre in the Caucasus and where Russia was pressing to expand its borders. This lethal cocktail of circumstances prepared the ground for the systematic slaughter and deportation of hundreds of thousands of Armenians and other Christians, which Üngör doesn’t hesitate to describe as genocide, with a capital “G.” In Diyarbakır, the butchery was directed by the borderline-psychotic local mayor, Mehmed Reshid, and the book details the appalling events in the region with methodological, scalpel-like precision, so uncompromising it’s often difficult to read.

Throughout the process of Christian extermination, the Young Turk authorities often relied on local Kurdish notables to do the dirty work. However, the logic of ethnic nationalism meant the Kurds were next in line. Official policies to “landscape the human garden” involved Kurdish deportations from the southeast, and their replacement by Turks (Albanians and Bosnians). The deportations came in three waves: the first came during the First World War; the second during the brutal crackdown after the Sheikh Said rebellion; and the third in the mid-1930s. The scale was enormous, with hundreds of thousands sent forcibly away from their homes. The aim was complete cultural assimilation, with a 1935 directive stating that Kurds sent west were to be “made Turkish in language, tradition, and desire.” Interior Minister Şükrü Kaya applied a portentous vindication of the government’s policies at the time, in terms that again expressed the traumatic shadow cast by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire:

A nation’s biggest duty is to annex everybody living within its borders to its own community, to assimilate them. The opposite has been seen with us and has dismembered the homeland. If the Ottomans in their early age had converted the population of the places they went, our Danube borders would still begin at the Danube. We have suffered much from this.

Along with the physical effects of massacre and deportation, cultural policies in Eastern Anatolia also targeted complete Turkification. To quote Kaya again, official thinking argued that “If anybody has any difference inside him, we need to erase that in the schools and in the body politic.” The city of Diyarbakır was regarded by the authorities as a kind of missionary center from where “Turkishness” would radiate in the east, and Üngör digs deep into the sources to explain what this meant in practice.

However, despite such rigid and apparently comprehensive attempts at social engineering, state Turkification policies utterly failed. One look at the situation in Turkey’s southeast today is enough to recognize that. As Üngör writes, the Young Turks succumbed to the widespread early 20th century notion that “society, and mankind itself, is completely malleable, that no crumbs of memories remain after shock and trauma, and that people will forget.” These conclusions were based on sociological miscalculations, which brought immense levels of destruction to the east. “The Making of Modern Turkey” is the best account of that grim process that I’ve read.

Notable recent release


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(Naval Institute Press, $35, 256 pages)


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Notice on comments

Kolya Gelsin

12/23/2013 2:04:38 PM

isn't it a simple historical fact that Turkish peoples colonised Anatolia? and the Kurds, Greeks, Armenians and Arabs (amongst others) were these already; accepting this fact might make it a little easier for Turks to understand the feelings of the other peoples of Anatolia; and it's another fact that Turkey's French-inspired policy of assimilating Kurds failed, so it's not strange that the Kurdish population increased - as well of course as the Turkish population

Heitor Loureiro

12/15/2013 3:51:16 PM

Prof. Ungor is a prize-winning scholar and this book is his masterpiece. ‘The Making of Modern Turkey' discuss how the creation of a nation evolves violent process not rarely hidden by the state. This book is essential for all those who study the Middle East.

Rafiki Ubaldo

12/14/2013 5:24:37 PM

It is an encouraging and important sign that Üngör's important book is positively reviewed in an such an established media outlet. This review will certainly contribute to this important debate inside Turkey. Let us hope that readers' commentary will raise to the task of matching the quality of Üngör's work.

Falk Bernard

12/12/2013 12:49:04 AM

3. Although the book contains many references to sources (including mentioned in 2.), Üngör fails to support his main claim: homogenizing Eastern Anatolia. That would mean that Turks wanted to Turkify the non-Turks. But if you look at the census figures of the Kurds between 1911-50, it went from 1,2 mio (Encyclopedia Brittannica) to 4,2 mio. Instead of the expected decline, the figure of Kurds more than tripled! One of the craziest homogenizing project ever undertaken. Summarized: it’s a lie.

Falk Bernard

12/12/2013 12:47:10 AM

2. Because he has a negative attitude against Turks, in his works, they are depicted as bloodthirsty tyrants, murderers, rapists and such. How he supports these qualifications shows his failure as a scientist. Without reservations he uses works of racists like Morgenthau (who described the Turks as “primitive”, “parasites” or “inferior”). Or works of proven swindlers like Lepsius. Even material of the British “Mendacity Bureau” (according renowned historian Toynbee) we find in Üngörs book.

Falk Bernard

12/11/2013 11:54:23 PM

1. Uğur Ümit Üngör is a Kurdish nationalist. From that angle his works can be explained. Regarding Turkish rule of Anatolia, he uses regularly the word “colonization”. That word is often used in PKK circles (compare “French colonization of Bretagne”...) He also hates the Turks. In a Dutch documentary called “Het land van onze grootouders” (“The land of our grandparents“) , a witness mentioned his hate. (The documentary is available on internet. Check 37:00 to verify, in Turkish).


12/11/2013 5:59:34 AM

It is dangerous to judge history from future far from it. Turks did not invent nationalism or nation state, they were mostly victims of these modern notions. Turkification of Asia Minor was preceded with massive expulsion of non-Arab Muslim masses from all over ex-Ottoman lands. Massacres and ethnic cleansing that was going on for decades way before 1913. Indeed, all should be laid bare, all should know what it cost to create a modern nation and democracy out of ashes.
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