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Paper presented in Panel Discussion on "Atatürk's View of Popular Sovereignty and Current Turkish Political Reality", organized by



Library of Congress,

James Madison Building, Mary Pickford Theater



NOVEMBER 24, 1998





The Ottoman Empire collapsed not as a result of the First World War, but she was defeated in the War because she has had already lost its economic and financial independence in 1881, when the Administration of the General Debts was established by the Western Powers to collect the debts of the Empire.

Even the year of 1881 was an outcome of the decline process, rather than a symbol of the beginning of decline.

Actually, the Empire started to decline, when Mehmet the Conqueror> took İstanbul, in 1453.

Dialectically, the seizure of İstanbul and the Ottoman domination in Mediterranean and over the silk road which followed the fall of the Byzantium Empire, forced Europeans to sail to the Ocean to a fresh start which in turn, produced new roads for trade and commerce, and which brought the wealth of the "New World" to Europe, causing inflation which undermined the strictly controlled Ottoman economy (Barkan, 1964: 20-21).

During this period of time which lasted three centuries between the fall of the Byzantium Empire and the French Revolution, the decline of the Empire has gained momentum, while the European Enlightenment and Industrialization processes opened the doors of a new era.

Thus, the Ottomans missing both the Enlightenment and the Industrialization, remained as a feudal cosmopolitan agricultural Empire in front of the industrialized nation-states of Europe.

This historical fact was the main reason behind the collapse.

The new Turkish Republic which was established over the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, has had inherited not only the social and cultural traditions of the Empire but the economic structure as well.

So, the difficult task in front of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was to establish a contemporary nation-state without its roots over enlightenment and industrialization.

Actually, this mere fact that the Empire has had no meaningful industry in terms of capitalist development, made the War of Independence a miraculous phenomenon.

Defeated and seized by the Victorious Powers of the World War I, occupied by the fresh Greek forces from the West and Armenians from the East, and torn apart by the rebels who were faithful to the Caliph-Sultan, people of Anatolia under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal really fought a miraculous war, not only because of the situation described above, but also because of the non-existence of the industry which should back such a war.

The second phase of the "Liberation", namely foundation of a nation-state out of the remnants of an agricultural Empire was even more difficult because of the very same reason: There was no industry (capitalist development) (Hale, 1981: 35-39) which produced the basic notions leading to a contemporary nation-state, such as nationalism, secularism, trade-unionism, universal suffrage, etc.




The Ottomans perceived the decline through loosing wars and hence loosing land and revenue.

Thus in order to halt this process of decline, they started to look for remedies in the area of military, especially the army as a body to be reformed after the Western model.

They abolished the Jainsseries as a first step and in time formed Harbiye (The Military School) in which they aimed to train "modern" officers for a "modern" army (Kongar, 1998b: 64-69).

Since the main reason behind the foundation of Harbiye was to "save the Empire", all the military students were educated to find remedies for a feudal Empire which was falling apart.

The roots of so called "Westernization" of the Empire thus lie with the "military reform" which came to the fore to stop the decline (Karpat, 1972).

Since reforming the army after the Western model, brought enlightenment and industrialization of the West to the fore, the Sultanate-Caliphate was started to be seen as an obstacle to "modernization", an institution which has not been undermined by the economic development, namely, industrialization.

So, the philosophical roots of democracy, namely the sovereignty of the people lie not with class developments based on economic progress, but stemmed from the ideological commitment for the Western civilization to save the Empire.

Thus both Tanzimat, the declaration of civil rights to all the citizens of the Empire regardless of race and religion, and First and Second Constitutions in 1876 and 1908 respectively, were the ideological and political cornerstones in this process of so called "Westernization" or "democratization" of the regime.




For Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, "sovereignty of the people" had two meanings.

First of all, it meant "unconditional independence".

Second, it meant, deposition of the Sultan-Caliph and formation of a Republic (a nation-state), instead of a medieval agricultural Empire based on the power of land ownership, tradition and religion.

Unconditional national independence meant of course, independent of Western powers which had colonized the Empire and occupied it as a last step, after the War.

Formation of a Republic meant to establish a nation-state without its economic, social, cultural and political roots.

Thus, as fighting the War of Liberation against the enemy, he was also forming the structure of the new state, namely "The Republic" (Kongar, 1998a, 231-273).

He has secretly said to one of his closest friends Mazhar Müfit Kansu, as early as 1919, that an independent Republic was his ultimate goal (Kansu, 1966, 132).

For Mustafa Kemal the real liberation of the Country in the long term can only be achieved through joining the contemporary civilization.

Thus the formation of the Republic was only a start to catch up with the Western Powers.




During the War of Liberation Mustafa Kemal has had always worked with representative bodies such as the Erzurum Congress, the Sivas Congress, and the Grand National Assembly.

It was not an easy task for him since the representative bodies were full of people who support the Caliph, who were against his personal powers and seeking mandate from the United States.

There were even times that he and the Assembly were confronted to each other regarding his powers as the General Commander (UNESCO, 1963: 98), but he has never thought of dissolving it, since he had belief in this representative structure which was needed as an indispensable body for the Republic.

Again, his statement in the joint commission formed by the Grand National Assembly which was convened to discuss the abolishment of the Ottoman Sultanate on 1st of November 1922, shows his approach to the concept of "sovereignty of the people":

Mustafa Kemal was following the Committee's deliberations from a corner of the hall. Some of the deputies were making arguments that the office of the Sultan can not be separated from the office of the Caliph, and thus it is not possible to abolish it.

It was then, Mustafa Kemal got up on a chair and said loudly:

"Sovereignty and the office of Sultan have never been granted through a debate or a discussion on academic grounds. Sovereignty and the office of Sultan are won by force, by power and violence. It was by violence that the Ottoman dynasty had grasped sovereign and royal prerogatives over Turkish nation. They have maintained their forcible dominion for six centuries. Today the Turkish nation has cried halt to the transgressors and, by an act of rebellion, has repossessed itself of its sovereign and royal prerogatives. This is an accomplished fact. The subject under discussion in not whether or not we are to allow the nation to keep these sovereign and royal prerogatives. What we are discussing is simply whether to give expression to a reality which has already become an accomplished fact. This will be done in any case. If those assembled here, if the Assembly, if all of us see the question in its natural light, I think we shall arrive at the right conclusion. But even if we do not, reality will still find its proper expression in its own way. Only then, some heads may fall". (UNESCO, 1963:128-129).

He was a revolutionary using revolutionary methods for a democratic Republic.

He was a modernist, fighting against the Western powers for the national independence to form a western nation-state.

Since the social, economic and cultural structures of the Empire have not allowed industrial development and social transformation, there was neither modern classes nor enough political popular support for his modern state.

Thus he has to introduce all his reforms from top to down.

All the cultural and political outcomes of industrialization which lie at the roots of a modern-state were introduced through Republican revolutionaries to form such a state.

In this sense there were two paradoxical statements are necessary at this point:

First he has fought an anti-imperialist war against the Western Powers to establish a Western Sate.

Second, he imposed cultural, social, political and economic reforms through non-democratic methods to develop a democratic Republic.

His aim was to form a democratic Republic, since it was the political structure of the "modern world".

His motto, "science is the only real leader in life" was the symbol of this belief.

He has unsuccessfully tried to form a multiparty system during his lifetime.

Since the social and economic structure was not ripe enough for such experience, it turned out to be a failure, because it started to threaten the main principles of the Republic, especially secularism.

His main dedication to democracy was revealed when he said:

"Republic means democratic administration of the state. We founded Republic, reaching its tenth year it should enforce all the requirements of democracy as the time comes." (Afetinan, 1968: 260).




Atatürk has established and preserve the Assembly in the most inconvenient circumstances.

This has two conclusions:

First, it is not possible to use "Kemalist ideology" as the reason for any coup d'etat which does away with the parliament.

Second, the present problems of the Turkish democracy are not stemming from the Kemalist Revolution, on the contrary, they were created by the politicians who deviated from the ideal of a Democratic Republic, human rights and secularism being the main pillars of it.





Afet İnan, 1968, Atatürk Hakkında Hatıralar ve Belgeler, Ankara, Türkiye İş Bankası Yayınları.

Barkan, Ömer Lütfi, 1964, "The Social Consequences of Economic Crisis in Later Sixteenth Century Turkey", Social Aspects of Economic Development, İstanbul, Economic and Social Studies Conference Board.

Hale, William, 1981, The Political and Economic Development of Modern Turkey, London, Croom Helm Ltd.

Kansu, Mazhar Müfit, 1966, Erzurum'dan Ölümüne Kadar Atatürk'le Beraber, (Accompanying Atatürk, From Erzurum to His Death), Cilt I, Ankara, Türk Tarih Kurumu.

Karpat, Kemal H., 1972, "The Transformation of the Ottoman State, 1789-1908", International Journal of Middle East Studies, no.3.

Kongar Emre, 1998a, Devrim Tarihi ve Toplumbilim Açısından Atatürk, (3. basım) (Atatürk, from the Viewpoint of History of Revolution and Sociology, 3rd edition), İstanbul, Remzi Kitabevi.

Kongar, Emre, 1998b,21. Yüzyılda Türkiye, (12. basım) (Turkey in the 21st Century, 12th edition), İstanbul, Remzi Kitabevi.

UNESCO, 1963, ATATÜRK, Turkish National Commission for UNESCO.

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