Turkey and the West

This past summer I had the pleasure (albeit it was no easy task) of reviewing two thick books of historical counterfactuals.[1] Though considered a disreputable parlor game by most professional historians, contemplation of what might have, could have, and in some cases should have happened at key junctures in the past is often highly illuminating and always highly disturbing. Many historians of Christian, liberal, or Marxist persuasion have made up for history’s lack of a scientific epistemology by imposing a teleology. Whatever happened in the past had to happen the way it did because certain laws or forces were at work to ensure that human society evolved toward some predetermined or retrospectively observable end. But most historians of whatever proclivity suspect, at least in their night thoughts, that human events are subject to wild, inexplicable contingencies to which various cultures give the names luck, fate, karma, destiny, or providence.

What if, for instance, King Charles I had not foolishly overestimated the size of the Scottish militia in 1639 and negotiated a futile “compromise,” instead of pressing on to certain victory? The great English Revolution of the seventeenth century might never have happened, royal absolutism might have triumphed over parliament in Britain as it was doing on the continent, and the United States might not exist today. Likewise if the Spanish Armada had earlier succeeded in subduing England, which by all objective measures it should have. In that case, as on D-Day in June 1944, the vagaries of weather mocked “the best laid schemes of mice and men.” The onset and success of the American Revolution also would never have happened but for one twist of fate after another at critical junctures. Just imagine, for instance, that the redcoat Captain Ferguson, inventor of the first breech-loading rifle, had squeezed off a round when he had General George Washington in his sights at point-blank range near the Brandywine River in 1777. What if Robert E. Lee’s secret orders for the invasion of the North in 1862 had not, by the wildest chance, fallen into the hands of a Union soldier? Instead of being blocked at Antietam, Lee might well have won a stunning success on Northern soil and persuaded the British and French to recognize the Confederacy.

Niall Ferguson, the Oxford historian of World War I, has recently demonstrated how near the British cabinet was to declaring neutrality in August 1914 and has argued that the world would have been better off if it had. One may challenge his supposition that continental domination by militant, imperial Germany would have resulted in nothing more frightening than a premature version of the European Union. But it is hard to imagine a twentieth century worse than the one that did unfold, including a bloody trench war of attrition, the Bolshevik takeover in Russia, the rise of fascism, World War II and the Holocaust, and the Cold War with its threat of nuclear annihilation.

But our subject this issue is Turkey, so let us revisit another famous “what if”: what if Suleyman the Magnificent had been granted the victory he had every reason to expect outside the gates of Vienna in 1529. The story is told by Theodore K. Rabb, a dean of military history in the United States.[2] He begins by asserting that the decade of the 1520s was as “fraught with consequences” as any in history, and demonstrates it by reminding us that Luther’s “Protestant” defiance of pope and emperor, the Turkish sweep into the Balkans, Henry VIII’s break with the papacy and founding of the Anglican Church, the invasion of Italy and sack of Rome by the Holy Roman Emperor (and king of Spain) Charles V, Magellan’s discovery of the Pacific Ocean and his crew’s circumnavigation of the globe, and Cortés’s conquest of Mexico all occurred in one decade. But the great trends to which those events gave rise in religion, culture, science, technology, economics, war, and politics might have been reversed, or played out far differently, if the last summer of the 1520s had not happened to be unusually wet.

The greatest of Ottoman sultans, Suleyman the Magnificent, had resumed the empire’s drive to the north in 1521, capturing Belgrade. After turning aside to the Island of Rhodes to evict the Knights Hospitaler of St. John, he invaded the Magyars’ great kingdom of Hungary. On the fields of Moh cs in 1526, the sultan’s crack janissaries not only defeated but slaughtered (during and after the battle) the entire Magyar elite, including the king, the top aristocracy and knighthood, two archbishops and five bishops, as well as Hungary’s army of thirty thousand. “Thanks to the Most High!” exulted Suleyman. “The banners of Islam have been victorious… . Thus God’s grace has granted my glorious armies a triumph, such as was never equaled by any illustrious Sultan, all-powerful Khan, or even by the companions of the Prophet. What was left of the nation of impious men has been extirpated.” The Ottoman military system, superior cannon and gunpowder, and clever tactical leadership once again proved themselves invincible, and it seemed the entire Danubian plain was destined to fall before this “scourge of God.”

There is no telling what might have happened if Suleyman had resumed the offensive the following spring. Ottoman momentum was never stronger, but the same could be said of Vienna’s defenses inasmuch as the Holy Roman Emperor and some German princes hurriedly deployed their knights and levies to Austria in anticipation of the threat. But Suleyman relaxed after Moh cs, and in the three years that followed Ferdinand of Habsburg (the emperor’s brother) staked his claim to the vacant Hungarian crown of St. Stephen and stood up as the champion of the Christian resistance. The losing claimant to the Hungarian throne, John Zapolya of Transylvania, accordingly offered himself as an ally to Suleyman, whereupon the sultan determined to crush the Habsburgs and conquer the upper Danube once and for all. To that end he marshaled his greatest host yet, numbering 75,000, with many horse and heavy cannons, and moved north from Constantinoplein May 1529.

Winter in the harsh Balkan highlands was over, but the spring rains never ceased. Indeed, “so continuous and torrential” were the storms that raged throughout the summer of 1529 that the Ottomans lost their customary advantage in mobility, had to leave behind their heavy artillery, and allowed the Germans time to reinforce Vienna. The Christian order of battle on September 30, when the Turks finally arrived, thus numbered 23,000, and over a third of those soldiers arrived just a few days before the siege. The campaigning season was already nearing its end, and after four furious assaults failed to breach the defenses Suleyman ordered a general retreat. The Turks torched their own camp, “massacring or burning alive all their prisoners from the Austrian countryside, except those, of both sexes, young enough to qualify for the slave market.”[3]

In 1532 Suleyman advanced once more, but this time Charles V appeared in person and even rallied the German Protestants in exchange for “postponement” of the Catholic-Protestant conflict. Sensing another frustration, the sultan chose to divide Hungary between Ferdinand and Zapolya, and the Ottoman threat to the heart of Europe receded for 150 years. Assume, however, that the summer of 1529 had been normal. How then might history have unfolded? Rabb makes a plausible case that Vienna could not have held out, and that once in possession of the Danubian plain Suleyman would have been approached by a queue of Christian princes seeking to curry his favor. Germany’s Lutherans might well have been first in line, in which case the Catholic cause would have been lost in the mid-1500s, sparing Germany a century of catastrophic warfare.

Or those same princes might have been so terrified by the advance of the Turk that they would have begged, not bargained, for the emperor’s protection on condition that they renounce their flirtation with the “crazy monk” Luther, nipping the Reformation in the bud. The other enemies of the mighty Charles V, including the king of France and the papacy itself, might also have played for a Turkish alliance, in which case the beleaguered emperor would have been in no position to launch his invasion of Italy and the pope would have been free to grant Henry VIII the divorce he desired from Catherine of Aragon (an aunt of Charles V). England might have remained Catholic. And what of the new world? As the editors of both these counterfactual volumes stress, the further one gets from the “what ifs” at hand the more fanciful the “if thens” become. But it would seem to follow that a Habsburg Spain freed of its wars against Protestants in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries might have found better uses for the silver pouring in from its New World empire. Such a Spain might have invested in vigorous new exploration and colonization in Louisiana, Florida, Texas, and California, and so confined the English and French to much smaller portions of North America.

So much for the glory days of the Ottomans. What “what ifs” and “may bes” came into play during the centuries of their decline? The answers then depended mostly on the Europeans, the prey turned predator in the Balkans and Middle East. In the 1820s the Greek war of independence erupted, and the British and French Philhellenes were sympathetic. But the architect of the post-Napoleonic “Vienna System” of 1815, Austria’s foreign minister Klemens von Metternich, turned a cold shoulder to nationalist movements. He realized that once nationalism triumphed in the Ottoman provinces it would inevitably spill over into the Habsburg empire and tear it asunder. The Austrian and Ottoman Empires were long and bitter enemies, but their relationship was symbiotic in that each depended on the other to crush the power of nationalism. The swing vote vis-à-vis Greece, and later vis-à-vis Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia, was Russia’s. What if the tsars and their ministers had loyally seconded Metternich’s conservatism, as their ideological interest would indicate? But instead, in 1827 and in all subsequent Balkan wars, the Russians succumbed to ambition and supported the Orthodox cause, the Pan-Slavic cause, or just the Russian imperial cause in hopes of smashing Ottoman power and seizing Constantinople and the Turkish Straits. The serial Russian intrusions into the Balkans in turn forced the British and French (though rivals themselves in the Levant) to defend their interests and “lifelines” in the eastern Mediterranean, sparking the Crimean War of 1854-56, the dangerous “Eastern Question” crises that followed, and ultimately World War I.

In the latter case, the powers already mentioned were powerfully aided in their mischief by a new player, Germany. After unification of the German states north of Austria, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck devoted himself to keeping peace in the Balkans. They were “not worth the bones of one Pomeranian grenadier,” he famously said, and Germany’s diplomatic position had always been strong thanks to its lack of interest in the fate of Turkey. So he brokered a series of compromises designed to bolster the Austro- Hungarian Empire while letting Turkey-in-Europe dissolve peacefully. Bismarck’s liege, Kaiser Wilhelm I, was content to take his advice, and the imperial heir Frederick was equally prudent in foreign affairs. But Frederick died of cancer in 1888, only months after inheriting the German throne. Leadership passed to the grandson, Wilhelm II, who promptly dismissed Bismarck, charted a “new course” for Germany aiming at world power, and later leaped into the competition for influence in the Ottoman Empire under the slogan “From Berlin to Baghdad.” But what if Frederick had lived out his normal span? What if young Wilhelm II had not been so ambitious and foolish? Germany might never have pushed Austria into war in 1914, which was what forced the British to face the awful choice Ferguson now laments.

Nevertheless, the German threat to the Turkish Straits and the kaiser’s provocative blue-water navy led the British as well to act foolishly. For a century they had shielded the Ottomans from the Russians and French and urged the sultan’s court to modernize and reform. But fearing the Germans, the Liberal cabinet in London made an entente with St. Petersburg in 1907, secretly promising, for the first time in history, to support Russia’s drive toward Constantinople. Thus was the stage set for all the disasters of the twentieth century. When Serbian terrorists agitated to “liberate” Bosnia-Herzegovina from Austria and assassinated the Habsburg heir to the throne in 1914, the Germans fought for Austria’s survival while dreaming their own dreams of Middle Eastern empire, the Russians backed the Serbs while eyeing Constantinople, and the French and British backed the Russians in order to contain Germany.

That war, of course, toppled the German, Austrian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires, with catastrophic political results everywhere— except Turkey! There the war hero and former Young Turk reformer Mustafa Kemal rallied the Anatolian peasants to topple the sultanate and forge a Turkish national state. He did not have to contend with the Ottomans. They had chosen the losing side when they allied with Germany, and their capital, Constantinople, was placed under Allied occupation in 1918. But Kemal did have to contend with the British and French, who imposed the Treaty of Sèvres on the sultan and restored all the “capitulations” the Ottoman Empire had been obliged to make over the course of the previous century. Chief among them were loss of sovereignty over the straits and foreign trade, and the granting of special rights for foreigners and ethnic and religious minorities in the empire. But after the Great War’s bloodletting the Allies did not have the stomach to enforce the Treaty of Sèvres on Kemal’s nationalists in the interior, so Prime Minister David Lloyd George committed another British folly: he unleashed the Greeks.

Full of hatred for their old Turkish oppressors and flushed with ambition now that the sultan was captive, the Greek government offered to send an army deep into Anatolia, suppress the Turkish nationalists, and carve out a pro-Allied Greater Greece on the far side of the Aegean Sea. For a while the Greek army advanced almost unopposed, but in August 1922 the Turkish army routed the invaders and chased them all the way back to Smyrna (Izmir). Frantic Greek soldiers and residents fled by sea under cover of the Royal Navy, while the French, facing reality, withdrew their occupation force from the straits. The following year, after long negotiations in the Swiss Alps, the powers concluded the Treaty of Lausanne with Kemal’s new regime in which the Turks gave guarantees that European interests and transit rights in the straits would be respected in peacetime and the Europeans recognized the new Turkish national state with its capital at Angora (Ankara). Kemal Atatürk, as he now called himself, then set out to separate the state from Islamic religion, liberate women, define Turkish citizenship by residence rather than ethnicity, Westernize the legal system, promote economic development, and pursue peaceful relations with all of its neighbors.

So it was that the Turks first terrorized Europe, after which Europe bullied the Turks, after which Turks and Europeans alike sought mutual respect. Even Hitler and Stalin thought better of challenging Turkish neutrality during World War II, and one would expect that present relations between Turkey and the West would be exceptionally warm given that Turkey stood up to the Soviet Union in the late 1940s, supported with blood the United Nations war effort in Korea, held down NATO’s southeastern flank throughout the Cold War, made serious sacrifices to support the Gulf War, cracked down on political Islam inside Turkey, and now offers a rare hand of friendship to Israel. One would expect that, but one would be mistaken.

Today’s champions of Kemal’s secular nationalist vision of a modern, Westernized Turkey still govern in Ankara, still outdo most other non-European regimes in their commitment to international standards of human rights and democracy, and indeed aspire to membership in the European Union. Turkey, once the scourge or plaything of Europe, wants to join it. But now that Turkish political reform (the dream of every Victorian Englishman) and Turkish economic progress (the fantasy of every nineteenth-century French technocrat) are close to realization, the Europeans are determined to bar the door. They scrutinize Turkey closely in search of violations and irregularities that can serve as pretexts for postponing indefinitely Turkey’s acceptance within the EU. They fret over the anomaly that the Turkish army has intervened several times to insure the survival of secular, modern government in the face of “democratic” forces pressing for an Islamic state. They scold the Turks for alleged persecution of the Kurdish minority notwithstanding the fact that Ankara targets only separatists and terrorists (supported by Iraq and Iran) and upholds a definition of citizenship as blind to ethnicity as that of the United States. Hence one scholar concludes that Turkey seems “doomed to remain on the fringes of Europe in the post-cold war period” and that the chances of Turkey’s being “accepted as a European country appear quite remote.” German foreign minister Klaus Kinkel was so undiplomatic as to announce in 1997 that “it is clear that Turkey will not become a member of the European Union in the foreseeable future.”[4]

Clearly, the materialist, post-Christian Europe of the twenty-first century cannot object to Turkey on the grounds that most of its people are Muslim. Clearly, the West, which proclaims its ideals and principles of human rights to be universally valid and insists that all the world adhere to them, cannot pretend that Turks are somehow incapable of “civilized” governance. Why then the resistance to a closer Euro-Turkish relationship? The real answers will not appear in the speeches of European politicians or the earnest reports of EU committees. But they nonetheless scream from the headlines in newspapers and the numbers in almanacs. The headlines tell of an increase in racially motivated violence across Europe, nativist parties in France, skinheads in Germany, anti-immigration sentiment in Austria, panic in Italy over its naked coastlines and in Spain over the ease of transit across the Straits of Gibraltar. This was no doubt part of the motivation behind the EU’s sanctions against Austria following the success of the nativist Freedom Party, whose leader, Jörg Haider, occasionally sounds sympathetic to the Nazis. Accordingly, the German government registers all organizations and persons deemed to be “neo-Nazi” (by its own definition, presumably), and German banks and businesses, concerned for their images, are now refusing to traffic with such parties. But cracking down on overt racism toward non-Europeans in Europe is only half of the EU’s policy: the other is to minimize the source of resentment by restricting the influx of immigrants, refugees, and guest workers, most of whom originate in-Turkey.

That brings us to the statistics. Turkey currently has an estimated population of 66 million. France, by contrast, has 59 million. About 30 percent of Turks are under the age of 15 and only 6 percent are over 65. In France, only 18 percent are under 15 and 16 percent are over 65. Moreover, Turkey’s population continues to grow at a rate of 2 to 3 percent per annum and may reach 95 million by the year 2025. Most Europeans of Caucasian descent are experiencing zero, or even negative, population growth. Finally, Turkey’s area of 300,870 square miles is larger than that of any EU state (France covers 209,970 square miles). In sum, Turkey would not just be an ancillary member of the EU and a trophy for the West’s campaign for “enlargement.” It would be one of the loudest voices in European councils, flood the continent with workers, and become by far the largest recipient of EU subsidies for members with lower per capita national incomes. Turkey is Europe’s Mexico.

One would understand perfectly should the Europeans decide to fill the moat around their elegant castle and pull up the drawbridge. But so long as they proclaim themselves the legislators, judges, and executors of universal doctrines of human rights while at the same time telling the Turks that nothing they do will ever be good enough, then Western hypocrisy will become more grating, and the heirs to Atatürk will find it harder and harder to answer the protests of anti-Western Islamists. And should Turkey someday suffer an Iranian-style revolution, turn militant and pan-Turkic in the Ottoman mode, or become so demoralized that the nation cracks up, Europeans (and Americans) will again inherit a passel of trouble and historians will again be left to speculate about the consequences of decisions not made.

Curiously, the conundrum Turkey faces today was present at the creation of the state in 1923, as the famous historian Arnold J. Toynbee observed at the time. Assessing the establishment of European relations with the new nationalist Turkey he wrote: “The Treaty of Lausanne will be judged in history by its effect upon the internal development and the mutual relations of the nations between whom it has been made.” He noted that the European powers raised far more impediments to peace than did the Turks, whose envoy at Lausanne, Ismet Pasha, proved to be as skilled in diplomacy as Kemal was at war. But “the real struggle of wills” would begin when Turkey has started to put her own house in order. She cannot reconstruct her economic life without borrowing fresh capital and technique from the west … [but] if western enterprise is alarmed and outraged by Turkey’s new policy toward foreigners (whether theoretically legitimate or not) beyond a certain degree, it will boycott Turkey and prefer to invest its energies in China, Mexico or any other field where the risks and difficulties are only slightly less great than in the dominions of Angora. Will Nationalist Turkey pay the price at which alone such assistance will be forthcoming? She has suffered so much during the last century and a half from the abuse of special privileges by foreign interests and residents… . It is conceivable that she might sacrifice her economic recovery to her political principles and might sink to the economic level of Afghanistan.

And so to Toynbee’s conclusion: “The west has, in fact, inspired the oriental peoples with the two ideals of economic progress and political sovereignty, which (whatever their relationship in their place of origin) are incompatible if pushed to extremes in undeveloped non-western countries which have taken them at second hand. Turkey’s present programmes of sovereignty and progress can hardly both be realized to the full, but it is unlikely that either will be pushed to the wall by the other… . Theoretical sovereignty, after all, is a somewhat negative blessing.”[5] Since World War II, Europeans themselves have finally learned that lesson. The Turks are proving that non-Europeans, even Muslims, can too. But it seems they will never receive their diploma.

[1] Niall Ferguson, ed., Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (New York: Basic Books, 1999); and Robert Cowley, ed., What If? The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1999).

[2] In What If? pp. 107-18.

[3] Lord John P. D. B. Kinross, The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire (New York: Morrow Quill, 1977), p. 192.

[4] Yasemin Çelik, Contemporary Turkish Foreign Policy (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1999), p. 116. The dilemma of modern Turkey was revealed as early as 1930, when Atatürk was “sufficiently disturbed by the absence of a parliamentary opposition to ask an old associate, Fethi Bey (Okyar), to found an opposition party … which would offer constructive criticism and perhaps occasionally check the government’s absolute power, while Atatürk’s own Republican People’s Party ruled. The experiment failed, however. Okyar’s Free Republican Party quickly became a platform for various disaffected elements-including political and religious conservatives opposed to the government’s westernizing and secularizing reforms, and economic liberals anxious to protect the primacy of private enterprise in the face of growing state interventionism. This was more than the government had bargained for, and it quickly moved to quash the opposition.” Irvin C. Schick and Ertugral Ahmet Tonak, eds., Turkey in Transition: New Perspectives (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp374-75.

[5] Arnold J. Toynbee, “The East after Lausanne,” Foreign Affairs, Sept. 1923, pp. 84-98 (quotes pp. 87, 95-97).

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