Eternal Dawn: A more murky version of the origin story of Turkey

Luke Frostick writes: The origin story of the Republic of Turkey is well known. Out of the battered husk of the Ottoman Empire, the brilliant general Mustafa Kemal forges a new Turkish nation with republican, secular and modernist ideas at its core. Ryan Gingeras' new book Eternal Dawn tells a more confusing, murky and interesting version of this history.

Luke Frostick

The origin story of the Republic of Turkey is well known. Out of the battered husk of the Ottoman Empire, the brilliant general Mustafa Kemal forges a new Turkish nation with republican, secular and modernist ideas at its core. Ryan Gingeras' new book Eternal Dawn tells a more confusing, murky and interesting version of this history. 

The rise of the Turkish nation state out of the Ottoman Empire is sometimes spoken of as if it were somehow preordained. That view is very far from the truth. In the aftermath of World War I, large chunks of Anatolia were up for grabs for the colonial powers. Turkish, Greek, Armenian and even Circassian nationalists saw the opportunity to carve new ethno-states for themselves. There was even the possibility that the empire might endure in some form or another. Could a pan-Turkic alliance be forged? Was there to be a republic or a dictatorship? What role was religion going to play in a new nation? All those possibilities and questions created a situation that was rife with disorder, a melting pot where all sorts of ideas and characters interacted with each other in surprising and intriguing ways.

Gingeras chooses to tell the story of the transition by looking at figures that played a part in it. Some were at the center of the new republic like Ahmet Ağaoğlu, while some were part of the old CUP and couldn’t adapt to the new system, like Mehmet Cavid. There were also those forced into exile, like Çerkes Ethem, and other political outliers such as Kurdish nationalist Musa Anter. By focusing on the individuals that were both central and peripheral to the transition from empire to republic, the book clearly shows the chaotic nature of the transition and an environment in which ideological, political and personal rivalries and alliances shaped the transformation.

Of course, at the center of this change, from empire to republic, is Mustafa Kemal. However, by telling the story through a large cast of characters, the book dispels some of the mythology surrounding the Gazi. It doesn’t minimize the role of Mustafa Kemal but shows that the decisions, polices and ideas were more collective in nature, as the transition from the empire to the republic consisted of the work of many people. What is fascinating is that the range of people around Mustafa Kemal was a real mix, from extremely cerebral theorists to thugs. These people also fell in and out of the Gazi’s graces. Gingeras devotes a lot of the book to tracing the impact that these varied figures had on the transformation.

The book also works to dismiss the notion that the transfer from the Ottoman State to the republic was an ideologically consistent project. It shows that some of the core concepts of Kemalism that in many people’s minds were fixtures from the beginning, such as a commitment to secularism and even to republicanism, developed over time. It was only after these ideas are adopted that people within the republic claimed that they had always been their values. For example, it was and is claimed that Mustafa Kemal had always envisioned a republic growing out of the Independence War, but had kept quiet about this idea in earlier years for fear of retaliation. However, there is little evidence to show that a republic was Mustafa Kemal’s aim from the beginning. The book shows Mustafa Kemal as more focused, at least to start with, on power than other issues. The author notes the similarities between and the inspiration taken from the fascist and communist dictators of the 20th century.

It would be inaccurate, however, to say that Mustafa Kemal was only interested in the acquisition and maintenance of power. He was involved in the reformation of Turkey throughout his life. Moreover, the book shows that in his later years, as drinking and ill health started to take a toll on Mustafa Kemal, he stepped aside from a lot of the practical aspects of governance, choosing to focus on the academic Turkish History Thesis (Türk Tarih Tezi), and the pseudoscientific Sun Language Theory. The author demonstrates that in his later years, the Gazi only really engaged with practical matters of state when they intersected with his academic work. These included the discussions around the annexation of Hatay. For the most part, the day-to-day running of the country was left to others. 

The book is also clear-sighted about the impacts of the reforms that define the era and speed at which they happened. Some of the changes Mustafa Kemal and the people around him wanted to implement were high-minded and had good intentions. Some were positive. Others, meanwhile, like the changes to the language, would prove to be damaging to the culture, and some others spawned unintended consequences. For example, reforms to women’s clothing meant that shortly after, they had to implement legislation to clamp down on cat-calling and harassment. Some ended up being comically pointless. For instance, following the surname reforms, some members of the population simply forgot their surnames after they were issued. Many also often proved unimplementable. With a geographically large country and small, impoverished state, some reforms, though lofty in theory, existed only on paper. Moreover, the reforms were top-down and didn’t take into account the vast diversity within the Turkish population. Pertinently, the book points out that a culture of censorship and post-Atatürk mythologizing makes it hard to gauge what a lot of people actually thought about the changes Ankara was making to their lives.

Although some of the reforms were high-minded and were designed to improve a country that was wracked with famine, illiteracy and poverty, others were not. This is particularly true of the population engineering and nationalizing project. Refugees and Muslims displaced by the population exchange had a hard time when they were transported to Turkey, mostly out of incompetence and limited resources rather than malice. However, the treatment of the Armenian, Jewish, Greek and Kurdish population was notably crueler. The basic understanding that the new Turkey should be built with a Turkish Muslim identity at its heart and the idea that these groups represented an existential threat to the nation led to a real intolerance of ethnic minorities. This in turn caused the government to take steps like the banning of the Kurdish language and orchestrating the massacre at Dersim, events with consequences Turkey is still dealing with today.

There is a lot more that could be said about Eternal Dawn, which has so many fascinating details that there is simply not space to go into in this review. Overall, the book is a clear-sighted look into the transition between Empire and Republic that dives into the nuances and mucky details that make this such an interesting period in Turkish and indeed world history.