A Legal Assessment of Transition
From the Ottoman to the Turkish State
(On the occasion of its centenary)
Final events that led to the demise of the Ottoman state and the rise of the modern Turkish state are specific to its own case, as is the case for every fundamental change of political systems and organizations. Consequentially, they may be subject to different political or legal interpretations. A condensed legal assessment of the Turkish transition may be as follows.
The Ottoman state was successful for about three hundred years from its inception in the 13th century until the middle of the 16th, when the European states were in the darkness of the Middle ages. With the assumption of Caliphate by the Ottoman ruler in 1542, the restrictions of the Muslim religion versus the opening of the Christian religion to worldly advancement caused Ottomans to fall behind progress. In the late 18th century Ottoman state became the “sick man of Europe”, hence the international political playing field, either by Russia for territorial aspirations using the pretext of protection of Christian population within the Ottoman Empire, or by the European colonialists for economic gains. As part of this power struggle between eastern and western powers, western European powers nudged several times the Ottomans during the 19th century to modernize their state system to ward off Russian interventions. Sultan finally agreed in 1876 to a Constitution of Parliamentary monarchy. However, having reserved in the Constitution the ultimate authority to himself he suspended the Parliament after a mere eleven months of its existence. He agreed to convene it again only in 1908 under pressure from the military officers inclined to modernization.
Therefore, we can say that the parliamentary system in the Ottoman political life existed for all practical purposes as of 1908. However, the Parliament’s work was interrupted and preoccupied with the intervening war with Italy over Libya in 1911 and 1912, Balkan wars over the Western Thrace in 1912 and 1913, then WWI from 1914 to 1918, and finally because of the relentless intrusion of the occupying WWI Allied forces from 1919 to 1920. It did not achieve anything to improve the political or social life of the country.
That Parliament’s naïve participation in WWI as a result of a ploy by Germany led the Ottoman state to a disastrous ending not only of the war but also of the state. The Ottoman Government agreed to the armistice of Mudros in 1918. This is the event that started the long struggle, from1918 to 1923, towards change of the Turkish political system from Sultanate/Caliphate to Republic.
A comparison of the provisions of Armistice agreements signed by the warring parties in 1918 reveals an obvious bias by one victorious Allied power (Britain) against Ottomans, which sparked the long-simmering anti-autocracy action among the Ottoman military and anti-foreign occupation feelings among both the public and the military. As may be seen from the comparative provisions highlighted above in yellow there is no occupation by Allies in Bulgaria and Austria, and there is occupation of only some defined territories in Germany. In contrast, there is the right to occupy any strategic point in Turkey. Also, there is the surrender of defined war materiel (highlighted in purple) in the armistice signed with other vanquished powers, but with Ottomans the agreement provides “compliance with such orders as may be conveyed”.
- Mudros armistice of 30 October 1918 provisions with Ottomans were drawn by Britain, and contained the following differences from the armistice agreements signed by other states who surrendered to Allied powers: Allies have “the right to occupy any strategic point” (Art. 7, without providing a definition to the term Strategic point, or who and how would determine it), “control” of all railways (Art. 15), “compliance with such orders as may be conveyed (by Allied powers) for the disposal of equipment, arms, ammunition”, and transport (Art. 20), and Turkish prisoners to be kept “at the disposal of Allied” powers (Art. 22).
The Peace Treaty (ending the Armistice) of Lausanne was signed on 24 July 1923 by the National Assembly, four years and nine months after the Armistice, after the victory of a nation in a three-year-war against the occupying powers. Lausanne treaty was a victory of a nation vanquished in the World War but victorious against the same powers in a liberation war.
- Salonica armistice of 30 September 1918 provisions with Bulgaria were drawn by France, and contained the following: Bulgaria will evacuate all Greek territory it occupied; it will continue to administer all territory in Bulgaria; demobilize army, except a force to maintain order; deliver all arms, ammunition and horses to Allied powers; permit passage of Allied troops through Bulgaria.
The Peace Treaty (ending the Armistice) of Neuilly was signed on 27 November 1919, within two months of the Armistice.
- Villa Giusti armistice of 3 November 1918 provisions with Austria were drawn by Italy in consultation with other allied powers, and contained the following: cessation of hostilities; demobilization and immediate withdrawal of Austrian forces from occupied territories; Austrian forces to be “reduced to pre-war strength”; half of Austrian “artillery” to be “ concentrated within localities to be designated by the Allies”; evacuation of German troops within 15 days; freedom of movement for “Allied armies”; surrender by Austria all subs and navy ships.
The Peace Treaty (ending the Armistice) of St. Germain was signed on 10 September 1919, eleven months after the Armistice.
- Compiègne armistice of 11 November 1918 provisions with Germany were drawn by France, and contained the following: cessation of hostilities; immediate German evacuation of all territories occupied; evacuation by Germany of Rhine lands; occupation of the same territories by Allies; surrender of a detailed list of materiel to Allies; detailed conditions on the use of communications, railways, etc. by Germans; the upkeep of occupying Allied troops at the cost of Germany; reparations for damages and restitution of gold and cash taken by Germany during the war; prescribed limitations on German navy.
The Peace Treaty (ending the Armistice) of Versailles was signed on 28 June 1919, within seven months of the Armistice.
It is also noteworthy that while the armistice with Bulgaria and Germany were signed by the Chief Commander of Allied forces, or by France, and the one with Austria by the Italian High Commander in consultation with other Allies, only the armistice with Ottomans was signed by a British local Commander without consultation with other Allies (which in fact caused protests from France and Italy). Over-the-top British actions following the armistice based on its vague provisions, despite the French and Italian warnings, gave way to the Turkish independence war.
Allied forces occupied Istanbul on May 15, 1918 and started intervening in the Ottoman administration’s daily decisions, especially those regarding the Liberation movement in Anatolia under the leadership of Atatürk. They occupied the Ottoman Parliament on March 16, 1920, on the premise that it was not willing or was incapable of stopping the Liberation movement. This action conveniently gave Atatürk a legal ground to call, three days later, on March 19, a National Assembly to convene in Ankara. The communiqué he issued on that day to all the commanders, officials and the press reflects this conclusion he reached, “Finally, the occupation in Istanbul today brought to an end the seven-hundred-year existence and sovereignty of the Ottoman state. It is clear Turkish nation is called to defend its potential for civilization, its right to exist and to be independent, and its future”. (The Speech, Vol. I, p. 561, THS 3rd edition 1989). The representatives who could escape Istanbul to travel to Ankara, and those elected by the local high officials around the country met in Ankara 37 days later, on April 23, 1920. The action on March 19, 1920 gave legitimacy to the national liberation movement and was the beginning of the transition of the state from Sultan/Caliph autocracy to the democratic republic.
Although his declaration announced the end of the Ottoman state, the National Assembly did not rescind the Ottoman Constitution and replaced it immediately with another. It modified the nature of the state by adopting a law on January 20, 1921, which while confirming the application of Sharia laws, it moved the ownership of the sovereign powers of the state from the Sultan to the people and placed the authority to govern in the Assembly. This refrain from introducing a new Constitution was prudence in the course of the war for liberation of the country from Allied occupation. However, the statement “Sovereignty belongs to the people unconditionally and without any limitation” was a subtle harbinger of the abolition of Sultanate, which later became the indelible principle of the new Republican Constitution. The Assembly also identified itself as the “Turkish” National Assembly for the first time on February 8, 1921, another indication of moving away from the Ottoman past in preparation for the declaration of the republic.
It is important to note the way the sovereignty of people is formulated in this principle. It does not say “The nation is sovereign”, or “People are sovereign”, or “People own the sovereignty”, or “Sovereignty is reserved to the people”, or even just “Sovereignty belongs to the people”. It is expressed in the most categorical terms possible, without any condition, qualification or prerequisite, and without limits, reservations or restrictions attached to it. Furthermore, it is made clear that the sovereignty is not that of the state but is that of the people.
The intent of this categorical statement was to make clear to the people and to the world the objective of the national liberation movement on the one hand, and to invalidate the provisions of the Ottoman Constitution that formed an obstacle to the movement on the other. An outright change of the Ottoman Constitution to abolish these provisions would have been impractical given the prevailing legal circumstances and the public state of mind. The Ottoman Constitution provided that Sultan, being the Caliph is “holy and enjoys immunity” (Art. 5), “He reserves the right to convene, suspend, or dissolve the parliament…” (Art.7), “… Assembly members … take an oath to obey the Constitutional provisions, the country, and the Sultan. …” (Art. 46).
When Sultan took refuge with the British occupying forces, the National Assembly jumped on the opportunity and promptly abolished the Sultanate on November 1, 1922. The abolishment was made effective not as of its date of adoption, nor April 23, 1920 (the convening of the National Assembly), but retroactively to March 16, 1920. The legal effect of this retroactivity was to render obsolete all Ottoman parliamentary and governmental decisions taken between March 16, 1920, the date the occupation forces raided the Ottoman Parliament, and November 1, 1922. This meant the nullification of all decisions and actions taken by the last Ottoman parliament against the national movement in the heartlands, Anatolia.
On the other hand, considering the pervasive religious sensitivity and the on-going liberation war, the Assembly did not abolish the Caliphate; instead, designated deposed Sultan’s cousin as Caliph on November 17, 1922. As strange as it may be, Caliphate existed four months even after the adoption of the republican regime on October 29, 1923. However, having been divested from any state and governing authority, it was effectively downgraded to the religious representation of majority of the population. It was abolished finally on March 3, 1924.
All this cautious and gradual approach was to lay the groundwork for the understanding and acceptance of a system of individual freedom by a public who lived with servitude to Sultan/Caliph for centuries. Atatürk did not want to act as the revolutionary leaders the world is accustomed to, an overnight change with forceful edicts and disruption of national institutions. He made an extraordinary effort to inform the public of every change to the ensure that the changes would have the people’s brand on it.
The republican regime was declared on October 29, 1923. A new Constitution was adopted on April 20, 1924, to replace the Constitution of 1876 and the law of 1921. It introduced, among others, non-discrimination on grounds of religion and race, equality of people, independence of judiciary, freedom of individuals and of the press, privacy of communications, and Turkish as the official language. Characteristic to Atatürk’s cautious, gradual and persuasive approach, the 1928 amendment of the Constitution instituted Laicism, four years after the abolition of Caliphate. The Constitution was amended once again in 1934 to include voting rights for women. Many laws promulgated between 1924 and 1934, like the adoption of the Latin script, and international standards from calendar to measurements were for the purpose of taking the state and the people away from the grips of the obsolete religious world to the contemporary world.
The legal transformation to conform to a modern system took about ten years. Whether the legal actions for modernization really achieved a parallel public, social modernization is debatable, considering the current state of the Turkish political and social life.
March 2020, sociopoliticalviews.blogspot.com (with permission)