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Turkish Experience with Totalitarianism and Fascism: Tracing the Intellectual Origins



Many facets of ideological transformation in Turkey between the 1910s and 1930s have been extensively discussed but many more still remain to be studied and contextualised. One of these aspects concerns the existing disagreement in the scholarship over Turkey’s experience with another manifestation of totalitarianism, and particularly with fascism. The present paper explores this generally overlooked dimension and argues that even the limited research on fascism in Turkey has been mainly done from comparative perspectives. This dominant methodological approach has long prevailed the field and diverted scholarly attention from the essence of the problem. Therefore, the author aims to explore the problem by not identifying similarities and differences of the Unionism of the Young Turks era and Kemalism with their contemporary totalitarian currents; instead, the analysis will be mainly limited to the Turkish context and practices in order to trace the local manifestations of “global fascism”. He also argues that there is a compelling continuity of totalitarian ideological and political practices between the Young Turks and the Kemalists.
Iran an Iran and the Caucasus 19 (2015) 000-000
Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2015 DOI: 10.1163/1573384X-201504xx
Turkish Experience with Totalitarianism and Fascism:
Tracing the Intellectual Origins
Vahram Ter-Matevosyan
American University of Armenia, Yerevan
Many facets of ideological transformation in Turkey between the 1910s and 1930s have
been extensively discussed but many more still remain to be studied and contextualised.
One of these aspects concerns the existing disagreement in the scholarship over Turkey’s
experience with another manifestation of totalitarianism, and particularly with fascism.
The present paper explores this generally overlooked dimension and argues that even the
limited research on fascism in Turkey has been mainly done from comparative perspec-
tives. This dominant methodological approach has long prevailed the field and diverted
scholarly attention from the essence of the problem. Therefore, the author aims to explore
the problem by not identifying similarities and differences of the Unionism of the Young
Turks era and Kemalism with their contemporary totalitarian currents; instead, the analy-
sis will be mainly limited to the Turkish context and practices in order to trace the local
manifestations of “global fascism”. He also argues that there is a compelling continuity of
totalitarian ideological and political practices between the Young Turks and the Kemalists.
Turkey, Young Turks, Kemalism, Fascism, Totalitarianism
The question of “How fascist the Kemalist Turkey was”, that Fikret Adanır
(2001: 313-361) and many others have raised, still remains a valid and per-
tinent one. Adanır poses this question and basically leaves it unanswered
relying on Mete Tunçay’s warning that a specific compound, which brings
about fascism did not exist in Turkey during the inter-war period. He fur-
ther claims that a definition, as well as an all-encompassing and generally
accepted theory of fascism do not exist (ibid.: 359). Thus, agreeing with
the applicability of the term “fascismin essence and accepting that the
V. Ter-Matevosyan / Iran and the Caucasus 19 (2015) 000-000
Kemalist political system of the inter-war years had a strong fascist con-
tent as, in many respects, it had a parallel development to that of fascism
elsewhere, he points to the limitations of the paper in exhaustively an-
swering the above-mentioned question (ibid.). He also demonstrates his
inclination towards following Roger Griffin’s claim to establish a “mythic
core” of generic fascism. He brings the following ingredients of “minimum
fascism” and tends to agree with them while trying to reflect on the Turk-
ish context: a) anti-liberal, b) anti-conservative, c) tending to glorify cer-
tain epochs in nation’s history, d) inclined to charismatic leadership, e)
deifying such mythical concepts as the nation, the leader, national iden-
tity, etc, and f) idealising homogeneity in the national community (ibid.:
360). Adanır efforts, however, stop half-way although he comes extremely
closer to the essence of fascism in Turkey.
Such an approach is not unique, as other instances to delve into this
subject led to more or less the same conclusions. Taha Parla and Andrew
Davison choose to prefer the analytical categories of “partly fascist”,
“partly totalitarian” and, more holistically, “rightist tendencies” to study
specific parts of Kemalism, which they refer to as a solidaristic corporatist
ideology. They consistently refuse to apply these categories without at-
taching the word “tendencies” to them. They further claim that, even
though some of the political ideological aspects of Kemalism exceeded
“the limits of the solidaristic corporative perspective”, they, however, were
not full-fledged developments, but rather leanings (Parla/Davison 2004:
244). The authors also claim: “Fascistic and totalitarian ideological
tendencies do not dominate Kemalism, but they are present and were ac-
tive so that fascistic tendencies could form themselves within and out of
Kemalism, as the existence of deeply rightist, Kemalist tendencies in the
history of the republic shows” (Parla/Davison 2004: 247). Thus, they ac-
cept the presence and active nature of “rightist tendencies” but are reluc-
tant to relate Kemalism to fascism or totalitarianism. However, when de-
scribing Mustafa Kemal’s own discourse and certain judgments they indi-
cate that at the ideological level fascism was visible (ibid.: 256).
Bozarslan (2006: 29) claims that between 1930 and 1938 the Kemalist
regime was an openly and self-consciously anti-liberal and anti-demo-
cratic regime thereby projecting itself “as the third pillar of an anti-demo-
cratic world, Fascism and Bolshevism constituting the two other poles”.
V. Ter-Matevosyan / Iran and the Caucasus 19 (2015) 000-000
Gökmen (2006: 678). lists a few features of the Kemalist regime between
1931 and 1945, which, according to him, overlapped with fascism: “a single
party, a strong reaction against the old regime, the existence of solidarist
and corporatist and later on, totalitarian tendencies, coalescence of state
with party, adoption of a national leader system, and increasing state in-
terventionism in the economy”. However, he does not fully support the
idea of fascism in Turkey, as he refers to the assumption that Kemalism
was a pragmatic ideology and, unlike fascism, “it did not have thorough-
going totalitarian pretensions” and did not possess “the complex com-
pound that made fascism possible in Italy” (ibid.). Others claimed that the
Kemalist revolution secured far-reaching social changes and made Turkey
“free from sharp social cleavages and class conflicts”, which exited in
Germany and Italy (Parker/Smith 1940: 75). In his discussions of Kemalism
religion, Mateescu (Mateescu 2006: 225-226, 238) describes the compari-
sons between Kemalism and fascist and communist dictatorships as “na-
ive”. He further explains that the Kemalist regime “falls in the democratic
category” and, therefore, “original Kemalism cannot be defined as authori-
tarian in itself, and it was far from totalitarianism”.
A similar argument about the lack of “specific” or “complex com-
pounds” of fascism in Turkey have long dominated the scholarship. This
lacuna becomes more complex when we consider the rather convincing
arguments of Stanley Payne and Roger Eatwell about fascism being the
vaguest of the major political terms, about the lack of agreement about its
definition, and the greater differences between fascisms(Payne 1995:15,
20). The experts of Turkish history have generally refrained from dealing
with the totalitarian essence of the Unionist and Kemalist regimes. Quite
interestingly, many scholars simply relied on the fact that neither of two
consecutive regimes ever referred to themselves as dictatorships, there-
fore, according to them, these regimes should not be qualified as such. In
reality, there have been different accounts by contemporaries who quali-
fied these regimes as dictatorships, and many other qualifications were
done retrospectively. For instance, there is a general consensus in the
scholarship that the dictatorship in Turkey was firmly put in place since
January 1914 and was heavy headedly applied until 1918 (Kevorkian 2011:
191). For the Kemalist period it had a bit different manifestations, albeit on
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different occasions (the once recorded in 1923, 1929 and 1935), Mustafa
Kemal refuted claims of the media, which coined him a dictator.1
The study of fascism and totalitarian regimes of the 20th century had a
cyclical development. In the 1920-30s, it had a mainly descriptive nature;
in the 1940-50s, it had a condemning feature and sought a generic totali-
tarian system; in the 1960s, as Richard Overy claims, historians started to
focus on a narrative that emphasised the peculiar character of each na-
tional dictatorship, and played down the resemblances (Overy 2004:
xxxii). The interrelation between totalitarianism and fascism has always
been complex. In the Turkish context the fine lines between them are
more difficult to draw because of overstretched ignorance of the subject.
In some instances, researchers have no choice but to use these two con-
cepts interchangeably, while in some cases the definitional approaches
are so neatly drawn that one needs to follow them to get the arguments
through. The impact of that gap will not affect our analysis and the two
concepts will be used separately, albeit in some cases their parallel usage
is unavoidable. However, for methodological clarity fascism will be
viewed as a radical type of totalitarianism and deriving from that, first it
will be proved that dominant ideological currents in Turkey in the first
half of the 20th century fall into the category of totalitarianism, whereas
in certain periods and timeframes the fascist nature of the ruling regimes
were becoming more discernible.
It needs to be underlined that the basic shortcoming of those ap-
proaches, which reject the fascist nature of any regime, is that they take
“Italian Fascism as the point of departure for every comparative study”
(Adanir 2001: 359). Turkish experience is no exception because, in study-
ing fascism there, conceptual, semantic, methodological and theoretical
flaws were present. Most of the time, when comparing it with Italian fas-
cism and to a lesser extent with German Nazism, the Turkish experience
was put mainly under a positive light and was left out of the picture for
not qualifying as a fascist regime. Another misconception, dismissed by
Kieser (2007), was that the Young Turk leadership almost always was pre-
1 Atatürk’ün Söylev ve Demeçleri 2006: 176, 484, 489.
V. Ter-Matevosyan / Iran and the Caucasus 19 (2015) 000-000
sented “as naïve, benevolent, and relatively powerless in the face of an
overwhelming political crisis”. In another instance, after the Young Turk
Revolution in 1908, an official from the German embassy reported to Ber-
lin: “The broad term ‘Young Turkscovers those people who are consumed
by and infatuated with western European concepts without having a real
understanding of them”.2 Other accounts also regarded the Young Turks
as “a little band of mad anarchists”, “foolish visionaries”, “dreamers” and
their movement as “innocuous” and “bogus” (Knight 1909; Miller 1913). The
impact of these approaches had methodologically limited the framework
of the general discussion of the problem. Those studies also fell short of
uncovering the elements of the Unionist and Kemalist regimes, political
systems and cultures, which had significant parallels with likeminded
regimes of the 1910-1930s.
Another problem in the scholarship was the overconcentration on the
1930s in trying to find the fascist nature of Kemalism, whereas Kemalism,
as a system of thought, was the outcome of developments unfolding long
before its emergence. Extending the Young Turks’ period of governance
from 1908 until 1945 (instead of 1908-1918), suggested by Zürcher (1992:
237-253), is yet another indication that there was tangible continuum of
ideas, practices and cadre resources between two regimes. Thus, Kemal-
ism in the 1930s was only one of the phases of Turkish experience with
fascism. Sternhell (1987: 32) mentions at least three levels of analysis while
approaching fascism: looking at it as an ideology, as a political movement,
and as a form of government. These levels also illustrate the evolution of
fascism in different contexts. In the Turkish context these three levels
have also been clearly visible as the examples below illustrate.
Six basic features or traits of a totalitarian regime, suggested by Frie-
drich/Brzezinski (1956: 9, 10), serve as helpful guidelines for identifying
the essence of such a regime. For the authors the following “universally
acknowledged features” are important to be termed totalitarian dicta-
torships: “a) an ideology, b) a single party typically led by one man, c) a
terroristic police, d) a communications monopoly, e) a weapons monop-
oly, and f) a centrally directed economy”, which altogether aim at the “to-
2 Botschaft, Kiderled to Bülow, Therapia, July 10, 1998, PAAA/R14159/A11112/Nr. 111 cited
in Weitz 2011: 182.
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tal destruction and total reconstruction” of the state and society. They
also warn that there might be others, “now insufficiently recognized.
Through the effective control, indoctrination and manipulation of the
population, the totalitarian regimes strive to achieve socialisation and
ideological homogenisation. Thus, they possess a more radical pro-
gramme of change, deliberately mobilised masses, equipped with ideol-
ogy, “a quasi-religious philosophy with a claim of exclusivity” (Bracher
1984). The majority of scholars are inclined to claim that those regimes
were anti-modernists and they wanted to reassert the old community,
whereas others insist that they were progressive forces interested in rapid
development in all spheres of social and economic lives (Eatwell 2001: 17-
18). Totalitarianism has also been criticised for its wide variety of applica-
tions for different regimes and also for being normative, analytical and
non-teleological (ibid.).
Speaking of classifications and common objectives of totalitarian re-
gimes, Stephen Lee argues that at least four sectorsindividual/societal,
ideological, political and economicneed total reorganisation and con-
trol to qualify as a totalitarian regime. On the individual/societal levels to-
talitarian regimes sought to create new men empowered by a radical
change of attitudes and beliefs. These changes would ultimately subordi-
nate “new men” through coercion, propaganda, indoctrination and con-
trol.3 Lee further posits that totalitarian regimes aim to control man’s and
society’s existence according to doctrinal goals. As for the objectives of
political systems of the totalitarian regimes, Lee continues, they were
composed of a single party backed by the army and aimed at mobilised
mass support, particularly among the youth. The political system is also
characterised by the executive branch controlling the legislature and the
only single party being headed by a strong leader with clear inclinations
3 The detailed breakdown of the subordination tools as provided by Lee is helpful to
lay down the cognitive map of the totalitarian ideologuescoercion (a system of physical
and psychic terror, effected through party and secret police control), propaganda and in-
doctrination (complete monopoly of mass communication, manipulation of culture, his-
tory, a destruction of cultural pluralism and shaping of education, literature, art and music
according to the political ideology) and control (terror, brutal forms of repression, purges
and penal, labour or concentration camps, identification and elimination of all enemies
(racial or class)).
V. Ter-Matevosyan / Iran and the Caucasus 19 (2015) 000-000
towards personality cult. Concerning the economic system, Lee argues,
totalitarian regimes strove to have complete control over the economy
and to provide bureaucratic co-ordination of formerly independent cor-
porate entities” (Lee 2005:300, 305-307). Being confident that these are re-
liable criteria for differentiating between “strong and weak models of to-
talitarian systems”, he arrives at two interdependent conclusions: a) there
has never been a strong totalitarian model;4 b) all other regimes in Spain
(under Franco), Greece (under Metaxas), Poland (under Pilsudksi), Aus-
tria (under Dollfuss), Portugal (under Salazar), and Hungary (under Gom-
bos) were aptly termed authoritarian regimes and not even partly totali-
tarian, because “they lacked any consistent attempt to mobilize the
masses behind the regime; some of them even relied upon traditional
ideas and distrusted anything which was remotely radical and revolution-
ary; there were hardly any attempts at mass indoctrination” (Lee 2005:
301). Turkey, and for that matter no other regime outside Europe, was not
even considered as weak totalitarian or even authoritarian regimes by Lee
and many other authors dealing with the problem.
In addition to Griffin’s “mythic core”, another identification of a “fas-
cist minimum” was provided by Ernst Nolte (1965), who combined three
ideological trends: anti-Marxism, anti-liberalism and anti-conservatism,
plus two movement characteristics (the leadership principles and the
party-army) all oriented toward a final goal, “totalitarianism”. Payne’s
other approach, which was aimed to refine different definitions and man-
ifestations of fascism, brought yet another working definition: “a form of
revolutionary ultra-nationalism for national rebirth that is based on a
primarily vitalist philosophy, is structured on extreme elitism, mass mo-
bilization and the Fuhrer-prinzip, positively values violence as end as well
as means and tends to normalize war and/or military virtues” (Payne 1995:
14). Michael Mann (2004: 10) refers to Payne to define the list of essential
components the fascist core contains “nationalism, authoritarian statism,
corporatism and syndicalism, imperialism, idealism, voluntarism, roman-
ticism, mysticism, militarism, and violence”. Criticising Payne’s definition
4 According to Lee (2005: 301), Stalinist Russia was a weak totalitarian model, Nazi Ger-
many was an imperfect totalitarianism, Italian Fascism was on the borderline between the
weak model of totalitarianism and authoritarianism, Ustashi regime in Croatia and
Szalasi’s regime in Hungary were partially totalitarian.
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on several counts, Eatwell (2001: 33) proposes his own definition of fas-
cism: “an ideology that strives to forge social rebirth based on a holistic-
national radical third way, though in practice fascism has tended to stress
style, especially action and the charismatic leader, more than detailed
program, and to engage in a Manicaean demonization of its enemies.
Mann (ibid.: 11) sides with Eatwell’s third-way definition of fascism (not as
anti-modern, like Nolte does, but as an alternative vision of modernity)
and considers it closest to his own definition. These two definitions con-
tain a lot in common and, therefore, should be seen as mutually rein-
forcing, particularly having in view the fact that fascism in the interwar
period had different durations for different regimes with different mani-
festations. Paul Wilkinson (1987: 227-228) mentions more tenets of fascist
ideology: “the belief in the supremacy of the chosen national group over
all other races and minorities; the total subordination of the individual to
an absolute state… etc.” Wilkinson adds another feature of fascismex-
altation of the role of youth.5
Another dominant assumption was that since fascism was born in Eu-
rope and it had European intellectual, social, organisational and political
origins, fascism outside Europe was treated with skepticism. Fascism of
the inter-war period was largely seen as a purely European-epochal phe-
nomenon being alien to non-European political systems (Eatwell 2001:
33), a generic argument, which largely deviated attention from non-Euro-
pean manifestations of totalitarian/fascist movements and regimes. In
addition, totalitarian dictatorship/fascism is historically “unique” and sui
generis (Friedrich and Brzezinski 1956: 5), which, in turn, suggests that in
different contexts different causal origins and dynamics should be sought.
Hence, the temptation of seeking “a generic definition that might apply
across many times and places” (Mann 2004: 5) initially limited various
scholarly undertakings.
It goes without saying that different movements and ideas active out-
side Europe, with their regional, historical, social and local identities, ab-
sorbed the European models with certain modifications, therefore, fas-
5 This became a prominent feature of the Kemalist regime as in his 1927 “Great Speech”
(Nutuk) Mustafa Kemal dedicated a whole page to the youth reminding them “to save Tur-
key’s independence and the Turkish Republic” by finding the noble blood in their veins
(Kemal 2008: 715-716).
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cism, like other similar currents existing hitherto, could not appear in
different contexts as exact copies (Larsen 2001: 717). Based on that warn-
ing, Stein U. Larsen further urges to acknowledge this difference in order
to grasp “the essence of the [fascist] phenomena” (ibid.). Formation, as-
cendance and application of fascism in Turkey was a different experience,
therefore, the most important question remains how consistent and dif-
ferent were the components of Kemalist Turkey from Italian Fascism,
German Nazism or other fascisms elsewhere.
Payne’s definition looks far more Eurocentric, drawing mostly from
Italian and German experiences, whereas Eatwell’s take is driven more
from a universalist approach even though it does not preclude the fact
that some non-European fascist movements could have gone through the
typically European, classicalfascist pathway. Although different compo-
nents of both Payne’s and Eatwell’s definitions are helpful in locating fas-
cism in Turkey, Eatwell’s approach is more helpful to explain the Turkish
experience with fascism between 1910s and 1930s.
The history of fascism as a system of thought began at the end of the 19th
century with the intellectual revolution and with the entry of the masses
into politics (Sternhell 1987: 148-150). This approach is different from the
one, which seeks to locate fascism in the interwar era. Even though this
claim is made for the European context, many of its features are applica-
ble to our study too.
At the turn of the century, common fears and passions specific to Eu-
rope did not bypass the declining Ottoman Empire. Expanding communi-
cations since the 1860-90s peculiar for that period allowed the Otto-
man/Turkish/non-Turkish intellectual and political elites to be aware of
the intellectual atmosphere, which “was saturated with Darwinian biology
and Wagnerian aesthetics, Gobineau’s racialism, Le Bon’s psychology, as
well as the black prophecies of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, and, later, the
philosophy of Bergson” (Sternhell 1998: 171). In turn, the intellectuals, ide-
ological currents and “native intelligentsia”, which for fifty years, through
persistent efforts had created the soil for political, legal, cultural and eco-
nomic transformations, immensely influenced both the Unionists and the
Kemalists (Kohn 1943: 254). Ideological quasi-discourses starting from the
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Tanzimat period (from 1839 until 1876) and the subsequent or parallel
waves of ideological currents like Pan-Turanism, Pan-Islamism, Pan-Ot-
tomanism, Westernists (Garpçılar) constituted a fertile ground for devel-
opment and further empowerment of the Unionist and the Kemalist dis-
courses. In some spheres the Kemalists continued the job where the Un-
ionists left off, while in other aspects the republican policies constituted
either a clean break with the ideas of the previous era or went way too far
(Zürcher 2005: 16, 18).
Active members of Turkish émigré centers in Europe like the ones in
Switzerland6 and, particularly in France, which Sternhell identifies as “the
real birthplace of fascism” (Sternhell/Sznajder/Asheri 1994: 4), played a key
role in transforming the intellectual and political climate in the Empire. In
addition, the leaders of the Young Turks were affected by the increasing
tide of French nationalism, which called for revenge in order to overcome
the 1871 humiliation. The leaders and intellectuals of the Young Turk
movement, headquartered in Paris, were influenced by the writings of the
popular intellectuals and thinkers of the period such as Albert Sorel and
Emile Boutmy, Gustave Le Bon, Charles Darwin, Emile Durkheim, philoso-
pher and historian Ernest Renan, Auguste Comte, Pierre Laffitte, Herbert
Spencer, Pittard, Alexander Helphand (Parvus), and many others (Hanioğlu
2006: 10-11). For instance, Le Bon’s writing on the role and psychology of the
masses, on race and the need to lead masses by an elite (otherwise they
could be ruled to irrational behaviour), were deeply-seated convictions of
the intellectual elite of the time. Also the questions of guided transfor-
mation/revolution from above, not popular unrests and upheavals from
below, were omnipresent among Young Turks (Zürcher 2005: 12). Laffitte’s
version of an ideal society envisaging “an orderly progress through a divi-
sion of labour under the enlightened guidance of a ‘scientific’ elite” was
broadly embraced by many Young Turk intellectuals (e.g. Ahmet Riza, one
of the leaders of the Young Turks, was an outspoken proponent of that idea)
(ibid.: 21). The first Turkish nationalist thinkers and later CUP intellectual
publications (Genç Kalemler) were much influenced by the racial theories
of Arthur de Gobineau (Akçam 2006: 53). Influenced by the German con-
6 For a comprehensive analysis of Turkish émigré activities in Switzerland, see Kieser
V. Ter-Matevosyan / Iran and the Caucasus 19 (2015) 000-000
cepts of nation, based on race, blood and culture, Ziya Gökalp has devel-
oped the expansionist version of Turkish nationalism (ibid.: 53). The
Young Turks became aware of the Marxist revisionism by Georges Sorel
who replaced the rationalistic, Hegelian foundations of Marxism with
anti-materialist, voluntarist and vitalist elements. Sternhell also refers to
Sorel’s preposition to activate masses through intuition, the cult of energy
and élan, activism and heroism, as well as through myths, systems of im-
ages, which strike the imagination (Sternhell 1987: 148-149). Speaking of
the impact of those authors (historians, racial and physical anthropolo-
gists) and their writings on the formulation of the republican ideas and
concepts (science, race, social-Darwinism, progress, etc.). Hanioğlu (2011:
160-198) brings a long list of authors who influenced Mustafa Kemal (to
mention only a fewWells, Alfred Cort Haddon, George Montandon,
Eugene Pittard, etc.). It needs to be also stressed that starting from the
19th century, especially the last quarter of it, “the French language had a
very significant cultural dominance on the Ottoman meaning system”
(Göçek 1996:121). Hence, penetration of French revolutionary ideas and
literature to the Empire, as well as the exposure of the literate people and
the Ottoman intellectuals to them was an unhindered process.
Thus, the Ottoman elite of the time became the witnesses of a period
what Sternhell referred to as an intellectual revolution, which paved the
way for mass politics and mass revolt against “the world of matter and rea-
son, against materialism and positivism, against the mediocrity of bourgeois
society, and against the muddle of liberal democracy” (Sternhell 1998: 170).
Like their European pairs, Turkish intellectuals were also obsessed with
the prevailing contention that sentiment and feeling count for more in
political questions than reasoning (Ibid.: 171). Turkish political elite en-
tered WWI under a deep influence and inspiration of these mentioned cur-
rents. WWI did not bring these ideas to halt, they played a critical role in
the 1920s and 1930s as well. Some of these vogue authors and names became
even more popular in Turkey parallel to the rise of totalitarian regimes in
These ideas and thoughts, actively circulating in different corners of
Europe, influenced the writings of Turkish nationalists and intellectuals
such as Ali Suavi, Ahmed Riza, Tekin Alp, Ziya Gökalp, Mehmet Emin,
Ahmet Riza, Abdullah Cevdet, Halide Edip (Adıvar), Mehmed Fuad
V. Ter-Matevosyan / Iran and the Caucasus 19 (2015) 000-000
(Köprülü), Ahmet Hikmet. Particularly Turkish-speaking Muslim immi-
grants from Russia like Yusuf Akçura, Ahmet Ağaoğlu (Agayev), Mehmed
Reşid Şahingiray, Ali Hüseyinzade, Musa Akiyiğitzade, Halim Sabit trans-
ferred the revolutionary atmosphere and transplanted many fashionable
writings of Russian revolutionary movements into the Turkish context and
circumstances and thereby decisively influenced the Turkish national
movement (Kieser 2011: 127). These are only a few of the names who left an
important impact on the Young Turks, on the late Ottoman state and Re-
publican ideological currents. Some of these preachers were radical na-
tionalists who were very well integrated into the CUP power system, some
had key administrative positions (e.g. Reşid Şahingiray was the governor of
a few provinces including Karesi and Diyarbakır) in the government or
were the members of CUP’s Central Committee (merkez-i umumi) (as was
the case with Gökalp and Agaoglu), which gave them practical leverages
to implement their ideals. Understandably, these scholars had different
perspectives on most of the urgent issues that the Ottoman state was facing
at the timeminority questions, nationalism, religion, etc.
Another avenue for spreading these revolutionary and scientific ideas
were periodicals published inside and outside of the Ottoman Empire. Most
well-known periodicals of the time were “Türk Derneği” (Turkish Associa-
tion), “Genç Kalemler” (Yong Pens), “Türk Yurdu” (Turkish Homeland),
which were founded since 1908 and gained wide recognition. Articles pub-
lished in these journals promoted cultural and linguistic pan-Turkism
through promotion of Turcological studies. Almost all the intellectuals of
the time discussed above, which one way or another were affiliated with the
Young Turks, contributed to these journals urging the need for awakening,
attaining national pride, self-help, defining the boundaries of Turkishness
and purifying the Turkish language by getting rid of Persian and Arabic
loan-words (Araji 1992). The ideas and ideals discussed in these journals
were instrumental in shaping the fundamentals of the Unionist and the
Kemalist worldviews particularly in the matters related to nation-building
and construction of national identity. Names of the contributors re-
appeared in the republican era too.
For a while, the Ottoman Empire and the early republican period were
also viewed as largely weak and hence marginalised from global affairs,
and that assumption affected the way the political and social processes
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were understood. Following this erroneous line, it was a general supposi-
tion that the rulers of the Ottoman Empire were conscious about the up-
coming collapse of it and incapable of doing anything. That line of rea-
soning also entailed that Turkey was alienated from prevailing intellectual
and political currents. Whereas, in reality, Turkey was a part of Weltpoli-
tik, hence global affairs and intellectual currents could not by-pass it.
Meanwhile, thoughts, lifestyles and forms of production originating in
Europe had peculiar pathways of adoption and adaptation in Turkey in
the first decades of the 20th century. Therefore, positioning the theory of
totalitarianism in Turkey without due consideration of local origins and
country-specific causes of totalitarianism is a vain endeavour. Since de-
tailed analysis would lead us too far afield, a few general dimensions
should be discussed.
For decades, the leaders of the Ottoman Empire were striving to exe-
cute systemic reforms, which were either slow and non-efficient or super-
fluous. The famous questioning of the time “How can this state be saved?”
(Bu devlet nasıl kurtulur?) was the main driving force for many of the
Young Turks, initiatives both in the opposition and in the government.
For the Young Turks and Kemalists many reforms by the earlier decades
created more problems than solutions and eventually led to the collapse
of the Empire. Being the victims, and to some extent responsible for the
previous experience, the republican leadership chose to distance itself
from the immediate past to create a new state, a new nation and a new
society. In the eyes of the Kemalists those objectives could not be
achieved through mere adoption of laws. The society had to be inculcated
with new ideals, ideas and visions. However, even after those measures
the political elite in Turkey questioned the efficacy of its own efforts. Be-
ing dissatisfied with the results, they became the staunchest defenders of
the heavy-handed policies of Kemalism in the 1930s.
Once in power from 1908 to 1918 (with a brief interlude in 1912) and
particularly after 1913, the Committee for Union and Progress had the
chance to experiment with some of the constitutive elements of the fas-
cist ideology, although the word came into existence later. The political
and social implications of the Balkan Wars and most importantly WWI
served as historical opportunities to implement some of the ideological
and political objectives that were proposed by different political and in-
V. Ter-Matevosyan / Iran and the Caucasus 19 (2015) 000-000
tellectual circles of the period. It would be an overestimation to claim that
the political leaders of the CUP were acting as if they represented fascist
forms of government. However, the way some of the political objectives
were carried out were of no difference of those developments that had
taken place in Europe decades later. Moreover, the pace of transformation
of theoretical and scientific understandings into practice was short
enough, which resulted in spontaneous application of many policy fea-
tures (Pan-Turkism, unification of all Turks to build the Turkish father-
land, expansionist ambitions, homogenisation, assimilation, resettlement
of population). Sternhell (1987: 149) correctly claims that the constitutive
elements of the fascist ideology, elaborated prior to August 1914, re-
appeared in an almost identical form in the 1920s and 1930s both in Italy
and elsewhere. It may reasonably be supposed that all three levels of fas-
cist phenomenon, as identified by Sternhell above (ideology, political
movement and form of government) were exemplified in Turkey between
1910s and 1930(40)s. One may point to certain interludes during these
decades, however, that does not change much the central argument.
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
The resurgence of interest in the concept of political religions and its various ideological and institutional facets gained a significant impetus with Emilio Gentile’s contribution to the field. However, Gentile’s conceptual construction has not yet been applied specifically to the study of Kemalism as the predominant doctrine of Turkey’s transformation from an empire into a nation‐state. This essay is based on the assumption that such an approach is possible and evaluates theoretically the applicability of Gentile’s definitions of political religions and totalitarianism within the Turkish context of change as shaped under the principles of Kemalism in the first part of the 20th century.