Scholars in Context: Evren Altinkas
Jadaliyya's Scholars in Context series consists of Q&As in which scholars of the Middle East describe their research and the paths they took to arrive at it. The series provides a platform for these scholars to highlight the significance of their work, identify the audiences they seek to reach, and outline their future research trajectories, giving readers an in-depth look at the latest research in a given field.
Jadaliyya (J): What is the main focus of your current research and how does it connect to or depart from your previous work?
Evren Altinkas (EA): I am working on a critical overview of the mainstream historical approach to the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1922). My previous work mostly focused on the development of intellectuals in the Ottoman state and the Republic of Turkey. Although there is a certain continuity in the intellectual tradition, my past research showed that the literature in the modern Turkish Republic mostly neglects the Ottoman intellectual past. This led me to my current project, in which I focus on the continuity of governance during the transition from the Ottoman state structure to the Republic of Turkey.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
EA: My research follows the life and political movements of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. It posits that Mustafa Kemal started as a low-ranking member of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) and was disliked by its leaders; however, in time, he used the infrastructure of the CUP—which included the organization of paramilitary groups in Anatolia, the storage of weapons and ammunition in locations only known by CUP members, and the replacement of traditional Ottoman military structures and commanders with educated and Western-inspired leaders—alongside his relations and connections within it, to organize the Turkish War of Independence and eventually take control of the entire committee. He achieved this by convincing the leaders and members that he was their “custodian,” promising them that after winning the war he would ensure that their policies were followed and their leaders returned from exile. CUP leaders thus planned the Turkish War of Independence during World War I, and Mustafa Kemal instigated it shortly after. However, Mustafa Kemal blocked the re-entry of CUP leaders into the country, eliminated their supporters, and established his own “circle of trust” based on the infrastructure cultivated by the CUP between 1913 and 1918.
The literature on this subject has a diversified structure. Some important academic works and biographies (by Şükrü Hanioğlu, Andrew Mango, Edward J. Erickson, H.C. Armstrong, and Dagobert Von Mikusch) center around the life of Mustafa Kemal and his leading role in the Turkish War of Independence. Another group of works (by Erik-Jan Zürcher, Kemal Karpat, Feroz Ahmad, Benjamin Fortna, Ryan Gingeras, Bernard Lewis, and Stanford J. Shaw) focus on the historical transformation of the Ottoman state structure into the modern Republic of Turkey, often emphasizing the continuity of the state. Other literature is based on the memoirs of important figures such as Ali Fuat Cebesoy, Rauf Orbay, Halide Edip Adıvar, and Kâzım Karabekir, who were active participants in the Turkish War of Independence. However, the present academic literature does not fully cover the relations and network of Mustafa Kemal and the CUP between his arrival to occupied Istanbul (November 1918) and his assignment to Anatolia (May 1919). Moreover, much of this scholarship presents Kemal as a successful military leader, thus underestimating his skills in both politics and personal relations, which were instrumental in convincing the leaders of the Istanbul government, military commanders, and local resistance groups of his objectives.
Although there is a vast literature in this field, I believe there are still questions to be answered. How did Mustafa Kemal gain the trust of the occupying forces and the sultan, allowing him to be sent to Anatolia as a military inspector? Did he achieve this through connections within his network, or with the help of secret organizations in Istanbul and the support of CUP leaders in exile? How did the local resistance groups and other military commanders in Anatolia accept Mustafa Kemal as a leader? How did he manage to become leader and eliminate the circles of CUP members around him throughout the war? And, finally, how did he overcome the resistance of CUP members in the first years of the modern Republic of Turkey?
My work is based on primary sources, such as memoirs of members of Karakol, the secret organization that shaped the War of Independence, including İhsan İdikut, Hüsamettin Ertürk, Galip Vardar, Kemal Koçer, Hüsnü Himmetoğlu, İhsan Aksoley, Fahri Can, and Yenibahçeli Şükrü; military commanders, including Halil Pasha, Fahrettin Altay, Fevzi Çakmak, and Kâzım Özalp; military officers and members of Anatolian resistance headquarters, including Mehmet Arif Bey, Sami Sabit Karaman, İhsan Eryavuz, Cemal Karabekir, Rahmi Apak, Damar Arıkoğlu, Feridun Kandemir, Ebubekir Hâzım Tepeyran, Besim Atalay, Fuat Balkan, Eşref Çavuşoğlu, Emrullah Nutku, and İsmail Hakkı Tekçe; and local resistance leaders during the Turkish War of Independence, including Çerkez Ethem, İbrahim Çolak, Celâl Bayar, and Cevat Dursunoğlu. It also uses Turkish newspapers (Milliyet, Vakit, Vatan, Cumhuriyet, Yeni Sabah, En Son Havadis, İkdam, Son Posta, Tasvir-i Efkâr, Yarın, Tan, and Akşam) and Turkish history journals (Yakın Tarihimiz, Dün ve Bugün, Hayat Tarih, Tarih Hazinesi, Sebil, Resimli Tarih, Tarih Dünyası, and Türkiye İstiklâl ve Hürriyet Mücadeleleri Tarihi) published in Turkey between 1929 and 1990, some of which have not previously been used in academic works. Finally, the research also draws on secondary sources, such as academic books and journals.
J: What brought you to this work? What was the source of inspiration?
EA: As briefly noted above, my research during and after my PhD dissertation revealed that the continuity of modernization efforts from the Ottoman state to the Republic of Turkey is mentioned in some academic sources and/or textbooks, but the continuity of governance and the governing mentality are not. I focused my research on this “forbidden history” and, after reading the memoirs of the leaders of the Turkish War of Independence, was led to read memoirs, and even articles, written by those who were actually engaged on the ground in the Turkish War of Independence.
J: What audiences would you like to reach, and what kind of impact would you like your research and writing to have?
EA: This project is not only for those within academic circles, but is also for students and readers of history and Turkey. I would like my research to underscore the continuities across the leadership of the CUP and that of the modern Republic of Turkey, as well as how Atatürk used the CUP and its network to reach his goals.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
EA: I am currently working on a project focused on the importance of social media and its impact on politics. It is inspired by the 2013 Gezi Protests in Turkey. I have prepared a course format based on this topic, and my students are carrying out social media campaigns about something they want to change.