Constitutional Turkey – Christian Rakovsky (1908)
Bureau of the Socialist International
The last fortress of absolutism and theocracy in Europe has fallen: Turkey in its turn has become a constitutional state. 
The way the events unfolded is known. Towards mid-July the telegraph broadcast to the four corners of the world the strange news that a Turkish officer, Effendi Niazi, had fled to the mountains of Monastir together with a hundred or so soldiers and civilians. In this country where the power of the mountain kings and their bands existed alongside the fictitious power of the Sultan this escapade had nothing unusual except for the quality and nationality of its chief actor. One asked oneself whether the Young Turks were going to start a guerilla war against the authorities, as had the Bulgarian, Greek and other revolutionaries, or were we witnessing an isolated act of no importance? Events soon showed us we were witnessing more than a mutiny: Turkey was experiencing a full revolution. Effendi Niazi’s act brought to the surface a conspiracy which a fortuitous incident, unknown up to now, triggered prematurely.
After the exploit of Effendi Niazi, the most important event of the revolution was the capture by Niazi of Marshal Osman Pasha, sent by Constantinople to suppress the movement. That same night, 24 July, the Sultan, informed by Hilmi Pasha, the Commissioner-general of Macedonia, that the army corps of this province had joined the insurgents, hastened to announce the re-establishment of the 1876 Constitution.
From this moment the revolutionary Young Turk movement became legal and governmental. It secured the ending of censorship, a general amnesty and also, as a guarantee of the sincerity of the Sultan’s intentions, the replacement of the Grand-Vizier Said Pasha by Kinmil Pasha, thought to represent a more liberal tendency. Similar changes occurred in the government and the top administration. During these events, the attitude of the camarilla was most pitiful. All these, Izzet Bey, the first secretary to the Sultan, the most influential personage, Melhame Pasha, Munir Pasha, ambassadors and organisers of espionage abroad, was suddenly converted to the purest constitutionalism, while at the same time trying to promote a counter-revolution – witness the loyalist mutiny of the soldiers of Adrianople. This is no surprise as the Sultan himself hastened to declare that he had always been an admirer of the Constitution and it was only the intrigues of ill-intentioned people that made him arrest and imprison its defenders.
Scarcely a day passes without the newspapers bringing us proof of the constitutional zeal of the Sultan. In his eagerness to please the Young Turks he has even proposed his own candidature for the position of honorary president of the “Union and Progress” Committee and himself ordered the coining of a medal commemorating the proclamation of liberty, equality and fraternity.
This sudden proselytism is neither the result of a calculation which would be too obvious to fool anyone nor is it proof of the power of the Young Turks; rather it reveals the psychological depression of the Sultan.
Afflicted by the morbid hereditary madness from which his elder brother died, weakened by overwork and a bladder condition, Abdul Hamid is more and more prey to obsessions. He is haunted by what the Turkish press has carefully avoided mentioning for thirty-two years: regicide. We know that all assassinations of foreign statesmen have been described to the Turkish people as accidents or illnesses. It is therefore understandable that Sultan Abdul Hamid, seeing himself completely deserted by the army and his supporters, tries, by ill-disguised platitudes, to gain the confidence of the Young Turks while preventing the concessions on the constitution going beyond certain limits. Thus in the recent Hati-Houmayoun by which he solemnly re-established the Constitution, Abdul Hamid retained the right to directly appoint not only the Grand-Vizier and the Sheik-ul-Islam (the religious head of the Muslims) but also the ministers of war and of the navy. The unanimous protests that this provoked determined the downfall of Said Pasha.
In order to complete the balance sheet of the Turkish revolution we must add that the legislative elections have been fixed for November. In accordance with the 1876 Constitution, the Parliament will consist of two chambers: the Senate whose members will be nominated by the Sultan, and the Chamber of Deputies elected by indirect suffrage.
The contentment produced by the events in Constantinople was general, at least apparently. But the most remarkable result was the disarmament of the bands in Macedonia. That which three army corps were unable to impose was achieved in twenty-four hours by the re-establishment of the Constitution. The spectacle of the numerous bands, Bulgarian, Greek and Serb, voluntarily leaving the mountains where they were mutually exterminating each other and descending into the towns to jointly dance the “fraternal dance” amid the cheers of motley crowds was, without doubt, a wonderful testimony to the pacifying effect of liberty.
The Turkish revolution, if it continues on the same triumphal march, will have no less favourable consequences for peace in the Balkans, and in general for the whole of Europe. The covetousness, which a past – seen until now as very recent – aroused will be appeased when everyone sees that Turkey, far from disappearing, will grow and progress. For Turkey itself, till now the most militarist of states, the constitutional regime will have most favourable consequences as much as regards the financial and political aspects as the economic and social. Under the anarchy which prevailed, the potency of corruption, the exemption of foreigners from the jurisdiction of the courts which made all the cosmopolitan cheats almost immune from prosecution, any normal industrial or economic activity was impossible. Yet Turkey, spread over two continents (1), bathed on all sides by the sea, crossed by rich waterways, possessing abundant mines, having fertile fields on which produce suitable for all climates can be grown, presents the most favourable conditions for the development of a powerful industry. All it lacks is a liberal and honest regime.
Will this regime, at last, be inaugurated with the triumph of the Young Turk party? To answer this question we must first examine the origins of the Turkish liberal movement and the political circumstances within which it is obliged to evolve.
This is not the first time that Turkey has tried to assimilate the political structures of the West: the present Constitution was granted in 1876. But in reality, the reforming movement in Turkey originates from a much earlier period, that of Selim who was the first, at the cost of his life, to try to disband the militia of the Janissaries. Since then more than one reformer has tried to implant western institutions on the banks of the Bosphorus. Some statesmen have even denounced this reforming zeal as one of the causes of Turkish decadence. For example Metternich, among others, who uttered the saying, often quoted by the Old Turks: ‘Turks must remain Turks.’
These reforms were never seriously applied but, nevertheless, the recovery of the Christian populations in Turkey is due to them. The main reforms were those introduced by Sultan Abdul Hamid which were known as the Tanzimat. The first were introduced with the arrival on the throne of this Sultan, that is in 1839, the others after the Crimean war. They are contained in two Acts: the Hatti Cherif of Gulhane and the Hatti Houmayoum.
The aim of all these reforms was to bring Turkey in line with the modern states as far as civil and public rights were concerned. Before the Tanzimat there was no separation of powers in Turkey and consequently no guarantee for the lives, property or honour of citizens. The administrative authorities applied the death penalty and confiscation goods as they pleased. The Turks, as well as the Christians, suffered from this state of things, with the difference that the latter was constrained in the exercise of their religion on top of the humiliations of all kinds which they suffered as a conquered people.
The reform of 1856 decreed the civil equality of all Ottoman subjects without distinction; that of 1839 introduced a regular system for collecting taxes and put a limit on obligatory military service, however only for Muslims. But all these reforms left untouched the absolute power of the Sultan and kept the population excluded from any public life. Christians, exempted from the army, were in addition excluded in practice from all civic functions even though the reform of 1656 [1856? – H.R.] had recognised their right to equality.
It was only in 1876 that we saw the first major political reform in Turkey: the proclamation of the parliamentary Constitution or Ganouni-Essasi.
A French diplomat, Count Charles de Mouy, described a typical episode connected with this proclamation in the Revue des Deux-Mondes of February 1900.
At this time an international conference had been called to give organisational autonomy to the provinces of European Turkey (Bulgaria, Macedonia and Bosnia). During the session of 23rd December 1876, as the delegates of the various powers were about to start their discussions rounds of gunfire were heard. The chair of the conference, the Turkish delegate Salvet Pasha, then rose and solemnly announced;
‘These salvos mark the promulgation of the Constitution that the Sultan is granting to his empire. This act changes the form of government that has lasted six hundred years and inaugurated a new era of prosperity for the Ottoman peoples.’
M. de Mouy added that the plenipotentiaries – not surprised as they expected some incident – but very annoyed by this theatrical action obviously intended to dazzle them and disrupt their agenda, maintained an icy silence … Then without any congratulations, and as if nothing had happened proceeded to the business of the day.
Subsequent events justified their distrust.
Abdul Hamid who before ascending the throne had evinced constitutionalism greater than that of Midhad Pasha, who had come to negotiate with him, seized the first favourable opportunity to suspend the Constitution.
Are we witnessing a repetition of this old comedy? No doubt the Sultan would not hesitate to suspend the Constitution a second time and throw its defenders into prison if they showed any weakness.
Abdul Hamid is in fact one of the most despotic monarchs known to history. Here is what the French ambassador to Constantinople wrote in an official document of 15 October 1881 published in Le Livre Jaune (The Yellow Book):
‘The Porte no longer exists: this is even the essential feature, the principal character, of the regime under which the Ottoman empire exists at the moment. Before Abdul Hamid the sultan’s power was absolute but it was exercised through ministers who played an active role in the government, in administration and in the conduct of foreign policy etc, etc. This is no longer the case. The ministers are simple errand boys expected to carry out unquestioningly the orders of the sovereign.’
After exercising such unlimited power for twenty-seven years Abdul Hamid can with difficulty tolerate a will above his own. He, therefore, remains the principal opponent of the new regime and his present assurances have no more value than those of 1876.
We know that the grand architect of the 1876 Constitution was Midhad Pasha, that he was deprived of power in February 1877, exiled to Asia Minor and later imprisoned, accused of having dethroned Sultan Abdul Aziz. Midhad Pasha died in prison, very probably poisoned.
The first setback of the Young Turk party was not due only to its numerical weakness but above all to its mistaken political conception. The space given to the Christians by Midhad Pasha and his friends in their governmental system was quite insufficient to attach them to the Ottoman empire. The Young Turks of that period allowed themselves to be too influenced by the racial antagonism which existed between Muslims and Christians.
Today it is still this antagonism which constitutes the main danger to the Turkish revolution, in so far as it is real and has not merely a religious dimension but a social and economic one too. In the towns the bourgeoisie is mainly Catholic, the Turks being functionaries and the military. Add to this the particular organisation of the Turkish family, based on the absolute slavery of women, and we can understand the bitterness of the struggles between Muslims and Christians and the contempt and hatred they feel for each other. Centuries of unchallenged domination have strengthened among the Turks their feeling of superiority over the Christians, the ”ghiaours”, a race of inferior beings and slaves. It is the psychology of the Turkish dominant classes which the clerics also spread among the lower classes kept in the crassest of ignorance. The fact that Muslims only are subject to military service has reinforced their racial prejudice.
This antagonism is confirmed in a way by a sociological trend: the difference in the birth rate between Turks and Christians. While the birth rate among the Christians is 41.7 per thousand per year (official census figures for Bulgaria) the rate among the Turks is only 23.5. It is the result of the different social evolutions of the conquerors and the conquered.
Recognition of this fact indicates to us that the aim of the Turkish revolution must be higher than merely the establishment of some political system. It must be to lift a people to the level of modern civilisation and culture. Actually, it would be puerile to deny that the Christian element in Turkey is much more capable of modern political life than the Turkish element, and therefore that through a frank alliance with the former the reforming party will find the forces necessary for the realisaton of its programme.
The relative incompatibility between the Muslim culture and especially the Muslim family and a regime of political and civil liberty and equality is not generally recognised. Many Turks deny it, and events seem to support them. In fact the eagerness with which the whole of Turkey, including its astrologers and its “Cheik-ul-Islam”, declare “unreservedly” their support for the constitutional regime seems to contradict our statement were it not that this has another explanation. It is sufficient to note that the home ground of Young Turk propaganda was Macedonia and that the explosion of the movement coincided with the Anglo-Russian project for reforms to understand the more nationalist than liberal origins of the actual movement. All have grasped at the Constitution as a means of saving Turkey from another amputation. This does not mean that all take account of the concessions that must be made to reconcile the Christians and also to give the Turkish popular masses confidence in the new regime. In any case diversity of views on this already existed before the revolution. The circles around Mechveret show very nationalist tendencies. The political ideal of this group is a powerful central power-assisted by a parliament as envisaged by the 1876 Constitution. The other faction, grouped around the Sultan’s nephew, Sebah-Edin, and which some months ago concluded an offensive alliance with the Armenian revolutionaries, seek the salvation of the empire in a federation of the peoples inhabiting Turkey.
It is undeniable that the democratic programme of this group is the only one that can guarantee the general and sincere practice of liberty.
It also goes to meet not only the programme of the Armenian revolutionaries but also that of the Macedonian revolutionaries. [A] The declarations of these revolutionaries, their significant demonstrations in Salonika and Monastir, would not have sufficed to assure us about the sincerity of their intentions if there did not exist other proof, that is, the often bloody struggles against each other of the Macedonian federalists and the Macedonian partisans of union with Bulgaria. The assassination of Sarofos, the former president of the Macedonian committee of Sofia, was only one incident in this fratricidal conflict. After the recent events in Turkey the Macedonian organisations which have links with the Sofia Committee, and therefore with unofficial Bulgarian circles, have declared through their current president, Pintcheff, that they have no wish to stand in the way of the reforming work of the Young Turks. The establishment of a regime of liberty in Turkey is such a vital necessity for all its people that no one dares openly accept responsibility for opposing it. Nevertheless, the governments of the Balkan countries, as well as the diplomacies of Russia, Germany and Austria, while making favourable declarations about the present changes, would view the failure of the reforming movement with great pleasure. Its success would raise obstacles to their policies of territorial or economic expansion.
It is to be hoped that all the intrigues from abroad and all the internal resistance will be defeated by the more and more close cooperation of the Young Turks with the democratic Christian elements. The former must understand that without the aid of the latter, and therefore without a regime of absolute equality between Turks and Christians the work of renovating Turkey is impossible. On their part the Christians must be convinced that it is in their most immediate interest to help the Turks create modern conditions of life, honestly and with no thought of separatism; otherwise, there will be a return to the regime of massacres, misery and tyranny for the peoples of the Turkish empire.
1. Turkey (in Europe and Asia) has an area of 2,775,000 square kilometres and a population of 25 million. In Europe it occupies the following provinces – Albania, Macedonia, Epirus and Thessaly (partly Thrace, the vilayet of Andrianople). In Asia – Anatolia, Turkish Armenia, Arabia, Syria, Kurdistan, Mesopotamia. In Africa – Tripoli. We do not count the provinces nominally Turk: Eastern Roumalia united with Bulgaria in 1885, and Egypt became effectively a protectorate of England.
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