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First Victory of East over Western Colonialism: The Turkish War of Independence

The concept of colonialism has continued its existence since antiquity by taking different forms. During the 19th and 20th centuries, it was Great Britain that championed colonialism (Rashid, 2014), followed by France until (and arguably beyond) 1962, when it gave up control of Algeria (Cooper, 2022). The modern forms of colonialism were monopolized by European powers, and the rivalry among them eventually led to the breakout of WW I. The end of WW I posed a challenge to the colonial rule of Western Powers, especially that of Britain and France. However, this intervention of the League of Nations was only to prevent another devastating war and the oppressed nations were considered only on the surface. Despite being undermined to a certain degree, the dominance of France and Britain over their colonized territories remained. Britain managed to keep its critical possessions such as India and Egypt, while France continued to control essential parts of North Africa, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. In the meantime, the Monroe Agreement was signed between the defeated Ottoman government and the Allied forces. Under the terms of this agreement, the Ottoman government surrendered a vast amount of its remaining territory to Britain, France, Italy, and Greece, taking the first steps to become a colonial territory. All of these oppressed nations revolted against the rule of imperialism at about the same time, around 1919. Yet, only one of them succeeded in the same decade, the Republic of Turkey (former Ottoman Empire). Each war of independence mentioned in this article has a long and complex background and continuation. However, for the sake of an organized comparison, this article analyzes the most prominent similarities and differences of these wars against the rule of imperialism.

Figure 1: William Pitt and Napoleon Bonaparte, carving up the world between them

The treatment applied by western powers to their colonies was much more than economic oppression, it included political and social pressure and psychological intimidation policies. The political condition of these oppressed nations was already unstable, facilitating their being possessed by outsiders. Since the economic activity of colonial territories was mostly agricultural, native people completely lost their financial support and turned into the workforce of the occupying forces. The lack of financial power led to the decline in military power as well and any means of resistance were abolished. In order to maintain total control, the occupying forces made their own citizens settle in their colonies. This reinforced the already existing discrimination and persecution towards the natives, turning them into second-class citizens in their own country. For instance, the life expectancy of Indians enormously declined between 1872 and 1921 (Habib, 1985, p. 371). While many people credit British colonialism for India's extensive rail network, it is important to note it was built specifically to transport colonial troops inland to quell rebellions and food out of famine-stricken regions for export (Habib, 1985). In Algeria, France mostly responded through intentional violence techniques, which were routinized after 1954 (Rothe, 2022). Similar violations began in the collapsed Ottoman Empire after World War I.

The Turkish War of Independence officially began on May 19, 1919, with the arrival of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk on Samsun. He immediately addressed local resistance forces and governors to organize against occupation forces and criticized the then current administration for not intervening to raise awareness among the national community. Also, Atatürk warned the British officers in Samsun that the Turks would never tolerate foreign occupation and sent a confidential letter to the corps commanders under his authority emphasizing the need for a guerrilla force to be raised until a regular army could be organized for defense (Shaw & Shaw, 1977). After that, he made several attempts to formalize and secure the foundations of the national movement, including the Amasya Protocol, Erzurum Congress, and Sivas Congress. There was already an established community to protect the Eastern parts of the Ottoman Empire against Armenian belligerence. Atatürk met with this community at Erzurum Congress with the aim of unifying local national leaders. Thus, he managed to shift the focus from regional protection to territorial protection. Since the delegates in the National Congress at Sivas came not only from the east but from all over the nation, including far-off Thrace the resolutions adopted at Erzurum now were transformed into a national appeal, and the name of the organization changed to the Society to Defend the Rights and Interests of the Provinces of Anatolia and Rumeli (Shaw & Shaw, 1977). Atatürk had to start with irregular forces since he had no authority in the administration. However, once he managed to organize national leaders, he immediately laid the formal foundations and established a regular army.

Figure 2: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, leader of the Turkish War of Independence and the founding father of the Republic of Turkey

Before comprehensive national movements, there were small regional organizations against the occupying forces in these oppressed countries. However, these organizations that were not corporate into larger movements under a primary mandate failed eventually. In 1912 the Jeunes Algériens (Young Algerians) movement advocated for greater Arab representation in French elected bodies, but the group was still split between those who insisted on equal rights, those who opted for assimilation, and those who advocated for religious autonomy and the defence of Islam (Fois, 2017). Tunisians waged many guerrilla wars, eventually captured by France. Certain tribes of Morocco such as Zayanes, attempted to protect their respective territories, but failed. The Ottoman Empire had a similar organization led by ordinary citizens that managed to be successful, Turkish National Forces. However, this was only because of its corporation into the regular army and organization of activities by Atatürk. Irregular warfare differs tremendously from the regular, conventional warfare in terms of military asymmetry and the political nature of the struggle (Kitzen, 2020). Since the fight between a state’s army and an irregular opponent is the archetype of military asymmetry, this forces such enemies to carefully manage their scarce resources and seek creative ways to effectively deploy them (Kitzen, 2020). Typically, the resulting imbalance leads to the practice of hiding among relevant populations in order to survive and function (Kitzen, 2020), and lack of legitimacy causes to be labeled as terrorists and barbarians.

Figure 3: Turks War of Independence

Similar to the Ottoman Empire, The Maghreb (Moracco, Algeria and Tunisia) was under the colonial rule of France. Before the 1920s, Algerians’ tendency to reclaim their sovereignty drastically increased as well. Between 1914-18, demands for citizenship rights in Algeria and French West Africa escalated (Cooper, 2022). “Some French politicians saw this as a legitimate demand, but the government instead reinforced its insistence on treating subjects as ‘different’ and incapable of acting as citizens” (Cooper, 2022, p. 420). Étoile Nord-Africaine (ENA) was established in 1926 to unify the whole North African region against France domination. As clearly stated in its statute, The ENA’s primary goal was national independence: “The association has as its fundamental objective the organization of the struggle for the independence of the three countries of North Africa. It reports and fights against all colonial oppression, and mainly deals with the defence of the material, moral, political and social rights of the North African populations” (Fois, 2017). In addition, their demands were outlined in Brussels in 1927 during the Congress of the League against Colonial Oppression (Fois, 2017). Considering the previous separate regional movements, ENA was similar to the beginning of the Turkish War of Independence. It managed to unify the North African region and set the formal foundations of its existence. However, ENA had no military force and used only peaceful means. Eventually, it was abolished by France in 1929. The organization was re-established in 1929, however, the French divided the population by providing discriminatory privileges such as granting right to vote or French citizenship under certain conditions (Fois, 2017). Thus, France functioned to defuse the growth of nationalism by accommodating some demands, enforcing its’ policy of divide et impera (Fois, 2017). Under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, India launched Non-Cooperation Movement against the rule of Britain in 1920. This was one of the most prominent national movements in India and marked the awareness of Indians. Gandhi managed to unify the population against the pro-British Indian government and British rule. Similar to ENA, the movement adopted peaceful means such as strikes and protests. Although the Government of India was on the run in December 1921, at the height of the first great non-cooperation campaign against the British, the non-cooperation movement was in ruins three months later, and the Government's authority had emerged intact (Low, 1966). Gandhi had to call off the movement after the response of Britain, which caused death of civilians in Chauri Chaura incident. Egyptian Revolution of 1919 marked the awakening of Egyptians against imperialism. Unlike in the case of Algeria and India there were civil disobedience and increasing social unrest. The 1919 Egyptian revolution sits alongside the simultaneous Irish war of independence led to Britainʼs crisis of empire and British imperial rule were stretched to breaking point (Kitchen, 2015, p. 249). In the end, Britain managed to retain control by giving Egypt some sense of autonomy in domestic issues. Thus, Egypt could not achieve total independence, and settled for partial sovereignty. This was mostly due to the lack of formalization and a clear agreement on the primary mandate of the movement. Throughout the period of national resistance and the War of Independence, Ataturk's actions rested on a few basic convictions that he applied to shifting circumstances with great flexibility: justice, he believed, is absolute, but force is required to make right prevail in this world (Rustow 1968). After gaining independence, he followed his famous policy of ‘Peace at home, peace in the world’. However, in the cases where the invading forces take aggressive approaches to take the control, the only remaining way for the oppressed nation is to reclaim its independence by force. For instance, Gandhi is a prominent figure for his non-violent civil disobedience movements. However, he only succeeded after decades, along with the changing political climate and burdens of World War II on Britain. As in the example of Chauri Chaura incident mentioned above, these silent protests mostly ended with military responses from the occupying forces. Upon the Rowlatt Act, which was a legislation passed by Britain to maintain control in India, Gandhi organized an unarmed campaign. This strike ended with British forces opening fire on the crowd, now known as Massacre of Amritsar. Unfortunately, his peaceful Non-cooperation Movement ended with military intervention as well. On the other hand, Turkey gained its independence after four years of war, facing the military responses from occupying forces. Gandhi remains as a remarkable variation, however, his method took unrestful decades to succeed. In addition, there were times that he followed policies that contradicts his ideology. When Britain declared war against Germany on August 4, 1914, Indian nationalists including Gandhi, supported this decision because they expected that this would advance their claims for increasing self-government and Indians were recruited for British army (Traboulay, 1997). After the reoccurrence of armed resistance in Algeria, French officers realized that the only way to get social and political movements in Africa to back off from costly claims on the resources of European France was to grant a high degree of autonomy to elected governments in those territories (Cooper, 2022). These incidents show that use of force and unity of nation in the face of oppression are the effective tools for liberation.

Figure 4: The league against imperialism, national liberation, and the economic question

Eastern Question was another reason that distinguishes the situation of the Ottoman Empire than the rest of the colonized nations. European powers were mostly certain about the division of Africa and Asia. However, the allocation of the remaining land of the Ottoman Empire, Anatolia and Straits, turned into a problem for the Western powers. Due to the important strategic location of the region, the European Powers could not agree on a division pattern, as their national interests were significantly affected. Having won the war militarily, Atatürk was able to use this conflict to his advantage with extraordinary diplomacy techniques and secured the place of Republic of Turkey in the international arena. Moreover, he laid the necessary foundations for the continuity of the Turkish nation and ensured the existence of the republic after him.

In addition to the military war, Atatürk also successfully won the psychological war he waged, which is a very important factor that distinguishes the outcome of the Turkish War of Independence from those of others. The oppressed nations mentioned here shared similar attributes, including weak and deprived governments, economies, militaries and social structures. This resulted in a lack of unity and faith amongst the people of these nations, resulting in their psychological weakening. With his efforts, Atatürk accomplished what no other leader could have done, he united the impoverished people and won the war in deprivation. His statement “ Either independence or death” demonstrates his determination and foresight to reclaim the rights of the nation even under extreme deprivation.

Figure 5: The Sick Man of Europe

The Turkish War of Independence ended with victory in 1923, four years after its beginning. The vain pursuit of imperialism by the Great Powers made it possible for a non-Western nation to win not just a great military victory, but also the only peace treaty to be renegotiated by the Allies with a former World War I enemy (Finefrock, 1980,). Thus, the Turkish War of Independence is marked by being the first success of an oppressed nation against imperialist powers of the 20th century. Turkish victory toward outnumbered troops of Allied Powers, brought admiration of many Asian and African nations who were still struggling for their independence (Hattemer, 2000). Thus, the steps of Turkey toward independence were followed by the other nations in the following decades. India gained its independence in 1947 and the last British forces departed from Egypt in 1954. In 1956, France withdrew from Morocco and Tunisia. Finally, Algeria gained its independence in 1962. The example and inspiration of the Turkish War of Independence brought the beginning of an end to new imperialism in the 20th century.

Bibliographical References

Finefrock, M. M. (1980). Ataturk, Lloyd George and the Megali Idea: Cause and Consequence of the Greek Plan to Seize Constantinople from the Allies, June-August 1922. The Journal of Modern History, 52(1), D1047–D1066.

Fois, M. (2017). Algerian Nationalism: From the Origins to Algerian War of Independence. Oriente Moderno, 97(1), 89–110.

Habib, I. (1985). Studying a Colonial Economy—Without Perceiving Colonialism. Modern Asian Studies,19(3), 355-381.

Hattemer, R. (2000). Atatürk and the Reforms in Turkey as Reflected in the Egyptian Press. Journal of Islamic Studies, 11(1), 21–42. Kitchen, J. E. (2015). Violence in Defence of Empire: The British Armyand the 1919 Egyptian Revolution. Journal of Modern European History, 13(2), 249–267. Kitzen, M. (2020). Operations in irregular warfare. Handbook of Military Sciences, 1–21. Low, D. (1966). The Government of India and the First Non-Cooperation Movement—1920–1922. The Journal of Asian Studies, 25(2), 241-259. doi:10.2307/2051326

Rashid, N. (2014). British colonialism in East-Africa during nineteenth century. IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 19(3), 08–11.

Rothe, D. L. (2022). Book Review: Torture as State Crime: A Criminological Analysis of the Transnational Institutional Torturer Melanie Collard by Dawn L. Rothe. Social & Legal Studies. Shaw, S., & Shaw, E. (1977). The Turkish War for Independence, 1918–1923. In History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey (pp. 340-372). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511614972.010

Traboulay, D. M. (1997). Mahatma Gandhi's Satyagraha and NonViolent Resistance . City University of New York (CUNY) Academic Works.

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Pelin Burcu Ozturk
Pelin Burcu Ozturk
Aug 01, 2022

it's interesting to read an article that focuses on how imperialism awakens a nation. it's a well-developed article on how independence and willingness to be free can overcome even the most entrenched system. great approach!


Aug 01, 2022

W Turkey 🇹🇷

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Deniz Aktunç

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