The Liberation of Istanbul

In 2007 a Turkish graphic novel named ‘Son Osmanlı’ (The Last Ottoman) was turned into a film named for its hero, Yandım Ali. Released under the English title of ‘Knockout Ali’, the film made little impact elsewhere, despite achieving considerable popularity in its home country. Not so surprising, really. The Turkish film industry is one of the largest producers of films in Europe, but few of its oeuvres find much viewership beyond the borders of the home country.

A Turkish Robin Hood

Yandım Ali is a latter-day Robin Hood figure, roaming the streets of Istanbul/Constantinople immediately after the First World War. His city, however, is under occupation, with the Sheriff of Nottingham’s men replaced by the British military. If you can find your way past the Turkish accents of local actors roped in to play the parts of British officers, you see a population chafing under the injustices and oppression of a foreign invader. Ali is the handsome tough guy whose national pride cannot tolerate the bullying arrogance of the occupying forces, but his puny opposition is doomed to failure without a good King Richard to give it focus. The Lionheart’s role is filled by a young Turkish officer, Mustafa Kemal, about to embark on a momentous quest to liberate his people.


Well, you’re saying, I can see why that didn’t attract much interest outside Turkey (except maybe among ex-pat Turkish communities in Germany and elsewhere). It’s pretty clearly a hopelessly slanted, highly romanticised piece of anti-British propaganda. And of course, romanticised and slanted it is indeed. But sometimes it is good for us to see another slant on events we think we understand, in order to appreciate the slant that has influenced our own perspective. ‘O, wad some power,’ said Rabbie Burns, ‘the giftie gie us/ To see oursels as others see us.’ Such insight is not always a comfortable thing, but ‘Yandim Ali’ begs a question or two that I’d like to investigate. Once again, a trip back in time is necessary . . .

The Istanbul of Yandım Ali was, of course, the capital city of the Ottomans, the ruling elite of an empire which had exerted a major influence on the domestic and foreign policies of European nations for more than 600 years. The empire was at its peak in the 16th and 17th centuries, only finally being turned back from the gates of Vienna in 1683. From then on its decline was gradual but inexorable, though its existence, albeit in an ailing capacity, continued to shape the policies of the Great Powers of Europe throughout the 19th century, up to and including the First World War. The workings of this influence were covered by the term, ‘The Eastern Question’, which can be summarised as: ‘When will the Ottoman Empire finally fall apart, and which of us (i.e. the European Great Powers) is going to get what when it does?’

Two great driving forces of events in the 19th century were Nationalism and Imperialism. Clearly these forces are, in essence, mutually contradictory. As the Great Powers of Europe expanded their empires, it goes without saying that they impinged more than a little on the sovereign rights of national groups within their expanding borders. It may be said that the one thing the leaders of the Great Powers agreed on was the need to suppress nationalist minorities. At the same time, however, they were not averse to employing the disruptive power of such minorities when to do so suited their own expansionist goals.

The later years of the Ottoman Empire provide several examples of this ambivalent approach to nationalist self-awareness. Contrary to the bad press they frequently receive on the subject, the Ottomans were remarkably tolerant of differences of language and religion within their borders. Of course, Islam was the official religion, and Ottoman Turkish the language of government. However, Orthodox Christians (as well as, incidentally, Armenians) and Jews were allowed to practise their religion and use their own languages and alphabets provided they paid their taxes. I would not be the first to suggest that it was this tolerance by the Ottomans of national differences within their empire that contributed to and hastened its disintegration.

However that may be, it is certainly true that the one area where the Great Powers of Europe were remarkably tolerant, even encouraging of the aspirations of nationalist minorities, was within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire. In an earlier article I touched on the support given by Britain, France and Russia to the cause of Greek independence in the 1820s. In 1827, fleets of these three nations combined to defeat the Ottoman navy, paving the way for the foundation of the modern kingdom of Greece. Why ‘kingdom’ you may ask? Well, because it allowed the big brother nations to install someone from their own ranks, the 17 year-old Bavarian Prince Otto, who became King of the new ‘Greece’. Less than 30 years later, Britain and France were in league with those same Ottomans, smashing the Russians in the Crimea. What had changed? Pass on another 60 years and you’ll find Britain and France, back together with Russia again, intent on finishing off the Ottomans who were now supported by Germany! Make sense?

Let me give you a quick run-down. First, the Greeks. Well, they were Christians, weren’t they? Obviously being oppressed by those terrible Muslim Turks. Never mind that Greek Christians within the Ottoman Empire were allowed to speak their language, practise their religion, hold important positions and get rich. But, and it’s a big ‘but’, at least as far as Western Europeans were concerned, Greek Christianity was not the right sort. There was always a major danger that they would unite with (or be subjugated by) their Orthodox cousins, the Russians. Then there was the confusing business of what you actually mean when you say ‘Greek’. Philhellenes on the continent (see my previous article) had a hazy idea of Greek-ness as being an ancient, classical, pagan but nonetheless romantic birthplace of modern civilisation centred on Athens. Modern Greek nationalists, on the other hand, were more inclined to imagine a medieval Orthodox Christian empire centred on Constantinople.

So, if you were a British political leader in the 19th century, you might find it convenient to give moral, and even logistical support to the cause of Greek independence, since it would be useful to have a grateful puppet-state in the eastern Mediterranean. On the other hand, you might also feel a little nervous of the southward-expanding Russians, who were encouraging, for their own ends, the nationalist aspirations of Christian minorities within the Ottoman borders. Especially since the Russian brand of Christianity had a lot more in common with those ‘oppressed’ brothers (and sisters).

Another complicating factor was the appearance on the stage of Europe, in the 1870s, of two ‘new’ powers with imperialist aspirations: Italy and Germany. Illustrating perfectly the dichotomy that existed in Europeans’ minds of the time with respect to imperialism and nationalism, these two emergent powers owed their existence to the nationalist dream of uniting people with a common linguistic, racial and cultural heritage. Having achieved this goal, however, they immediately entered into competition with the older powers in the field of empire building (and, hence, of course, in overriding the nationalistic ambitions of others).

It is also obvious that, as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, the importance of oil as a new source of energy, added to the strategic importance of the Suez Canal for access to India, the ‘jewel’ in the British Imperial crown, increased the tensions and power games in the Near (Middle) East. Western Europeans are not generally known for their love of Arabs, yet they were only too ready to lionise TE Lawrence as he championed Arab nationalism against the evil Ottomans.

Well, sorry for the digression – it’s not my aim to make a detailed examination of 19th century power politics. Just to give enough background to follow what I want to say about the aftermath of World War I as it affected the country we now know as Turkey.

The European summer of 1914 was ignited by the assassination of an Austrian archduke (whatever an arch-duke may be) with little other claim to fame. By the beginning of August, all the major powers of Europe were at each other’s throats, with the exception of the Ottomans who were understandably uncertain who, if anyone, they should support.

This situation was resolved for them in October largely owing, once again, to our old friend, Winston Churchill. The Ottoman navy had been a major client of British shipyards for some years, and had recently ordered two modern battleships, paid for by public subscription. Winston’s brainwave was, apparently, to ensure Ottoman neutrality by ‘requisitioning’ these battleships for the duration of the war, and paying a kind of rent for their use in the British navy. Germany seized the opportunity to present the Ottomans with two modern warships of their own, and immediately proceeded, after hoisting the Ottoman flag, to sail across the Black Sea and bombard one or two Russian ports and bases. Not much room left for diplomatic manoeuvring after that!

Well, it took four years, and a lot of death and destruction, but the upstart Germans were eventually brought to their knees, especially after the entry of the USA into the war in 1917 (once again, if you can believe the rumours, with some behind-the-scenes manipulation on the part of W.L.S. Churchill). Once it became obvious that they had backed the wrong horse, the Ottomans requested an armistice, which took place on October 30, 1918 on the Aegean Island of Lemnos. Perhaps they expected reasonable treatment from their former allies, especially since they hadn’t actually invaded anyone else’s territory – but they were to be disappointed. Within two weeks, British and French troops had occupied the Ottoman capital of Istanbul, and there they remained as an army of occupation for the next five years.

The two members of the Entente Cordiale then set about implementing plans long-held, to divide up the Ottoman Empire and erase it from the world map. The instrument used was the Treaty of Sevres, signed on 10 August 1920. Interestingly, neither the United States nor Russia was party to this treaty. Under its terms, the Ottoman government would continue to rule in name, but in reality as a political and financial puppet of the Allies (France and Britain). Ottoman ‘war criminals’ would be handed over to the Allies for trial and punishment. Most of the Near/Middle East, Palestine (there was no Israel in those days), Lebanon, Syria and Iraq were given as ‘mandates’ to Britain and France – and a mini-kingdom was established around the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, one assumes, as a sop to Arab nationalism. France also laid claim to a large chunk of modern Turkey north of Syria, while the Italians were given most of Mediterranean Anatolia, including offshore islands. A new nation-state of Armenia was to be established, with its border extending to the Black Sea around the modern Turkish port of Trabzon.


There were a few bitter pills to swallow there, you’d have to think – but representatives of the Ottoman Government duly signed. Perhaps they truly believed there was no alternative. Enter ‘Yandım Ali’ and Richard the Lionheart! What precisely was the spark that ignited the tinder of Turkish nationalism is open to debate, but it’s hard to imagine your average Mehmet on the Karakoy omnibus being pleased to see his ‘Greek’ neighbours and fellow citizens dancing in the streets of Istanbul (Constantinople) and Izmir (Smyrna) as they welcomed the invading forces. It is said that the French general entered Istanbul mounted on a white horse, as his conquering Turkish predecessor, had done in 1453. Perhaps the last straw was the sight of an army from mainland Greece (backed by their big brothers, Britain and France) landing on the Turkish mainland from whence their ancestors had been expelled 466 years previously.

Whatever the final cause, certain it is that Turkish nationalism was stirred into life. A four-year struggle ensued, at the end of which the Greek invaders were again expelled, and the Italian, British and French governments decided to cut their losses and withdraw. The Treaty of Sevres lapsed for want of support and was replaced by a new Treaty, signed at Lausanne, Switzerland, recognising the existence of the new Republic of Turkey. On 6 October, thousands of Istanbul school children will have a holiday to celebrate getting their city back.
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