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Eighty years on, ghost of last Ottoman sultan sparks heated debate in Turkey

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  • Eighty years on, ghost of last Ottoman sultan sparks heated debate in Turkey

    The debate whether Vahdettin was a traitor or not pits Ecevit against archrival Demirel, but not in their usual corners

    Ragıp Erten

    ISTANBUL – Turkish Daily News


    Almost 80 years after his death, the last Ottoman Sultan Mehmet VI, or Vahdettin, as he is better known, sparked heated debate in Turkey, debate that for years simmered under the left-against-right political fault line in the country.

    Turkey's 20th century official political history, from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the national war of independence led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the establishment of modern Turkey, has branded Vahdettin a traitor, a ruler who capitulated to the invading allied forces at the end of World War I and who fled Turkey aboard a British warship.

    On the other hand, Turkey's right-wing politicians, journalists and historians in the last 50 years have claimed that Vahdettin and his predecessors in the 20th century, starting with the “Red Sultan” Abdülhamid, were patriots, a claim opposed by left-wing counterparts who support the official line.

    However, Bülent Ecevit, a former prime minister and leader of Turkey's center left since the 1960s, in an unlikely statement by a left-wing politician said in an interview with right-wing daily Zaman last week that Vahdettin was not a traitor, as is widely accepted in Turkey, and that he supported Ataturk's initiative to start a national war against the invaders in the 1920s. He said he has been writing a book, “Ottomans and the People of Anatolia,” since he left active politics in 2003 and said Vahdettin knew Atatürk was going to Anatolia to initiate resistance.

    The statement created a sensation in the media and political circles, with right-wing newspapers and columnists embracing Ecevit's comments, coming as they did from a very unlikely ally, in support their own theories that Vahdettin was indeed a man bent on saving his country.

    The first reaction to his comments came from his long-standing political rival, Süleyman Demirel, former president, prime minister and a living legend of the Turkish center-right political movement. Demirel, also in retirement, but ever voicing his opinion on political issues, said he could not comprehend Ecevit's comments on Vahdettin. “Statements on political personalities contrary to accepted beliefs feel odd. Ecevit's statement is odd. Turkey is not in a position to accept such a statement," daily Hürriyet quoted Demirel as saying.

    Demirel and Ecevit were fierce opponents in the 1970s, each leading their respective political parties, both fighting for supremacy in Turkey. Following the 1980 military coup, the two shared a prison island and in the early 2000s, when Ecevit was prime minister and Demirel president, they had a civilized dialogue and were dubbed “the two wise old men of Turkish politics.”

    But their current political stand on Vahdettin is in direct contrast of what is expected of them: Ecevit, a former leader of the Republican People's Party (CHP) founded by Atatürk, is contradicting the official, accepted wisdom on recent history, while Demirel, who as a political leader had close links in the past with religious groups opposing the republic, is now defending Atatürk's legacy.

    Demirel told Hürriyet Editor in Chief Ertuğrul Özkök that the Turkish Republic owed a lot to Atatürk but nothing to Vahdettin. “Atatürk is a reference for all of us. He is the reference of the Turkish Republic. He is the strongest reference bonding Turkey together.”

    He said Turkey's republican elite was now in disarray, that common references on language, religion and regions have started to disappear and that Turkey needed the reference of Atatürk for at least another hundred years.

    Ecevit responded that he is a leading supporter of Atatürk but his logic led him to believe Vahdettin had supported the war of independence during the turbulent times of the 1920s.

    However, Atatürk, in his “Discourse,” his work on the national war of independence, describes Vahdettin as a person who acted to find ways to secure himself and his throne.

    The last sultan:

    Sultan Mehmet VI served as the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Succeeding his brother on July 3, 1918, Vahdettin presided over the terminal decline of the Ottoman Empire. Determined to assume personal control over the government, and, crucially, to ensure the continued survival of the Ottoman dynasty, Vahdettin cooperated with the Allies in suppressing all nationalist groups in the wake of the unconditional surrender and armistice of Oct. 30, 1918.

    On April 11, 1920 he dissolved Parliament, leading to the establishment of a government in Ankara by Atatürk. However, it was the sultan's signing of the Treaty of Sevres on Aug. 10 1920, which made him unpopular with the Ankara government. Under the terms of the treaty the Ottoman Empire was reduced to little more than Turkey itself.

    With victory over the Greeks, the Ankara government, led by Atatürk, held sway over Turkey, and on Nov. 1 1922, the Sultanate was formally abolished by the Grand National Assembly. Vahdettin consequently fled to Malta aboard a British warship. His subsequent attempts to re-establish himself as caliph in the Hejaz proved a failure. He died on May 16, 1926 in San Remo at the age of 65.

    Historians' views:

    The memoirs of Vahdettin had been published by Murat Bardakçı, a historian and journalist with close links to the members of the Ottoman dynasty. He said the Ottomans had surrendered in World War I only three months after Vahdettin acceded to the throne. “So neither World War I nor defeat in the war has anything to do with Vahdettin. He ruled only a small area between Bebek and Aksaray, (two districts in Istanbul). All he did was to manipulate the two sides to gain time. It is because of his delaying tactics that he is accused of treason," Bardakçı said in Hürriyet. He quoted Vahdettin from his memoirs: “Although I could not prevent certain tragedies and events, I acted as a lightning rod, I tried to divert the blame for the disasters upon myself. I tried to save my country by sacrificing myself.”

    Professor İlber Ortaylı, one of Turkey's leading historians, supported Ecevit in his statement on Vahdettin. In an article in daily Milliyet he said Atatürk and Vahdettin were at odds most of the time but that there were times when they were friends. “Whatever others say, the last sultan did not rob the Treasury as he left; he never worked against the Turkish state where he went either,” Ortaylı said. “It is appropriate for Bülent Ecevit to lift the official labels on Abdülhamid and Vahdettin. What the historians say does not amount to much in countries like ours. The bans are broken by politicians and political leaders whose words are listened to more,” Ortaylı concluded.

    Another historian, Professor Reşat Kaynar, said although there was direct evidence to say Vahdettin was a traitor, when the events of the 1920s were analyzed as Atatürk did in his “Discourse,” the last sultan's biggest fault was to sign the Treaty of Sevres.

    Historian Dr. Metin Ayışığı said there was no evidence to support that he was instrumental in sending Atatürk to Anatolia to start the war of independence or that he gave Atatürk large sums in gold coins to help him finance his campaign, as alleged by some right-wing writers.
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