Report of Research on Ismet Inönü and the Modern Turkish State

Alexander Snow, Class of 2009

For my last two years of High School, my father had forced my family to go on countless road trips, exploring ruins, mosques, and cities across Turkey, where we were posted.  As I grew older and wiser, these dull family events became blessings. It became easy to appreciate the breadth of Turkey’s historical value: from the Hittites to the Ottomans, from Ancient Troy to Atatürk, the country is marked by its unique blend of ancient cultures. As we wrapped up yet another road warrior event over the 2006-2007 winter break, it dawned on me that these experiences were soon going to end. My father’s four-year post in Ankara, Turkey, would end by August of 2007; who knew when I would get these opportunities again? Despite the many trips we had taken, there was little about Turkey I had experienced with more depth than could be provided by a fleeting two-hour stop.

Thanks to the Clark Fellowship, I headed back to Turkey over the summer of 2007, prepared to finally take an in-depth look at one particular facet of Turkish history. The facet—or rather, man—in question was İsmet İnönü, one of the founding fathers of the Modern Turkish state. He served in the Ottoman army during the First World War, was a commander of Turkish forces in the War for Independence (1920-1923), and negotiated Turkey’s independence with the Western Powers at Lausanne in 1923. Soon thereafter, İnönü served as Foreign Minister, Prime Minister, and succeeded the well-known Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as the second President of Turkey. His pivotal role in the democratization of Turkey is often overshadowed by Atatürk’s revolutionary reforms, which instituted secular and democratic rule to a previously autocratic and Islamic state. Despite these changes, Atatürk’s rule was relatively authoritarian. It was İnönü who relinquished power to the opposition after losing the 1950 elections, formally and conclusively establishing a tradition of democracy in Turkey. He would remain a staunch supporter of democracy for the rest of his life. 

While Atatürk’s name remains familiar to large portions of the world, İnönü and his accomplishments seem to attract attention mostly in his home country. I knew that Turkey’s libraries would offer prospects unavailable elsewhere and that it would be the only place where I could get a feel for the man’s deeds and contributions. Excited to be investigating this colorful, dynamic, and often overlooked person, I promptly hit the books. Located on the outskirts of Ankara, Bilkent University is one of the top Turkish colleges, and its library houses a sizeable collection on the Turkish founding fathers. Despite my substandard Turkish, there were enough sources in English and French that the texts were certainly accommodating. I quickly became aware of scholars’ differing opinions about İnönü’s record. Some claimed that his democratic initiatives were no more than an extension of Atatürk’s groundbreaking programs; others saw these initiatives as capitulations to the victory of Western democratic powers following WWII, arguing that, at heart, İnönü’s authoritarian rule during the war was more indicative of his true political ambitions.

As my positive view of İnönü’s reign began to take a more nuanced and balanced shape, my father and I were able to secure audiences with a handful of politically influential Turks—talks that furthered my understanding of his legacy. We met with Dr. Osman Faruk Loğoğlu, author of İsmet İnönü and the Making of Modern Turkey, and Tayyibe Gülek, a former parliamentarian, and daughter of the prominent politician Kasım Gülek. Warm and informative, my hosts shared their vast knowledge over cake and çay. The stories they told of interactions with İnönü helped me get a feel for the man himself. 

These interviews were complemented by an even more spectacular experience. My father and I met with Mrs. Özden Toker, daughter of İsmet İnönü himself. She was charming and hospitable. The interview took place in the Pembe Köşk (“Pink House”), the İnönü family home, which was a fabulous resource in its own right. We sat in the parlor on formal, antique, brocaded sofas. The interior of the home was carefully preserved and adorned with the various gifts İnönü had received from other world leaders throughout his lifetime. Mrs. Toker was of course in a unique position to comment on his personality. She spoke of his drive to learn, how, late in life, he took up the cello and tackled new languages. She described her family’s lack of opulence, how her mother wore the same gowns for decades. She talked about her family’s humble piety, how they would practice Islam strictly in the confines of their own home. She discussed her father’s level-headedness, how he had reacted calmly to his daughter’s engagement to a journalist, an unusual match for the daughter of a head of state. Understanding, humility, discretion, and flexibility were traits that seemed to embody the İnönü family’s way of life, and were extremely useful in a country just developing a national identity that often contrasted sharply with the norms and traditions of the Ottoman rulers from just a few years before. To be sure, the opportunity to speak with a person of such vast contemporary knowledge in such a dazzling historic setting was exhilarating.

While my destination was a place I knew relatively well, the Clark Fellowship offered the opportunity to explore a realm that was entirely new to me. I came away with a deeper appreciation for both the strenuous and rewarding nature of research and the complexity of Turkish politics. After all, it just so happened that during the summer of 2007, Turkey’s political future was in great turmoil. Democracy—what I came to see as İnönü’s chief accomplishment—was threatened by military intervention. The military did not approve of the ruling AK Party’s Islamic flavor, and had threatened to oust them. Although these coups—purported to restore the values of Atatürk and his republic—are common in Turkey, the ruling AK Party was finally making a stand, refusing to accept the military’s role as the vanguard of the republic at the expense of democracy. This situation created a contradiction, placing Islam on the side of democracy, which threw off the conventional code of values instituted by Atatürk.  Democracy and secularism form the bedrock of his reforms, and AK’s Islamic yet democratically elected status forced a choice upon Turks. This was certainly evident in my interviews, as Turks who had revered İnönü all their lives and spoke to me of his absolute commitment to democracy now struggled to place their own commitment in the context of 2007. While İnönü, who stepped down in 1950 in favor of a party that evinced considerable Islamic sympathy, seems to have wholly endorsed democracy’s significance, the rest of Turkey has yet to make a decision.