The Long Shadow of the Last Ottoman Sultan

How unresolved tensions between the fallen emperor and his republican successor continue to define Turkish politics today

The Long Shadow of the Last Ottoman Sultan
The last Ottoman emperor, Sultan Mehmed VI, in 1918. (ullstein bild via Getty Images)

On Nov. 17, 1922, the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmed VI Vahideddin, fled Istanbul in the early morning hours after learning of threats to his safety, never to return. In ambulances driven by British guards, he was secreted away alongside his 10-year-old son, Prince Mehmed Ertuğrul, and escorted to the HMS Malaya battleship by Gen. Charles Harington, commander-in-chief of the Allied forces. Ottoman palace officials confirmed their ruler’s departure only hours later.

Over the following weeks, Vahideddin was in a reflective mood. He arrived in Malta on Dec. 9 and later chose the Italian Riviera as his place of exile. In the resort town of San Remo, the new Italian ruler Benito Mussolini wished the “majestic Ottoman emperor” a pleasant stay in Italy. Over the next four years, Vahideddin would carry a revolver in his pocket, fearing one of his many guests and well-wishers might assassinate him. When death came in 1926 from a blocked artery, the former emperor was penniless and deeply in debt. The Italian authorities confiscated the last Ottoman sultan’s coffin until his daughter, Sabiha Sultan, found enough money for his burial in a Damascus cemetery.

A century on, Vahideddin’s escape and death may appear to mark a catastrophic rupture in Turkish history, but they were met with cold indifference at the time. There was no coordinated effort to keep the sultan in place, though there were some isolated attempts. In India, leaders of the Khilafat (“Caliphate”) movement, who might have been expected to protect the caliph of Islam, instead defended Vahideddin’s great enemy, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the National Forces he led. For anti-colonialist North African Muslims, it was Atatürk, not Vahideddin, who was an icon. Algerians in Paris plastered not Vahideddin’s but Atatürk’s photos to their walls. What average Turkish citizens made of the last sultan’s exit is unclear, but public expressions of grief were rare. Newspapers mostly repeated Atatürk’s condemnation of him. The same year the last sultan died, the Turkish National Assembly formally abolished the office of the caliph, which had been part of the Ottoman system since the 16th century. All Ottoman royals were banned from setting foot in their homeland. The Times of London celebrated “Old Turkey” passing into history with its “Byzantine bureaucracy.”

The New Turkey, too, was in a jubilant mood. “Gentlemen, if we look for the reasons for this sorrowful condition, this misery that afflicts the nation, we find it directly in the concept of the Ottoman state,” said Atatürk, who charged Vahideddin with treason, saying the sultan’s signing of the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920 had evidenced an “autocratic” system rooted in “ignorance and debauchery.” Atatürk’s right-hand man, İsmet İnönü, vowed the sultanate would never return: “If at any time a Caliph takes it into his head to interfere with the destiny of this country, we shall not fail to cut his head off.” Stripping the Ottoman royal family of its powers and prerogatives, the Turkish National Assembly declared in the fall of 1922 that, “the Ottoman Empire, with its autocratic system, has altogether collapsed.”

But has it, really? In the century that followed, the Ottoman sultanate’s stature grew with eye-watering speed in Republican Turkey. Neo-Ottomanism rose in the 1950s, thanks to revisionist histories lamenting the Ottoman collapse. A pompous state ceremony in 1953 marked the 500th anniversary of Sultan Mehmed II’s conquest of Istanbul. By 1974, male members of the Ottoman royal family were granted entry to Turkey, 22 years after female members of the dynasty had been allowed amnesty. Ankara then went further and promised to restore their Turkish citizenship. Heirs to the throne were welcomed back, treated as honored guests and interviewed by the press.

Today, the Turkish fascination with the Ottomans has turned into a global phenomenon, through period dramas based on the intrigues of the early Ottoman courts. Nor is it only in the popular imagination that the Ottoman sultans remain alive: Actual royals are still around. When Dündar Abdülkerim Osmanoğlu, the last heir to the Ottoman throne, passed away at the age of 90 in January 2021, the official announcement marking his death was issued on Twitter. “Father of our family and the Ottoman dynasty, our uncle Prince Dündar Abdülkerim Osmanoğlu passed away in Syria’s Damascus,” tweeted Orhan Osmanoğlu, another Ottoman royal. The new head of the Osmanoğlu family, Harun, is the brother of the late Dündar Abdülkerim, aged 88.

The most famous mourner of Vahideddin was the Islamist poet Necip Fazıl Kısakürek (1904-1983), who was 20 when the sultanate ended. Here was a man born into the Ottoman Empire, who lived long enough that Turkey’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, attended his funeral. In Kısakürek’s view, Vahideddin was, in fact, the figure who launched and defended to the end the Nationalist Movement that fought off Allied forces. Kısakürek despised Atatürk’s modernizing vision and took his cue from Vahideddin’s contemporaneous defenders in the Ottoman era, who vilified the Young Turks — members of the revolutionary movement that deposed Sultan Abdülhamid II and established a constitutional government — as Jews and Freemasons with a vendetta against Islam and its caliph. Whether Kısakürek, the Turkish translator of the antisemitic text “The Protocols of Elders of Zion,” considered the last Ottoman sultan a patriot would hardly matter in normal circumstances. But it does in Erdoğan’s New Turkey. Kısakürek’s influence on the Turkish president was considerable. “The Sultan of poets” was the moniker Erdoğan applied to Kısakürek, whose funeral he attended in 1983 with his Islamist comrades, who revered him as an icon. Since 2003, when he first became Turkey’s prime minister, Erdoğan has elevated Kısakürek to a central figure of Turkish culture, with a government-funded literary prize given in his name. (After years of construction, the Atatürk Cultural Centre debuted with a Kısakürek play last fall, after also hosting a Kısakürek exhibition in the summer.)

“Be it through Erdoğan’s use of historical references in campaign speeches, or the flood of television dramas set in the Ottoman past, the empire no longer invokes the sort of negativity or condemnation often heard during the time of Atatürk,” writes Ryan Gingeras in his majestic new history book, “The Last Days of Ottoman Empire.” A professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, Gingeras is an expert on the Ottomans’ demise, having also written “Fall of the Sultanate: The Great War and the End of the Ottoman Empire 1908-1922,” published in 2016.

If the genre remains popular, it is because the tension between Vahideddin and Atatürk remains unresolved. In ways large and small, their century-old war continues to define Turkish politics today. Last September, soon after Izmir’s mayor Tunç Soyer denounced Vahideddin as a “traitor” in a speech, prosecutors opened an investigation against the opposition politician. One pro-government newspaper showed how much things have changed since 1922 by proclaiming, “anyone calling Vahideddin a traitor is a traitor.” Meanwhile, on the centenary of Vahideddin’s exile, the Turkish historian Murat Bardakçı excavated a document from the State Archives of the Presidency of Turkey and published an encrypted correspondence sent by Atatürk to the military commander Refet Bele ordering the “lynching” of the sultan by members of the public. The document was sent in the first week of November 1922. The revelations were covered widely by Turkish news websites. Another historian, Cengiz Özakıncı, pointed to parliamentary minutes from a session on Oct. 30, 1922, in which Atatürk and his comrades said they heard Vahideddin would soon “resign” and put the decision on how to “deal” with him to a vote. The result was that Vahideddin had to be dealt with properly in a legal way.

The central tension between Atatürk and Vahideddin that remains unresolved in 2023 concerns not only two clashing ideologies about how to manage a disintegrating empire but also two lineages of politicians who devoted their lives to destroying their foes. For Vahideddin’s followers, the sultanate was a venerable, time-tested system that gave Turks leeway in running their state and even restoring it one day to its former glory. For Atatürk’s followers, however, it was imperative to replace and excise the past in order to forge a modern polity. A century on, this contested legacy about the best way to save a former empire and the best people to run it remains unreconciled. At the heart of this crisis is the fundamental question of what Turkey was and could yet become. In the eyes of Atatürk, autocracy laid at the heart of the sultan’s conception of Turkey. Yet Vahideddin and his supporters said the exact same thing about the modernizing Young Turks, whose iron-fisted reign between 1913 and 1918 was much harsher than the sultan’s.

What remains unresolved, therefore, was not whether the sultanate was autocratic, but rather, which autocracy people were willing to accept: the single-party regime of the Young Turks and their republican adherents, or the paranoid style of sultans who reigned via spy networks and censorship. This puzzle of two autocracies remains, perhaps, because we view it as a binary. Stepping back, citizens and historians can contextualize the conflict through its historical conditions to better understand it, as Gingeras does in “The Last Days of the Ottoman Empire.” As well as a clash between republican and monarchical visions, the conflict concerned power and who should wield it. To reenact the struggle, by role-playing one side and demonizing the other a century later, risks turning it into a vicious cycle.

The last sultan’s predecessor, Mehmed V, experienced an era no less traumatic than Vahideddin’s. By the end of his reign (1909-1918), Istanbul stood on the brink of chaos, with basic foodstuffs in short supply, fuel stocks rationed and frequent electricity cuts. “Completely soiled, an open sewer flowing from every side” is how one minister described the imperial capital. Even the sultan’s attendants were unable to find supplies like rice. Food bound for Turkish soldiers fighting at the front during the Great War was requisitioned on the sultan’s behalf. “The slow decline of his health was, in many ways, a reflection of his household’s own dwindling fortunes,” writes Gingeras.

Vahideddin faced an uncertain future from the moment he replaced Mehmed V. On Oct. 30, 1918, just six months into his reign, the Ottoman Empire conceded defeat in the Great War. A week later, the sitting government dissolved, the grand vizier resigned, and the empire’s only political party, the Committee of Union and Progress, disbanded.

What kind of a sultan was Vahideddin? Atatürk recalled how he had to tell him to wave at onlookers when they traveled together on a train. This “unmistakably conniving” leader developed a great affection for Britain. He hoped “the noble English nation and government, emblazoned with feelings of humanity and justice, will help us to achieve our rights” after the armistice. Turkish nationalists did not share his naivete. With roots in the Young Turk movement that dethroned Sultan Abdülhamid II in 1909, the National Forces scared Vahideddin. Also scared were millions of Ottomans who suffered under the reign of the Young Turks, an era defined by repression, censorship and executions of dissidents.

Vahideddin’s brother-in-law, Damat Ferid, admired the West like his boss and shared his hatred of the Young Turks. Educated at the Sorbonne in Paris, Ferid was appointed grand vizier and used his powers to arrest hundreds of Young Turk leaders, including members of the wartime government, whom he charged with corruption and murder. Vahideddin and Ferid believed collaboration with Britain and France was the best way forward for the Ottomans. In this violent era, to declare oneself an Ottoman was to remain devoted to Vahideddin and Ferid. Millions of others sided with Atatürk, which at the time was a risky choice.

Yet, if Atatürk emerged victorious, it would be his enemies who risked retribution. Anti-Vahideddin feelings peaked when British and French troops fanned out across Istanbul after the armistice and occupied the city. While the sultan begged for Allied material support to combat the National Forces, his delegates signed the treaty in Sèvres, outside Paris, in August 1920. By September, Atatürk was privately declaring Vahideddin a traitor. A glance at the archives reveals how newspapers from 1922 called for Vahideddin’s arrest and openly branded him a traitor. “During his last public audiences at the Yıldız mosque, just outside the palace, prayers were no longer offered in his name as sultan,” writes Gingeras.

When nationalists kidnapped the pro-Vahideddin journalist Ali Kemal (the great-grandfather of former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson) and crushed his skull with hammers, the sultan’s safety became a concern. Now he, too, could conceivably be taken away and murdered. As palace loyalists sought refuge in the embassy, Vahideddin formally requested asylum from Britain’s high commissioner. “Sir, considering my life in danger in Istanbul, I take refuge with the British Government and request my transfer as soon as possible from Istanbul to another place,” he wrote, signing the letter as “caliph of the Muslims.” An exodus of palace loyalists followed: Ferid left Istanbul in late September, while Sheikh al-Islam Dürrizade Abdullah, the chief mufti who condemned Atatürk to death, fled soon after. Meanwhile, the Allied states, which had hitherto demanded the conservation of the sultanate, had a sudden change of heart. By the time he published the fifth volume of “The World Crisis” in 1931, the future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was calling Atatürk “a Warrior Prince born to rule.”

Imperial finales are messy, and rarely provide neat closures. After the Chinese empress dowager abdicated from the Qing dynasty, Mao Zedong’s government acknowledged that dynastic rule was the core of the Chinese state. In Iran, the monarchy survived World War I; only in the 1930s did Iranians cease to call their state an empire. Yet the Ottomans seemed surprisingly mature and prepared for their imperial demise. Before Vahideddin ran for his life, Istanbul’s newspapers passionately tracked the fall of the Habsburg and Hohenzollern monarchies. Those breakups helped Ottomans face new realities. During the great fire that destroyed Izmir in 1922, Atatürk reportedly said, “Yes! Let it burn and crash down. The restoration of everything is possible.” Now the future belonged to utopians like him.

Yet Republican Turkey’s apparent triumph in doing away with Ottomanist institutions has proved illusory. A century on, Ottoman imperial symbols remain alive. Erdoğan’s vision for Turkey’s second century is a neo-Ottoman one that allows Turks to partake in the fairy tale that the empire is reborn and he, with his immense, unchecked powers, is its new sultan. Erdoğan rules Turkey by decree. From local entrepreneurs to representatives of global companies, anyone aspiring to do business in the country is required to be on good terms with “the Palace,” as Erdoğan’s presidential residence in Ankara is known.

Vahideddin’s exit was supposed to end ambiguities about Turkey’s identity. Since the 2000s, however, the ambiguity has returned and now defines Turkey’s present. As leaders, parties and political programs highlight their positions on the long-ended war between Atatürk and Vahideddin ahead of the May 2023 elections, they risk traumatizing people, particularly the Christian Greek and Armenian populations of Anatolia, who suffered unspeakable horrors because they were caught in the crossfire of last century’s great historical forces. For citizens of Turkey who are not career politicians, there is nothing to gain from reproducing the tropes of a horrific historical clash. We should, instead, consider the victims left in their wake.

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