The Ottoman Imperial Legacy on Turkish Nation Building: An Analysis of the General Inspectorates (1895 - 1945)

By Erdem Ilter
Submitted to Session P6164 (Ottoman Governance in the Late 19th Century, 2020 Annual Meeting
Anatolia; Kurdistan; Ottoman Empire; Turkey; Yemen;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
My research focuses on an Ottoman and Turkish colonial administrative institution, the General Inspectorates (Umum-i Mufettislikler). I use this institution to analyze the continuity and change between the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876-1908) and the rule of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk by comparing their responses to political crises at the periphery. I focus on how the imperial administrative practices at the periphery transformed the Ottoman and Turkish centers. The General Inspectorates were founded in different geographies, at different times, in different contexts. They were created in Eastern Anatolia in 1895, then in Macedonia in 1902 during the reign of Abdulhamid II. There were some attempts to create General Inspectorates during the Young Turk era (1908-1918) but these attempts failed due to World War I. They reappeared during the early Turkish republican era (1923-1945) where they were first assembled in Eastern Anatolia as a response to the continuous Kurdish rebellions that resulted from the Turkish state’s political and militaristic expansion into the Kurdish region.
By tracking the roots of the General Inspectorates, I examine the spatio-bureaucratic management of the periphery by the Ottoman Empire and Turkish nation-state starting from 1895 to 1945. The General Inspectorates became the imperial “crisis management” tools in “rebellious” regions, bringing multiple cities under the absolute authority of one inspector or high commissioner. The inspectorates carried out reform projects with the goal of transforming and subjugating the designated regions to oppress rebellions and prevent territorial losses. They served the state by helping centralize its authority, reoccupy the periphery, develop infrastructure projects, create new settlements, and implement demographic engineering projects by violence, forced assimilation, and population transfers. I argue that the early republican era (1923-1945) is not solely a period of nation-state building but also a period of internal colonization in which the inspectorates played a central role. The Ottoman imperial and colonial administrative know-how was implemented through institutions like the General Inspectorates and bureaucrats who served
across the empire. The significance of the General Inspectorates lies in their role in shaping the main characteristics of the modern Turkish state. Eastern Anatolia became a laboratory for the top-down Kemalist “civilization project” which was carried out through the inspectorates. In return, the Kemalists’ confrontation with the Kurds in Eastern Anatolia and their response to Kurdish rebellions institutionalized the authoritarian and racist characteristics of the Turkish state. In parallel, this confrontation with the Kurds shaped modern Turkey’s Middle East policy.