Alp Yenen reflects on one of the most divisive figures in Turkey’s political history, on the exact centenary of his death: August 4, 2022. 

Alp is Assistant Professor of Modern Turkish History and Culture at Leiden University.

Today is the hundredth anniversary of the death of Enver Pasha, one of the most disputed figures in modern Turkish history. Starting out an idealist counterinsurgency officer, young İsmail Enver (1881–1922) became a revolutionary insurgent against the Ottoman Sultan. Celebrated as the hero of the constitutional revolution of 1908, Enver joined the imperial household by marrying an Ottoman princess. He volunteered for the defense of the Ottoman Empire’s last frontiers in Africa and the Balkans and led a coup d’état against the Ottoman government in 1913. By the time the Ottoman Empire entered World War One, Enver, now a “Pasha” as Minister of War, was practically a military dictator. At the end of the war, however, Enver was held responsible for the catastrophic defeat and sentenced to death for war crimes against Armenians. 

Yet Enver escaped to exile in Berlin and then Moscow. From there, Enver returned to international politics, founding an Islamic International against European imperialism. But then, following an aborted attempt to intervene in the Turkish War of Independence, he turned his back on his Bolshevik collaborators and joined the anti-Soviet insurgency in Turkestan, where he was killed. He was only 41 years old. 

By the standards of an age of rogues, when revolutionaries thrived across shattering empires, the career of Enver Pasha was perhaps typical. Looking back after one hundred years, however, it is pretty spectacular. Similar to his equally notorious Young Turk accomplices, Talât and Cemal, Enver is hero and villain in contentious narratives of the transitional period at the end of the Ottoman Empire.[1] Of the three men, however, Enver’s reputation is undoubtedly the most enigmatic.

ENVER’S HAND-DRAWN MAP OF TURKESTAN, PUBLISHED IN “ŞARKI BUHARA VEKAZI’I,” LIWA-EL-ISLAM 2, NO. 11-12 (1 AUGUST 1922): 49.

As Lev Nussimbaum, a.k.a. Essad Bey, once wrote in 1932, “There is hardly a household between Gibraltar and China where Enver’s name has not been pronounced with hatred or love, or with melancholy or disappointed hopes.”[2] 

For a hundred years Enver’s posthumous reputation has been a touchstone of political identity in Turkey. Unlike Talât, accorded official commemoration in defiance of Armenian genocide claims, Enver has always been a thorn in the side of Kemalists as a challenger to the personality cult of Atatürk. 

There is hardly a household between Gibraltar and China where Enver’s name has not been pronounced with hatred or love, or with melancholy or disappointed hopes.

Essad Bey [Lev Nussimbaum]

Turkey’s Cold War culture nonetheless boosted Enver’s popularity among conservative nationalists, who saw in him the Byronic hero of the Turkic peoples living under the Soviet yoke. Leftist revolutionary nationalists regarded Enver—like Atatürk—as an anti-imperialist hero of the emerging Third World. Socialists saw Enver’s flirtation with the Bolsheviks as a bitter episode of Soviet realpolitik sidelining Turkish communists. 

After the end of the Cold War, at a brief moment of pan-Turkic revival, in 1996 Enver’s remains were returned from Tajikistan to receive a state burial in Turkey. With the rise of post-Kemalism, however, influential liberal leftists have singled out Enver Pasha as the founder of the Turkish deep state that doomed the democratic and civic development of Kemalist Turkey. This intellectual trend helped the Islamist AKP’s disruption of the Kemalist military-judicial complex in late 2000s. 

AN EGYPTIAN ILLUSTRATION OF ENVER PASHA AND MUSTAFA KEMAL PASHA JOINTLY OPPOSING THE 1920 TREATY OF SÈVRES, SOURCE: ORHAN KOLOĞLU, GAZİ’NİN ÇAĞINDA İSLAM DÜNYASI (İSTANBUL: BOYUT YAYINCILIK, 1994), 111. 

Islamists have always blamed the Young Turks—allegedly an atheistic cabal of crypto-Jews, Freemasons and Zionists—for the deliberate destruction of the Ottoman Empire and the “infidel” regime of the Kemalists. Enver does not easily fit into this role. Somewhat ironically, therefore, the personality cult of Enver Pasha reached unprecedented popularity after the AKP regime’s turn to authoritarianism and vulgar populism. Enver now serves to represent anti-Western nationalism, nostalgia for imperial-national grandeur, and self-sacrificing militarism for a growing body of people from different—if mostly conservative—political backgrounds.   

While Enver’s enigmatic reputation reveals political attitudes in contemporary Turkey, his role as a historical actor remains enigmatic in its own right. We must acknowledge that reputations are social constructs that carry symbolic capital with real-life impact on political interactions. Transgressive actors like Enver have rather ambiguous reputations for being powerful but perilous. 

This lens of reputation can help us understand Enver’s return, rise, and fall during the aftermath of World War One. Despite his notoriety as an internationally-wanted war criminal, Enver was able to find safe havens and sponsors because he possessed a transgressive capacity. Thanks to his larger-than-life image in the Muslim world, both friends and foes believed that Enver could potentially set the East ablaze. In the midst of the crisis of the empire when uprisings began among the Muslim subjects of the British Empire, colonial officials hastily assumed that it must be Enver Pasha stirring up the Muslims for a new jihad

Despite his notoriety as an internationally-wanted war criminal, Enver was able to find safe havens and sponsors because he possessed a transgressive capacity. Thanks to his larger-than-life image in the Muslim world, both friends and foes believed that Enver could potentially set the East ablaze.

Trying to keep up with his own reputation, Enver staged an anticolonial jihad against the British Empire. It was Enver’s intriguing reputation that helped him play a role in revolutionary diplomacy between Soviet Russia and Kemalist Turkey. It was once again his reputation that increasingly made him out to be a threat to the settlement of interstate relations. Thanks to outlandish conspiracy theories surrounding Enver’s supposed Bolshevik-Islamic assault, Kemalists increasingly appeared to be the moderate party in the eyes of Entente officials. Ironically, Enver’s fame among Turkestani rebels only increased Soviet military suppression. Enver was both blessed and cursed by his reputation.   

The reputations of transgressive actors, like Enver, cry out for post-heroic deconstruction. In doing so, however, we cannot keep trivializing Enver as a “maniacal” force of disruption. Whether we like him or not, as his current biographer Michael Reynolds rightly argues, we need to take Enver seriously. Even if he failed in his grand schemes, Enver was a key political actor during the making of a new global order. Beyond helping us decipher political attitudes in contemporary Turkey, Enver’s reputation helps us recover the forgotten struggles of this transformative period, when men like Enver could raise such extraordinary expectations. Not surprisingly, rumours that Enver had faked his own death and lived to fight another day continued to spread hope and fear for several years. 

Notes

[1] Alp Yenen, “The Talat-Tehlirian Complex: Contentious Narratives of Martyrdom and Revenge in Post-Conflict Societies,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 64.2 (2022): 394–421; Ümit Kurt, “A Rescuer, an Enigma and a Génocidaire: Cemal Pasha,” in End of the Ottomans: The Genocide of 1915 and the Politics of Turkish Nationalism, eds. Hans-Lukas Kieser et al. (London: I.B. Tauris, 2019), 221–45; Olivier Bouquet, “Les Cemal et les Enver: Infidélité généalogique, glorification nationale et mémoire du génocide arménien (Turquie, 1915–2015),” Vingtième Siècle: Revue d’histoire 3 (2016): 93–108; Orhan Koloğlu, “Enver Paşayı Tartışırken Tarihle Barışma ile Barışçı Tarih Arasında,” Tarih ve Toplum 27 (1997): 43–49. 

[2] Essad Bey, Die Verschwörung gegen die Welt: G.P.U. (Berlin: E.C. Etthofen-Verlag, 1932), 224.

FEATURE IMAGE: Louise Bryant, Mirrors of Moscow,1923, reprint (Westport: Hyperion Press, 1973), 147.