Recently, I have been digging into the stories of Reza Shah of Iran Pahlavi Dynasty and the founding father Kemal Ataturk of Turkey.
Differences have laid less in personality, more in the judgement and in the wheels of history that drove their fates apart. Ataturk dispelled foreign says in Turkey, yet Iran was still heavily influenced by foreign voices after Reza Shah’s exile. The secularisation of Ataturk, despite being madly iconoclast at the time, made Turkey a modern nation and a regional power today. The similar repression of religion of Reza Shah led to years of tensions between the state and the religious group, which backfired and burned into the 1979 Revolution, exiling the Pahlavi crowns and putting an end to the monarchy at once (Turkey’s secularisation has been revised slightly after Ataturk’s passing as well yet not in the Iranian extent).
In the time, both were regarded by their critiques as the true despots and fake nationalists. However, despots or leaders, one can only consult history.
In this, we can only ask that one question: does a despot make a country?
The following analyses of mine serve more as a tale of storytelling instead of serious academic underpinning. Nevertheless, I strive to make facts sound. I welcome your comments, feelings, and discussions.
Beginning of the Two WWII Middle Eastern Personalities
The end of history and the beginning of an era start at the unravelling of world wars. Still one of the most consequential events in our modern history, the two WWIIs anchor the shape of our world now and premiere the contemporary Middle East.
Born in 1881, Kemal Ataturk shared much similarities with Reza Shah, who was born in 1878. Some scholars (Andrew Mango, 1999) believe that the father of Kemal comes from an Albanian background. Kemal, born in Salonica (modern day Thessaloniki), has a slightly more Caucasian appearance according to Patrick Kinross (1964; 2001). Similarly, Reza Shah’s mother is a Muslim immigrant from Georgia, which is a part of the then Russian Empire. Despite of the varying origins, both men have devoted themselves to the intense ethnic nationalisation in their own countries. Kemal Ataturk’s continuation and reform on Turkicisation has laid the foundation of the national identity of Turkey. Reza Shah has also been a proponent for Persianisation.
In the centuries the Ottomans ruled, the Ottomans continued to lose their vast lands to their neighbouring countries. Kemal Ataturk started his career being active in the political movements and his soldier duty in the foreign lands of Ottoman Empire. His first major war was the Italo-Turkish War, which sees the cession of Tripolitania, Fezzan, and Cyrenaica to the Kingdom of Italy. In 1912, he participated in the Balkan wars, in which the Ottomans lost another round of territories including the birthplace of Kemal Ataturk – Salonica. Despite of the general Ottoman loss, Ataturk earned his accolade as a winning general in partial battles.
On Reza Shah’s part, he also started off as a soldier in the finest Cossack Brigade, a common career for ambitious men at the time. With his mastery of machine guns, Reza Shah was quickly promoted in ranks. Much like what the Ottomans saw during the early 1900s, Persians also experienced a series of foreign interventions during the Persian Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911).
Turbulence and the military training endowed the two men similar sets of values: they came to power to replace a former government. They both demanded the absolute authority to themselves. They were both patriotic and were fine crushing domestic discontents in violence. Lastly, the military career perhaps led to the volatility of their personal lives. Both Ataturk and Reza Shah had lucks with the ladies, with the former sleeping with too many and the latter wedded and divorced multiple.
Process that Leads to the Alternative Endings
In the summer of 1919, Kemal Ataturk secretly ferried to the central city Sivas, escaping from the arrest and death warrant issued by the Constantinople government. On 4thof September the same year, he led the Sivas Congress to declare the independence of Turkey, free from Western occupation of Constantinople and Izmir, and directly confronting the Constantinople caliphate.
The civil war was largely condemned by state media in Constantinople, as the population has lost 25% during the past disastrous wars and the World War I. By the time Ataturk started the civil war, Anatolia had majorly elderly, women, and children. Ataturk asked for fresh conscription and enlisting of the wooden cargos and homewares of the women.
Kemal Ataturk developed a mountain-moving mindpower and a horrifying discipline during these warring years. A lifelong sucker to alcohol, he would sober up each time ahead of a battle.
After winning of the Civil War, Ataturk single-handedly instructed the election of himself as the president, at the disappointment of his trusted former aides such as Rauf Bey, Refet Pasha, and Ali Fuat Pasha. To counter Ataturk’s increasing dictatorship, they formed the Progressive Republican Party (PRP), whose goal is not to challenge the sweeping secularisation reform of Ataturk, but his betrayal on the formerly promised democracy. While domestic discontents rise sharply, partially due to the very change these liberal reforms led to the quotidian lives of clerics, commoners, students, and women, and partially due to his strong grasp of the power. In addition, he has continued the Turkicisation since the time of the Young Turks movement, maybe in a more benign way, but at the core of preparing a new national identity of being Turkish as a national pride not an ethnic label(1).
However, one thing Ataturk has done differently from Reza Shah is his practical neutrality with foreign forces. Becoming warming again with the former Ottoman enemy the Great Britain (in the WWI), Ataturk has also carefully allied yet not befriended with the Leninist Russia. However, Ataturk’s non-alliance is not estranging the powers or actively against them; Ataturk’s non-alliance is based on practical ground not ideological difference. On the contrary, foreign force has found the weak spots of Iran, despite of Reza Shah’s attempt to outcast the Westerners, namely the British.
Two years after the Turkish Civil War, in 1921, Reza Shah started his own coup d’état, which deposed the last Shah of the former Qajar Dynasty of Persia and established himself the shah. Since, the Pahlavi Dynasty came into world’s stage. Initially intending to form a republic as Turkey, Reza Shah abandoned the thought after British and clerical lobbying.
Shortly after Reza Shah took over, he initiated a series of reforms similar to that of Turkish: abolishment of Western privileges, education reform, secularisation, removal of veils of women, Persianisation, establishment of a national bank, etc.
Similar to the vehement critiques these reforms have led among the Turkish clerical groups, the Iranian religious groups bombarded the policies. Top-ranked Iranian religious leaders left and claimed to not obey the rule of “a dog”.
The first years of Reza Shah were marked and celebrated by rapid modernisation, similar to Turkey. However, the Shah’s reign became increasingly authoritarian, similar to that of Turkey. Several of his ministers were swiftly removed: Abdolhossein Teymourtash, the minister of Imperial Court that had led the talks with the British oil interests, became a scapegoat of the deteriorating Anglo-Iranian relationship. He was imprisoned and died in prison in 1933. Firouz Nosrat-ed-Dowleh III, the minister of finance, was also put in jail and died in confinement.
Although, many of the Turkish PRP members were arrested and brought to unfair trial that led to their death after an attempted assassination to Ataturk. In the later years of Ataturk, he, however, released powers to younger generation.
End of the Story: Why Ends Are Different
A lifelong soldier, Ataturk oversaw the growth of a powerful Turkish army. His authority ensured that the military obeyed and functioned. In the war years, his force proved their ability to crush enemies, abroad and domestic. In many ways, the despot had the power to be so.
In the 1930s, after some correspondence with the rising Adolf Hitler, Ataturk scorned off the force of Mussolini and Hitler. Ataturk was the mastermind of realpolitikand had the discerned eyes of knowing Hitler’s attempt to lure Turkey into the war again. Much considering Hitler “crazy”, Ataturk showed off cold to him. Ironically, Hitler and the Nazis have taken Ataturk and his Turkicisation an inspiration, despite the expansionary nature of the former and the relatively peaceful diplomacy involvement of the latter.
In comparison, Reza Shah had less luck. Because of the authoritarian rule, wise people left and sycophancy ruled Iran. When the British-Russian joined force invaded Iran in 1941, the Iranian soldiers stationed in Tehran fled under their air raids. Reza Shah was so angry when he saw his soldiers fled like scattering sparrows that he almost killed his general.
The last difference between Iran and Turkey comes two-folds: the Pandora’s Box of oil and the backfire of balance of power.
In the early 1900s, oil was found in Iran and in the Middle East. The then-ruler of Iran, Qajar shah, granted the oil concession to British man William Knox d’Arcy and the Anglo Persian Oil Company (now BP). The D’Arcy concession led to serious conflict of interests in the later years of Iranian revolts against their shahs and the foreign power.
The failure to secure a fair and proper agreement with Anglo Persian Oil Company resulted the demise of Abdolhossein Teymourtash.
Not being able to single-handly outcast the British, Reza Shah attempted to play the Germans against the strong British influence in Iran. In 1931, the shah banned the Imperial Airways of flying to the Iranian air and granted the rights to Lufthansa. The proximity of Iran to Germany became the excuses of the allied, namely Anglo-Soviet, invasions of Iran in 1941, after the start of the World War II.
In 1938, shortly before the onset of the World War II, an event that would change the dynamics again, Ataturk passed away due to cirrhosis, which was the result of his lifelong habit of heavy drinking and staying up late.
His passing created a blow to the Middle Eastern worlds as well, including that of Iran. Had Ataturk lived longer, the course of history would change again. Ataturk has telled, “If the war began suddenly… the nations should not be hesitate to unite their armed force… against the hostile force”. However, he passed away before the war exploded like a bomb.
Unfortunately, Reza Shah had to live through the World War II, whose coming fundamentally changed his country. In 1941, after the pretexted British-Russian invasion of Iran, Reza Shah was forced to abdicate and passed the throne to his son, Mohammed Reza Shah, whose fate shared the very similarity and tensions to his own father’s.
By 1941, the fate of Turkey and Iran have sealed, as the two strong men that once overseen them. Ataturk left an intact Turkey, while Iran had to linger in the torments of the history for some more decades.
(1) Ataturk has done significant ground work in uniting ethinicities and races in Turkey to construct a single “Turkish” image. His neglect over Hitler’s request to turn in Turkish Jews has shown his relatively more peaceful policy. One may argue about the cleaning of Armenians from the former Young Turks time here. Regardless, Reza Shah has also tried to do the same, of uniting people under one “Iranian” image instead of each of their own ethnic groups. Both countries have historically been tolerant (and sometimes intolerant) to multiple races.
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Kingross, 3. B. (1964). Ataturk: Rebirth of a nation.
ʻIbādī, S., & Moaveni, A. (2007). Iran awakening: From prison to peace prize: One womans struggle at the crossroads of history. London.: Rider.