Nation-building as Entangled History: Turkey and the League of Nations

by Carolin Liebisch-Gümüş

The assumption that global history and national history are two very different, competing historiographical fields is a surprisingly persistent foundational myth of global/transregional history. In contrast to this frequently invoked dichotomy, it seems fair to distinguish between national history as history written within the analytical confines of the nation-state and the history of a nation in a broader sense. While the first is indeed incompatible with global history, the latter can be written from many perspectives including, as Julia Angster and Sebastian Conrad have stressed and several empirical studies prove, a global one.[1]

The challenge to throw bridges between global history and (critical) national history is also at the center of my book Verflochtene Nationsbildung. One of its aims is to tell the history of the foundation and making of modern Turkey in the 1920s and 1930s from a global angle. What exactly can the “global context” in such a history of nation-building look like? There are, of course, different possibilities for empirical concretization: Some scholars have focused on transnational intellectual networks that became breeding grounds for national movements in Asia and Africa.[2] Others have foregrounded the dialectics of transnational migration and nation-state-making in Europe,[3] and recently, Adom Getachow drew on the history of political ideas to explore anti-colonial nationalism as a form of “worldmaking.”[4] Verflochtene Nationsbildung supports the idea that the study of international organizations and internationalism, more particularly the history of the League of Nations, can form another bridge to connect global and national trajectories.  

In my book, I examine Turkish nationalists and their intellectual and practical engagement with the League of Nations using their asymmetrical relations as a testing ground for a global history of nation-building. It focuses on two interwoven processes of political reordering after World War I and its protagonists. On the one hand, the emergence of a new global order in which the League of Nations, its ideological foundations, and different sub-organizations played a central role; and, on the other hand, post-Ottoman nation-building in Turkey in its different, intertwined dimensions – the forging of a national identity, modernization-oriented state-building, and ethno-nationalistic population policies. In which ways were these processes entangled?

The starting point of the book is the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Not only did it lead to both the creation of the League of Nations and the end of the Ottoman Empire and, thus, ex negativo, to the founding of Turkey; it also marked the peak of a longer trend that had already begun in the nineteenth century: the tendency of the European powers to use tools of internationalism to undermine the sovereignty of the Ottoman government. The League of Nations, its mandate system, and related mechanisms for internationalizing internal domains of the Ottoman state defined the initial entanglement between “liberal” internationalism and the planned partition of Turkey. While the transformation of Istanbul and Anatolia into international mandates never materialized, the discussion of such plans during the Paris Peace Conference left a deep imprint on how many Muslim Ottomans perceived the new international institution.

The study sheds light on various Turkish intellectuals, activists, and organized groups that followed the events in Paris and, in many cases, became members of the Kemalist National Movement that initiated the foundation of Turkey in 1923. Far from rejecting the League of Nations altogether, these elites, who themselves cherished nationalistic and reformist ideas, embraced the Wilsonian call for a community of sovereign nations. Yet their perceptions reflect the paradoxes of the new global order and its blend of liberalism and paternalistic imperialism as they also attacked the League of Nation’s presumed “civilizing mission” that was used to legitimize the curtailment of Ottoman sovereignty and territory. The book traces the influence of this ambivalent discourse on the official ideology of the new Turkish state. Ziya Gökalp, a key thinker of Turkish nationalism who plays an important role in the book, promoted the idea that the new international organization and “New Turkey” were ideological siblings connected by a shared belief in the nation-state as a basic principle of political order and modern progress. He warned, though, that Turkey, before it could be accepted as a sovereign member of the League would have to “catch up with Western civilization” and create a modern, secular Muslim-Turkish society. Highlighting such intersections between national ideology and thoughts on global asymmetries, the book demonstrates the relational character of national identity construction that aimed at consolidating the own nation in the international order by overcoming its imperialistic pitfalls.

Along with this cultural/intellectual history, the book traces the impact of ideological entanglements on the political development of the new Turkish state. Part of it was the ruling elite’s efforts to reinforce their vision about Turkey’s belonging to liberal internationalism and “Western modernity.” Alternative internationalist agendas like those fostered by the Comintern or by pan-Islamic networks had been used by members of the National Movement to gather support against the Paris Peace Conference and the dissolution of Ottoman Turkey. Once they had achieved independence, though, the Kemalist elite abandoned those alternatives and suppressed communists and pan-Islamists in Turkey.

Hand in hand with establishing a monopoly on defining Turkey’s international future, the Kemalists, already in the early 1920s, strove to achieve Turkey’s integration into the League-based internationalism. Cautious of any infringements on their newly gained sovereignty, they pursued a balanced internationalization process: they sought to belong, to participate, and to link their own modernization program to the international expertise they found in Geneva. Yet they refrained from any commitment that seemed to question their sovereignty and self-image as civilized nation.

In 1923, for example, Turkish representatives had participated in the League’s technical (and less sensitive) work on communications and transit, whereas they refused to take part in the cooperation on naval disarmament in 1924. In the words of a British observer in Istanbul, they desired „to figure in the European system as an equal, independent and modern state,“ while they remained unwilling “to get entangled in anything which might tend to hamper her freedom to develop her armed forces.“ The ambivalent discourse in Turkey on the imperialistic downsides of liberal internationalism informed concrete interactions with offices and people in Geneva.

By highlighting interactions in the 1920s, the book differs from existing research that often neglects the Kemalists’ early internationalist engagement prior to Turkey’s official league membership in 1932. The inner state-making during this decade, the book argues, was inseparably connected with the goal of consolidating the new state at an equal position in the League system. This is also true for the “darker side” of internal politics in the 1920s and 1930s, which feeds into the book’s narrative of Turkey’s entangled nation-building. The Turkish nationalists’ discourse on Western internationalism – in particular, their suspicion against the League’s imperialistic civilizing mission – confirmed them in their rejection of international minority protection in Turkey and in their radical program of forging an ethno-religiously homogeneous Turkish-Muslim nation. At the Lausanne Conference 1922, which scrapped the extensive protection for minorities in Turkey that the Paris Peace Conference had foreseen, Turkey’s head delegate Ismet Pasha claimed that „nothing would prevent Powers having designs on Turkey from secretly inciting the minorities and profiting as formerly by the troubles which would result from it provoking the intervention of the League.“ In several ways, the League itself supported the assimilation and exclusion of minorities in Turkey that continued throughout the interwar decades, most frankly by coordinating the deportation of Orthodox Greeks from Turkey during the 1920s, less frankly by favoring Turkey’s sovereignty over the appeals of minorities who found themselves excluded or oppressed by the Kemalist government. 

In sum, the book argues that Turkish nation-building was intrinsically linked to liberal-imperialistic internationalism, which found its expression in the field of political integration and national identity construction as well as in minority politics. By doing so, the book contributes to the historiography on interwar internationalism and attempts to reveal its lasting, manifold, and ambivalent impact beyond Europe, as well as to the historiography on modern Turkey. In the latter field, existing research on the League of Nations had so far taken place in two unconnected fields – the study of multilateral relations, on the one hand, and works on minority politics, on the other – whereas I, in my book, sketch out an overarching narrative.

For TRAFO followers, the book’s potential contribution to general debates in the field of global history might be of interest. By interweaving the levels of national, international, and global history, the book echoes voices[5] that question the often artificial boundaries between international history and global history and stress their methodological and thematic similarities. Furthermore, as mentioned in the beginning, the book shares the critique of a sharp demarcation of global history from national history, instead aiming for a relational and transgressive reconceptualization of national history. I hope that my study might underline the empirical feasibility and interpretative potential of such a synthesis. Building on cultural history, Verflochtene Nationsbildung supports the idea that instead of treating the nation-state as a porous yet still preexisting entity that divides external and internal developments, global history can go still further and take the making of the nation itself into the analysis. Lutz Raphael describes the 1980s deconstructivist turn in nationalism studies not as a breakaway from national history but as the start of “national history as cultural history of the national tradition.”[6] Similarly, I think global history can potentially take the form of national history as entangled history of the nation-state and its making.


Carolin Liebisch-Gümüş is a historian of modern Europe in global perspectives. Her research centers on the interplay between transboundary phenomena (like international organizations, air mobility, or migration) and territorial developments (like nation building,  drawing borders, and mobility management). Before she joined the GHI Washington DC as a Research Fellow in October 2020, she taught courses in modern history at the University of Kiel for four years. From 2013 to 2016, she was a doctoral candidate at Heidelberg University and member of the research group “Subaltern Diplomacy, 1930-60“ (led by Madeleine Herren) at the Cluster of Excellence „Asia and Europe in a Global Context.“ In 2015, she spent one term as guest student lecturer at the University of Chicago as well as two months at the Orient-Institut Istanbul. Her first monograph Verflochtene Nationsbildung. Die Neue Türkei und der Völkerbund 1918-38 was published in 2020. In her new project, she explores airport transit zones as historical sites.


[1] Julia Angster, “Nationalgeschichte als Globalgeschichte. Wege zu einer ‚Denationalisierung des historischen Blicks‘,” APuZ 48 (2018): 10-17; Sebastian Conrad, What Is Global History? (Princeton, 2016).

[2] E.g., Prasenjit Duara, “Nationalists among Transnationals: Overseas Chinese and the Idea of China, 1900-1911,” in Ungrounded Empires: The Cultural Politics of Modern Chinese Transnationalism, ed. Aihwa Ong and Donald Nonini, 39-60 (New York, 1997); Michael Goebel, Anti-Imperial Metropolis: Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism (New York, 2015).

[3] E.g., Sebastian Conrad, Globalisierung und Nation im Deutschen Kaiserreich (Munich, 2006).

[4] Adom Getachew, Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton, 2019).

[5] Esp. works by Madeleine Herren, Sandrine Kott, and Glenda Sluga.

[6] Lutz Raphael, Geschichtswissenschaft im Zeitalter der Extreme. Theorien, Methoden, Tendenzen von 1900 bis zur Gegenwart (Munich, 2003), 261.


Citation: Carolin Liebisch-Gümüş, Nation-building as Entangled History: Turkey and the League of Nations, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10.12.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/25787.


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