Nationalism on the Shop Floor: The Silahtarağa Electric Power Plant in the Early 1920s
By Nurçin İleri
In January 1936, İzzettin Muhittin Apak, a journalist from Akşam Postası (Evening Post) decided to visit the Silahtarağa Electric Power Plant, the main electric power supplier of Istanbul, a city with a population of 900,000. What most attracted Apak’s attention was the hospital-like cleanliness of the power plant, and that almost everything was being automated in this vast industrial place. The huge machines the size of an apartment were working with a steady hum and the halls were large enough to run a horse. The least visible thing in the factory, where everything was in abundance, was beyond doubt the human being. One could see tiny little workers next to a huge boiler, a pump room, or a turbine. Even in the section where electricity was distributed, there were just two employees. In this power plant, which operated day and night, there were only 150 workers, and most of them were employed in the repair shop. These workers served for eight hours in three shifts, with an engineer leading them. What Apak appreciated most was that, except for two foremen, all the workers were “halis Türk çocukları” (pure and genuine Turkish youth) who learned the craft and managed this modern institution in an excellent way. Fascinated by what he saw during his two-hour visit, Apak believed this power plant was the most modern factory in the East and the Balkans.
In 1910, the Ottoman Ministry of Public Works deemed the Austrian-Hungarian Ganz Electric Company the most suitable bidder, of the eight foreign companies that filed tenders for the electrification of the European side and Suriçi (walled city) of Istanbul. The Ganz Company was granted a 50-year concession. Soon after, a joint stock company, which would be subject to Ottoman regulations and rules, was established in April 1911 and named the “Ottoman Anonymous Electric Company”. The Ottoman government assigned land to the Ganz Company in Silahtarağa towards the end of the Golden Horn, which is a natural harbor at the junction of two streams. This location was to become the Silahtarağa Electric Power Plant.
Following a three-year construction period, in 1914, the Power Plant started providing electricity for the European side and Suriçi of Istanbul and the operation of city trams. The same year the shares of the company was transferred to SOFİNA, a public utility holding company, headquartered in Brussels. Silahtarağa was the sole urban-scale electric supplier of the city from 1914 until 1952, when it became part of a larger interconnected national grid through Çatalağzı Thermic Power Plant. Until its closure in 1983, Silahtarağa played a crucial role in transforming industrial, public, and domestic spaces of the city. It was converted into an energy museum between 2004 and 2007, and continues to serve as a private university today.
In this essay, I revisit early 1920s Istanbul to trace the category of “pure and genuine Turkish youth” that the journalist Apak referred to after his factory visit, and to explore how the drastic political transformation and economic turmoil caused by wars, migration flows, or nationalist struggles impacted the workforce and multinational enterprise of Silahtarağa. I argue that the effort to purge the non-Muslim and foreign workers from the Silahtarağa shop floor was part of a broader and systematic ethno-religious discrimination process in early Republican Turkey. The ruling authorities aimed to use the Turkification of the workforce to control foreign companies, while Turkish Muslim workers as ‘privileged’ citizens of the nascent nation adopted xenophobic language to claim their rights.
Silahtarağa Workers’ Demands
The financial and social constellation of disasters caused by the First World War had an impact on all countries, and the war served as a catalyst in shaping the new world order. After the Treaty of Mudros was signed between the Allied Powers and the Ottoman Empire on 30 October 1918, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) fell from power and Allied Forces composed of the French, British and Italian soldiers occupied Istanbul and established a military control by forming High Commissariats in the city.
During this armistice period, Istanbul’s population, already consisting of diverse ethno-religious elements, became even more diverse with the incoming migration flows. The population was around 1.2 million in 1920. The Russian refugees fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution and the Muslim and non-Muslim communities of Anatolia escaping from the war conditions added to this number. A difficult life was waiting for those who stayed in Istanbul. As a result of the cessation of commercial relations between the warring states, severe food shortages, and huge increases in consumer prices, the economic and social life in Istanbul had almost collapsed. While prices were rising sharply, wages and salaries lagged far behind and purchasing power declined. Compared to 1914, prices increased 22-fold in 1919.
Harsh economic conditions caused labor unrest among workers and more than thirty labor strikes took place in the city, as documented by Kadir Yıldırım. Suffice it to say, the revival of the socialist party and spread of socialist thoughts, as well as the formation of trade unions, played crucial roles in shaping the workers’ struggle. The workers of the city’s public services had an important place in this struggle and Silahtarağa workers were among them.
In April 1921, three representatives of Silahtarağa workers informed the Ottoman Electricity Company management about the demands of the factory staff. These demands consisted of the regulation of working hours as eight hours, a 100 percent increase in the workers’ salaries, an arrangement of one paid day off, improvement of insurance policies, payment of double wages to all night workers, and building a school for the workers’ children, among other demands. The dismissal of Serge Vesselowsky, the chief engineer of the factory, was perhaps the most intriguing request. Along with a complaint that he was on rough terms with workers, the workers claimed that his recruitment also violated the clauses of the convention between the government and the company.
But who was Vesselowsky? The Russians fleeing the civil war and the Bolshevik Revolution were the largest group among those that migrated to Istanbul in the post-war years. The exact number of Russian refugees who came to Istanbul during this period was not clear, however, the estimation lies around 65,000 in April 1921, although only 28,000 of them remained until November 1922. Some of these refugees became a part of the city’s labor market and worked in various jobs to earn their living. Among these refugees, there were engineers and technicians who were hired in factories. Silahtarağa was one of these factories and Vesselowsky was one of these Russian refugees.
Silahtarağa workers were apprehensive about the company using Russian refugees as strikebreakers or as a cheap workforce to undermine the striking workers’ bargaining power. The workers suspected that Vesselowsky served as a mediator for this purpose. Although the company accepted some of the demands of the workers, such as one paid off day, insurance in the case of accidents, and a formation of an emergency fund for the workers, reduction of working hours to eight hours or the increase in wages were out of question. Upon this decision, the workers went on a strike in June. Soon after, the company’s recruitment of about 30 Russian workers in the same month confirmed the Silahtarağa workers’ initial concern. By December 1921, there were 33 Russian refugee workers at the factory, many of whom were appointed to senior posts as engineers, electricians, designers, supervisors, among other positions. We do not have clear information about when Vesselowsky was hired, however, if we consider him as a possibly early recruit, he might have played a role in the recruitment of additional Russian workers.
Receb Saadettin Effendi’s Petition
More about Vesselowky came to light with the petition of Receb Saadettin Effendi. Introducing himself as the representative of Muslim workers in Silahtarağa, Receb Saadettin wrote a petition to Public Works Commissioner Nafız Ziya Effendi in April 1923. He claimed that Vesselowsky and his team members, composed of foreign and non-Muslim technicians, humiliated Muslim workers and favored the non-Muslim ones. Just after Receb Saadettin’s dismissal from the company in 1922, management hired an Ottoman Greek named Pandeli to replace him. Recep Saadettin complained that non-Muslim workers in the factory received higher salaries than the Muslim ones. He also complained about promotion and workplace safety practices: According to him, Christian workers got their promotion faster than their Muslim counterparts. Moreover, in the case of a work accident, Christian workers received good treatment, while Muslim workers were left in precarious conditions. According to him, the factory management came up with various excuses and labeled Muslim workers as “inefficient” to put an end to their jobs. Lastly, the houses in the factory complex were also unevenly distributed among the workers, favoring Russians workers and their relatives.
Compared to the previous complaints regarding Russian refugees as being strikebreakers or a cheap workforce – as has been argued by Erol Ülker, who has researched the tension between Receb Saadettin and Silahtarağa management – Saadettin’s petition had an explicitly anti-Christian and xenophobic tone. Indeed, his tone was in line with the political atmosphere of the armistice period, when communal tension between Christian and Muslim subjects peaked. Ülker also underlines that the General Union of Workers (GUW, Umum Amele Birliği), as one of the economic confederations founded by the Committee of National Defense towards the end of 1922, encouraged Muslim workers to benefit from the government’s policy of Turkifying foreign companies. Thus, leveraging the nationalist atmosphere and political tensions of the period, Receb Saadettin called for the purging of non-Muslims, as well as foreigners, from Silahtarağa.
Receb Sadettin’s petition was received well by the government, which appointed a commission for investigation. This commission conducted interviews with workers’ representatives and two workers in May 1923. As a result of the conversations, the commission decided that some of Receb Sadettin’s complaints had no ground, and his views indeed did not represent the views of Muslim workers in the factory. However, the commission also reached the conclusion that the factory had too many Russian employees who should be laid off. In case there were no Turkish workers capable of doing a particular job, employing foreign personnel with certain expertise was possible, but at the time, the commission concluded that this was not the case in Silahtarağa.
On 26 May 1923, the company rejected all of Recep Saadettin’s accusations with a response written to the Ministry of Public Works. The company informed the ministry that he was not one of the chosen three delegates of Silahtarağa. Moreover, this was also not the first petition that he had sent to the government to complain about factory management. Receb Saadettin was hired as a carpenter during new construction at Silahtarağa. When the construction ended in September 1922, he was laid off along with 129 temporary workers. Among those laid off, 80 were non-Muslim and 49 were Muslim. Thus, Receb Saadettin’s allegation of the management’s discrimination between Muslim and non-Muslims had no grounds, and he had been a serious problem for the company since his dismissal. The company also clarified that they hired Russian refugees under extraordinary conditions following the migration of the Russians to Istanbul, but the technical personnel working in the factory had been carefully selected. Regarding Recep Saadettin’s allegations about humiliation, the company argued that scolding a worker was the nature of the work, and it had nothing to do with nationality or religion. When it came to the housing issue, the company also rejected the allegations about unfair practices in housing distribution. Out of 68 houses in the factory complex, Muslims used half of the apartments and the rest of the employees used the other half. For those who could not benefit from housing in the factory, the company rented houses near the factory complex.
Ethnic and Religious Purges of Workers
After long years of nationalist struggle, the new administrative center of the nascent nation-state was planned to be Ankara. In May 1923, representatives of foreign companies in Istanbul, including the Electricity Company, were called to Ankara to re-discuss legal privileges with the Ministry of Public Works. In June 1923, the company renewed the contract with the new Ankara government, nearly tripling its capital in return for an expansion of the factory and electrical networks. The company made a compromise that all the correspondences would be conducted in two languages, Turkish and French. Moreover, all employees had to be recruited from among Turks within six months. In 1924, the company’s title was changed from “Ottoman Anonymous Electricity Company” to “Turkish Anonymous Electricity Company”.
In this period, the Republican bureaucrats supported both private enterprises and state investments and did not display a negative policy against foreign capital investments. Already-present foreign companies had to undertake some commitments that would help the development of the national economy, and could thus carry on with their operations. Compared to foreign companies, though, the circumstances of workers considered foreign were more precarious.
The government’s pertinacity with respect to the removal of non-Muslim and foreign workers was clear immediately. In 1924, the Ministry of Public Works requested a list of workers, including their names, nationalities, ethnic-religious identities, and positions, from foreign companies. According to the October 1924 list provided by the Electricity Company, the company had 280 salaried employees and 261 wage laborers. Compared to the January 1924 list, the number of non-Muslim-Turkish and other workers had decreased, and the number of the Muslim-Turkish workers had increased proportionally in the October 1924 list. The dismissal of foreign and non-Muslim workers led to an increase of 4.5 percent in the ratio of Muslim-Turks in workforce. According to the October 1924 list, there were 422 Muslim, 39 Jewish, 12 Catholic, 13 Armenian, 12 Greek, 43 foreign salaried employees and wage laborers.
In the following years, there were more purges of non-Muslim and foreign workers. The journalist Apak’s visit to Silahtarağa in 1936 and his emphasis of the “pure Turkish descent” workers managing this factory prove that the purge of non-Muslims and foreigners effectively continued after 1924. As the studies of Ayhan Aktar and Murat Koraltürk have aptly put it, in the transition period from empire to nation-state, while the definition of foreign as a category expanded, the definition of Turkishness narrowed. Despite being considered as Turkish nationals in a legal framework, non-Muslims were discursively and practically labeled as foreigners and subjected to discriminatory policies during Turkish nation-building.
To conclude, the ethnic and religious purge of workers in the Electricity Company and Silahtarağa constituted a micro example of a much wider discrimination process against the non-Muslims of Turkey. The patriotic and xenophobic language that Receb Saadettin Effendi used was soon adopted as collective rhetoric by Turkish Muslim workers to press their claims and eliminate non-Muslim and foreign workers from the shop floor. While Turkish Muslim workers in line with their own interests benefited from the nationalist atmosphere of the country, the Turkish government believed that the Turkification of the workforce, along with the Turkification of the correspondence language, would help the government control foreign-owned companies. Following the Great Depression, the Turkish government had to adopt more protective economy policies. The next step would be the nationalization of the public utility companies. The Electricity Company, and thus Silahtarağa, would become one of these.
 İzzettin Muhip Apak, “Bir farenin oyunu,” Akşam Postası, 6 January 1936, 11.
 “Dersaadet’in Rumeli cihetiyle mülhakâtında kudretü’l-elektrikiyye tevziât-i umumiyesi,” Conventions et Cahiers des Charges, 1336 (Constantinople: Zellitch Freres, Pera, Rue Yazidji, 1920); “Société Anonyme Ottomane d’Electricité”, La Gazette Financière, 18 April 1911, 8–9; Asu Aksoy, Funda Açıkbaş and Ayşenur Akman, “Silahtarağa Elektrik Santrali’nin Hikayesi,” in Asu Aksoy (ed.) Silahtarağa Elektrik Santrali: 1910-2004 (İstanbul: İstanbul Bilgi Üniversitesi Yayınları, 2007), 21.
 For further information on Sofina see William J. Hausman, Peter Hertner, and Mira Wilkins, Global Electrification: Multinational Enterprise and International Finance in the History of Light and Power, 1878-2007, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008, 100–101.
 Bilge Criss, İşgal Altında İstanbul 1918-1923, İstanbul: İletişim, 1993, 39–54.
 Şevket Pamuk, Uneven Centuries, Economic Development of Turkey since 1820, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019, 165–166.
 Kadir Yıldırım, Osmanlı’da İşçiler, 1870-1922, İstanbul: İletişim, 2013.
 Erol Ülker, “Mütareke İstanbul’unda Tramvay İşçileri Hareketi: Türkiye Sosyalist Fırkası, İsgal Makamları ve Radikaller,” in Tanzimat’tan Günümüze Türkiye İsçi Sınıfı Tarihi, 1839–2014: Yeni Yaklaşımlar, Yeni Alanlar, Yeni Sorunlar, ed. Y. Doğan Çetinkaya and Mehmet Ö. Alkan, İstanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları, 2015.
 French Diplomatic Archives at Nantes, “Société d’Electricité, Société des Tramways,” 36PO/1, 366, 20 Avril 1921 (20 April 1921), no. 48, dos. 2309.
 Erol Ülker, “Refugees, Foreigners, Non-Muslims: Nationalism and Workers in the Silahtarağa Power Plant, 1914–24,” in Working in Greece and Turkey: A Comparative Labour History from Empires to Nation-States, 1840–1940, eds. by Leda Papastefanaki and M. Erdem Kabadayı, New York: Berghahn Books, 2020, 313.
 Kezban Acar, “Istanbul in the Early 1920s in White Russian Memoirs and Russian Sources,” in War and Collapse: World War I and the Ottoman State, eds. Hakan Yavuz with Feroz Ahmed, Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2016, 1258–1282. See also Pınar Üre, “Remnants of empires: Russian refugees and citizenship regime in Turkey, 1923–1938,” Middle Eastern Studies, 56:2, 2020: 207–221.
 Ülker, “Refugees, Foreigners, Non-Muslims,” 319.
 Cumhurbaşkanlığı Osmanlı Arşivleri [BOA], DH. KMS. 61-1/37, 29 Ramazan 1339 (6 Haziran 1921).
 “Elektrik Fabrikasındaki Ruslar,” Alemdar Gazetesi, 12 June 1921, 4.
 İETT Archives, “The List of the Russian Nationals Working at the Silahtarağa Central Factory,” 20 December 1921, Uncatalogued Documents. I would like to thank Erol Ülker for sharing this document with me.
 T.C. Cumhurbaşkanlığı Devlet Arşivleri Başkanlığı Cumhuriyet Arşivi [BCA], 230/27-19-1, 20 Nisan 1339 (20 April 1923).
 Ülker, “Refugees, Foreigners, Non-Muslims,” 317.
 BCA, 230/88-15-10, 17 Mayıs 1339 (17 May 1339), 5–8.
 BCA, 230/88-15-10, 26 Mayıs 1339 (26 May 1923), 1–2.
 BCA, 230/27.21.13, 24 November 1924.
 Murat Koraltürk, Erken Cumhuriyet Döneminde Ekonominin Türkleştirilmesi, İstanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 2011, 229–277.
 BCA, 230/27-21-08, 7 Teşrinievvel 1340 (7 October 1924).
 Ayhan Aktar, “Turkification Policies in the Early Republican Era,” in Turkish Literature and Cultural Memory: “Multiculturalism“ as a Literary Theme after 1980, Catharina Dufft (ed.), Harrassowitz Verlag · Wiesbaden, 2009, 29–62; and Koraltürk, Erken Cumhuriyet Döneminde Ekonominin Türkleştirilmesi, 264.
 Görkem Akgöz, “Citizens on the Shop Floor: Negotiating Class, Citizenship and National Identity in a Turkish State Factory,” Labor History, 2019: 1–12. For further studies on the elimination of ethno-religious diversities from the labor force see Ellinor Morack, “Turkifying Poverty, or: the Phantom Pain of Izmir’s Lost Christian Working Class, 1924–26,” Middle Eastern Studies, 55:4, 499–518; and Fredrick Meiton, Electrical Palestine: Capital and Technology from Empire to Nation, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2019, 188–208.
Nurçin İleri is a EUME fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien in 2020/22, associated with the IGK Work and Human Life Cycle in Global History (re:work) at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Her dissertation focused on the social and material geographies of night in late Ottoman Istanbul. She has taught at Binghamton University, Boğaziçi University, and Işık University, and worked as an assistant coordinator at the Boğaziçi University Archives and Documentation Center. She continues to work on urban history, the history of science and technology, and archival and cultural heritage studies in the late Ottoman Empire and Turkey. Nurçin is also one of the editors of the TRAFO series Factory Reloaded.
Further articles in the Factory Reloaded series on TRAFO:
Görkem Akgöz, Malak Labib, and Nurçin İleri, Factory Reloaded: Transregional Perspectives on the Industrial Workplace, 18 February 2021.
Görkem Akgöz, Spaces of National-Industrial Modernity: Factories and Factory Women in Early Republican Turkey, 5 March 2021.
André Weißenfels, Middle Class Factory: The (partial) Privilege of industrial Labor in Tunisia, 19 March 2021.
Josefine Carla Hoffmann, Training as a Gatekeeper at the Indo-German Factory, 16 April 2021.
Malak Labib, Re-shaping the “Socialist Factory” in Egypt in the Late 1960s–1970s, 30 April 2021.
Citation: Nurçin İleri, Nationalism on the Shop Floor: The Silahtarağa Electric Power Plant in the Early 1920s, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 18.05.2021, http://trafo.hypotheses.org/28794.