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The unfortunate Sultan Vahideddin became the ruler who lost the most in the First World War, and 1000 years of tradition was buried with him
27 Mayıs 2022 Cuma

Sultan Mehmed Vahideddin was the youngest of the sons of Sultan Abdülmecid. He was born on Jan. 4, 1861, and lost his father about 5 months later. His mother Gülüstü Kadınefendi's died when he was 4 years old . He received special education and attended the Fatih Madrassa. He lived in his mansion in Çengelköy, which was given to him as a gift by Sultan Abdülhamid II. The Turkish Presidency now uses this pavilion.

A photo of Sultan Mehmed VI Vahideddin.
A photo of Sultan Mehmed VI Vahideddin.

Left alone with a wreck

Sultan Mehmed Vahideddin became the heir to the throne on Feb. 1, 1916. Together with his aide-de-camp, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, he made official visits to Germany and Austria in 1916 and 1917. He fiercely opposed the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) as they were dragging the country toward a disaster. For this reason, the CUP kept him under constant surveillance; even tried to kill him once but could not succeed. Upon the death of his elder brother Sultan Mehmed V Reşad, on July 4, 1918, he ascended to the throne as Sultan Mehmed VI.

Back then, it was the last days of World War. After the capitulation of Bulgaria in the west, which exposed the capital to the Allied forces, and the collapse of the Syrian front, the Armistice of Mudros was signed on Oct. 30, 1918. The CUP chiefs, who brought the country into war, fled abroad. In the hands of Sultan Vahideddin, it was only left to administer a country that had surrendered to the enemy and a nation that fell into misery.

"I did not sit on the feather cushion of the throne; on the contrary, I sat on the ashes from the fire," Sultan Vahideddin used to say. At first, he did not accept the throne and wanted some time to think. Istanbul was occupied on Nov. 13, 1918. The sultan dissolved Parliament, which was composed of the CUP. For the country's sake, he began to follow a policy that flattered the United Kingdom.

One morning in the Ramadan month of 1919, a fire broke out in Yıldız Palace. The flames that grew in a short time also engulfed the sultan's apartment. When the sultan heard of the fire, he put on his overcoat over his nightgown and went out. While he was watching the fire being extinguished in front of the mansion without any haste, one of the servants started to cry out of sorrow. Feeling blue upon this, Vahideddin said: “I'm worried about my nation burning. My own house burned down, what does it matter!”

A photo of Sultan Mehmed VI Vahideddin.
A photo of Sultan Mehmed VI Vahideddin.

Pasha! You can save the state!

As the Allies and resistance movements were occupying various parts of the country began to form, Sultan Vahideddin did not leave his place as his transition to Anatolia would mean the eternal loss of Istanbul. He placed a special guard of 700 people, which was left to protect him, around the Hagia Sophia Mosque and gave the order to shoot those who wanted to hang church bells on it. He ordered them to blow up the building if that wasn't possible.

The members of the CUP knew that they would be held accountable for the war crimes they committed in the courts established after the armistice. They thereupon went to Anatolia and embarked on a struggle to regain power. They began to take control in Anatolia with the militia forces they had established. They had chosen Mustafa Kemal Pasha as the interim leader of this movement.

The Allies requested that an inspector be sent to northern Anatolia to inspect the implementation of the armistice and disarm the Turkish militias fighting local Greek people and militia. Sultan Vahideddin took this opportunity and invited his former aide-de-camp, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, who came to the fore with a loyal attitude, to the palace. The pasha, who seemed at odds with the CUP, was one of the rare high-ranking names that the British could accept.

According to the pasha's later statements, Vahideddin told him: "Pasha, Pasha! You have served the state a lot so far. The service you will do now may be the most important of all. You can save the state." And the sultan sent him to Anatolia as the ninth Army Inspector with exceptionally wide authority. Mustafa Kemal Pasha, whose letter of duty was signed by the Grand Vizier Damat Ferid Pasha, went to Samsun, under British occupation, on May 19, 1919. Before leaving Istanbul, he met separately with the representatives of the occupation forces and he managed to obtain their consent and support.

The sultan had no intention of continuing the war. The country was weary of the war. At all costs, it was necessary to make peace and move on. He feared that the actions that disturbed the peace in Anatolia would anger the Allies and delay the peace. He hoped to put this forward as a trump card at the peace conference by uniting the resistance movements under a single authority.

Leaving to fate

On the other hand, the pasha chose a completely different path, took the resisters' lead with his charisma, and established an alternative government. When the Ottoman Parliament, which convened in Istanbul at the beginning of 1920, accepted the Misak-ı Milli (National Pact) – which declared the expectations in the peace treaty – the Allies dissolved the assembly, and Istanbul was officially occupied. This was actually a planned conduct of Ankara. The occupation led to a complete exodus of officers, intellectuals and bureaucrats to Ankara. Thus, the political power completely shifted from Istanbul to Anatolia.

The Istanbul government could not prevent this situation, which it saw as a rebellion against the caliph. Mustafa Kemal Pasha did not listen to the sultan's orders, who summoned him up to Istanbul under British pressure. That's why he was demoted, although this was corrected later on. He later resigned from the army. Then he was condemned to death with other leaders and commanders of the nationalist movement.

Some troops, who could not receive their salaries properly, joined Anatolia; some returned to their homelands. Istanbul fell from the favor now. The future was in Ankara. Unpaid or unemployed civil servants and officers were going to Anatolia one by one. Some Allied nations, including disgruntled Italy and France, supported Ankara on one hand while they were pressuring the sultan and his government, whom they thought was behind the Anatolian movement, on the other.

Thereupon, the Istanbul government left things to fate. It changed politics and tried to get along with Anatolia more blandly. But, on the other hand, the Ankara government declared at every opportunity that the estrangement between them and Istanbul was only due to the pro-British attitudes of Damat Ferid Pasha and their respect and loyalty to the sultan remained intact.

A photo of Sultan Mehmed VI Vahideddin.
A photo of Sultan Mehmed VI Vahideddin (while he was the crownprince).

British sole purpose

Meanwhile, Sultan Vahideddin continued his policy of stalling by making an Anatolia movement dissident like Damat Ferid Pasha his grand vizier to tolerate the British pressure and those who openly supported the Anatolian movement, such as Izzet, Ali Rıza, Salih and Tevfik pashas.

Despite all the pressure, the sultan did not sign the catastrophic Treaty of Sevres, which was initialed on May 11, 1920, and accepted by the Istanbul government. Thus, the heads of the opposing states did not sign it, and the agreement was null and void. Meanwhile, Muslims living in various parts of the world, especially the Muslims of Russia and India, collected and sent aid to Anatolia due to their respect for the caliphate against imperialist invaders.

The Greek army, which was only allowed to occupy Izmir initially, came as far as Ankara. The pro-sultan rebellions against Ankara, instigated by the sultan's entourage and the British, were bloodily suppressed all over Anatolia.

Aiming to undermine his place in the public conscience by showing the Sultan as a collaborator, British could have neutralized the Anatolian movement if she had intended to do so. In fact, Mustafa Kemal Pasha went to Anatolia with the knowledge, desire and permission of the occupation forces. British troops were all over Anatolia; however, England maintained her usual policies of "Wait and see!" and "Divide and rule!" It is also a fact that the British government (Lloyd George) and the War Office and the Foreign Office did not agree with their policy on Turkey.

The Ankara government, which always behaved respectfully toward the sultan to gain people's support and declared that it also sought to save the sultanate and caliphate, changed its policy after the final victory in 1922. Public opinion was shaped through publications against the sultanate and the sultan.

Black Sultan!

The Sultan's remaining in place after the victory meant the end of Ankara's authority. But Ankara would not accept this.  The British invitation of both governments to the peace conference gave Ankara the legitimacy on the international scene it had been looking for. The law proposal given by Dr. Rıza Nur to the Grand National Assembly in Ankara on the abolition of the sultanate was initially rejected.

On Nov. 1, 1922, the head of the assembly, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, said, "If the people here accept this fait accompli, what a great thing! Otherwise, this will happen again, but it is possible that some heads will be cut off." When the pasha made his historical speech, the opposition deputies said, "We were evaluating the incident from a different perspective. Now we are enlightened." The law was passed only with the opposition of Ziya Hurşid, the deputy of Lazistan (northeastern Anatolia), who was hanged in 1926 over charges of plotting to assassinate Mustafa Kemal.

Thus, the fate of the sultan, who only had the title of caliph, became uncertain. Moreover, the pressures from inside and outside became unbearable. Every day, negative and insulting articles were published in the newspapers. In addition, threatening letters and telegrams poured into the palace. The pro-Ankara Grand Vizier Tevfik Pasha had also failed the sultan.

Ziya Gökalp, the ideologue of the nationalists, used to insult Sultan Vahideddin as "Black Sultan." He was heavily criticized in Parliament. Ankara accepted the offer accusing the sultan of treason. However, according to the constitution, the sultan was not responsible for the government's actions.

In Izmit, on Nov. 5, nationalist commander Nureddin Pasha had the soldiers lynch – Ali Kemal Bey, a professor of the Mekteb-i Mülkiye (the School of Political Sciences), a journalist who criticized the CUP and later Ankara in his newspaper articles, and former interior minister who issued orders to disintegrate the nationalist movement and sought British protectorate. He declared that he would do the same to the sultan. As a result, all those loyal to the sultanate began to leave the country.

A new page

The British, which were preparing to turn a new page with Ankara, wanted Sultan Vahideddin to leave Istanbul; but it was afraid of falling into the role of a kidnapper. The high commissioner in Istanbul, Sir Horace Rumbold, said, "Our interlocutor is Ankara now" and threatened the sultan about his leaving the city.

Realizing that he was not safe, Sultan Vahideddin did not want to cause a political crisis and civil war. In his memoirs, he said, "Hijrah (migration) from a place where it is impossible to live is the sunnah of the prophet." Was he scared? As his granddaughter, Hümeyra Hanımsultan, said, probably not. He was already old and sick and was living with a single lung.

His departure was not to save his life, which meant nothing to him. He openly told Nevile Henderson, acting high commissioner, that he was doing it only to protect his honor and dignity. Before the sultanate was abolished, he rejected Ankara's offer through Refet Bele to stay in the palace by accepting the caliphate without the sultanate. There was the possibility of operating abroad and changing everything.

A photo shows Sultan Mehmed VI Vahideddin arriving in Malta on a British warship, Dec. 9, 1922.
A photo shows Sultan Mehmed VI Vahideddin arriving in Malta on a British warship, Dec. 9, 1922.

Innocent generosity

The British, who seemed destined to leave Istanbul, wanted to take the sultan with them as a trump card. But they should neither give the impression that the sultan took refuge in them against the new friend Ankara nor seem to millions of Muslims in their colonies that they forced the sultan to abdicate. For this, they had to pretend that the request came from him.

On the morning of Friday, Nov. 17, 1922, Vahideddin left Istanbul by boarding the British battleship named Malaya with his 10-year-old son Ertuğrul Efendi and his loyal entourage of nine people with him.

Gen. Sir Charles Harington Harington issued a proclamation, stating that "they fulfilled the wishes of the sultan, who demanded protection and relocation because he saw his life and freedom in danger." Thus, they gave a message of "innocent generosity" to Ankara and the Islamic world. They also strengthened Ankara's position in the Lausanne peace talks as the sole government of Turkey by removing the sultan from the stage.

Ankara, which had already learned that the sultan would leave, was content with this news. Thus, they would feel more comfortable and confident in the radical steps they would take. The nationalist General Refet Bele and the Grand Vizier Tevfik Pasha had tried very hard to persuade the sultan to leave. The Grand National Assembly elected Crown Prince Abdülmecid Efendi as the new caliph.

However, the imperialist states, especially the U.K., were most pleased with this situation. Sultan Vahideddin became the ruler who lost the most in the First World War, and 1000 years of tradition was buried with him. If the Anatolia movement had lost, more would have been said for the heroes of Ankara than for the sultan. Lord George Curzon says: "If we had left the sultan in Istanbul, who would prevent him from assuming the role of Islamic hero and organizing Muslims from Morocco to Afghanistan to Syria?"

Lightning rod

The Muslims of the world greeted the event with amazement and sadness. The sultan, who went to the Hejaz from Malta at the beginning of 1923, was welcomed by Sharif Hussein, who sided with the British and revolted against the Ottomans during the war. Here, he published a declaration to the Islamic world, revealing his version of what had happened and saying that he did not recognize Ankara's decision.

After five months in Hejaz, he wanted to live in a Muslim country such as Egypt, Cyprus or Palestine; The British refused. Moreover, they blocked the sultan's bank account of 22,000 liras. The British directed him to Switzerland but they changed their mind because of the Lausanne Conference.

The King of Italy Vittorio Emanuele III invited the sultan, whom he had known during a visit to Istanbul in his youth, to his country, showing loyalty. The sultan and his family settled in San Remo. King and Prime Minister Benito Mussolini came to San Remo for a while and met with the sultan informally. The Turkish government opened a consulate in Genoa to keep the sultan under surveillance. They placed informants among the sultan's entourage. The sultan began to write his memoirs here but could not complete them.

The sultan sincerely believed that the Turkish people would not give up their loyalty and that he could return when the situation calmed down. Until 1924, he attempted desperately to regain the throne. After the caliphate's abolition and the Ottoman dynasty's total exile, he was utterly disappointed and died in 1926 in poverty. He ran out of money and even sold his medals.

Medication prescriptions that could not be bought due to lack of money were found under his pillow. His coffin was confiscated because of his debt to the local shops. His body could not be interred for days. The debt could be paid with the money collected from people. The body of the sultan was taken to Damascus and buried there.

"I have three mistakes: Ascending the throne; listening to those around me and trusting people's loyalty," Vahideddin once said. He describes his reign of four years as follows: "We acted as lightning rods to protect the nation. Such was the destiny!"

A photo of Sultan Mehmed VI Vahideddin while praying.
A photo of Sultan Mehmed VI Vahideddin while praying.

If one could do it, it will surely be him!

Sultan Vahideddin’s son Ertuğrul Efendi died at a young age in Egypt. Of his two daughters, Ulviye Sultan was married to the son of Grand Vizier Tevfik Pasha. When Ulviye's husband, an officer, joined the Ankara movement unbeknown, she left him. Mustafa Kemal Pasha aspired to Sabiha Sultan, his second daughter, as a suitor, but both the sultan and his daughter did not accept. She married her uncle’s son, Şehzade (Prince) Ömer Faruk Efendi. Ömer Faruk also sought to join the nationalist movement in Ankara but was rejected.

Sultan Vahideddin was intelligent and wise. He was calm, patient, serious, cautious, and spoke little. He lived a modest life. He was kind and would look dignified and cold from the outside. He once said: "I am against the death penalty, except retaliation." This shows his soft heart and his being a good administrator.

Sultan Abdülhamid II loved Vahideddin the most among his brothers. After he was dethroned, Abdülhamid told: "Vahideddin Efendi can run the state well. If they prevent him, our family will fall apart." If Sultan Vahideddin had ascended to the throne after Sultan Abdülhamid, he had the power and merit to avoid disasters and place the Ottoman state among the powerful states of the century.

Sultan Vahideddin was a calligrapher, poet and composer. He had a specialization in the science of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). He was fluent in Arabic, Persian and French. Like his father, he was a member of the Naqshbandi sect and was the supporter of Ömer Ziyâeddin Dagestani from the Gümüşhanevi lodge in Istanbul

His extraordinary honesty was so apparent that he took nothing but his minimal personal wealth with him when he left his homeland and even returned his last salary to the treasury because "he did not work that month."