In A Nutshell
A small secretive Jewish sect has been highly influential in Turkish history since the Ottoman era. Originally claiming to follow the Jewish Messiah, they nominally converted to Islam but kept Jewish traditions in secret. Members of this community were instrumental in the making of modern secular Turkey. They may even include Mustafa Kemal, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, in their number.
The Whole Bushel
The story begins in the 17th century with Jewish scholar Shabbetai Tzevi. He hailed from a Sephardic family that had settled in Smyrna (modern-day Izmir, Turkey). He started studying the Jewish mystical tradition known as the Kabbalah as a young man, and he became such an authority that he was claimed to be the Messiah. Mainstream Judaism didn’t fall for it and proclaimed him and his followers as cherem (a Jewish equivalent to excommunication).
However, he gained quite the following and rumor spread that he would travel to Constantinople where he would place the Sultan’s crown on his own head. The Sultan Mehmed IV would have none of that and forced Tzevi to convert to Islam in the fateful year of 1666. That sent most of the followers of Shabbetai into disarray.
But the Sabbateans refused to forget their identity. About 300 families of followers of Tzevi converted to Islam with him, settling down in Salonika. Although they acted like Muslims in public, they kept their own traditions in secret. The Turks became suspicious and instead of accepting them like most other converts like Bosniaks or Albanian Muslims, called them Donmeh, from the Turkish word for “turning.” They were seen as turncoats, not as honest-to-Allah Muslims.
In the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was lagging behind the West. The mighty Janissaries, spahis, and piyade that twice reached the gates of Vienna were clearly outclassed by European technology, and the need for reform and modernization was evident. The Tanzimat Reforms were enacted to bring the Ottoman Empire into the modern age. Those efforts culminated in a constitution in 1876, but it was soon abolished and the absolute monarchy restored.
So the Young Turk movement was formed in Salonika. Incidentally, that was the hometown of the Dönmeh and many of the original Young Turks were of at least Dönmeh descent. They infiltrated the Ottoman government and reached positions of power and influence from which they embarked on a westernization program. Calling themselves Committee for Union and Progress (İttihat ve Terakki Cemiyeti) the Young Turks pushed to transform again the absolute monarchy into a constitutional one. Prominent Dönme members of the CUP were Emanuel Karasu and Munis Tekinalp. A very influential Sabbatean was the Finance Minister from 1908, Mehmet Cavit Bey, who greatly admired Bismarck and his policies. During the First World War, in which Turkey fought alongside Germany and Austria-Hungary, Sabbatean Young Turks were instrumental in bringing German military advisors to rule the Ottoman troops. A young officer rose quickly through the ranks. His name was Mustafa Kemal, and he would later embark on a sweeping modernization programme that made the Young Turks look positively backward. He was a secondary figure to the “Three Pashas”. One of them, Talaat Pasha was also from Salonika and became sadly famous for the Armenian Genocide, which revealed a dark side to the allegedly progressive and modern Young Turk faction.
But there’s more to this: Mustafa Kemal came from Salonika (like the Sabbateans). He had studied at a secular school (Şemsi Effendi) where most of the teaching staff were Dönmeh. There he got his surname Kemal, meaning “brilliant”. And there’s a veil of secrecy concerning his early life and family. His quick rise through the ranks of the Ottoman Army and his steadfast defense of the Dardanelles helped to get him in the spotlight. There is the curious anecdote that Jewish journalist Itamar Ben-Avi shared a bottle of liquor (a very much non-Islamic practice) with Mustafa Kemal in 1911 when the future Father of the Turkish Republic confided to him that he had a “secret prayer”. None other than the Shema, the holiest prayer in Judaism. Then again, most of it is rumor and hearsay, but it would not be surprising that the hard-drinking Atatürk (he died of cirrhosis of the liver) had at least Dönmeh roots.
Anyway, even after the annexation of Salonika to Greece as Thessaloniki when most of the non-Greek, non-Jewish population was exiled, and after World War II when the Sephardic community was exterminated by the Nazi occupants (in 1908 Salonika was the only city in the world with majority-Jewish population) the Dönmeh have survived until now, although many of them have since reverted to mainstream Judaism, or become entirely integrated into secular Turkish life. Dönmeh personalities such as Sabiha Sertel (the first female journalist in Turkey) have been influential in Republican Turkey intellectual life. Still, the Dönmeh imprint on the history of Turkey is quite big for such a small sect, and it is a part of the legacy of both Ottoman and Republican Turkey.