The real story of what happened to British PM Johnson’s Ottoman ancestor

The irrepressible rise of Boris Johnson to become British prime minister has been accompanied at each step by Turkish press reports recalling his Ottoman heritage.

Johnson’s great grandfather, Ali Kemal, was a prominent journalist who became the empire’s last interior minister, opposing Turkish Republic founder Mustafa Kemal’s independence struggle.

When Johnson was elected Mayor of London in 2008, Turkish newspapers published articles on Ali Kemal and the widely known story of his notorious demise at the hands of a lynch mob in 1922.

This year, the Turkish press has been no different.

But the most widely known story of Kemal’s death – the official narrative published by Turkish newspapers – leaves out some crucial facts.

It says, without going into details on the circumstances, that he was lynched in the western Turkish town of İzmit after being arrested by agents of the Special Organisation, the feared Ottoman special forces agency that was the predecessor of today’s National Intelligence Organisation, for supporting the British effort to rule Turkey as a protectorate.

Even Wikipedia’s description of Kemal’s death provides a clearer picture of the circumstances, noting the perpetrators of the lynching: soldiers under the command of ‘Bearded’ Nurettin Pasha, a famous general in the independence struggle.

The details were set down by Turkish journalist Can Dündar in a 2002 column for Milliyet newspaper, which compares the official narrative of Ali Kemal’s death to the picture painted by documentary evidence.

Kemal was abducted by Special Organisation agents from the Tokatlıyan Hotel in Istanbul, where he had gone for a shave. The agents told the local court they would transport their prisoner to stand trial in Ankara. Instead, they took Kemal to Nurettin Pasha’s command post in İzmit, where he was interviewed by the commander. Shortly afterwards, soldiers set about him with hammers and stones, killing him.

The details of that meeting were set down in the memoirs of Rahmi Apak, a Turkish soldier and later politician who witnessed the event during his service as an intelligence chief.

The general asked Kemal for his name before tersely kicking him out of his offices, according to Apak’s memoir.

At that point the matter took a darker turn. 

Nurettin Pasha called Apak to give him a command – to round up several hundred people and lynch Kemal as he left.

Apak believed that the minister deserved to die, but he could not stomach killing the man in such fashion. He relayed the command, instead, to his deputy.

When Ali Kemal was led out of the headquarters a short time later, a crowd carrying stones and knives was waiting. 

Apak said “the crowd descended on Ali Kemal like a dark cloud” before beating, stoning and knifing him to the ground. Then they smashed in his skull.

Not satisfied with that, they stripped his body and bound it with a rope before dragging it along the road.

They hanged the corpse on a gallows near the railway line, so it could be seen by İsmet İnönü, one of Mustafa Kemal’s top generals who would go on to lead the country as president and prime minister. 

İzmit lay on İnönü’s route to Lausanne, where he and Mustafa Kemal negotiated the peace treaty that determined the boundaries of the new Republic of Turkey.


Can Dündar’s piece continues by asking whether Ali Kemal had made a mistake by opposing the Turkish independence movement:

“He did. He admits this himself in his own memoir”, Dündar said. “But did he deserve such an end? Surely any person who has any mercy would say no.” 


The aftermath of the story was reported by Falih Rıfkı Atay, a well-connected journalist who was present during many major events during the tumultuous final years of the Ottoman Empire. 

“İsmet Pasha, who was travelling to Lausanne, saw from afar the horrific sight of the gallows lit by torchlight and his face dropped. He turned his head away from the sight and did not look at it as he entered the building. There, he left nothing unsaid to Nurettin Pasha. Mustafa Kemal, too, used to talk about this incident with disgust.”


No good can come from a mindset that tirelessly presents distorted images of its history as fact. 

Adapted for English from Altan's Turkish original published here.