Commentary Magazine

Ataturk by Andrew Mango

Atatürk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey
by Andrew Mango
Overlook. 666 pp. $40.00

Among dictators of recent times, Mustapha Kemal, who later took the honorific name Atatürk, is the exception. In common with the others, he believed that social engineering justified whatever means were required, and he had no qualms about destruction and murder. But where the others left behind nothing but the memory of their evil, Mustapha Kemal, out of the wreck of the Ottoman empire, fashioned Turkey into the thriving nation-state it is today. Official photographs of his handsome if haughty face, prominent in public places throughout the country, attest to his enduring and genuine popularity. The Turkish military, in particular, sees itself as the steadfast guardian of the nationalism he taught Turks to value above other ideals.

Andrew Mango, who was for many years in charge of the BBC’s broadcasts in Turkish and has published numerous studies of Turkish affairs, has now scrupulously separated fact from the massive accretions of fiction with which both Mustapha Kemal and his faithful followers built the legend of Atatürk He has spent many years writing this biography, and it is likely to remain the standard work for a long time. Only occasionally does he resort to special pleading (as in his pages on the Armenian massacre of 1915-16), but his final judgment is unmistakable: Atatürk, whom he describes as a “conservative revolutionary,” was the right man in the right place at the right time.



Until the 18th century, the Ottoman empire had been a superpower, overrunning the Balkans and threatening to expand into central Europe. As sultan, the Ottoman ruler held absolute temporal power; as caliph, he simultaneously claimed the spiritual allegiance of all Muslims. But throughout the age of Enlightenment, Europeans were developing the science and technology that would underpin the influence they were soon to project across the world. An innate sense of superiority prevented the Ottomans from perceiving the gathering danger. Infidels, they presumed, had nothing to teach them.

Mustapha Kemal was born about 1880, in Salonika, then a cosmopolitan city. The empire was already in its last throes. For thirteen years, he attended a military school. As a junior officer, he served in Syria, in Libya against the Italians, and afterward as military attaché in the formerly Ottoman-held city of Sofia, Bulgaria. Like many in his position, he despaired of reform, and dabbled in conspiracy to overthrow the regime.

In 1908, other officers undertook an unfinished or rolling coup against the sultan. These so-called Young Turks proved as incompetent as they were ambitious. At the outbreak of World War I, they struck an alliance with Germany that would consummate the ruin of the empire they meant to save.

In the meantime, recognizing in Mustapha Kemal someone as ambitious as themselves, they kept him at arm’s length. Much of his career during the war would consist of skillful maneuvering to capitalize on the mistakes and limitations of the Young Turks, to come out on top at the end.

His first real opportunity to challenge the Young Turks for leadership came when he was appointed commander of the defense forces at Gallipoli in 1915. The Western allies had anticipated that a successful campaign at Gallipoli would shorten the war, and the whole world was watching the outcome. But Mustapha Kemal happened to have reconnoitered the ground, and, asserting himself over the German officers who were nominally in charge of Turkish forces, he proved a brave and inspiring general. After huge casualties on both sides, the Allies withdrew in defeat. Mustapha Kemal became a national hero at a moment when heroes were needed.

A superb organizer, Kemal also proved to have diplomatic and political skills of a high order; but “the decisive factor,” Mango adds, “was his self-confidence.” After the war, extreme foolishness on the part of the victorious Allies played into his hands. They had already occupied the empire’s Arab and European provinces. In search of spoils, French, British, Italian, and Greek forces then invaded the Ottoman heartlands. As the sultan and his ministers in Istanbul pursued a policy of appeasement and surrender, Mustapha Kemal built in Anatolia the means of resistance. In a brilliant solo performance, he set up a tame assembly to certify his powers and mobilized the Turkish army to pick off the invaders one by one. Undoubtedly, this was his finest hour.

Though he might with justice have despised the European countries in whose imperial quarrels and vanities his people had been so disastrously caught up and ruined, Kemal was no hater of Europe. On the contrary: in many a speech and many an incident, he revealed that he admired his enemies almost uncritically, while at the same time he viewed his own compatriots as contemptibly backward and superstitious, “ignoramuses” living in dirty and tightly packed “oriental” towns. This shame could no longer be endured. Turkey, he insisted, had to become “a progressive member of the civilized world,” and by “civilization,” a favorite word of his, he meant Westernization. There was to be no distinctly Turkish or isolationist future.

In 1923, Mustapha Kemal declared himself president of the new Turkish republic. The sultan, accepting the loss of his temporal power, pleaded to be allowed to continue as caliph, even if this was only, in Mango’s phrase, “fancy-dress”; he was instead sent into exile, and would die in Paris in 1944. At home, the changes introduced by Mustapha Kemal were radical and immediate. New legal and penal codes were imported from countries like Switzerland and Italy. The Roman alphabet replaced traditional Arabic script, effectively cutting off much of the Ottoman past. Culture, manners, and dress were Westernized, down to such apparently insignificant details as the compulsory replacement of the fez by a hat. Mustapha Kemal—now Kemal Atatürk (father of the Turks), the adoption of surnames being another of his compulsory innovations—himself read and wrote French, and frequently resorted to that language among friends. A womanizer, he enjoyed nightclubs, waltzing, and drinking with his cronies. Alcoholism would contribute to his premature death in 1938.

There seems to be no explanation for the ferocity with which Mustapha Kemal attacked Islam. “The evils which had sapped the nation’s strength,” he declared, “had all been wrought in the name of religion.” If, in his own case, he was prepared to take advantage of Muslim law to divorce his wife peremptorily, he also thought nothing of physically assaulting some Muslim cleric of whom he disapproved or pulling down a minaret because it obstructed his view. Brought under strict government control, Islam was broken as a code of loyalties and a way of life. In a swift and brutal reversal, Turks were obliged to repudiate the Ottoman assumption that their faith had entailed superiority over others.

Revolutionary as all these changes were, however, they concerned only the outward forms of Westernization, and were at a complete remove from its spirit. Western strength derived in the final analysis from the spectrum of institutions, political and otherwise, through which a citizenry could express its energy. The Ottomans had had no such institutions, and the Turks did not now acquire them. Mustapha Kemal’s powers were every bit as absolute as the sultan’s, but, thanks to improved techniques of communication, far more effectively applied. Much as the sultan had relied on faithful janissaries to execute orders, Atatürk recruited his People’s party, which held all but one seat in the assembly, to do his bidding.

Tailored to one-man rule, the resultant party-state had no place for a loyal opposition, for accountability, for free association, for civil rights, or indeed for any of the essentials of democracy. Whoever stood in Mustapha Kemal’s way was murdered, either secretly or through scandalous judicial fixes; the victims included several rivals, Communists, Kurds agitating for a state of their own, Greeks and Armenians, mullahs who persisted in old-style Islam, and even unfortunate wretches who had joined in riots against wearing those compulsory hats.

Luckily—and it has been as much by luck as by skillful management—Mustapha Kemal’s heirs have been able to proceed further down the road to Westernization. Turkey is now the only Islamic country (leaving aside the questionable example of Pakistan) in which a free and fair election has led to a change of government. Even so, it still suffers from the repercussions of Atatürk’s rule. The military has taken power several times on dubious nationalist pretexts, while extremists of one kind or another have engaged in campaigns of mutual and reciprocal murder. Kurds, even if they do not engage in terrorism but strive for a pluralist solution to their plight, encounter state terror in response. Immune to extirpation by decree, Islam has made a comeback, and about a quarter of the Turkish electorate now votes for the Islamic fundamentalist party.

Outside Turkey there is still more unfinished business in the legacy of Mustapha Kemal. In Arab lands, in Pakistan, and in Indonesia, other one-man rulers have emulated his example. Almost invariably soldiers, they too have begun from a position of despair and shame at the apparent weakness of their people in the face of Western preeminence. Like him, they have developed a style of nationalism that promises to redress the balance, but in practice levers them into absolute power through conspiracy and crime. Unlike him, as often as not, they have tried to compromise with Islam, not out of any settled belief but rather to exploit it for their purposes. The intellectual and moral confusion arising from this schizophrenic procedure fosters absolutism and Islamic fundamentalism alike.

Whether Mustapha Kemal was ultimately as beneficent and creative as Mango believes is, therefore, an open question. Nationalism was not a firm enough base on which to create a modern state. A truly great man would have gone on to solve the conundrum of converting subjects of the old empire into citizens of the new polity, and would have sought to reconcile the perceived demands of modernity with the traditional faith of Islam. But at least Mustapha Kemal’s admiration of the West was genuine. His many imitators have copied Western externals in order to get their own back, while inwardly resenting and even hating almost everything to do with the West and its values. Modernity in those countries therefore stays on hold, and both Islam and democracy remain beautiful but incompatible ideals.


About the Author

David Pryce-Jones, the British novelist and political analyst, is the author of, among other books, Betrayal: France, the Arabs, and the Jews (Encounter).

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