Dr. Engin Inel Holmstrom
Military hero. National liberator. Charismatic leader. Unparalleled social reformer. Prominent statesman. A genius international peacemaker. Father of his country. These are some of the exalted phrases generally used to describe Atatürk. These attributes, beyond the reach of ordinary human beings, tend to deify him and make us forget that he was just a man. Not an ordinary man, for sure, but nonetheless a man, with feelings, likes, dislikes, worries, strengths and weaknesses.
It is this juxtaposition of human frailty on one hand, and unparalleled strength and foresight for world affairs, on the other hand, that has made him such an interesting subject for historians and social scientists.
In a fascinating psychobiology of Atatürk, Volkan and Itzkowitz state that Atatürk “had an inflated and grandiose self-concept…He believed he was a unique man above all others and endowed with the right to assert his will.” In view of his extraordinary life and achievements, it is hardly surprising that Atatürk had a high self-esteem!
From childhood he was different from others. And step by step events proved his superior intelligence, foresight, and talent for leadership. Sometimes even he did not know how he made the right decisions! There is a well-documented scene in the battle on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915. Coming upon a company of Turkish soldiers in full flight, who have exhausted their ammunition, Atatürk orders the soldiers to fix their bayonets and charge the enemy. Relating the incident later on, he said that he did not know whether he gave the order by logic or instint. This act, either by “logic or instinct”, saved the day, giving the Turks enough time to get reinforcements and drove the British down the slopes.
On the same slopes, after personally leading the bayonet charge against the enemy, he was hit by a piece of shrapnel. He prevented a young officer from letting others know that he was hit. He did not want to undermine the unquestioned confidence his troops had in him. He knew such confidence was a vital part of successful leadership.
Volkan and Itzkowitz argue that this incident created a sense of “immortality” in the young officer. But why not? What happened that day in Gallipoli was short of a miracle. He was saved by his own pocket watch which absorbed most of the blow. It was almost as if by divine intervention he was allowed to continue on his path to save the Turkish nation.
There is another story that reveals Atatürk’s state of mind regarding his “immortality.” In 1926 a group of men hatched a plot to assassinate him. The plot was uncovered and the culprits arrested. One of the hired assassins was brought in front of Atatürk. The assassin did not know that his questioner was Atatürk. He admitted that he had been paid to kill Mustafa Kemal because he was a bad man who did harm to his country. “But how,” asked Atatürk, “could you kill a person you had never seen? You might have picked the wrong man.” The assassin explained that Kemal was to be pointed out to him before he fired. Atatürk then drew his revolver and handed it him saying “Well, I am Mustafa Kemal. Come on, take this revolver and shoot me now.” The man, Lord Kinross writes, looked at him in amazement, then sank to his knees and sobbed.
Call it superiority complex. Call it over-inflated ego. Whatever drove him resulted in the liberation of his country. And, “although he believed in the superiority of his own ideas, he was capable of synthesizing what he learned from others into some reality-oriented conclusion that was both acceptable and practical.” He was a good listener, unlike other “self-inflated” persons. He liked to discuss things with his friends before making a decision. He was not a humble man, but he disliked unrealistic flattery.
At a dinner in Konya during the early days of the Republic, Refik Bey (Koraltan) started on a long, honey-tongued toast, flourishing the notion that the nation owed every thing to Atatürk. Atatürk tried to cut him short by stating that whatever accomplishments there had been, they were the work of the Turkish people. But Koraltan was high on alcohol and objected to Atatürk’s “extreme modesty.”
Peeved, Atatürk responded: “This is not modesty but expression of reality… I am certain you must have noticed my tendency to discuss current events and problems with others and get their opinions. I must confess I attended many meetings where I had no knowledge of the issue at hand. Only after listening to you, my friends, was I able to make a decision. Thus, as in implementation of all our decisions, you were also responsible in forming our decisions… Now I would like to point out a very delicate point here. Have you ever thought while there are internal and external attempts to assassinate me? Those people who try organize such conspiracies, do they have anything against me personally? No! Are they trying to take revenge? No, again! Then why are they trying to get rid of me? I will give you an answer. Because they are under the impression that reformist Turkish Republic will not exist without me, and that when I am gone, the Republic will collapse and they will realize their unholy aims. Do you realize that you are mouthing similar statements as these people? Please, sir, if you are sincere, get this notion out of your head…The Republic is the product of Turkish people and it belongs to them. In the hands of its children, it will flourish, getting better and stronger.” Refik Koraltan, it is said, never undertook long toasts after this incident.
There are other less-known aspects of Atatürk’s personality. Although a military hero, who more than once led his troops into horrific battles, he disliked gore and blood. He did not like the practice of animal-sacrifice and always stopped such attempts before any blood was shed.
One day in Cankaya he received a gift from a friend in Istanbul. It was an oil painting done during the 1897 Ottoman-Greek War depicting an Ottoman soldier with his bayonet in the bloodied chest of a Greek soldier. Atatürk’s immediate reaction was to put the painting in its crate and have it moved.
His sensitivity to national symbols, whether Turkish or not, is well documented. Perhaps the best- known story concerns the time in Izmir when he refused to tread upon a Greek flag stating that itis the symbol of a country’s independence.
His friends knew him to be a kind and sensitive man. He loved children and adopted a number of girls and a boy, all of whom were well-educated and became well-known in their chosen fields. He had a special fondness for horses and dogs. He also loved flowers and wanted fresh-cut flowers on his table every night. However, he was told that there were no flowers in Ankara and cultivation of flowers was out of question. He did not understand. Ankara had soil, so why not flowers? No water, they said. “If I bring water to you, would you raise flowers?” he asked. So he had a dam built near Ankara and not only got his flowers but also established a model farm to ensure that cultivation of flowers would continue. He had a feeling of veneration towards trees and hated to see them cut. He was responsible for the “greening” of Ankara. His friends knew of his love of nature. One day while riding with Ismet Inonu near Diyarbakir, Atatürk exclaimed, “Find me a new religion.” Ismet Inonu promptly answered: “Let it be a religion whose form of worship is to plant trees.”
Again in contrast to other “self-inflated” people, he respected differences of opinion and tolerated criticism well. Once when Recep Peker, then the head of Atatürk’s Republican Party, objected to the nomination of two men to the General Assembly as too critical of the government, Atatürk disagreed: “Of course they will criticize! That’s why I want them in the Assembly so that we have access to their ideas…Is there something that we did that cannot be defended? I am convinced that we can justify all our actions.” Later on, he confessed to his near friends that he was upset: “We don’t seem to have any stomach for criticism. Unfortunately, I have not been able to make our friends more tolerable. Well, maybe eventually we will succeed in this too.”
In another incident when he was attending a meeting in a town in Anatolia, he asked people to tell him honestly which of his reforms they did not like. Everyone looked down, not daring to criticize him. Then a young man named Asim Kultur got up and said “Since you order us, I will tell you.” He said that he was worried about how little Atatürk’s reforms had taken hold. He likened Atatürk’s reforms to mighty winds that originate on top of mountains but never reach the valleys. He said he had just met a taxi driver who believed that religious sheiks had miraculous powers: “So the driver gave the sheik a free ride! Clearly, there are still ignorant people amongst us who believe that such people have supernatural powers. If we could have planted the seeds of our reforms to every corner of our country, the power that sheiks and other religious reactionaries have over innocent people would have long dissipated. If today the sheik finds a gullible enough taxi driver to take him to his destination without pay, then tomorrow he can make these people follow him wherever he wants.” Atatürk listened to the young man quietly and said: “You are absolutely right.”
The young man’s prophecy has finally come true. There are too many gullible people in Turkey today which put their faith blindly into the hands of so-called-religious people who use religion to foster their own interests. Islam has been politicized in Turkey. It is also being used to separate Turkish people into hostile segments. However, current events might eventually show that the majority of Turkish people respect democracy and see the recent developments as evidence of a healthy debate.
It is an undeniable fact that during the early years of the Turkish Republic, the voice of religion had to be silenced for the social reforms to take root. Some seventy years later the time has come for us to discuss the role of religion in Turkish life openly and freely. But without political manipulation.
Maybe as the educated and Westernized Turks listen to the complaints of “religious masses” and respond to their criticisms in positive and constructive ways, they, in turn, will learn to appreciate that diversity in a democratic country is not to be feared but valued.
Some people say we need another Atatürk to save us from this mess. That is too much to hope for. But we certainly need a leader with Atatürk’s tolerance for criticism and sensitivity to the symbols held dear by different groups.