Prof. Carl Leiden
Andrew Mango, in his definitive biography of Atatürk, begins his book with the following sentence: “Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is one of the most important statesmen of the twentieth century.” I have italicized two words that can be deleted and if we change “statesmen” to the singular we can say, and I believe without serious contradiction, that Kemal Atatürk was the greatest statesman from any country in the 20th century recently ended.
Who could challenge him? No one in Africa or the Arab World. Nor in Asia either. Gandhi? A brief examination of what Gandhi did and did not do would dispel any notion that he was even remotely a valid comparison with Kemal. Two might be mentioned in Europe: Tito and Degaulle. They too helped build nations. The emphasis is upon the word “helped”; moreover Tito’s Yugoslavia fell apart when he died in 1980. Although Kemal died in 1938, Turkey is today, to use Mango’s words, “the strongest state between the Adriatic and China in the broad Eurasian land belt south of Russia and north of the Indian subcontinent.” It is also the major democracy in the area generally termed the Middle East. As far as Degaulle was concerned he played a small role in the liberation of France.
Surfing the rest of the world reveals no other figure to challenge Kemal’s claim as the 20th century’s greatest statesman. Certainly no American president was his match. South America has no one to offer. Let me offer one other quotation about him, this one from Misha Glenny in his recent and stimulating The Balkans. Nationalism, War and the Great Powers. 1804-1999 (Viking, 1999): “. . . Kemal had a rare ability to temper and manage the jealousies and ambitions of his entourage. He did not tolerate failure. He was not vindictive, but had no time for sentimentality in politics beyond his own mystical belief in the sanctity and purity of the Turkish nation. It is no exaggeration to say that without Kemal’s audacity, Turkey might not exist today and certainly not within its current borders. Instead, it would have been carved up in accordance with the Treaty of Sèvres, which was finally signed on 10 August 1920, just south of Paris.” [p 385] And as every knowledgeable student of Turkey knows, this was just the beginning. It was Kemal who saved modern Turkey from the ruins of the old Ottoman Empire and then launched a modernizing scheme that left Turkey breathless. I would guess that few Turks today would want to return to the situation that Sèvres had supposedly legitimated. Three years later the Treaty of Lausanne was agreed upon as superseding Sèvres and Turkey became the only member of the Central Powers of the First World War to negotiate its own treaty with the Allies. That was Kemal’s doing.
But even after all this was done, a republic established, the sultanate and caliphate gone, much remained to be effected; the Kemalist revolution was just beginning. Before his tragically premature death in 1938 at the age of 57 he had consolidated the Turkish state, given it secularism, liberated women, and changed the alphabet of the language. This was the inspiration of one man, Kemal, assisted by many who recognized his imagination and his leadership. None was more loyal than Ismet Inönü, his successor in leadership. When the Democrat Party won an election over the People’s Republican Party in 1950 and Ismet lost his position he was alleged to have said, “I’ve been a general, foreign minister, prime minister and president; it is now time for me to be leader of the opposition.”
But let us slip back in time to the First World War. The old Ottoman Empire was known to many as the “Sick Man of Europe” and the major powers were all still engaged in building their empires. They wanted body parts of a sick man. When Enver Pasha, the leader of a small clique within the so called Young Turks (The Committee of Union and Progress, with which Kemal was connected on a lower level) allowed German naval vessels to fire on Russian Black Sea positions he thrust the Ottomans into the First World War.
The Turks fought that war with distinction. They were attacked by the Russians in the Caucasus, by the British-officered Indian army up the Tigris River, and by the British, along with French naval support and the Anzac Dominion troops at the Dardanelles; another front was more slow in opening up, the British through Sinai into Palestine. Add to this the so-called Arab Revolt of Sharif Hussain in the Hejaz and the military picture becomes clear. The Russian front fizzled out, the British were decisively defeated at the Dardanelles (Gallipoli). In Mesopotamia the British had a tough struggle of it, losing General Townshend and 10.000 troops when they surrendered at Kut, below Baghdad. Eventually they entered Baghdad as the war was ending, and Lord Allenby entered Damascus at the virtual end of the war. In the clear British defeat at Gallipoli it was a Colonel Mustafa Kemal who was the Turkish officer under German senior officers who was in the midst of some of the worst fighting. More than any other Turkish officer he deserves credit for the Turkish win over the British. He became a genuine national hero although it took some time before many in the country understood exactly who he was. In the ensuing months he was shifted from front to front.
But eventually the Ottomans were overcome. The government sued for peace. The vultures began to gather. Those primarily determined to get hunks of flesh from the dying body of the old Ottoman polity were primarily the Greeks and then the British, French and Italians. Add to that the possibility that the Kurds, Armenians and the lesser Azeris might want states of their own. The Armenians certainly did. Here President Wilson of the United States was persuaded to interfere and help carve up what was left for the Armenians. His final effort was scoffed at.
The subsequent story is well known and needs take only a few lines. Kemal was able to get out of Istanbul and thus escaped being exiled to Malta; instead he managed to flee Istanbul to the Black Sea port of Samsun and from there moved to inspire the militias and remaining troops and insure the safety of their arms. The French had in the meantime taken Syria and what was later called The Lebanon, and the British had grabbed Palestine and Mesopotamia. Enlightened Turks like Kemal and other mainly military officers were ready to write off the Arab possessions of the old Ottoman Empire; it was this lack of irredentism that strengthened the hands of the new nationalist leaders. They did not try to put back together the old Ottoman Empire; they were concerned with the Turkish heartland. But included in this were parts along the Aegean. Salonica, the birthplace of Kemal himself, was more a Jewish and Turkish city than it was a Greek one. To the east there was Edirne and the area that lay to the eastward and to a degree northward. After all Istanbul was European, if the Straits were to be considered as the dividing line between Europe and Asia. Ultimately, after the Treaty of Lausanne was signed Turkey kept Edirne but lost Salonica. There was an Armenian state but it was in the Soviet Union. The Kurds, splashing over Iraq and Iran as they do, continue nearly a century later to be a problem.
As far as the core of Turkey British officers were more realistic than their superiors in London and had little enthusiasm for trying to subdue the Turkish national army that Kemal was constructing. They made their peace with the Turks and departed. The French haggled a bit over Hatay (Iskenderun and littoral) which was taken over by Turkey in 1939 but eventually made their peace too with Kemal. The Italians were bought off. That left the Greeks. Venizelos, the Greek political leader was ambitious territorially. He had troops on the ground and controlled the city of Izmir. And so what the Turks consider their great war of independence was joined with the Greeks. It was a ruthless struggle and eventually the Greeks were driven out of Anatolia. Among the refugees who struggled on to boats to Greece from Izmir, were Eric Ambler’s fictional Dimitros Makropolis and real life Aristotle Onassis. Needless to say thousands lost their lives on both sides but ethnic Turkey was free of the Greeks at last. The Greeks in subsequent years have not played it smart; by insistence on enosis (reunion) with Cyprus they managed to divide the island. Standing on Constitution Square in Athens in the 1970s I was approached by a Greek who said, “From the States, aren’t you?” I responded soberly, “No, from Ankara!” My short-lived acquaintance fled into the crowd.
Kemal was the single man who gave the inspiration to making Turkey Turkish and not the hotch-potch of ethnic groups that it had been under the Ottomans. He then set about creating an effective government, over which of course he would preside. Inevitably he made enemies by his insistence on a course of action that was tied to himself. Willing to listen to objections, he was not willing to put up with obstruction once a decision had been taken. He himself was highly secular. His religious attachments are today the subject of disputation among those who think it important, but there is no question but at the time he did things that the pious found objectionable and almost intolerable. By the mid-1920s the Sultanate and the Caliphate had been abolished.
During the War he had recorded this about women: “Let’s be courageous in the matter of women. Let’s forget fear. Let’s adorn their minds with serious knowledge and science. Let’s teach chastity in a healthy, scientific way. Let’s give top priority to giving women honour and dignity.” [p. 176, Mango] Yet giving women many of these things meant offending the devoutly religious. Islam is little different from other religions, including Christianity, in which women are required to take a back seat in most things. Thus when Kemal came to power and began attempting to find a path to equality for women, he met with opposition. The veil was to go; polygyny was out. Girls were to be educated. Yet a few hundred miles to the east at the end of the 20th century there were the Taliban in Afghanistan whose views on women were completely opposed to those of Kemal. How lucky Turkish women have been.
It is interesting that the Muslim lands to the east of Turkey, notably in his day Iran under Reza Shah and Afghanistan under Amanullah Shah, had reforming monarchs in a way. Both Reza and Amanullah were impressed with what Kemal had done in Turkey. But neither had the resources nor the skills to emulate his work in Turkey. For that matter probably the people of Iran and Afghanistan were not ready for Kemalist reforms. Reza attempted to abolish the veil with little success; yet before fleeing Iran in 1979, Reza’s son, Muhammad Reza had modernized Iran to a great degree. It has slipped backward since then under the directions of religious leaders. In Afghanistan, Amanullah didn’t get as far as either Reza or Kemal in modernizing efforts. He succeeded in building a modern palace, unfinished—I have walked through it—and no doubt now in ruins. He too went so far as to have his Queen unveil, but it did not catch on and in the event he was driven into exile in 1929; Kabul was in chaos until 1933 when Nader Shah took over; his son, Zahir Shah still is alive and supportive of the Karzai government there.
There were no emulators of Kemal in the Middle East. Nasser, King Hussain, Saddam—laughable. He was sui generis . “After spending so many years acquiring higher education, enquiring into civilized social life and getting a taste for freedom, why should I descend to the level of common people? Rather, I should raise them to my level. They should become like me, not I like them.” [Ibid, p 176] And he did the best he could do. He was a natural teacher. When the alphabet was changed in 1928 he spent much time at the blackboard explaining the new simplified way of expressing the Turkish language.
Kemal’s notion of what constitutes greatness is interesting. “Greatness means that you won’t try and please anyone, that you won’t deceive anyone, that you will try to discern the true ideal for the country, that you will strive for it, that everyone will turn against you and will try to make you change your course. You will have no means to resist. They will pile up endless obstacles in your path and you will surmount them, knowing all the time that you are not great, but little, weak, resourceless, a mere nothing, and that no one will come to your aid. And if after that they call you great, you’ll laugh at them.” [Ibid, p 74]
Let me repeat the idea of part of the first sentence. You do not try to please everyone and you do not deceive anyone. But we have just finished a series of elections throughout America. If there was a Kemal running for office I don’t know who he was. Political commercials on TV were notorious for their negativeness, their dissembling and their attempt to please everyone.
By 1919 Kemal had formulated in his mind the principles of what later became known as Kemalism—the military coup of 1960 was mounted in the name of Kemalism. What are the main ideas of this philosophy? First of all, republicanism. No kings or emperors or for that matter caliphs. Nationalism was another. His nationalism was the result of a necessity to create a new nation, a new national identity based not on religion as before but on commonness in history and destiny without any ethnic or religious differences. It is a common phenomenon in the world today, yet it has not always been so. There was little American nationalism in 1776; there were only 13 colonies and each had its adherents. By 1860, nearly a century later, Robert E Lee thought his attachment greater to his state Virginia than it was to the United States. It was only after the Civil War that American nationalism grew, and then by fits and starts.
Kemal included what we would call populism as a part of his philosophy. We mean by this term a belief in the virtues of the common people as well as efforts to protect them. How does this fit with Kemal’s notion that many common values should be reformed? That indeed, instead of descending to the lowest denominator he would want the common people to ascend to the highest. I find no terrible inconsistency. He believed in the Turkish people, but that did not mean that they could not be improved by education and knowledge of the outside world. What he did not believe in was a class and caste system that prevented individual’s mobility in society and government.
He mentions statism. For a country that had no background of industry it was necessary for the state to intervene in supplying capital and in some cases managers. Yet Turkey has emerged from this with a healthy mixture of private and state enterprise. He was not a socialist nor was he impressed by what was happening in his neighbor’s territory, the Soviet Union. He did not copy Mussolini’s corporativism. Rather, as in all things, he would I imagine say, “Gentlemen, we are Turks and what we build is a Turkish state with Turkish ideas.”
He was a secularist. So were many of the Founding Fathers of the United States. None of the holy books contain the prescriptions for modernism, at least wholly. It is one thing to have faith but quite another if a nation of believers restrict their thinking to the past and make no effort to affect the future. A Pakistani Urdu philosopher said that Einstein’s relativity could be derived from the use of the word nur (meaning light) in the Quran, but even educated Muslims laughed at him. None of the founders of the great religions could anticipate arms or television let alone the Pentium IV chip. Yet when the Taliban took down the ancient and giant Buddhas at Bamiyan it was with modern artillery and explosives. Kemal was well aware of this situation and he knew that he had little time to effect change. And so he set about the task hurriedly. He was as concerned with symbols as anything. Thus the famous hat law aroused more indignation than anything he did, because the hat interfered with traditional prayers. Today, in Turkey the issue has not vanished, for not all Turks today value the secularism that Kemal believed in so much.
He also felt that revolution and reformism was necessary. I suspect that he meant by this more reformism than revolution although revolution may be required from time to time. Certainly his changes in Turkey have to be thought of as revolution. But revolution is difficult to bring about. It is interesting that although we refer to the events around 1776 as the “American Revolution,” there was little revolution in it. It was more a rebellion against the British government. In my opinion we have had two bursts of revolution in America, once during the Civil War of the 1860s and then in the period during and after the Second World War when enormous changes in lifestyle, education, social mobility and the freeing of women occurred. Just now the election of Nancy Pelosi to the position of Minority Leader in the House of Representatives is a fruit of the revolutionary fervor. It would have pleased Kemal.
In 1934, he urged all Turks to take family names. He himself named his friend and long time deputy Ismet, with the name Inönü, after the place in which General Ismet had defeated the Greeks so decisively. The Turkish Grand National Assembly decided on a name for Kemal.
So very appropriately they named him Atatürk.