Atatürk: An Intellectual Biography

May 19, 2011

More than 72 years after his death, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is still omnipresent in Turkey. Travellers arrive at Istanbul's Atatürk International Airport, pass the Atatürk Stadium on their way into the city and cross at least one Ataturk bridge. His picture adorns every office and many shops and restaurants besides. Every school has his bust in the courtyard.

Under the rule of the Justice and Development Party, which has been in power for almost a decade, more and more of Atatürk's legacy has come to be contested, but the Turkish Constitution still declares his principles to be the unalterable basis of the Turkish state.

For anyone interested in the development of modern Turkey, an intellectual biography of the man who looms so large in its history and in its current debates is more than welcome. As the subtitle makes clear, this is exactly what M. Sukru Hanioglu's new book provides. It does not claim to be a full biography, and those interested in Ataturk's personal life and political struggles are already well served by other, more comprehensive, biographies, including Lord Kinross' Atatürk: The Rebirth of a Nation (1964) and Andrew Mango's excellent Atatürk (1999).

Hanioglu focuses on Atatürk's ideas and delves into the intellectual roots that inspired his radical westernising and secularising reforms. He finds them primarily in late 19th-century German materialism, in the secularism of the French republic after the separation of church and state in 1905, and in the deep belief in science that was so characteristic of Edwardian Europe.

Atatürk's fundamental aim was to make Turkey part of "civilisation", a concept that for him was single and indivisible. Unlike many other political activists in the Middle East of his day, he did not look for compromise or a form of fusion between Islamic values and Western civilisation - it needed to be adopted lock, stock and barrel for Turkey to develop.

Atatürk's worldview was hardly unique or original, as Hanioglu shows. It was in fact typical of the more radical westernising members of his generation, that of the Young Turks. Although the shades may have differed, they all believed in modernisation, secularisation and nationalism, and they all venerated science.

What set Atatürk apart was not his intellectual prowess but his ability to translate these ideas into reality through a combination of realism, tactical acumen and ruthlessness. Although an accomplished military leader and a graduate of the most modern educational institution of the late Ottoman Empire - the General Staff College - he was in essence self-taught in the realms of scientific theory. This made him eclectic and at times ill-informed, but he never wavered in his belief that (as he would state in a famous speech of 1933) "science is the only true guide in life".

The author of this book brings to it all the strengths that we know from his other major works: a deep understanding of European intellectual movements of the 19th and early 20th century as well as an unrivalled knowledge of the Young Turk generation.

It is his declared aim to use primary source materials, namely Atatürk's own words, and this is a commendable intention, because much of what Atatürk ever wrote or said has been published in recent years.

Nevertheless, a caveat is in order: Atatürk's words may constitute a primary source, but they should not be taken at face value. His memoirs published in 1922, 1926 and 19 show us what he wanted to convey about his past, but not necessarily what had actually happened.

That said, this intellectual biography is a significant achievement, and indispensable for anyone seeking to understand the roots of modern Turkey.

Atatürk: An Intellectual Biography

By M. Sükrü Hanioglu. Princeton University Press. 280pp, £19.95 ISBN 9780691151090. Published 6 June 2011

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