The Young Atatürk: From Ottoman Soldier to Statesman of Turkey, by George W. Gawrych

Erik Jan Zürcher salutes a study showing how the military shaped the founder of the Republic of Turkey

August 1, 2013

The figure of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey, looms large in the historiography of modern Turkey. Thousands of books and articles have been written about him in Turkish. His unassailable position as founding father of the country means that the genres “biography of Atatürk” and “history of modern Turkey” have more or less merged, at least for the period 1918-38.

But neither is there a dearth of Atatürk biographies in English. Harold Armstrong’s hugely successful 1932 book Grey Wolf, Mustafa Kemal: An Intimate Study of a Dictator merged fiction and fact to an extraordinary degree and is now perhaps best studied as an interesting example of British orientalism. But Patrick Balfour, Lord Kinross’ Atatürk: The Rebirth of a Nation (1964) is still well worth reading, even if it has been replaced as state-of-the-art scholarship by Andrew Mango’s monumental Atatürk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey (1999). Şükrü Hanioğlu’s Atatürk: An Intellectual Biography (2011) was an important addition that looked at Atatürk’s sources of inspiration and knowledge. In this mature field, the value of any new addition rests on the author’s ability to present new original source materials and/or a new analysis.

The Young Atatürk’s format is that of a traditional biography. The title is a bit of a misnomer. Atatürk (who was called that only in the last four years of his life) died when he was 57 years old, and this book covers the first 42 of them. For the first 30 years of the subject’s life, George Gawrych’s study offers few new facts and it would be unrealistic to expect otherwise, given the paucity of primary sources at our disposal.

Where it does offer something new is in Gawrych’s treatment of Atatürk as a military professional. This is important: until he was elected the first president of the Republic of Turkey, Atatürk was primarily an officer. He was educated in military schools from early adolescence, graduating from the elite General Staff Academy in 1904, and for the next 20 years his career was primarily that of a soldier. The army provided him with his training, his worldview and most of his circle of friends and colleagues. More than any of Atatürk’s earlier English-language biographers, Gawrych, who taught at US military colleges for 19 years, has a good grasp of military matters. He describes how the teachings of German military theorist Colmar von der Goltz influenced Atatürk – nearly all his teachers had been pupils of Goltz – and through an analysis of the translations that Atatürk himself made of German instruction manuals, as well as of his own orders, letters and reports, Gawrych is able to give us a good insight into Atatürk’s development as an officer.

The book traces the different stages of Atatürk’s military career, from his early involvement in the resistance to the Italian invasion in Tripolitania, through the Balkan Wars and the First World War to the national liberation war of 1919-22. In doing so, Gawrych makes use of some hitherto unpublished archival materials, primarily from the war history of the General Staff, but the book’s footnotes show this use to be rather limited.

Throughout, Gawrych tells the story with clarity and, although he clearly admires Atatürk’s personality and abilities, his judgements are balanced and fair. The Young Atatürk is a valuable addition to the library on the founder of modern Turkey. Where Mango gives us a fuller treatment of Atatürk the man and the politician and Hanioğlu presents us the (self-taught) intellectual, Gawrych adds another important dimension: the military Atatürk.

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