Young Turk, autocrat, old soak

March 3, 2000

This voluminous biography of the founder of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is a traditional biography in the best sense of the word. Motivated by a deep sympathy for the basic convictions and actions of his subject, namely the establishment of a modern, secular state on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, Andrew Mango closely follows Ataturk's footsteps from his birth in Salonica in 1880-81 to his death in Istanbul on November 10 1938.

According to Mango, even in his early years, Mustafa Kemal's intelligence and powers of concentration, as well as his will to rise to the top, became evident. From early on, he was interested in politics and became involved in the Young Turk movement by issuing illegal newspapers and organising meetings of like-minded officers. But after serving against the Russians at Gallipoli, and then in Syria against the British, Ataturk grew increasingly critical of the Young Turk leadership. While this might in large measure have been because he felt that he ought to be himself in a higher position, Mango does not hide his conviction that Ataturk's prominent, although not leading role in the war, eventually served his postwar career.

While the Young Turk triumvirate of Enver, Cemal and Talaat Pasha fled to Germany at the end of the war, Ataturk, who had to surrender Cilicia to the British, returned to Istanbul. Once again, he started to build close contacts, this time with other military leaders who deeply resented the Allied occupation of the straits and Istanbul. A day after the Greek occupation of Izmir, which made matters even worse, he was sent to Samsun as army inspector to report on the harassment of Greeks and re-establish order. Instead, he set straight to work by setting up an organisational framework for the grassroots resistance against Allied and particularly Greek intervention, and by coordinating with others who were engaged in the same task. In placing himself quickly at the head of the Societies for the Defence of National Rights, Ataturk used these organisations against the resistance of some of its members, who recognised that he "was a rebel from within the ranks of the Ottoman establishment, not a popular revolutionary", and no democrat.

Ataturk's position seemed once again endangered when, in the autumn of 1919, nationalists emerged victorious from the elections and formed a government in Istanbul, in which he was not given any post. However, when in March 1920 the British in Istanbul moved against nationalist leaders, his hour had come. Ataturk called for a meeting in Ankara of those parliamentarians who had managed to escape from the capital, as well as of delegates from the provinces. This became the National Assembly, to whose presidency Mustafa Kemal was duly elected on April 24 1920. Although he still had to fight, now as commander-in-chief, an Allied partition plan for Turkey, as well as Greek occupation of much of northwestern Anatolia, he had emerged as the new, although not-yet-undisputed leader of Turkey. In the following years, the old order was successively dismantled through the abolition of the sultanate (November 1922), the declaration of the republic (October 1923) and the abolition of the caliphate (March 1924) and replaced by an autocratic secular regime whose president Ataturk remained until his death.

Mango is at his best in those passages where he tackles wider narratives, ie the atmosphere in Ottoman Salonica where Ataturk grew up, or Ataturk's personal interest in the creation of a Turkish historical myth in the form of the Turk Tarih Tezi and the accompanying Sun Language Theory, which postulated Turkish as the original language of mankind. His subtle irony when it comes to dismantling some of the personal myths Ataturk created about his life also makes for entertaining reading.

In the main, however, Mango remains deeply loyal to his subject, which becomes particularly clear in his dismissal of Ataturk's later critics. He argues that the time had not been ripe for a greater measure of democracy and that Ataturk's enlightened spirit tolerated Islam no more than European thinkers had tolerated Christianity. As for the Kurds and their suppression, in spite of earlier promises of autonomy, assimilation was justified by Ataturk's own historical theories. While admitting that his hero thus bequeathed his successor a major problem, Mango is nevertheless sympathetic: "Like the French revolutionaries before him, Ataturk opted for modernity and law and order, imposed from the centre".

Mango is also curiously circumspect when it comes to describing the 1915 mass deportations of about 1.75 million Armenians, which resulted in the death of an estimated 600,000 people. Acknowledging that this was a "brutal act of ethnic cleansing", Mango then laments that eastern Anatolia thus lost its craftsmen. When some Armenians joined the French in occupying Adana in 1918, and returning deportees attempted to recuperate their lost property, he sympathises with the Muslims to whom "particular distress" was thereby caused. Given that both the Kurdish and Armenian questions remain at the centre of political and historiographical controversies, such treatment seems inadequate.

The biography is traditional in that it abstains from any theoretical approach and does not, in general, discuss controversies in the abundant literature on Ataturk and Kemalist Turkey. Mango prefers instead to let his reader accompany Mustafa Kemal on an almost day-to-day basis and share his preoccupation with politics. He also provides occasional hints at the very limited private life of a man whose main pastime seems to have been increasingly excessive drinking.

However, within these limitations, the biography, based on a wide reading of (published) documents by Ataturk and attractively furnished with photographs and maps, as well as aiding the reader with an index, a chronology and biographies of the most important contemporaries, is a work that deserves a wide readership.

Ulrike Freitag is lecturer in Middle Eastern history, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.


Author - Andrew Mango
ISBN - 0 7195 5612 0
Publisher - John Murray
Price - £30.00
Pages - 666

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