The creation of the Turkish state was one of the most remarkable acts of political will in the 20th century. What about the man who did it?by David Fromkin / July 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Can traditional cultures break with the past and join modern civilisation? Ought they to do so? And at what price? Can a leader persuade or force his nation to make so drastic a change? Questions such as these were brought to the rest of the planet by the Europeans who explored, invaded, and settled the other continents after 1492. Half a millennium later, we are still looking for answers.
One thing seems clear. It is the apparent truth, charmingly illustrated in Anna and the King of Siam: that a people cannot be made modern or western by the fiat of their ruler, no matter how powerful he or she may be. Yet this truth seems contradicted by the achievement of Mustafa Kemal in creating the modern Turkish Republic. That is why Kemal’s story is central to one of the great ongoing world dramas: the clash between modern civilisations and religious fundamentalists. Can the cause of modernisation be won by politics, and from the top down? Is that what Kemal’s story shows? And what, really, was his story?
Until recently, we depended in English upon the biography by Patrick Kinross (1964). Although based on wide personal knowledge, as well as many interviews, it is an uncritical “official” account. Kinross relied heavily on the myth-making account Kemal himself gave of his life in a six-day, 36-hour speech to his political party in 1927. He accepted this work of imagination as though it were fact. Since the Kinross volume there has been a wealth of publications in Turkish, but for years people have awaited Andrew Mango’s biography, which has immediately become the definitive study. It shows us a more complex and darker personality than we had seen before. However, the main lines of Kemal’s accomplishments emerge broadly as we expected.
Mustafa Kemal was born in 1880. We are uncertain of the day or month. Like most Muslims at the time, he bore only one name: Mustafa. Later, as a student, he assumed the surname Kemal (“perfection”). Later still, his followers gave him the name Atat?k (“Father of the Turks”) and he was also called the “Ghazi”: a warrior for Islam.
In large part he created his own history. He was born in the Balkans. In physical appearance he resembled the Slavs and Albanians among whom his family lived. But his parents spoke Turkish as their native language, and when Mustafa became a…