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 nationalist he claimed descent from Turkish nomads who had settled in the Balkans in the service of their sultan.
In fact, there is no such thing as a Turkish ethnicity. If anything, Turkish was a language group. The Turkish-speaking warriors who came out of Central Asia 1,000 years ago were of mixed blood. Animists at first, they converted over time to Islam. One such war band, the followers of a certain Osman (hence “osmanlis,” or, as they became, “Ottomans”), went on to build an empire which, at its height half a millennium ago, comprised the Arab-speaking middle east, north Africa, and Balkan Europe all the way to the gates of Vienna.
The Ottoman empire was a dynastic state, containing between two and three dozen “nations”-depending upon how you define nation. As generation after generation of Turkish warriors settled on the estates which were their rewards for service, new warriors were recruited from the conquered peoples, acquiring the Turkish language and the Muslim faith. Bulgarian Christians, thus converted, formed a large percentage of Turks.
The Ottoman empire was a theocracy. It was a Muslim state, not a national one. A common religion bound the peoples of the Arab-speaking and Turkish-speaking Muslim world together. The Ottoman retreat from empire at the start of the 18th century became a rout by the end of the 19th century. The European powers hoped that the Ottoman empire would retire from its Balkan territories, but they worried that the scramble to pick up the pieces might lead to war. This was the “Eastern Question” which bedevilled Great Power diplomacy through the 19th century. The concern proved justified. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo was a consequence of the clash between Slavic and German peoples over who should have Bosnia when the Ottomans lost it.
Mustafa Kemal was born at the frontier-in Salonika, capital city of Macedonia. Salonika (today’s Greek city of Thessaloniki) was then largely Jewish and d?me (a Jewish sect which converted to Islam). Beyond the control of the sultan in Constantinople, it was alive with subversive ideas. Macedonia was a province at the edge of the empire, coveted by Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia. It was a prey to brigandage, and the Ottoman troops there were prone to disaffection.
Kemal came into the world at a frontier in time. He belonged to the last generation of Ottoman army officers. The autocratic Sultan Abd?hamid II (1842-1918) instituted reform, but lost ground to the advancing forces of imperialist Europe. Kemal and his contemporaries saw the empire dying before their eyes. In their own young lifetimes before the first world war, the Ottoman empire lost much of north Africa and the Balkans.
Like other ambitious young men with few opportunities, Kemal sought a military career. The army was an engine of change in an otherwise backward state. Secret societies were the only outlet for political ideas in Abd?hamid’s domains, and the military secret societies were the most effective. Modernisation was their theme, and their goal was to ward off European control. As a young officer, Kemal played a notable role in these societies, but he was eclipsed by the leaders of the Committee for Union and Progress, known as the “Young Turkey” party.
In the turbulent Macedonia of 1908, the Young Turks sparked off a revolt, followed by a coup d’?t in 1913, which brought them to power in Constantinople. They ruled with a puppet sultan, a brother of the deposed Abd?hamid. The most conspicuous of the Young Turks, a young officer named Enver Pasha who married the sultan’s niece and made himself minister of war, was well aware of Kemal’s abilities and commanding personality; Enver made sure that Kemal received only obscure appointments.
Before coming to power, the Young Turks had committed themselves to partnership among all the two to three dozen peoples of the empire. The Young Turk triumph, therefore, was greeted with enthusiasm by those released from Abdul Hamid’s tyranny. In Europe, too, there were many well-wishers. But the new government then opted for Turkish-speaking Muslim rule (40 per cent of the empire’s population) over Arab-speakers (perhaps another 40 per cent) and others. Enver also led the Ottoman empire into the first world war on Germany’s side-which destroyed the empire. Kemal was opposed to the war.
Despite Enver’s best efforts, Kemal distinguished himself in the war. In 1915, when Allied troops invaded the Gallipoli peninsula. Kemal seized the high ground, and held it. Gallipoli is remembered as a tragedy in the English-speaking world, but as a triumph in Turkey. Kemal emerged from the 1914-18 conflict as a hero.
The defeated central powers-Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman empire-signed separate surrenders in the autumn of 1918. The Young Turkey leaders left the country. The feeble sultan was willing to agree to any terms imposed by the Allies so long as he was allowed to keep his throne. After wrangling among themselves for two years, the Allies forced the sultan’s government to sign the Treaty of Sèvres in the summer of 1920, leaving the Turks very little in the way of self-rule.
In 1919, Kemal left for the interior of what is now Turkey on an official commission. He found Turkish army groups still intact. In a move reminiscent of Charles de Gaulle leaving for London in 1940, after securing the allegiance of senior French officers, Kemal won the support of the commanders of these army groups. Thus began the War of Independence (1919-23) which led to the establishment of the Turkish Republic.
The Allies had commissioned Greece to impose their terms on Turkey. Greece was a main beneficiary of those terms. But the Christian Greek soldiers aroused antagonism among Turkish-speaking Muslims. Turks turned their backs on the sultan and rallied to Kemal’s nationalist cause. In defeating the Greeks, Kemal displayed strategic genius. He ordered his men to abandon strategic locations in order to retreat deep into the country to give battle where he chose. He also showed himself a master of diplomacy playing off the Allies-Britain, France, and Italy-against one another, and Soviet Russia against all of them.
In making peace with the Allies in 1922-23, he resisted the temptation to raise his demands and never wavered from his original terms. In this he showed himself to be the statesman Talleyrand wanted Napol? to be.
The Ottoman empire had lost its Arab-speaking territories in the war. Apart from a disputed border province in the south, Kemal did not want them back. To be a modern country, Turkey would have to be a nation-state. That required a relatively homogeneous population, living in coherent territory. To Kemal, the empire was a burden to be cast off.
A British traveller in Ottoman lands before the first world war began a book: “How many people realise, when they speak of Turkey and the Turks, that there is no such place and no such people?” Since 1923, thanks to Kemal, there has been a Turkish state and a Turkish people. But the forces which carried Kemal to victory were not his own, and threatened to consume him in his hour of triumph. The Muslim mullahs were among the main supporters of Kemal’s revolt, inflamed by the Greek Christian landing. Yet Kemal aimed at disestablishing Islam in Turkey. The Young Turkey network had gone underground in 1918, but it remained intact and provided an organisational structure for the nationalist cause. But its first loyalty was to Enver, who schemed to return to contest Kemal’s leadership. The army was Kemal’s chief instrument, but its commanders expected to participate in a collegial leadership. Kemal could not tolerate equals. From men as from women, he expected unquestioning obedience.
So Kemal turned to taming his supporters. In scrupulous detail, Mango describes the distasteful episodes in which Kemal drove old friends, allies and colleagues out of public life: the low point was reached in purge trials which resulted in the hanging of many innocents.
Secure in his position as a dictatorial president, with a rubber-stamp parliament, a rubber-stamp single political party, and firm control of an adoring army, Kemal left the administration to his prime minister, Ismet In? Kemal had accumulated as much power to change his country as any ruler possibly could. It was, furthermore, his country: he had created it.
Unlike third world leaders today, who claim that they can modernise their countries while retaining their traditional cultures, Kemal was an unqualified moderniser. His programme for Turks to become Europeans was breathtaking in its sweep. He abolished the caliphate and changed the country from a theocracy to a secular republic. He moved the capital from Istanbul inland to Ankara. He instituted a secular education system. He introduced a civil code and emancipated women. He changed the sabbath from Friday to Sunday. He broke the Islamic ban on human images; statues and pictures were introduced. So was western music. He ended the ban on alcohol. Sermons were to be delivered in Turkish, no longer in Arabic. Then there came the Latin alphabet and western numerals; the introduction of new words; the literacy drive. The traditional head pieces-the fez and the scarf-were banned. It was a cultural revolution, imposed by one man and his army.
Kemal was a notorious womaniser. He drank to excess; he died of cirrhosis of the liver. Mango tells all, but what interests him most is what he calls “the forced march to modernity.” Today many people believe that the information revolution and other aspects of globalisation will bring previously undeveloped peoples into the modern world: that technology will modernise people from within. Kemal’s approach was to modernise from without or from above. It has brought Turkey to the verge of being European. But a devotion to Islam and to the old ways remains. An elite, especially along the coast, has become thoroughly western; in the interior, many have not. The army remains faithful to its mission, reflecting the founder’s strengths and limitations. It has never known what to do about the various minorities in Turkey-chiefly, now, the Kurds. Notions of individual liberty or minority rights are unfamiliar.
Kemal was a great soldier, a great diplomat, and a great statesman. Mango tells us that above all he was a man of the Enlightenment, and “the Enlightenment was not made by saints.” He believes that “Atat?k’s message is that east and west can meet on the ground of universal secular values and mutual respect, that nationalism is compatible with peace, that human reason is the only true guide in life.” It says much for the endurance of Kemal’s legacy that, despite his human flaws and the dark side of his dictatorial politics, his army remains loyal to him. Nearly 80 years after he led them to victory, his troops would still follow him to the ends of the earth.
Edited from an article which originally appeared in The New Criterion