Books: Self-made hero of Turkey

Ataturk by Andrew Mango John Murray pounds 30
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The Independent Culture
Despite academic scepticism about "great men", there is no doubt that in the 20th century single individuals have dominated the history of nation states. One can cite Churchill in England, FDR in the USA, Stalin in the USSR, Hitler in Germany, Franco in Spain, Salazar in Portugal, Mussolini in Italy, Peron in Argentina and Vargas in Brazil. In Turkey the dominant figure was a man named Mustapha, born in 1880 to a lower- middle-class family in Salonica. Since at that time only Muslim grandees had surnames, Mustapha acquired his other monikers in curious ways. Kemal means perfection and was a name ironically given to the bumptious boy at school by a mathematics teacher whom Mustapha threatened to eclipse; as with Napoleon, mathematics was always his best subject. Ataturk ("father of the Turks") was a name Mustapha Kemal adopted in 1934 as part of his campaign to give all Turks surnames.

Mustapha Kemal was educated as an army officer, was part of the "Young Turk" movement which seized power in 1908, and first made his mark in the war against Italy in Libya in 1911. When Enver Pasha led Turkey into the First World War after a cynical calculation that the Central Powers would win, Ataturk doubted the wisdom of the move and remained secretly convinced that the British and French would prevail. Nonetheless he fought with distinction in the 1915 Gallipoli campaign and ended as the war hero par excellence, commanding six divisions. He was promoted brigadier-general at 35, entitling him to be addressed as Pasha rather than Bey, but resigned in 1917, finding himself unable to co-operate either with Enver or the German generals who advised the Turkish army. But it was war that made him. Twelve years of warfare from 1911 to 1923 saw him rise from adjutant- major to marshal and chief executive of Turkey.

War also made possible the Turkish revolution, just as it gave Lenin and the Bolsheviks their chance. At the end of the 1914-18 conflict the Allies insisted on occupying Istanbul. Ataturk and the Turkish nationalists could just about stomach a temporary occupation by British and French armies. What they could not tolerate was the occupation of Izmir by the Greeks and the stationing of a 100,000-strong Greek army on Turkish soil. Having seen the dissolution of Turkey's European empire, the Greek prime minister Venizelos mistakenly imagined that Asiatic Turkey would also implode, leaving the area as a Greek colony. Ataturk and his brother officers left Istanbul in mid-1919 to head Turkish nationalist resistance in Anatolia. For three years they headed an alternative government in Ankara, in a state of civil war with the quisling authorities in Istanbul.

In Anatolia Ataturk was like Castro in the Sierra Maestra. His position seemed hopeless but he refused to give up. Confined to the Anatolian plateau and the Black Sea coast by the Greeks, Ataturk tempted the enemy to overextend his communications while he prepared carefully for an eventual counter- offensive. Nineteen twenty-two was the breakthrough year. The success of the Reds in the Russian civil war prevented Ataturk from being encircled and Lenin began supplying him with arms. At the same time Lloyd George, who hated Ataturk and backed Venizelos's imperialism to the hilt, was deposed as coalition leader by the famous meeting of the 1922 committee. In August Ataturk launched a crushing offensive which utterly defeated the Greeks. The British declined to fight a war to save their allies. In 1923 the caliphate and sultanate were abolished, Turkey became a republic and Ataturk became its first president.

From 1923 to his death in 1938 Ataturk fought hard to make Turkey a modern nation. He presided over a non-totalitarian one-party state rather like the one in Mexico, and tried to pursue a "third way" between capitalism and socialism - "Kemalism" was the name for state intervention in the economy. He struck at the supreme role of Islam in the state by abolishing religious schools, mullahs' courts and the ban on alcohol. He brought in laws for the emancipation of women, introduced surnames, abolished the fez and traditional Turkish dress, discouraged the veiling of women and tried to make Turkey a modern westernised state. In foreign policy he followed an "arms length" policy that saw Turkey remain adamantly neutral during the Second World War under his successor Inonu.

Andrew Mango's biography, a monumental work of technical scholarship, is outstanding on the public face of Ataturk but less convincing on the private man. It is quite clear that in many ways Ataturk was simply another avatar of oriental despotism. Insanely ambitious from an early age, he could never bear to be opposed or contradicted and genuinely thought he was infallible. Enver said of him: "You can be sure that when he is made Pasha, he will want to be Sultan, and that if he becomes Sultan, he would want to be God." Mango soft-pedals on this aspect of the hero, and never really penetrates to the heart of the riddle wrapped in an enigma inside a mystery that was Ataturk. One of the clues, as Volcan and Itzkowitz pointed out in their 1984 biography, is that Ataturk was an outsider. He was brought up in Salonika, which very soon ceased to be a Turkish city. He was blond, blue-eyed and looked like a Slav. He championed Asiatic Ankara against European Istanbul even as he championed European values against Islam. Both workaholic and alcoholic (he died of cirrhosis), he never travelled abroad. He had no answer to the Kurdish problem. Like Smuts in South Africa, also confronted by a "native question", he made fine speeches but bequeathed the real problems to his successors.

But Mango is persuasive on Ataturk's complex relationships with women. Ataturk went against his natural inclinations when he promoted female emancipation, for his real tendency was towards the harem. A woman's role was service to the male, not equality. He was ruthless to any woman who transgressed his code. A chief mistress, Fihriye, shot herself after being discarded. And his three-year childless marriage to Latife ended in divorce when the wife opposed her husband's will.

Mango's best story concerns the sharp-tongued Latife. The man who was the national icon and a god to his people returned one night in 1925 to his villa and stood chatting a few moments with the sentries, Latife promptly appeared on the balcony and called out: "Kemal, come in at once. Aren't you satisfied with your chums in the neighbourhood? Do you have to make friends of your sentries too?" Men in less patriarchal societies might have thought of divorce after that.