Historical Notes: `Father of the Turks' defied foreign grumbles

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"I KNOW nothing of Mustafa Kemal," wrote George Kidston, one of Lord Curzon's assistants in the Foreign Office, on 24 June 1919.

Kidston was minuting a report sent to the Foreign Secretary by Vice-Admiral Sir Somerset Calthorpe, British High Commissioner in Constantinople (Istanbul), on the activities of the Ottoman general who, only two days earlier, had assumed the leadership of the Turkish resistance against Allied plans to partition what remained of the Ottoman Empire. Mustafa Kemal, Calthorpe informed Curzon, had made "a considerable reputation for himself during the Gallipoli fighting"; he had been appointed about a month earlier Military Inspector-General in eastern Turkey by the Ottoman Grand Vizier, but, since his arrival there, had made himself "a centre of national and anti-foreign feeling".

Calthorpe did not mention that the British authorities in Istanbul had vetted Mustafa Kemal's appointment. The chief British expert on Turkish affairs, Andrew Ryan, also knew nothing of Mustafa Kemal. "The blunders of experts are always the grossest," commented Count Carlo Sforza, the Italian High Commissioner.

British intelligence agents were thick on the ground in Istanbul, and they did include "Mustapha Kemal Pasha" as one of the Turkish officers who "should at once be removed" from their posts. But the report was dated 28 February 1919, when Mustafa Kemal had no post, and his name followed that of the "OC of the Kadi-Keui Fire Brigade" in a long list of undesirables. It is not surprising that the Foreign Office should have overlooked him, when the report was forwarded to London on 12 April. So, on 15 May, Mustafa Kemal had his travel documents stamped by British officials as he sailed from Istanbul to start the Turkish War of Independence.

British officials in Istanbul took great trouble to find out which prominent Turks were pro-British and which pro-French. Mustafa Kemal was neither. Nor was he pro- Bolshevik, as British officials came to believe when he became the leader of the Turkish resistance movement. He used the Bolsheviks against the Allies and the French against the British as he repelled first the Armenians in the east and then the Greeks in the west.

He was his own and Turkey's man, and he went on to secure the territory of the Turkish homeland and to found the Turkish Republic as a genuinely independent state. He became its first president in 1923 and, assuming the surname Ataturk (Father of the Turks), kept the post until his death in 1938.

"The Kemalist Turk thinks he can run his country himself without any foreign intervention," grumbled Sir Horace Rumbold, Calthorpe's successor as High Commissioner. Quite so. And gradually nationalists in other countries, ruled directly or indirectly by Europeans, had the same idea.

A British document dating back to the beginning of the Turkish War of Independence called it "revolutionism". The term itself was adopted by Ataturk when he launched his campaign to turn Turkey into a modern secular state. But the revolution from which he drew his inspiration was not the Bolshevik, but the French Revolution. Bolshevism he described as "nonsense". "The great French revolution", on the other hand, was the dawn of freedom and had opened the way to the expansion of the single, universal human civilisation which Ataturk was determined to bring to his country.

Civilisation, meaning the accumulated "positive knowledge" of mankind, came first. Freedom was, initially, for the nation as a collectivity, for individuals later. But embracing civilisation meant from the start friendship with those nations which had developed it, in other words the advanced countries of the West. In this Ataturk differed from many of his imitators. But the Foreign Office did not know that either.

Andrew Mango is the author of `Ataturk' (John Murray, pounds 30)

Comments