Father Turk's Story
Andrew Mango, Ataturk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey (Overlook Press, 2000)
When the Turkish Republic made it mandatory for all citizens to adopt surnames, its president Mustapha Kemal selected "Ataturk" - "Father Turk" - as uniquely his own. (His sister and other relatives were not allowed to use it.) The sobriquet embodied Kemal's image of himself, which was shared by many other Turks then and thereafter.
This hefty biography, written by a veteran and sympathetic observer of the Turkish scene, is more detailed and less fawning than Lord Kinross's 1964 tome, previously the best-known English life of Kemal. It is based on an extensive array of printed Turkish sources, synthesizing what a diligent modern Turk would know about Kemal if he read everything that is readily available. On the other hand, the absence of archival research leaves many evidentiary conflicts unresolved and gives the accounts of controversial episodes a "he said, she said" flavor.
The focus is very closely, perhaps too closely, on Kemal himself. We are presented not only with the dramatic incidents of his exciting career (conspiracies, coups, wars, assassinations) and disorderly private life (womanizing, alcoholism, corrupt cronies, broken friendships, suspicions of foul play) but also with itineraries of his travels and summaries of numerous unmemorable speeches. The decrees of "Kemalism" - abolishing the Caliphate and the shariat, secularizing education, reforming the Turkish language, adopting the Christian calendar, granting equality to women, compelling men to wear European-style hats - issue forth from Ankara, but we barely glimpse how they were received in the country at large or how much fundamental change they truly wrought. Recent history makes it obvious that Kemal's project of detaching Turkey from the Islamic world and annexing it to his vision of Western civilization did not win unanimous support. Mango offers little help in understanding the reasons for acceptance or rejection. He also says virtually nothing about economic developments. The absence of statistics on production, incomes and trade is refreshing but leaves out important data that would place political developments in clearer context.
The author's decision to limit his perspective is forgivable. "Father Turk" is a large enough subject without devoting a lot of pages to his "children". Within its confines, the book is clearly written and comprehensive, though there is a certain trailing off near the end of Kemal's life, as he took less part in day-to-day governing and acted more like a king than a dictator. That, too, was the period when he became engrossed in eccentric historical and linguistic theories (not without parallel elsewhere in the 1930's) aimed at proving that every nation that lived or ever had lived in Anatolia was "Turkish" (especially the Kurds, though not, naturally, the Armenians or Greeks). Mango mentions these follies but clearly wishes that he didn't have to.
The book's overall evaluation of its protagonist is positive but not uncritical. Readers with strong partisan predispositions, whether pro or con, will find passages that will annoy or anger them. Kemal's admirers will question the generally favorable view of the Ottoman regime (termed "an inefficient and accommodating despotism" that was moving steadily toward modernity) and the emphasis on the early Republic's brutal and dictatorial ways. His critics will complain that the picture of modern Turkey is sugar-coated, that the sufferings of Greeks, Armenians and Kurds are downplayed and that the destructive side of Kemal's "cultural revolution" is ignored.
So this is not the "ideal" biography of Turkey's founder. It is, nonetheless, an excellent one and is worth the time of anyone who has more than a passing interest in the largest and most powerful nation in the Middle East.