Βy Andrew Mango*
“Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is one of the most important statesmen of the twentieth century. He established and shaped the Turkish republic, today the strongest state between the Adriatic and China in the broad Eurasian land belt south of Russia and north of the Indian subcontinent. He influenced the history of his country’s neighbours. For peoples ruled by foreigners, he showed a way to national independence in amity with the rest of the world. Atatürk is usually known today as a radical modernizer and westernizer. The description is true, but not sufficient. He imported Western practices in order to bring his country into parity with the richest countries of the world, most of which were to be found in the West. But his aim was not imitation but participation in a universal civilization, which, like the thinkers of the European Enlightenment, he saw as the onward march of humanity, regardless of religion and the divisions it caused. He believed that the struggle for genuine independence should be waged by each nation for itself in the name of an overarching secular ideal of progress common to all, and therefore leaving no room for antagonism towards the most advanced nations. He was an anti-imperialist only in the sense that his ideal was a universal commonwealth of civilized people. Above all, he was a builder, the greatest nation-builder of modern times.
Atatürk’s vision was optimistic and humanist. His practice often fell short of it. Moreover, particularly towards the end of his life, his thought was contaminated by doctrines of ethnic and racial superiority current in the contemporary West. Atatürk had, and still has, many opponents in Turkey. Traditional Muslims saw in his ideal of secular progress an idolatrous juggernaut, and believed him to be an imitator of the infidels. For others he was simply an unprincipled dictator. Nationalists in neighbouring countries have other bones to pick with Atatürk. He defeated the Greeks; his generals beat the Armenians; he wrote off the Arabs, while adding to his country a district which Syrian Arabs claim for their own. Kurdish nationalists hold him responsible for the policy of assimilating Kurds within the Turkish nation. All these anti-Turkish nationalists are to be found among Atatürk’s detractors. Turkish and non-Turkish Marxists had their own critical reservations; but they no longer figure. The controversy which surrounds Atatürk works to the advantage of the biographer and historian, as it throws up not only new arguments but also new sources of information. In Turkey, where the debate is particularly lively, new books on Atatürk proliferate.”
“Atatürk earned his place in history by directing the successful resistance of the Muslim inhabitants of Anatolia against the occupation and attempted partition of their country. Many others took part in the preparation, planning and execution of the struggle. But from the moment he was chosen chairman of the Erzurum congress in 1919 to the time when the victory of the Turkish resistance received international recognition at Lausanne in 1923, he was in charge of the forces of Turkish nationalism.
His second fundamental achievement was to have given his country peace and a degree of internal order it had not known before. What others would have done in his place we do not know. But it is a matter of record that he insisted on setting clear aims and limits for the nationalist movement and that, having achieved the full independence of his country and won most of the territory claimed at the outset of the struggle, he resisted the pressure of some of his companions to go further. It was by means of negotiations that he achieved full control over the straits and won the territory he named Hatay. He set his face against irredentism whether of a pan-Islamic or pan-Turkist nature. He worked consistently for peaceful relations with all his country’s neighbours and took part in international efforts to preserve peace.
The Muslim population of Anatolia had been depleted by war. It was ravaged by disease. It lacked basic skills. Communications were primitive. The absence of war and the presence of an administration which made a genuine effort to fight malaria and other endemic diseases allowed the population to climb from 13.6 million in 1927, when the first census was held in the republic, to 17.8 million in 1940 (the first census after Atatürk’s death). Literacy doubled from one tenth to more than one fifth of the population. An adequate railway network was constructed (while roads were neglected). The state built factories to produce basic manufactures such as cloth and sugar. In spite of the increase in population, the national income per person doubled between 1923 and 1938. The economic policies pursued during Atatürk’s lifetime were conservative: budgets were balanced; so was foreign trade after the 1930 crisis. Progress was the fruit of domestic effort: Turkey received almost no foreign aid during Atatürk’s lifetime. There was only one loan (from Soviet Russia) until a few months before his death. The control exercised by the state over the economy dampened private initiative, but it saved the nationalist regime from sinking in corruption.
Atatürk was not a social revolutionary – and certainly not a socialist. His political revolution was formal. But the cultural revolution he wrought was genuine and wide-ranging. Secularism was central to it. True, the secularization of the Turkish ruling class and of the state which it ran had started in the nineteenth century. It was pushed forward vigorously by the CUP after 1908. But it was Atatürk who decided that religion should have no say at all in government. None of his predecessors in power had dared go that far; most of his companions would have preferred to fudge the issue. Atatürk’s secularism, like that of his Turkish predecessors who had toyed with the theory, was inspired by the French principle and practice of laïcisme, the separation of church from state in post-revolutionary France. But the Turkish practice was different. The republic declared its independence from Islam, while continuing to control it, as the sultans had done before it.
The adoption, without any reservations, of Western laws, of the Latin alphabet, of the well-nigh universal Christian calendar and weekend, facilitated intercourse with advanced societies. Atatürk believed that his people had been denied knowledge – positive, secular knowledge. He sought to dispel ignorance – which was palpable in Muslim society – by promoting the inflow of knowledge from those countries where its frontier was being pushed forward. The basic difference between him and most of his domestic opponents was that he was not afraid of the outside world, while they were. His nationalism looked outwards; theirs was inward-looking. Unlike them, he was able to combine a realistic recognition of his countrymen’s backwardness with total faith in their ability to overcome it.”
*From the Preface & Aftermath of “Atatürk: The biography of the founder of Modern Turkey” by Andrew Mango (1999)