Ataturk: A Biography of Mustafa Kemal, Father of Modern Turkey

by Lord Kinross
Morrow, 615 pp., $7.50

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk; drawing by David Levine

As the “father of a nation,” Mustata Kemal is a more interesting figure than most of his trade. Today the fathers of nations drift about the lobbies of the United Nations in careworn droves, the wails of their neglected brood making a proper acquaintance almost impossible. And in fact few of them would greatly repay acquaintance. The Bandas, Kaundas, and Ayubs are worthy men, but not up to the stature of Kemal Atatürk.

Kemal, after all, defeated Europe in battle. In full war, with trenches, howitzers, aircraft, the mortar barrage, he defeated the British Empire at Gallipoli and the Greeks in Anatolia, and threw the French out of Cilicia with a glancing blow. Such a victory was not to recur until the Japanese conquered Southeast Asia. Kemal was perhaps the last nationalist leader, however, to attach his nation to the company of Europe after defeating European imperialism in his own country. He was the first leader to break violently with the nineteenth-century conception that folk-customs and cults were a component of nationalism. He was among the last leaders not to fall flat on his face before the great god of foreign investment, and one of the very, very few revolutionaries whose victims included Puritanism. The regime which he founded in Turkey also performed the feat—not yet imitated—of deliberately dismantling a dictatorship and calling free elections (which overthrew the Government).

With his gray face and oblong, glittering blue eyes, Kemal looked a cruel man, and cruel he could be. He brought death to Armenians and Kurds, and to his political enemies on occasion, as well. But he had also a marvelous quality of cynicism, of humor, and even self-mockery, which disarmed those who knew him well. The Poles have had a good many leaders with something of Mustafa Kemal: Sobieski with his victories, drinks, and dirty jokes; Pilsudski with his impatience and the biting sarcasras he flung at the people he ruled; Gomulka, heroically retaining his blazing temper by holding tight to the underside of conference tables. Kemal, like these, was not a prig.

In this enormous and enlightening book by Lord Kinross, we see Mustafa Kemal beginning his life as an army officer, commissioned to serve a moribund Empire. By his time, the imminence of collapse was accepted almost everywhere among thinking Turks, and the army, with its young officers widely involved in secret organizations plotting against the Empire, was plainly going to be the source of the new power. Kemal plotted with the rest, and with them witnessed the daily humiliation and decline of the Ottoman Empire. Yet he never felt that the moral regeneration of Turkey required a cauterizing austerity, as antidote to luxurious decay. He was not at all that type of young Moslem officer who wants to burn up the foreign oilmen In their clubs and put the nation on a regimen of orange juice. Bitterly…

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