Friday, July 04, 2008

A review of "Atatürk - The Rebirth of a Nation", by Patrick Kinross.

"Atatürk - The Rebirth of a Nation" by Patrick Kinross. First published in 1964, the current edition is available from Amazon at this URL:

Paperback: 560 pages
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co (August 26, 1993)
ISBN-10: 0297813765
ISBN-13: 978-0297813767

I found this book to be a highly compassionate view of Atatürk's life.

Patrick Kinross’ narration is insightful and reads like a story; very different from a dry historical text presenting fact after fact. He draws a rich picture of the life of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in terms of the changing political, religious and social landscape of his country in the first quarter of the 20th century. Atatürk literally created the nation of Turkey from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire as World War 1 re-drew the political lines of Europe.

He gives the reader a very personal understanding of the intense sense of purpose and duty that drove Atatürk throughout his life, and also how it led to many contradictions in his life. Atatürk created a secular nation by first engendering the support of eminent religious authority figures, without telling them his aim was a secular nation. Atatürk wanted Turkey to become just like a “modern Western democratic republic”, but became a benign autocrat, leading a one party system where all representatives were hand picked by Atatürk.

Kinross begins with Atatürk’s birth in Salonika and traces his troubled early school years and enrolment into the Military Secondary School where Atatürk discovered himself as a soldier and was given the first name “Kemal”, meaning “perfection”. From his portrayal of Atatürk in his younger years, we are given to understand that Atatürk developed very early a fierce sense of dedication to a country he recognized as flawed and in need of change. He demonstrates an astounding prescience, has a sharp mind, a passion for rakı and debate, and an abiding abhorrence for what he saw as the role of religion in the decline of his country.

We follow Atatürk through the despairing times of World War 1, where Atatürk’s actions and leadership are nothing short of heroic. The insights he develops into the military and political situation of the time picks him out as a potential threat to his superiors, but also identify him as an invaluable commander. For many years he works in the background to develop a network of resistance against the self serving Ottoman authority. Instead of bringing about a change of government, he finds himself pushed to the side as several revolutionaries take the fore, become despots in their own right and are then torn down – such as Enver Pasha. “Enver Pasha killed Enver Bey” is a telling quote I remember.

Eventually the situation for Atatürk comes to a head when the allies of the First World War begin plans to dismantle Turkey and occupy the country. Atatürk, using all his skill and cunning as a diplomat, soldier and hero rallies a new line of defense that pushes the allies out of Turkey and forms a new government, the first Republic of Turkey.

I found some important subjects were left out or not given sufficient attention. There was only a passing reference to the swap of Greek and Turkish population in 1923. And although the Kurds’ role in the independence war was described in some detail and the conflicts between Armenians, Kurds, Greeks and Turks over land was much discussed, there was no evaluation of Atatürk’s attitude towards each group as a people or how this affected his actions.

At times, Kinross seemed too compassionate towards Atatürk, almost apologetic. The book made much of the contradictions within Atatürk, but rarely explored the darker side of his character. Instead, his actions were repeatedly explained or justified by his admirable sense of duty to his country. Nowhere was this clearer than in the portrayal of Atatürk’s involvement in the Independence Tribunals of 1927. These tribunals were brought in to punish the leaders of a Kurdish revolt, but were also used to summarily round up all of Atatürk’s political enemies at the time – including former friends and compatriots without whom the Republic of Turkey may never have come about.

I understand now, why there is still a deep reverence throughout Turkey for this politician and leader, Atatürk, who people still call the Father of Turkey. For he was truly the father of Turkey: he led a movement that completely and permanently changed the political and social face of the nation. Turkey changed from a caliphate to a republic, and that was just the beginning. After that, Atatürk gave the people a new language (yes, “gave” – he helped create it and personally taught it); laws were introduced changing the national costume; and women were made equal to men – all this in less than fifteen years!

I also understand that a major part of Atatürk’s legacy is the shock of such massive changes introduced in such an extremely short time – a shock that still resonates today. At least one of the multiple coup d'état in the latter half of the 20th century (after Atatürk’s death) were instituted by people who felt empowered to act by a sense of duty and revolution that Atatürk himself encouraged. The fact that religion lost its primacy under Atatürk also left his country with a deep and lingering conflict between religious and secular life that is at the forefront of Turkey’s political situation today. Much like present day Indonesia, religious parties have gained prominence and seek to re-assert religion as part of government.

I began reading this book on the plane trip home from my first holiday in Turkey to visit my partner's family. It took me six months to finish the book and has given me a much deeper connection with this beautiful country and the people I met.

If you are a student of history, or if you have ever visited Turkey and wanted to know “how”.. I highly recommend this book.