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Ataturk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey by Andrew Mango
The first thought everyone (that may be a bit of a reach but I have long arms) has when looking at this book is, “Will it fit in my carry-on luggage?” At 622 pages including notes it is quite a tome. BUT given that we are talking about one of the greatest men of the 20th century, the book did not feel long. I enjoy Mango’s style and found the book riveting. As an American I kept asking myself why I had never studied Ataturk in school. In American schools (at least in the 80′s and 90′s) we covered the finest minutiae regarding Hitler and Mussolini (fascinating and horrible men) and totally ignored the man who took a country in shambles and led it into the 20th century, a great leader whether it be war, politics, or diplomacy.
Mango is clearly a fan but does not shy away from describing Ataturk’s flaws and weaknesses as well as his strengths. I was actually surprised to find this book translated into Turkish at a bookstore in Ankara. I am not sure that the Turkish version is the same as the English version.
I put this book as one of the five must-reads (click here for other book recommendations) for anyone who desires to understand Turkey and the Turks as well as many of the challenges they are currently facing.
Mango’s detailed work begins with a description of the Ottoman Empire at the time leading up to Ataturk’s birth (do not skip the Preface and Introduction as they are helpful in setting the context). He articulates the reasons behind the Ottoman decline and the nascent forces seeking reform (for a complete picture read The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire
by Lord Kinross).
“Ataturk was born in Salonica in 1880/1 into a family which was Muslim, Turkish-speaking and precariously middle-class.” With these words Chapter 1 begins and sets the tone for the rest of the story as all three of these descriptive characteristics will play a role in one way or another in the development of Ataturk and the Turkish Republic.
The book is divided into five parts as follows:
Part I: Early Years
Part II: The Long War
Part III: The Will of the Nation
Part IV: Republic and Reforms
Part V: Unrivaled Ruler
This is no boring historical account. Mango fills the pages with interesting anecdotal stories and covers all the intrigue and relational conflict one would expect between strong personalities vying for control of a new nation. For those who love biographies, this should be in your collection.
Having lived in Turkey for a couple of years before reading the book I had heard a good bit about Ataturk and was interested to see how the commonly told stories fit with the facts.
* Mustafa Kemal Ataturk truly was a gifted leader who accomplished seemingly impossible feats in bringing Turkey from the brink of partition to a unified victory against enemies with far superior resources.
* What he accomplished after the war for independence ended would be nearly impossible today as world opinion would not stand for the autocratic rule he instituted. He did not suffer opposition. He was dealing with an uneducated population for which democracy could not have worked. In the end he was proved correct in that much reform and time was needed for Turkey to be able to implement multi-party, democratic rule.
I think of the autocratic, dictatorial leaders of the post-Soviet Central Asian nations and the heap of scorn they receive for the policies they are enforcing. I wonder if they are closer to Ataturk or to Sadam Hussein? Time will tell.
* The story of Ataturk’s failed marriage is rarely told. I was glad to learn about it as it had been a question I had since hearing of his many adopted children.
* The accounts I had been told by foreigner friends of the events leading to Mustafa Kemal betraying the Sultan and joining the cause of the people for an independent, unpartitioned Turkey were generally wrong. Mango explains how Mustafa Kemal had been planning on taking action for some time. I had been told by a number of people that the Sultan sent him to put down the rebellion and once he arrived in Samsun, he had a change of heart and joined the people. This “change of heart” story was not true. In fact, Mustafa Kemal had fooled the Sultan and his government leaders into trusting him. They gave him leadership responsibilities and sent him east to get control. The British, however, did not trust him, and he barely made it out of Istanbul. He had failed to bring about the changes he desired and so would not return to Istanbul for many years having replaced the sultan and the government he had deceived. There is no doubt, however, when one compares Turkey with the middle eastern nations who were controlled by England and France after WWI that Mustafa Kemal’s actions were for the betterment of his people.
* Interestingly, Ataturk was not alone in his vision for Turkey. Many of his close associates had their own vision and lust for power. This is seen by the fact that Inönü was one of the few, if not the only one of the original leaders whom Ataturk did not ostracize in the years after independence. Mango also makes it clear that Inönü provided the necessary complement to Ataturk’s weaknesses. He is duly honored by the Turks, which is made clear on a visit to the Anitkabir in Ankara.
* And lastly, one trivial pursuit type note about Turkey regards Ataturk’s name. Ottoman citizens did not have last names. Shortly after setting up the newly independent government Ataturk declared that everyone needed to choose a last name. The key generals often chose the site of a victorious battle they led for their name. The name Ataturk was forbidden for everyone accept Mustafa Kemal. Even his parents and his adopted daughters do not have his last name.
Mango follows this biography with The Turks Today, and I highly recommend that book as well to get a fuller picture of modern Turkey, although he needs to add a new chapter on the last 10 years.
Any ideas why Ataturk is studied so little in western high schools? Or has that changed? Is he an important historical figure in European education?
Are you interested in other Turkey-related books? Check these out:
The New Turkey: The Quiet Revolution on the Edge of Europe by Chris Morris
The Visitor: A Stranger, A Message, A Clash of Cultures by Peter Pikkert
Cappadocia Travel Guide by Oberheu & Wadenpohl
Turkish Alevis Today by John Shindeldecker
The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk
Crescent and Star by Stephen Kinzer
Ataturk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey by Andrew Mango
The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire by Lord Kinross
A Fez of the Heart: Travels around Turkey in Search of a Hat By Jeremy Seal
29 Books Related to Turkey: A Reading List
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