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Books: Father of the Turks

5 minute read

ATATÜRK by Lord Kinross. 615 pages. Morrow. $7.50.

Kemal Atatürk was the 20th century prototype of the progressive dictator. He was a man on horseback who broke the hegemony of London and Paris, overset a degenerate regime, achieved a social and political revolution and established a humanitarian tyranny.

Strange to say, no reliable study of this extraordinary individual has ever been written in English. The defect is now remedied by Britain’s Lord Kinross, a Turcophile (Within the Taurus) who has known some of Atatürk’s principal associates for many years. In this acute and readable biography, Kinross sometimes oversimplifies the period but never underplays the complex and astonishing nature of the beast he is examining.

Not all the complexities are elucidated — little is known about Atatürk’s emotional problems, and Kinross is too responsible to speculate. He simply presents the available facts and sets them in a good light. Kemal Atatürk emerges as a political genius immingled with a moral moron, a man with the intellect of a Western liberal and the disposition of an Oriental despot, a loving father to his country all day long, but after sunset a dedicated lecher and incorrigible lush.

Piasters & Perfection. Some of these traits were evident quite early in the character of Mustafa, as the young Atatürk was called. His father, who ran a lumber business in Salonica, died in 1889 when the boy was eight, and left the family without a piaster. Little Mustafa made a fierce resolve: “I am going to be somebody.” At twelve, against his mother’s orders, he took entrance examinations for a government military school, passed them, and then hectored her till she signed his admission papers. He was a proud, cold, brilliant boy who could follow several conversations simultaneously and move either eye independent of the other. He dominated his contemporaries and challenged his teachers, who nicknamed him Kemal (Perfection) and accounted him a born officer.

Rather tall for a Turk, he was icily handsome and did not scruple to make use of his physical attributes. He chased after pretty young men and became so popular with prostitutes that he seldom had to pay the bill. Attracted by Western political ideas and appalled by the social, moral and religious putrefaction of the Ottoman Empire, he swore that he would somehow save his country. He plunged headlong into a series of political conspiracies. None of them succeeded, but Mustafa Kemal became known to the Ottoman police as a man to watch.

New Destiny. After World War I broke out, Lieut. Colonel Kemal was assigned to Gallipoli. When the Allies struck, he alone among the Turkish officers guessed their intentions. He seized the heights and beat off attack after attack. Taking command of the entire front, he launched a surprise assault and drove the Anzacs back to the beaches. “Seldom in history,” wrote the British official historian, “can the exertions of a single divisional commander have exercised so profound an influence on the fate of a campaign and even the destiny of a nation.” Within weeks, Colonel Kemal became a national hero; within a year, he became a general.

When Turkey lost the war, Kemal Pasha fought on in secret. He cached arms all over the country, established a National Assembly at Ankara, and formed a new Turkish government with himself at its head. Within three years he had smashed an Anglo-Greek army of more than 100,000 men in two magnificent campaigns in Anatolia, recaptured Smyrna* and swung north to the Bosporus, toppled the British government, and forced Lord Curzon to talk Turkey on Kemal’s terms.

The nation was rescued; but the nation, to Kemal’s way of thinking, still had to be reconstructed. He went to work like a whirlwind. In short order, the Ottoman sultanate was abolished, the Moslem religion disestablished. The fez was outlawed, and the schools, the courts and the institution of marriage were freed from the control of the mullahs. Women won the right to vote, hold jobs, own property. Polygamy and the veil were eliminated. The alphabet was Romanized and names were Westernized—Mustafa Kemal took the opportunity to call himself Kemal Atatürk (Father of the Turks).

Unborn Child. By 1927, in short, Turkey had the legal structure of a modern European nation. Its actual structure was something else again. In the Turkish Republic, Kemal had created a political fiction, a brainchild he would not allow to be born. He retained power, and as the years went by he used it more and more autocratically. He vetted the elections, rigged the Assembly, purged his enemies.

Without a war to fight, his prodigious energies ran wild. He once delivered a speech that lasted six days. He stayed up all night, every night, carousing with his cronies. He adopted orphan girls and used them as nymphets. His memory began to fail, his judgment began to go. In 1937 he came down with cirrhosis of the liver, and in 1938 he died. The republic survived, and in it Atatürk’s achievement, raddled at times by reaction, still stands: a moderately modern and reasonably democratic Turkey that through two world struggles has held staunchly with the free world against totalitarian tyranny.

*The scandalous Smyrna massacre of 1922, in which 100,000 Greeks and Armenians were allegedly consumed in a conflagration lit by the victorious Turks, is minimized by Kinross, who accepts the U.S. State Department’s conclusions: the death toll was about 2,000, and the fire was started by accident.

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