Not many of us get to name ourselves, but it’s just, fitting, and instructive that Mustafa Kemal awarded himself the surname Attaturk at the same time he directed in 1936 that a law be passed requiring all Turks to acquire an official last name. It had been customary to give infants a “belly name” when the umbilical cord was cut. “Mustafa” means “chosen” and is one of the appellations of the prophet Muhammad. “Kemal” means perfection, a name he acquired in his late teens under variously-related circumstances. The naming customs, however appropriate for a rural and static society, created confusion in the modern, rationalist state which was Attaturk’s ideal for Turkey. Astoundingly, people obeyed, by and large, and got themselves a last name, and had a lot of fun deciding. He did the same thing with music, with the alphabet, clothing, with virtually every phase of Turkish life, and he changed Turkey from a polymorphous, quaint collection of scattered tribes into a regional power with a distinct culture and population.

How the hell did he, one man, do such a thing? Charisma, charm, brains. A wide range of talents and skills both military and civilian. A certain amount of ruthlessness. He ordered his share of hangings, shootings, imprisonments, deportations. But he was no Stalin, and as a devoted anti-cleric, he did nothing in the name of religion. There were no mass slaughters (The Armenian holocaust took place well before he assumed power.) And you can throw in a good crisis. The 300+-year old Ottoman empire was tottering at the turn of the century, was pushed toward pseudo-democracy by reform-minded young Turks, then pretty much finished off by the WWI.

Turkey sided with Germany in that one (Though it remained shrewdly neutral during the next big conflict). The Allies–Italians, Brits, French–moved in and partitioned Istanbul (somewhat a la Berlin post WWII), largely with the cooperation of the Caliphs and Sultans who were willing to do anything to save their luxuries. The allies were ready to partition the rest of the country as well, and the Bolsheviks wanted their share.

From out the ranks of the army into this chaos stepped Mustafa Kemal, who organized a parallel government and political party in Ankara, far away from Istanbul, and engineered an essentially bloodless revolution that toppled the Caliphate, marginalized the clerics, and steered Turkey toward a legitimate, if secondary, place among the world powers.

He was an autocrat, was Ataturk, but not a tyrant. Elections happened regularly, even though he chose the slate of candidates. Somehow people bought in and followed him. Perhaps they listened because his true goal was a greater Turkey, not  a greater Ataturk. There were depredations by and to Kurds, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews, though he didn’t demonize any group or institute or necessarily approve of the campaigns except under the rules of warfare of the time. It’s hard to see how the expulsion of  Greeks and Armenians could have been avoided after the allies had used them as hammers against the Turks, confiscated property and lives. In any case, the final treaties that made Turkey a state turned it from cosmopolitan, heterogeneous society into a homogeneous Muslim one. The new country was much the poorer for losing all the skills and culture the Judeo Christians brought to the society. Later, many Jewish refugees ended up in Turkey in flight from Hitler, but they couldn’t replace the organic Jews that were part of the Ottoman society, and we suddenly had an independent, sovereign country that was 90% illiterate and bereft of skills, facilities, and infrastructure (e.g., railroads)  But talk about lemons and lemonade.

Would that all Muslim countries could have one of these guys who would find a way to keep government more or less secular and the church more or less private. But the man is not replicable, nor, probably, is the situation.  Like most of us, he was a collection of contradictions. He died in 1938 at 54, a victim of self-inflicted hard living–cirrhosis of the liver. He never practiced the equality of the sexes which was one of his gifts to Turkish generations. For all his devotion to science and rationality, he promulgated some almost comical theories, such as the idea that all languages derived from Turkish. His theater of operations was a part of history we in the western world don’t know well. Heard the name “Mosul?” Did you know that Turkey and Britain fought like hell over possession of the province and that it’s handover to Iraq (a country invented in the treaty of Versailles) was a compromise? Well, I didn’t. Neither did I know how much the Ottoman fights with the Brits and the Franks over Syria, Lebanon, Iran, etc. fed into the shape and character of the eventual Turkish State. And, it’s turning out, into our own.

Attaturk is no easy read. It’s taken me three weeks of slogging to get through the 540 pages, dense with names of unfamiliar people, places, and events. Andrew Mango is no David McCulloch when it comes to breezy narrative. Nevertheless, I’m glad I toughed it out. This volume combined with his The Turks Today (See my May 26 09 blog) should give me as much foundation as I can absorb for approaching Istanbul, et al next month. It’s a vibrant, colorful, exotic place with more history than even Ataturk gave it credit for. I’m ready. Well, I could use a few more phrases. But if you know “beer” and “toilet,” what else should you need?

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