Swans Commentary » swans.com November 17, 2008  



He Is Turkey


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Grassi, Fabio L.: Ataturk, Il Fondatore Della Turchia Moderna, Salerno Editrice, Rome, 2008, ISBN 978-88-8402-634-7, illustrated, 443 pages. 29 Euros.


"I am Turkey," he said. "To destroy Me is to destroy Turkey." Almost as if he had dared to say, "I am the Son of God."
—H.C. Armstrong, Grey Wolf (1937)


(Swans - November 17, 2008)   Can we have too many books on Mustafa Kemal, a.k.a. Ataturk? Not if they are as pertinent as Fabio L. Grassi's. Kemal died in 1938 but he remains the most influential figure in Turkey today. In English we have Lord Kinross's Ataturk, The Rebirth of a Nation. It's a sedentary patrician's amiable view of a more adventurous patrician. Serious, readable, and well-grounded, it nevertheless dates from 1964. Kinross was born in an empire (1904), just as Kemal was (1881). Andrew Mango's Ataturk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey of 1999 brought the man closer to us. Born in Istanbul in 1926, Mango, unlike Kinross, read the sources in Turkish. His long residence in England relieved him of Turkish taboos, and he could risk irreverence in probing his subject's character. It also honed his English. But as one reviewer complained, Mango's work turns Turkey from the proverbial "sick man of Europe" to the "cured man of Europe." And in 2008 with argument raging whether Turkey is worthy of membership in the European Union, it's imperative to have an unbiased view of the country that Mustafa Kemal still straddles like a giant.

Anyone who hasn't spent some time in Turkey will find it difficult to fathom how Ataturk's presence pervades the life and mental outlook of Turkish citizens....The non-verifiable stories and legends that circulate about him would furnish the matter for another book as long as this one that would be even more useful for understanding contemporary Turkey. (Page 344)

So says Fabio L. Grassi, born in 1963, a European, a Roman no less, who gives us his view at half Mango's length. Like most biographers of Kemal, Grassi is taken with the man. It's hard not to be. One thinks of the young Napoleon Bonaparte, the same pugnacity, dash and resolve against the odds, the same brilliant and wily maneuvering behind the scenes, the same refusal to share the stage. However, unlike Turkish writers who are still held to various degrees of hagiography, Grassi can -- though he does so almost with reluctance -- touch on the great man's blemishes. For again like Bonaparte, Kemal moved at length toward total dictatorship, adding a wild, arbitrary note all his own. With Mussolini operating down the road and Stalinism taking shape next door, Grassi is right to set the last years of Kemal-become-Ataturk carefully in the context of the times.

He points out how the entrenched, older Kemal saw his political opponents asking for freedom to differ as time-wasting sowers of disorder who would open the door to reactionary forces. (It's an attitude still present in Turkey, says the author. The authoritarian current, defending centralization, modernization, and a command economy still sees any adversary as paving the way for reaction.) But the internal opposition to the leader of the Kemalist revolution was first defeated politically and only then declared criminal. "In this and in many other ways," writes Grassi, "Kemalist Turkey seems like a moderate version of Soviet Russia." Totalitarianism was kept at bay by Kemal's care not to let his political party dominate the state entirely.

Except against the Kurds, the Kemalist State never had recourse to mass terror. For those who abstained from active co-operation and were insufficiently servile, the punishment was to be pushed out of the mainstream and, unless they had money of their own, reduced to poverty. (Page 306)

"Except against the Kurds..." Here Grassi scolds the national hero. The Kurdish problem that echoes through Europe today was set in granite by Kemal. The Kurdish tribes in the east of the country had often troubled the Ottoman authorities. The position of the Republic was clear at the 1924 conference with the British over Mosul. The Kurds and Turks were "sister nations" that had "united their destinies in perpetuity." The British, because the truth suited their policy, insisted that Kurds and Turks were two "races" with separate languages.

In 1925 the Kurds in eastern Turkey, encouraged by the British and the autonomy enjoyed by Iraqi Kurds, rebelled against Ankara. They were led by a Sheik who claimed he wanted to free Islam from the constraints on religion the Republic had imposed. There followed a series of local rampages that could have been put down without great exertion. Instead Kemal sent eight divisions and aircraft. He used the occasion to crush opposition in parliament, declare martial law in all Turkey, set up hanging-courts called Independent Tribunals, and push through other draconian measures.

The repression was merciless. Kemal feared nothing more than a religious resurgence, unless it was a demand for regional autonomy. And it would be claimed that a call for Kurdish independence had been behind the revolt. One of the all too flexible new laws, still in effect today, made it high treason to use religion for political ends. Another set up "The Plan for the Reorganization of the East." "It," says Grassi, "permanently subjected Kurdistan to a special administration (in fact made it a colony) and called for a massive fusion of populations, with a transfer of Turks to the east and Kurds to the west." Censorship was introduced and it became illegal to use ethnic names that weren't Turkish. By treating the uprising as a counter-revolution, Kemal had consolidated his dictatorship.

Real Turkey was and to a great extent remains variegated and diverse in population. (Grassi says he frequently meets Turks with forebears or relatives from three or four different ethnic groups.) The attempt by the Allies to cut the country up after WWI created something like a psychosis that took hold of the Kemalist revolution and its chief. He conjured up an imaginary Turkey whose national boundaries included no ethnic minorities. The magic wand of Kemal's rhetoric depicted perfect integration. In the 1930s, while Kemal risked ridicule by baptizing the Kurds "mountain Turks," he again waged a vicious assault on their identity, complete with a massive uprooting of population. The inevitable rebellion came in 1934, followed by the just as inevitable brutal suppression. The Kurds are still paying the price of Kemal's mad utopian dream today.

Grassi's Italian perspective, along with his language skills and residence in Turkey, throw a new light on key moments in Kemal's rise. (In 1996 Grassi published L'Italia e la questione turca (1919-1923).) Few of Kinross's 542 pages mention Italy, which in fact was always odd-man-out of the Allied partnership. Early on the Greeks and British decided to exclude the Italians from the eastern Mediterranean, a policy that unleashed cloak and dagger operations on both sides. Kemal met secretly with Carlo Sforzo, the Italian High Commissioner at Constantinople in 1918, and was offered clandestine support. Grassi concludes from a reading of the documents concerned that without Italian aid Kemal could not have fled Constantinople for Anatolia where he would soon lay the foundations of the Republic. In this scenario of a great power quarrel-among-thieves, Italian outrage made for a radical change in Rome's policy. The Italians subsequently sought to use Kemal and his associates to frustrate Anglo-Greek designs.

Russia and Turkey were immemorial enemies. Kemal was not so naïve to believe that his bourgeois national revolution or the so-called proletarian one of the Bolsheviks had made them harmless friends. Grassi shows the logic of the give and take between the two young regimes. Kemal's policy toward the Bolsheviks was simple and constant: To use them and never to be used by them. He reassured Karabekir in a letter of 1919 that he was neither for nor against the Bolsheviks, but saw them as leverage against the victors of WWI. After the British occupied Constantinople, Russia became Kemal's supplier of arms and gold. To the Bolsheviks, the Turks offered protection for their flank in Transcaucasia threatened by the White Army. Kemal moreover offered a free hand to Moscow in Azerbaijan in exchange for having his way in Armenia. These were the bare bones of the Turco-Russian treaty of 1921. A decade later,

Kemal watched his huge neighbor attentively while the USSR under Stalin kept out of the world crisis and industrialized at a spectacular rate. For all of the 1930s, the USSR financed and oversaw Turkey's economic policy. At the same time, however, Kemal kept a sharp eye on the left wing of his own party and persecuted without let-up the Turkish Communist Party, in the end driving it underground. (Page 329)

"Collaboration with Moscow was the keystone of Kemal's policy." At the same time, he saw the danger of being subordinated to Russia. Thus the ambiguities in the relationship and one reason why Kemal insisted Communism was noxious and not assimilable for Turks. Grassi quotes the famous line Kemal wrote to himself in 1931: "The greatest enemy of the Turkish world is Communism: it must be crushed wherever it rears its head!" The book's close attention to Turko-Soviet relations makes it a key for understanding the life of Nazim Hikmet. Ataturk translates as Father of the Turks. How did it happen that Turkey's greatest modern poet turned away from the begetter of modern Turkey?

Nazim set out with another young poet from occupied Constantinople in 1920 to join the Kemalists in Ankara. On the way they met with Turkish veterans of the Spartacus revolt in Berlin who were traveling to the same destination. It was Nazim's first acquaintance with Marxist thought. In Ankara excitement centered on two themes, the progress of the Bolsheviks and the invasion of Anatolia by Greece. The two poets met Kemal, who told them to write poetry with a message. They wanted to go to the front as soldiers but were sent to remote Bolu as teachers. Kemalist policy was to confront backward ideas in existing schools.

Nazim hailed from a sophisticated Constantinople family and the two friends didn't stomach the boondocks for long. They crossed the Black Sea. Ironically it was the vitality and freedom of the arts in Russia at that too-brief moment that drew the two poets. Whether they realized it or not the trip meant they were turning their backs on the Kemalist revolution in favor of another. While traveling they were shocked to learn that Mustafa Suphi, leader of the Turkish Communists, had been murdered. (Grassi feels it was probably the work of Kemalists.) Nazim's life as a Communist would be full of aborted returns to Turkey and long sojourns in its prisons. It was a shadowy existence at the mercy of fluctuating Turko-Soviet relations. But no hardship could prevent Nazim from achieving a monumental renovation of Turkish poetic language. He died in Moscow in 1963. There were often messages in his work but rarely the kind that Kemal had requested. In 2005 a Turkish student who read a poem by Nazim at a school ceremony was taken to the police station.

At his best, Mustafa Kemal the cultural reformer again brings to mind Napoleon Bonaparte. But at his worst, which was much of the time, he resembled Joseph Stalin or Elena Ceausescu. Grassi says the difference was that those who didn't accept Kemal's pseudoscientific theories were marginalized and humiliated, but not imprisoned or put to death. Twentieth-century dictatorships were simply more megalomaniac than France's of 1800. Even as Emperor, Bonaparte, child of the Enlightenment, bowed to savants and specialists. But the equivalent of Bonaparte's corps of Egyptologists didn't have a word to say in Kemal's rewriting of the archeology of Turkish territory. His Institute of Turkish History was a one-man band. An imaginary pre-Islamic Turkey was pasted together and the many peoples who had lived there routinely disguised as Turks. It was all a rather sad joke when we remember that Turkey contains some of the most splendid monuments still extant to non-Turkish civilizations.

For all his sympathy, Grassi has to blush over Kemal's theory that Turkish was the proto-language from which all others derived. There was also something small-minded in the great man's incursions into toponomy, replacing wholesale all place names that bore the least hint of not being Turkish. However, Grassi does believe that Kemal's linguistic revolution was in the main successful. This consisted in the huge enterprise of imposing the Latin alphabet on Ottoman (Arab) script. Since the old language was permeated with Arabic and Persian words, there certainly lay beneath Kemal's drive for modernization the wish to sever Turkish Islam from its Arabic roots. But the change was brutal and cut Turks off from a millennial past. Someone born in 1930 would have trouble reading a book written by his father. Turkish writers have only now begun to realize what was taken from them.

Kemal's afterlife was just as eventful as his years on earth. Grassi tells us that his Party declared him "Eternal Chief" after his death in 1938. The new president, Ismet (a.k.a. Inonu), who was merely "National Chief," had to watch the slow construction of the magnificent Ataturk mausoleum above Ankara as he strove in vain to outshine his predecessor. A new party, the Democrats (DP), won favor in 1950 and to prove its fidelity plastered Kemal's figure all over the nation as well as on coins, banknotes, and stamps. In 1951 it became a crime to insult his memory. The DP conservatives were soon opposed by students and young officers identifying closely with Kemal, a movement that would culminate in the coup d'état of 1960. During the next two decades, a vital Kemalism with an articulated ideology penetrated a large swath of society well beyond the elite. But supporters on the left favored an anti-imperialist, Third World Kemal, while on the right the great man was anti-communist and fiercely nationalist. After the coup d'état of 1980, Kemalism became a dark and oppressive state ideology, and Kemal became a veritable sacred figure.

Today in the West some hold that only by liquidating Kemalism will Turkey have the democratic credentials to enter the European Union. Offended Kemalists retort that had there never been Mustafa Kemal there would be no question of Turkey even being considered for entry. (Page 361)

Grassi's Ataturk tells Kemal's story in a well-paced narrative. Personal life is jostled to the sidelines as it naturally would be in the life of a man of ceaseless public action. Chronology rules and events collide as they do in history and in life. It's not an approach that produces neatly themed chapters. The emphasis is on political and diplomatic warfare. For the details of the great soldier's battles we have to look elsewhere. The achievement of the book is that at every turn it connects the founder of modern Turkey to the present state of that exciting, youthful and rapidly changing country. Let's hope that Fabio L. Grassi's Ataturk will soon be available in English.


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Published November 17, 2008