Magazine article The Spectator

Building a Modern Nation

Magazine article The Spectator

Building a Modern Nation

Article excerpt


by Andrew Mango

John Murray, L30, pp. 666

Late in his life, as his health deteriorated and his ideas on language and race became increasingly dotty, Mustafa Kemal Atatirk took to provoking his entourage with test questions, giving rise to the best anecdote in Andrew Mango's massive biography. `Define zero,' Kemal asked an inspector of education. His reply - `your humble servant in your presence' - gave him the first step up the ladder which he stepped off as minister of education.

By then Ataturk could be forgiven his eccentricities. When he died in 1938 of cirrhosis of the liver, he had transformed a traditional Muslim society into what was in its outward forms if not its inner reality a secular western state. He had abolished the sultanate and caliphate; emancipated women (conveniently divorcing his own wife in traditional Muslim style just before introducing the new regime); introduced Latin script and western hats (of deep symbolic importance, this); raised literacy levels and pacified the country. A ramshackle Ottoman empire of concessions and capitulations had been reduced to a compact and independent Turkish state.

Andrew Mango's authoritative new biography steers through Ataturrk's stormy life with a judicious regard for the evidence from a vast collection of mainly published Turkish sources, many new to historians outside Turkey. Mango is thus able to disentangle fact and legend, as over the place and date of the great man's birth (winter 1880-81, in Salonika, but not in the pink villa commonly assumed to be his birthplace). Lord Kinross's fast-moving biography, published in 1964, has a stronger sense of drama and colour than Mango, who builds up his portrait by accumulation of detail, the names proliferating, the characters elusive. It is a formidable achievement and the account of the Ottoman background in particular is excellent. But weighing in at 21b 12 oz it is in no sense an easy read.

A problem for any biographer of Ataturk is that much of the crucial evidence comes directly from the man himself at a time when he had every reason to rewrite history so as to create and perpetuate a myth. Mango assesses Ataturk's own claims critically but with respect. He calls Ataturk 'one of the most important statesmen of the 20th century'. Nation-builder, radical moderniser, devoted to a secular idea of progress, he `showed the way to national independence in amity with the rest of the world'. …

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