When Turks Civilized the World: Clive Foss Looks at the Way in Which Kemal Ataturk Rewrote History as Part of His Radical Modernization of the Turkish Nation

By Foss, Clive | History Today, August 2005 | Go to article overview

When Turks Civilized the World: Clive Foss Looks at the Way in Which Kemal Ataturk Rewrote History as Part of His Radical Modernization of the Turkish Nation


Foss, Clive, History Today


Mustafa Kemal, or Ataturk as he became known, the undisputed ruler of Turkey from 1923 to 1938, was very fond of young ladies--to such an extent that he adopted four of them. One, named Afet, was an eighteen-year-old history student whose family Kemal had known in his native Salonica. Like the other girls, he encouraged Afet to pursue her studies, so that she eventually got a doctorate and rose high in the Turkish historical establishment. According to her own account, one day in 1929, she came to the Gazi (a favourite title, Victor over Infidels) with a problem. She had read in a French geography book that the Turks were a yellow race, generally considered second-class human beings. This provoked a reaction in Kemal, who had light hair and blue eyes. 'No, that can't be' he said, 'let's get busy about it'.

Kemal was determined to refute any notion that the Turks were part of the yellow race, that they had no capacity for civilization, and particularly that anyone else might have a historical claim on the homeland of Asia Minor. He wanted to know who was the original population of Turkey, how the first Turkish civilization was formed and by whom and what was the place of Turks in world history. He threw himself into the project, taking time from the duties of state; he assembled a large historical library and ordered experts to study it. Ministers, MPs, professors and teachers were all to read and report to him. Wherever the Gazi was--in Ankara or Istanbul or his favourite spa, on the boat or the train--he found time to work and to call meetings which might last well into the night. He held discussions over a dinner table full of books and papers in a room that looked like the school it was becoming.

A committee of teachers and political figures organized the project which Kemal personally directed. Its members worked fast, producing a preliminary version of a new history in 1930. Kemal read every page, finding too many mistakes. He ordered the committee to identify and study the great states that their ancestors had built, to rely on documents and not to hesitate to admit ignorance; 'writing history is as important as making history', he wrote. By 1931, a four-volume work emerged, simply called History, intended for secondary schools at a time when there were few opportunities for higher education. Mustafa Kemal read and corrected the proofs; the texts became compulsory and canonical for more than a decade. They formed the basis for the simpler volumes designed for the younger pupils of the middle schools.

At the end of the First World War, Turkey had been a defeated and humiliated nation, and so it remained until Mustafa Kemal went to Asia Minor in 1919. There, he organized a resistance that soon turned into a powerful nationalist movement with its headquarters in Ankara, a rival government to that of the Sultan, who was under the control of the victorious Allies. Kemal got the help of the Soviet Union, made an agreement with the French, and defeated the Greek forces that had advanced far into Asia Minor. When the treaty of Lausanne in 1923 recognized the independent Turkish republic, Kemal had succeeded in creating a new and victorious country, with a largely homogenous Turkish population, on the ruins of the decrepit cosmopolitan Ottoman state. In the next few years, he embarked on an astounding series of reforms that disestablished Islam, introduced Western laws, and increasingly obliged the Turks to act and think like Europeans. By 1929, Kemal was firmly in control of a one-party state, essentially a dictatorship.

The new country felt a great need for self-confidence, for a way to assert its place among the civilized nations--which for Kemal meant Europe. The Europeans, however, traditionally took a dim view of the Turks, formerly seen as cruel and violent conquerors, 'the Terrible Turk', and more recently the 'Sick Man of Europe'. The Turks themselves were confused about their identity. …

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