Atatürk - The Rebirth of a Nation by Patrick Kinross

Posted on Nov 2, 2014
Berlin, Germany

While written in 1964, this book finds resonance in De Bello Gallico as a paean to the singular personality of Mustafa Kemal, later to be given his name of praise, Atatürk. Kinross’ writing is fluid and engaging, from a tradition of British prose that understand how to entertain as well as educate readers. At 500-pages, a biography of a man who was really only in the spotlight for 23 years might seem to be too long, that there couldn’t possibly be 500-pages worth of material to draw upon. Kinross has no qualms with including in the biography what he believes Kemal had in his mind throughout his life. Perhaps because I have had nothing to cross-reference his suppositions with, Kemal’s motivating force manifested in inner-thoughts and exposed by Kinross to the reader appear coherent and compelling.

Kinross splits Kemal’s life into three stages, much like three acts in a theater production: Childhood through WWI, WWI through the victory in the War for “Independence”, and the establishment of the state of Turkey to Kemal’s death in 1938. The sections of the book which are most subject to introspection into Kemal’s motivations for doing the things he did. This is most likely because few texts exist from Kemal’s upbringing, because no one starts keeping records of a life that is not yet important, and during the third-act in the book, where Kemal must have been more reserved with his thoughts because all around him were people paying attention to everything he said.

Kemal grew up mostly with his mother and his sister, as his father had died when he was young. The first thirty years of his life could be summarized as the story of a highly-ambitious young man who had social and professional advancement blocked by those around him in positions of power and authority. Kemal always thought highly of himself, which is again another example of the adage that to be a leader one must first be a narcissist.

He soon had ample opportunity to prove himself, though only by seizing those opportunities for himself and not waiting for others to create them for him. For example at Gallipoli he was not given a good command, he was instead given command of a group of men that were at a tenth of their optimal strength and seemingly doomed to defeat. His ability to defeat the New Zealanders, and consequently deny the allies a victory in the middle-east, was due to his uncanny ability to predict where the attack would occur use that knowledge to shape his strategy. His ability to predict enemy movements seemed to be from his ability to think through the enemy’s mindset as a chessmaster thinks through the different outcome of every move in a chess match.

One interesting fact about the period after WWI is that the vestiges of the Ottoman state continued to be considered the representative government of Turkey throughout Europe and the Americas. It was in reaction to the sphere-of-influence designs that the colonial powers had on Turkey that Kemal resolved not to try to reform the Ottoman bureaucracy but to stage a revolution to overthrow it. Additionally, if it weren’t for a stroke that Woodrow Wilson had during the victor’s peace conference, there was a good chance that Turkey would have become an American protectorate. What a different type of century that would have led to!

After it became clear that Kemal would lead the new state of Turkey with its capital in Ankara, the realization of Kemal’s grand-plan to bring Turkey closer to Europe were methodically carried out. While Kemal may have had a grand-plan in his mind since he was a young staff officer before WWI of the changes needed to reinvigorate the Turkish state and society, he was careful not to release all the changes at once as to overwhelm people. Yet once a plan was announced, it was expected to be carried out with all speed. For example, when Kemal decided to drop the Arabic alphabet and instead use the Latin alphabet for written Turkish, he was told by experts that it would take 5 years to transition. He answered that it must be done within three-months or it would never be done. Perhaps he understood that a lot of pain at once is more easily withstood than a slight trickle of pain over a long period of time.