This article was first published in the May 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine
Mustafa Kemal was born in Salonika, then part of the Ottoman empire. He received a military training and rose to prominence for his role in combatting the Allied attack on Gallipoli in 1915.
After the First World War Kemal led a nationalist resistance campaign against the peace terms imposed on the Ottomans. His military nous enabled him to rebuff Greek expansionist plans and helped to secure a more favourable settlement in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. When the Ottoman empire disintegrated, Kemal was installed as president of the new republic of Turkey. In this role he spearheaded the modernisation and secularisation of the country. He was given the name Atatürk (meaning ‘father of the Turks’) in 1935, three years before his death.
When did you first become aware of Atatürk?
In my generation there was still a backwash from the interwar period, so everybody knew about Atatürk in a vague way as someone who had westernised Turkey. I had also heard the legends about his actions in Gallipoli and about the law in 1925 that made people in Turkey wear hats. That was all I knew before I first went to Turkey, nearly 16 years ago.
What kind of a man was he?
It is very difficult to pin him down. He obviously had absolutely enormous charisma, which grew the older he got. Women noticed his translucent blue eyes and he could terrify people without actually saying very much. He was an excellent man manager, able to get the best out of his subordinates and then, when they became too big for their boots, he knew how to get rid of them. His rhetoric was also very powerful. People could listen to him for quite a long time and not be bored.
What makes him a hero?
In the run-up to the First World War the Ottoman empire was falling apart. By the time they entered the war, more or less everybody had written them off. So the Allies sailed in and this is where Atatürk made his reputation, commanding the brigade that faced the British at Suvla Bay in August 1915. The Turks had been taken by surprise, but he was able to put up a defence.
Then after the war Lloyd George encouraged the Greeks and to a lesser extent the Armenians to divide up their parts of Anatolia. The Turkish sultan would probably have gone along with it, but Atatürk took charge of a national resistance. He established himself with no real base – just a telegraph, a German car (which constantly broke down) and about 12 disciples. Yet he managed to make an alliance with the Bolsheviks who supplied him with weapons and gold and on that basis he was able to defeat the French, then the Greeks and then the British. It was a remarkable performance.
Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?
Anybody in a statesmanlike position is bound to make mistakes, get tired and oversimplify things. The sheer strain of running the place was such a lot I think. He was a lonely man who drank too much and that eventually killed him, far too young. He had a tendency to promote people who weren’t very good, meaning that after he died his successors did not have the same qualities that he did.
Do you see any parallels between your life and his?
Not really. I’ve got away from my past as a heavy drinker now, although I suppose one does have a certain amount of fellow feeling with the man. But no, I don’t see much parallel at all. I’m essentially a writer, not a man of action.
If you had the chance to meet Atatürk, what would you ask him?
I would like to know why there are so many statues of him up and down Turkey, because he never strikes me as a man who had that kind of vanity. He might have thought that he had his achievements but I can’t imagine he would have wanted to be remembered in that kind of adulatory way.
I would also like to ask him if the various quotes attributed to him were genuinely his. I discovered one at the Federation of Turkish Truck Drivers building on the way to Cappadocia. There was a statue of Atatürk and underneath it read: “The Turkish driver is a man of the most exquisite sensitivity of temperament.” I’d love to have asked him if this was really his words or if it was just a joke.
Norman Stone is one of Britain’s most distinguished historians. He is the author of a number of books, the latest being Turkey: A Short History (Thames & Hudson, 2011).