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M. Şükrü Hanioğlu – Atatürk: An Intellectual Biography (book review)

July 5, 2012

[Hürriyet Daily News (15th June 2012): http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/ataturk-an-intellectual-biography.aspx?pageID=500&eid=101]

M. Şükrü Hanioğlu – Atatürk: An Intellectual Biography, Princeton University Press, 2011, 280pp

One of the first things guaranteed to strike any newcomer to Turkey is the inescapability of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – the statues, the portraits in every shop, the street names, the fact that every bookshop has an “Atatürk section,” the fact that every classroom has an “Atatürk Corner.” Whatever truth there is in the concern amongst secular Turks that the founder of the Turkish Republic’s memory is being eroded by a new religious order, it certainly – at least superficially – doesn’t feel that way to the Turkey neophyte.

Of course though, if that neophyte is going to stay for a longer stretch of time, he or she will sooner or later have to get a firmer handle on the Atatürk fundamentals, and Professor M. Şükrü Hanioğlu of Princeton University is the latest to take on the daunting task of producing a biography on the man. As Hanioğlu himself says in the preface to the book, it’s daunting because in Turkey: “For many years, the scholar who aspired to portray Atatürk as he really was resembled the pre-modern historian rash enough to attempt a depiction of the historical Jesus.” Though restricted in scope to the influences that shaped the “intellectual” character of its subject, (rather than filling in details of the personal life story), “Atatürk: An Intellectual Biography” is a sane, fair-minded primer to the ideological forces that shaped the “Father of the Turks.” Unlike so many titles in that “Atatürk section” of the local bookshops, it is resolutely a biography – not a hagiography.

The first step to challenging any holy text is to read it as a product of its historical context. The major objective of this book is to do the same with Atatürk, presenting him as an intellectual and social product of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Ottoman Empire. The influences affecting the elites of the late Ottoman period are thus given ample space, demonstrating the essential continuity that Mustafa Kemal represented. Even though politically he was to become the symbolic figurehead of the sudden rupture between the old imperial order and the new republic, in crucial respects Atatürk was simply the inheritor of the late Ottoman reformist legacy. This historical continuity is one of the central themes that emerges from almost all serious contemporary historical writing on the period. Hanioğlu summarises:

“it is imperative to realize that Mustafa Kemal emerged from within a specific social milieu … many of the radical ideas destined to become central planks in his reform program were widely held in intellectual circles at the turn of the century … Despite the radical changes that it brought about, the Turkish transformation led by Atatürk was not a rupture with the Late Ottoman past but, in important respects, its continuation.”

While official Turkish historiography considers the founder of the TurkishRepublica kind of omniscient leader for all times, untrammelled by the age in which he emerged, this book paints a convincing alternative picture.

In this respect, the discussion of nineteenth century German military theorist Colmar van der Goltz’s idea of “the Nation in Arms” is particularly illuminating. Goltz held that a state’s military elite should be afforded an exalted role as the ultimate guide of society, a “superior position” being “the natural due of officers as a class.” Such ideas found fertile ground in the lateOttoman Empire, and Goltz was chosen to lead a restructuring of the Ottoman Royal Military in 1883-84. His theories had an obvious effect on the Committee of Union and Progress, (the group of military officers later known as the Young Turks), which swept to power in 1908, and were clearly significant in justifying the military’s later elite position in the Turkish Republic. Equally important to Ottoman thinking of the time – and consequently to Atatürk – was another German import, the concept of Vulgarmaterialismus:

“a vulgarized version of the doctrine of materialism, fusing popular notions of materialism, scientism, and Darwinism into a simplistic creed that upheld the role of science in society. The late Ottoman version of this materialism was a further simplification of the German original and a medley of highly disparate ideas.”

Hanioğlu remarks on the inherent irony of the self-contradictory, one-dimensional worship of scientific materialism by the era’s elites, a secular creed held on to with as much unquestioning zeal as the most pious of religious believers. The early republican fetish for the all-encompassing power of science was clearly a direct inheritance from this late Ottoman tendency.

Such oversimplification also gave rise to some of the more eccentric, often troubling republican intellectual predilections. The scientistic cult logically led to scientific racism and theories of exclusivist Turkish racial superiority, (the body of 16th century imperial Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan was exhumed in 1925 to confirm the brachycephalic shape of his skull, in order to prove beyond all doubt that he was, indeed, an ethnic Turk). It also fed into the aberration of the various Turkist language theories – which resulted in the brutal purging of all “foreign elements” in order to form a new “purified” Turkish language, with artificial replacements dredged up from ancient Turkic languages. In the words of Geoffrey Lewis, the reforms were a “catastrophic success,” and meant that Atatürk’s famous 36-hour speech of 1926 had already become unintelligible and had to be rendered into modern usage by 1963. There was also the new Turkish history thesis that found its way into official Turkish textbooks, which involved a comprehensive effort to prove that all ancient civilisations, including Greece and Rome, came from a central Asian Turkish wellspring. Despite obviously being nonsense, this revisionist interpretation of human history was seductive because it served a number of practical purposes. Firstly, it helped bypass the awkwardly religious Ottoman past; secondly, it helped pre-empt claims by rival nationalisms that Turks were latecomers to Anatolia; and thirdly, in the Turks’ mission civilisatrice, it also sought to solidify Turkey’s position as an integral part of the West, (although even this may have been a step down for some, with one contemporary text claiming that “Turks lived clothed during the stone age in 12000 BC, while Europeans reached that stage 5,000 years later.”) Atatürk never feels further from the figure of the high Enlightenment – and closer to his own, authoritarian age – than when we read of these quixotic social engineering projects. (I was struck recently when my neighbourhood plumber, Ali, while repairing some piping in my bathroom, began expounding something that sounded suspiciously close to the “Sun Language Theory.” I used to think of such things as being not much more than an eccentric footnote, representing the lunatic fringe of the early republican age, but perhaps I was being too generous.)

Nevertheless, despite the fact that it was personally one of his central intellectual pillars, Atatürk tended not to emphasise the more esoteric expressions of his Turkism until the future of the republic had been properly secured. Until this time, Hanioğlu stresses, Atatürk displayed an often underappreciated pragmatism as a politician. This is especially the case with regard to religion, which is far from the black and white picture that is often assumed. Atatürk was never averse to invoking Islam, particularly early on, when seeking to mobilise the masses in the struggle against the Allies and the non-Muslim populations, which were seen as a mortal threat to the very independence of the nation. Despite his contempt for communism, he also made use of a “purely rhetorical Socialism,” largely aiming to maintain the young republic’s alliance of convenience with theSoviet Union. “This pattern of dissimulation,” Hanioğlu writes:

“was undoubtedly part of a deliberate strategy to align the nationalists with the most powerful and broad-based ideologies of resistance, while obfuscating the exclusionary objectives of the movement. This ideological mishmash was crucial to Mustafa Kemal as he performed his difficult role as political leader, diplomat, and supreme military commander.”

Although he was the leading figure behind the abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate and, soon after, the Islamic Caliphate, this too was achieved in an extremely careful, gradualist way. As is often the case, what seems now like a sudden jolt and break with the past can, in many senses, be seen as merely the logical culmination of tendencies that had been developing for decades.

Westerners tend to view the Turkish adoration of Atatürk in rather narrow, technocratic terms, without understanding that the emotional resonance his image has across Turkish society couldn’t possibly be accounted for by his intellectual convictions alone. Like all icons, his image is still powerful in today’s Turkey because it has been effectively divested of all meaning, and the viewer can invest it with whatever symbolism he or she wishes to. As in any personality cult, Atatürk’s image must necessarily mean different things to different people. Depending on the context, Hanioğlu says, Atatürk “may be invoked in support of ideas that are étatist or liberal, nationalist or socialist, religious or scientistic, elitist or populist.” A westernised Turk on the Aegean coast might revere him for his secularizing, modernising vision, whilst a religious conservative in Central Anatolia can selectively ignore this, and instead place the emphasis elsewhere – perhaps instead respecting the strongman who successfully defended his homeland and gave the West a bloody nose. He probably sees no contradiction at all in praying five times a day while also passionately admiring Atatürk.

Shared by both caricatures is a veneration for the redeemer of the nation, and it is this aspect more than anything else that lends Atatürk the emotional impact needed to endure. This is the reason why detached and technical books like this, while welcome, can really only ever have a minor impact. The majority are guided by impulses rather less rational and rather more emotional. Atatürk himself understood that, even though it is this paradox that perhaps ultimately illustrates the limits of his ultra-rational, positivist intellectual convictions.

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