Ataturkby Andrew Mango
In this major new biography of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and the first to appear in English based on Turkish sources, Andrew Mango strips away the myth, to show the complexities of one of the most visionary, influential, and enigmatic statesmen of the century. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was virtually unknown until 1919, when he took the lead in thwarting the victorious Allies' plan to partition the Turkish core of the Ottoman Empire. He divided the Allies, defeated the last Sultan, and secured the territory of the Turkish national state, becoming the first president of the new republic in 1923, fast creating his own legend.
Andrew Mango's revealing portrait of Ataturk throws light on matters of great importance today-resurgent nationalism, religious fundamentalism, and the reality of democracy.
Author Biography: Andrew Mango was born in Istanbul. He wrote his first article on Turkey for the Political Quarterly in 1957. Since then he has published dozens of articles, as well as two general introductions to Turkey. He is the author, most recently, of Turkey: The Challenge of a New Role (1994).
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A Home in Europe
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Atatürk was born in Salonica in 1880/1 into a family which was Muslim, Turkish-speaking and precariously middle-class. These basic facts require elaboration.
Muslims did not have surnames, except in the case of a few prominent families. Official identity was based on entries in population registers. These registers, which were kept more or less accurately in the second half of the nineteenth century, specified an individual's given name or names, the names of his or her parents, religion, place and year of birth.
It was customary to give a newborn baby a name when the umbilical cord was cut. This was known as the `belly name' (göbek ismi), and was chosen from among the honorific titles applied to the Prophet Muhammad or other names having a pious connotation. Later the child might be given a second or even third name, by which he or she would become known. The use of two given names was a mark of social distinction. Atatürk started life as plain Mustafa (`the Chosen', one of the appellations of the Prophet).
Dates could be recorded in two different calendars. For religious purposes, Muslims used a lunar calendar dating back to the Prophet's flight from Mecca to Medina in AD 622. For administrative purposes, a solar calendar was introduced in 1839. Known as Rumi (Roman), this also dated back to AD 622, but the day and month were the same as in the (Christian) Julian calendar. The Rumi year started on 1 March, whichcorresponded to 13 March in the (international) Gregorian calendar in the nineteenth century, and to 14 March in the twentieth century. In 1917, thirteen days were added to the Rumi calendar. Thereafter, the day and month, but not the year, corresponded to the Gregorian calendar. In the official population register, Atatürk's birth was entered in the year 1296 in the Rumi calendar. That year extended from 13 March 1880 to 12 March 1881. There is no reason to doubt the accuracy of the entry.
The day and month of Atatürk's birth are uncertain. His mother was later to say that she had given birth to Mustafa during the `forty [cold] days' of winter. But Atatürk himself quoted his mother to suggest that his birth was in the spring, adding `It might well have been in May'. This justified his choice of 19 May, the date in 1919 on which he landed in Samsun to lead the Turkish armed resistance against the Allies, as his official birthday. His entourage questioned his mother's surviving women friends from Salonica and duly confirmed that their leader's birth occurred `in the spring, probably in May'.
It was customary, particularly in families which boasted of Islamic learning, for the father to record the dates of birth of his children inside the cover of the family Koran. This was apparently done in Atatürk's family, but according to his mother, Zübeyde, there were two Korans in the house. The one in which the children's birth was recorded was lost.
In the story of Atatürk's life fact and legend are hard to disentangle, and Atatürk was the main author of his own legend. What he said was repeated by his friends and relatives, and much of what the latter said was meant to please him. The biographer thus comes across a corpus of sayings and stories, echoing each other, and usually serving a political purpose. The purpose cannot be disregarded. The most likely date of Atatürk's birth is the winter of 1880/1.
Atatürk's father was Ali Riza, a junior civil servant. He came from a local lower middle-class family. Ali Riza's father Ahmet was known as Hafiz Ahmet Efendi. The title `Hafiz' indicated that he had learned the whole of the Koran by heart; the title `Efendi', also applied to his son Ali Riza, designated him as an educated man. Hafiz Ahmet Efendi was apparently nicknamed `the fugitive' (kaçak). The explanation offered is that he had taken to the hills following the murder of the French and German consuls in Salonica in May 1876. The consuls were killed by a mob of Muslims who were infuriated when local Christians enlisted foreign consular help to prevent the conversion to Islam of a Bulgarian girl. After the great powers had sent warships to Salonica, the local authorities hanged the ringleaders of the riot.
There seems to have been a tradition of Islamic learning in the family, since Ali Riza's brother Mehmet (Emin) was also a Hafiz and taught in a Koranic primary school. Mehmet's son Salih appears to have carried on the tradition. The Ottoman civil service was originally manned by clerics. When the administrative reforms of the nineteenth century produced a demand for secular civil servants, many of these came from clerical families. Ali Riza exemplified this process at the lowest level of the administration. The son and brother of neighbourhood Koranic teachers, he became a junior civil servant.
Ali Riza was first employed in the department of pious foundations (evkaf). This job took him to small provincial towns where he inspected the accounts of charities. In 1876/7 he served as lieutenant in a volunteer battalion formed on the eve of the Russian-Turkish war. At roughly the same time he married. He also changed his job, transferring to the customs service. The exact dates of these events in Ali Riza's life are not known. They probably occurred at the end of the war in 1878.
The name of Ali Riza's wife was Zübeyde, and she was twenty years his junior. Her father, Sofuzade Feyzullah Aga, earned a living from farming and trade in the small town of Langaza (now Langadha) to the east of Salonica. The title Aga usually denoted landlords, but it does not seem that Feyzullah owned much or any land. He may have been a steward or bailiff on behalf of absentee landowners. This was certainly the case with his son Hüseyin Aga who ran a farm near Langaza.
Feyzullah's family is said to have come from the country near Vodina (now Edhessa in western Greek Macedonia). The surname Sofuzade, meaning `son of a pious man', suggests that the ancestors of Zübeyde and Ali Riza had a similar background. Cemil Bozok, the son of Salih (Bozok), who was a distant cousin of Atatürk and, later, his ADC, claims to have been related to both Ali Riza's and Zübeyde's families. This would mean that the families of Atatürk's parents were interrelated. Cemil Bozok also notes that his paternal grandfather, Safer Efendi, was of Albanian origin. This may have a bearing on the vexed question of Atatürk's ethnic origin.
Atatürk's parents and relatives all used Turkish as their mother tongue. This suggests that some at least of their ancestors had originally come from Turkey, since local Muslims of Albanian and Slav origin who had no ethnic connection with Turkey spoke Albanian, Serbo-Croat or Bulgarian, at least so long as they remained in their native land. But in looks, Atatürk resembled local Albanians and Slavs. Like his mother, he had blue eyes and fair hair. The nickname `Red' applied to his paternal grandfather suggests that the latter was also fair. When he took up Turkish ethnic nationalism, Atatürk claimed that his ancestors had been Turkish nomads (yörük) settled in the Balkans after the Turkish conquest. Nomads had certainly been sent by the sultans to newly conquered territories both to help defend them and to keep these unruly tribesmen out of harm's way. But there is no evidence that either Ali Riza or Zübeyde was descended from such Turkish nomads. It has been said in support of Atatürk's claim to a Turkish ethnic origin that many Turkish nomads are blue-eyed and fair-haired. One of Atatürk's friends at the War College, and a future opponent, Arif, who came from a leading family of the Karakeçili tribe in inland Anatolia, resembled him to the extent of being taken for his brother. However, blue eyes, fair hair, and European looks in general are more common among Balkan Slavs than they are among Turkish nomads in Anatolia. It is much more likely that Atatürk inherited his looks from Balkan ancestors, and his mother tongue from Turkish conquerors who had intermarried with locals for many generations. We do not know whether the Albanian Safer Efendi was a blood relative of Atatürk. But Albanians and Slavs are likely to have figured among his ancestors. Direct descent from Turkish nomads is not an essential ingredient of Turkish ethnicity.
Ali Riza and Zübeyde lived first in the bridegroom's family house in the Muslim Yenikapi (New Gate) neighbourhood in Salonica. They had relatives elsewhere in the city. Atatürk's contemporary and distant relative Salih (Bozok) lived in a compound of houses which had all been bought by his wife's family in the neighbourhood of Kulekahveleri (coffee houses by the White Tower on the waterfront of Salonica). Salih's cousin, Nuri (Conker), who was to become a loyal adjutant of Atatürk, lived next door. A third close companion of Atatürk, Fuat (Bulca), who was Salih's brother-in-law, also grew up in Salonica.
It was in the family house in Yenikapi that Zübeyde gave birth to three children: a girl Fatma, and two boys, Ömet and Ahmet. It is also likely that her fourth child, Mustafa (Atatürk), was born in the same house. Fatma died an infant. Soon after her death, Ali Riza was appointed customs officer on the Greek frontier, at a place known as Çayagzi (Mouth of the River) or Papaz Köprüsü (Priest's Bridge). His salary is said to have been 3 gold liras or 300 silver piastres a month. It was a reasonable amount some twenty years later, Salih (Bozok) was paid 337.5 piastres as a young lieutenant. But officials rarely received their pay on time.
Ali Riza's harsh life, surrounded by brigands in a remote frontier post, has become part of the Atatürk story. It is said that Zübeyde joined her husband at Papaz Köprüsü and that her two surving children, Ömer and Ahmet, died there, probably at the age of three. Ali Riza is then said to have resigned from the customs service and to have become a timber merchant. However, the dates do not fit.
Biographies situate Papaz Köprüsü just below the southern slopes of Mount Olympus, on the new frontier between Greek Thessaly and Ottoman Macedonia. But Thessaly was ceded to Greece on 24 May 1881 at least two months after Atatürk's birth. Atatürk must therefore have been a few months old when Ali Riza first went to the new frontier as a customs officer. But the pink house in which Atatürk is said to have been born in Salonica was built with the money Ali Riza made as a timber merchant. His profits allowed him also to engage a maid and a wet-nurse for his baby son.
The most likely explanation is that Ali Riza was a customs officer and a timber merchant at one and the same time. Far from resigning from the civil service, he probably used his official appointment to engage in private trade. The main job of the customs and excise officer was to prevent the unauthorized export of timber from the Mount Olympus area to Greece. The forests belonged to the state, and the Ottoman forestry service was supposed to issue felling licences to villagers. In the circumstances, a customs officer would have been ideally placed to acquire timber from the local Christian villagers and to ship it to Salonica, a more prosperous city than any to the south of the frontier with Greece. Ali Riza is said to have had a partner in Salonica, a timber merchant called Cafer, who sold the logs. This theory would also explain how Ali Riza got together the money to build himself a new house in Salonica.
According to Atatürk's younger sister, Makbule, who was a small child at the time of her father's death, Ali Riza had to make repeated short trips to the frontier after his resignation in order to obtain timber, but he soon found that local Greek brigands demanded exorbitant bribes, failing which they set fire to the logs. It seems more likely that Ali Riza did not spend much time at the frontier and did not take his family with him, that he made short trips officially as a customs officer, but in effect to obtain and ship timber, and that after some initial success he fell out with local villagers (or brigands, as the two terms designated largely the same people) who wanted the timber for themselves. He is then said to have complained to a senior Ottoman official in Salonica, by the name of Ali Pasa, who advised him to seek another occupation. Thereupon he took up the trade in salt, which as a state monopoly offered openings to a man in the excise department. Ali Riza is unlikely to have resigned from the civil service, where appointments were often sinecures. His family does not seem to have suffered any hardship until his death, and he may well have received his salary of 3 gold liras a month to the end of his days.
The house which Ali Riza built in Salonica was situated in a neighbourhood called Ahmetsubasi (or Kocakasim). It is this solidly built, three-storey, pink-painted house on a slope leading down to the waterfront which has been designated as Atatürk's place of birth and preserved as a museum. Like all well-to-do Muslim houses, Ali Riza's new family home was divided into two: one wing was used as private family quarters (harem), and another served as a reception area for male visitors (selâmlik).
After giving birth to Mustafa, Zübeyde bore two daughters of whom the first, Makbule, survived, and the second, Naciye, died. Thus of the six children of Zübeyde's first marriage, only two survived.
Ali Riza died at the age of 47, when Mustafa was 7 or 8 years old. His widow attributed his death to the failure of his commercial schemes: `The late lamented became very distressed when his business went badly in his last days. He let himself go. He resigned himself to his fate and faded away. His illness grew worse. There is no way he could have survived. When I became a widow, I was a 27-year-old young woman. I was given a monthly pension of two mecidiye [silver coins worth 20 piastres].'
Ali Riza's fatal illness has been attributed to `consumption of the bowels', aggravated by drink. In any case, family tradition recorded him as a failure.
Salonica was no mean city during Atatürk's childhood. Its prosperity grew markedly in the long years of peace preserved by Sultan Abdülhamit II after the end of the Russian war in 1878. In 1889 the city was linked by rail to Europe via Serbia and Vienna. Another line joined it to the capital, Istanbul, which also had direct communications with Europe via Bulgaria. In 1901, a modern harbour was built. Electricity was installed in 1899 and an electric tram service started in 1907. Mills produced cotton and woollen cloth; tobacco was exported in considerable quantities under the auspices of the state monopoly (known by its French name, Régie), which was part of the foreign-controlled Public Debt Administration.
In the last forty years of the nineteenth century, the population of Salonica grew from about 70,000 to over 100,000. While the arrival of Muslim refugees from Thessaly and from exposed areas in the countryside increased the number of Muslims, Jews still formed the largest community and made up about half the population. The Muslim neighbourhoods overlooked those inhabited by Jews and Greeks, most of whom lived along and immediately behind the waterfront. This spatial division was common in the Ottoman state. When towns were conquered, Muslims settled round the citadel, while Christians and Jews moved to the suburbs. Moreover, Turks seldom chose to live by the sea, which had a special attraction for Greeks.
In Salonica at the end of the nineteenth century, many of the neighbourhoods preserved their original character. Muslim districts had a central square overlooked by a mosque, with a Koranic school as an annex. They had communal baths, coffee houses where men met, small private gardens. European travellers found these Muslim neighbourhoods romantic and charming. Houses were huddled close together in poor Jewish districts, but more prosperous members of the community, like wealthy Greeks, were moving out to spacious villas on the waterfront. The worst Jewish slums were destroyed in the great fire of 1890. In its aftermath, streets were straightened and widened, a city plan was put in place and modernization began. The Jews were prominent among the rising bourgeoisie, but also in the new working class. Most of the stevedores were Jews renowned for their toughness and militancy.
In addition to communal schools, Salonica had schools run by foreign missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant. In 1895 a modern Turkish daily newspaper appeared. Called Asir (The Century), it moved to Izmir in 1924 and survives to this day as Yeni Asir (The New Century). Jewish businessmen founded a local bank, the Banque de Salonique, which eventually moved to Istanbul. There were European-type cafés on the waterfront, usually run by Greeks, dancing schools and balls. An Englishwoman, Lucy Garnett, who lived in Salonica in the 1880s, was present at a charity fête in aid of a Jewish school:
Dancing went on in the lower rooms, the apartments of the upper floor were reserved for cigarette-smoking, cards and conversation, while refreshments and supper were served under brightly illuminated trees and among the flower-beds of the garden attached to the school-house. The Governor-General, Dervish Pasha, and his son were present, and though they naturally did not condescend to join the dancers, moved about continually among them, and appeared to take a great interest in the proceedings. The Greek Archbishop made a distinguished figure in his tall cylindrical hat and black robes, seated side by side with the Jewish Khakham Bashi [Hahambasi], or Chief Rabbi, in black and white turban. Ball dresses, however, were conspicuous by their absence; for, aware that the entertainment was to be partially al fresco, the European ladies had avoided low dresses, and many of the Salonica Jewesses, who had subscribed their liras, presented themselves in their brilliantly coloured native costumes, profusely adorned with seed pearls and gleaming with diamonds.
The spread of European influences through trade, education and diplomacy led to tension within the communities between conservatives and modernizers. Masonic lodges were well established and some of the more prominent modernizers belonged to them. Among Muslims, new ideas were particularly widespread in the dönme community of descendants of converts from Judaism.
`The Dünméhs,' wrote Lucy Garnett, `are, as a community, highly respectable, industrious, and prosperous. Poverty, indeed, is said to be non-existent among them, the wealthy helping those less successful in worldly affairs and supporting widows and orphans by an admirably organized system of charity.' Unlike other Muslims, the dönme had no military tradition. In the army, they were to be found most commonly as military doctors. In civil life, they were active in business and the professions. They also took an active part in politics.
The network of new state schools provided the main conduit for European ideas to the Muslim community. These were organized in two parallel systems, civil (mülkî) and military (askerî), the first designed primarily to train civil servants, the second officers. In both streams, preparatory schools (rüstiye) led on to high schools or lycées (idadî) and then on to either the civil service college (Mülkiye) or to the War College (Harbiye) in Istanbul. Military high schools were usually set up in towns which served as headquarters for Ottoman armies. In European Turkey, the main military centres were Edirne, Salonica and Manastir (now Bitola in former Yugoslav Macedonia).
The struggle between conservative and progressive ideas, between traditional Islam and European free thought, marked Atatürk's life from the start. His mother was, not unusually, steeped in traditional attitudes, her piety earning her the nickname of molla. His father, Ali Riza, a junior civil servant with an eye to the main chance, believed in progress. Atatürk was to say later:
My first memory of childhood concerns the problem of my schooling. This caused a bitter dispute between my parents. My mother wanted me to go to the neighbourhood [Koranic] school after initial prayers. My father, who was an official in the [customs and] excise department, was in favour of sending me to Semsi Efendi's school, which had newly opened, and of having me educated in the new manner. In the end, my father found a clever way out. First, I started at the neighbourhood school with the usual ceremony. This satisfied my mother. A few days later, I left the neighbourhood school and was entered in Semsi Efendi's school.
The initial ceremony to which Atatürk referred was the procession headed by the Koranic teacher (hoca), who led the child from his home to the neighbourhood school. A portion (cüz) of the Koran, which the child was to memorize, and a lectern on which it would be placed, were carried aloft, and prayers were chanted. By having the ceremony performed for her son, Zübeyde not only satisfied her conscience, but also met the expectations of the neighbourhood, and showed that hers was a proper Muslim family. According to Lucy Garnett, Semsi Efendi was a dönme, who opened his school primarily to educate girls in his community. The girls were taught the three Rs and needlework. `With the younger pupils, however, the director looked for better success than with the "grown-up young ladies".'
Zübeyde's son Mustafa was one of these younger pupils, but not for long. When he was 7 or 8 years old, his father, Ali Riza, died, and his mother, Zübeyde, took the family to the farm run by her half-brother Hüseyin Aga at Rapla, near Langaza, in the plain stretching east of Salonica where Muslims were numerous. Atatürk was fond of remembering this rural interlude, which he shared with his younger sister Makbule. The two children were given the job of chasing off crows from a field of broad beans; they played together and, on one occasion, young Mustafa pushed his sister's face into a bowl of yoghurt. There were, it seems, desultory attempts to have Mustafa taught, first at a Greek village school and then by an Albanian (or Armenian) farm clerk. But soon Zübeyde decided to send her son back to Salonica to continue his education. He lodged with his paternal aunt, and was enrolled in the state civil preparatory school (mülkî rüstiye).
The school did not prove a success. One day, Mustafa was beaten by a teacher known inappropriately as Kaymak (`[soft as] cream') Hafiz for quarrelling in class with another boy. Thereupon his maternal grandmother, who was the senior member of the family in Salonica and who did not want him to go to a modern school at all, took him away.
In a newspaper interview in which he described his life, Atatürk said that on leaving the civil service preparatory school, he was determined to enter its military equivalent in Salonica, because he wanted to wear the smart Western-style uniform of military cadets. The son of a neighbour (or perhaps lodger in the family house), one Major Kadri, was already enrolled in the military school, and young Mustafa was intensely jealous of him. Atatürk later told his companion Kiliç Ali that as a young boy he could not bear to be dressed in baggy oriental trousers, tied with a sash, which were worn by boys in Semsi Bey's establishment. `It was when I entered the military preparatory school and put on its uniform, that a feeling of strength came to me, as if I had become master of my own identity.' His mother Zübeyde told Kiliç Ali: `My Mustafa was very particular about his clothes, even as a little boy. He behaved and spoke to others like a grown-up. He looked down on neighbourhood children playing in the street ... We all noticed how he spoke, head raised, hands in pockets.'
Zübeyde went on to describe her boy as gentle, shy and well-loved by the neighbours. From an early age, Atatürk's pride was immediately noticeable; his shyness was seen only by those who worked with him. His secretary Hasan Riza Soyak was to say, `according to his doctors, he was insomniac, constipated and shy.' The first two afflictions developed in later life; the last was always there. It is also evident that from earliest childhood Atatürk hated the external signs of oriental life, and longed to look like a Western officer and gentleman.
Zübeyde, who had in the meantime returned to Salonica, was afraid of allowing her only son to join a dangerous profession, and did all she could to dissuade him. According to Atatürk's account, he sat the entrance examinations without telling his mother. She had no choice but to give her consent when he was accepted into the military preparatory school. Atatürk suggests in his interview that the initiative was totally his; but he was helped and perhaps even encouraged in his ambition by the neighbour, Major Kadri. Moreover Mustafa's choice was not unusual. Three members of his extended family, Salih (Bozok), Nuri (Conker) and Fuat (Bulca), all of whom became his trusted lieutenants, were to follow the same route. Salih Bozok, who appears to have been one year younger than Atatürk, was beaten by the same teacher in the civil service preparatory school before going on to the military school. It seems that the whole younger generation of Atatürk's extended family, as, no doubt, of other Turkish families in the empire's threatened provinces in Europe, decided at about the same time that their future lay in the profession of arms. Their choice did not depend on the heavy-handed Kaymak Hafiz or on the lure of a smart uniform. Ambition, the feeling of self-preservation and patriotism all pointed in the same direction. In his childhood, as in his later career, Atatürk was not alone in his choices. But he was unique in his abilities.
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