Book Review: Ataturk: An Intellectual Biography

Ataturk: An Intellectual Biography

by M. Sukru Hanioglu. 

Published by Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.  254 pages, 2011.

Reviewed by Youssef Aboul-Eniem

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, will always remain a subject of fascination and study. He packs many controversies, convictions, and ideologies in his quest to preserve the remnants of the Ottoman Empire and transform it into the Republic of Turkey. Professor Hanioglu teaches at Princeton, and has written a deep intellectual expose of Ataturk (a name meaning Father of the Turks), it is a synthesis of many ideas from eastern and western sources that culminate into his worldview. Mustafa Kemal was born in Salonica, current Greece in 1881, and the book’s first chapters deal with his parents disagreements over what type of education he should receive, his father preferred a secular education, his mother a religious one. His father, Ali Riza, a minor bureaucrat, understood the value of modern education that encouraged critical thinking instead of rote memorization. After his death he defied his mother, and enrolled into a military preparatory school that would launch his career into the military.

At the Royal Military Academy, Mustafa Kemal would be exposed to world of ideas and the French defeat by Prussia in 1870, led a renewed interest among Turkish Ottoman military thinkers in German military instruction. Among the German officers who would influence a new generation of Ottoman officers laying the seeds for the Young Turks was Colmar von der Goltz. The German wrote the “Das Volk in Waffen,” (The Nation in Arms) in 1860, the central thesis of the book was since war was inevitable, and required the mobilization of the nation, then a military elite must go beyond its traditional role as guide the ship of state. The young Mustafa Kemal would be a keen observer of the 1905 Japanese victory over the Russians. What distinguishes Mustafa Kemal from the other Young Turks who ran the country, was that while the Young Turks sought to modernize Ottomanism, Mustafa Kemal saw the future in preserving Turanism (the cultivation of a Turkish identity).

As a teenager Mustafa Kemal witnessed Bulgarian and Greek guerilla warfare in Macedonia and in 1912 as an officer saw his own home of Macedonia annexed by Greece in the First Balkan War. He would cultivate not only an appreciation for guerilla tactics, but understood the value of the historic narrative in asserting rights to a territory. The book un-packages the different ideas that Mustafa Kemal absorbed from French, German and Russian social and political thinkers some of it pseudo-science, like Social Darwinism. One concept highlighted is the German philosophy of the time Vulgarmaterialismus, an amalgam of materialism, scientism, and Darwinism that upheld the role of science in society.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk would be among the few successful military commanders amidst the decaying Ottoman Empire, and he would transform these battlefield successes into seizing control of a good portion of Anatolia, the land that it is not modern Turkey. From 1922, the end of the Turkish War of Independence, until his death in 1938 he created a new Republic. His creation of this new Republic would be influenced by a state in which religion would have no place in the public forum, a view inspired by some German philosophers and the French Revolution. This book matters today as some Egyptian army officers ponder the future of the country and see their understanding of Ataturk as a model. This is an insightful volume and highly recommended for those with an interest in the Middle East.

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