The Young Ataturk: From Ottoman Soldier to Statesman of Turkey

The Young Ataturk: From Ottoman Soldier to Statesman of Turkey by George Gawrych.  Published by I. B. Tauris, New York, 2013. 288 pages.

Small Wars Journal Book Review by Youssef Aboul-Enein.

George Gawrych taught for 19 years at the U.S. Army Command and Staff College.  His latest book utilizes deep archival research to uncover the military intellectual development of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), the founder of modern Turkey.  Turkish archives contains Ataturk’s correspondence, letters, personal notebooks, commands, and publications that allow us insight into how he balanced policy, war, diplomacy, and strategy to succeed against the odds politically in the backdrop of Turkey’s War of Independence. The author utilizes Ataturk’s own triad of h’is (sentiment), dimag (mind), and vicdan (conscience) to paint a portrait of command and personal decisions that would alter his life and that of Turkey. 

The book starts from the beginning and his childhood in Salonika in Macedonia, a diverse city under Ottoman rule half of which were Jews, Muslims were the second largest group, and twenty percent were Ottoman Greeks.  His personal family life reflected a tension as to whether he would have a traditional (clerical) education or a secular progressive one.  His name Mustafa (chosen one) reflects the aspirations of his mother to be among the clergy, he earned the name Kemal (perfection) from his mathematics teacher at the military preparatory school.  Gawrych takes to the people who most influenced Ataturk, such as Mehmed Tevfik, who instilled a love of Ottoman Turkish history in him and fellow student Omer Naci who introduced him to poetry, literature, and rhetoric.  Another classmate at the military school was Ali Fethi Okyar, who introduced him to enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau.  A Prussian officer arrived in Turkey in 1883, and remained for thirteen years, Colmar von der Goltz would define modern military teaching in Ottoman military schools.  Ataturk would be schooled by a second generation von der Goltz’s.  So interested was the Prussian in developing Ottoman military educational methods that he died of typhus in Iraq in 1916.  The French model of warfare would be replaced by the German Kriegsacademie (war teaching method) and Mustafa Kemal would as many other officers of his generation get his first introduction to Clausewitz through von der Goltz’s book Volk in Waffen. Another instructor Ahmed Refik taught Mustafa Kemal at War College, this instructor compared and contrasted Baron de Jomini and Clausewitz with a centralized debate on whether war was a science or an art?  Ataturk leaned towards the latter. 

Ali Fouad (Cebesoy) helped Mustafa Kemal with his French and Mustafa Kemal helped Ali Fouad with technical subjects.  Mustafa Kemal would spend three years also studying German in the War College.  Ataturk’s field experiences are dissected in the book to include his managing and maintaining an insurgency of Libyan tribesmen fighting Italian occupation, his travels to Syria during World War I, gave him an understanding of the indifferent commander.  The highlight of the book is how Gawrych takes apart Ataturk’s military tactics in Gallipoli and in the Turkish War for Independence (1919-1922).  In Gallipoli, Ataturk positioned his formations closer to the beach to repel the invading allies, the German military advisors wanted to concentrate forces in one location and respond to landings as they occurred.  In the War of Independence you will be treated to Ataturk’s views on preparation of the army, logistics, and translating battlefield successes and failures into advantages.  The Battle of Sakarya in which he advocated not a line of defense but a plain of defense encompassing all of Anatolia.  Rare is the military leader who thinks of leaving institutions in the aftermath of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and while engaged in battle.  You will be immersed on how he cultivated the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TBMM) and the use of a provisional constitution.  There is also a harsh side to Mustafa Kemal cultivated through the horrors of warfare.  The book is endorsed by M. Sukuru Hanioglu an authority on modern Turkish history at Princeton and noted military historian Dennis Showalter.  An excellent read!

Editor’s Note:  CDR Aboul-Enein is the author of three books on the Middle East published by Naval Institute Press and teaches part time at the National Defense University.

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Comments

It is unfortunate fact that great men like Mustafa Kemal remain unknown until the world falls apart. I wonder what he would think of Erdo─čan.

Commander, should the opportunity present itself, I recommend visiting the Ataturk Mausoleum (Anitkabir) in Ankara, Turkey.