Kemal Ataturk and Modern Turkey

T. Pavlidis ©2006, 2008

It is often the case that Kemal pasha (later Kemal Ataturk) is demonized in many of the writings of Greeks, especially refugees from Asia Minor. Modern Turkey is also the subject of frequent criticism in the European press. I think both criticisms are extremely unfair.

Let us imagine for a moment that Kemal not did exist and the Greek army was able to hold parts of Asia Minor while the Italians and the French held other parts. What next? There would have enormous local resistance against what would have been in effect colonial regimes. (It is important to remember that most of the atrocities against Greeks and other Christians during the 1919-1922 war were not committed by the regular Turkish army but by guerillas, the "tsetes". So the absence of Kemal would have done little to diminish the carnage.) The example of nearby countries that used to be part of the Ottoman empire and fell under colonial rule tells what it might have happen. Turkey would have been another Iraq or Syria or Lebanon. A horrendous mess much closer to Europe than these other countries.

Kemal Ataturk was a truly great man, a talented military leader, a gifted political leader, and a thinker. For a winning general he showed remarkable restrain when, in spite of advice from his generals, he refused to invade Western Thrace (he could have done easily so [BC06] ) or Syria [BL02]. He had his eye in the long term. Like many a genius he had his flaws that unfortunately these led to his rather early death (he was only 57) in 1938, a loss not only for Turkey, but also for the countries around it. If he had lived through 1956 I wonder what advice he might have given to Nasser.

The history of his life can be found in several books, including some cited in this site [BL02, BC06, LB04] but I want to include three of the more remarkable stories about him. (1) When he entered Smyrna in 1922 some people had laid down a Greek flag and asked him to step on it. He refused to do so, he did not want to insult the enemy; (2) In October 1930 he invited his former enemy Venizelos to Turkey where he treated him warmly (the streets of Ankara were decked with Greek flags). They even discussed the possibility of a partnership or federation between the two countries ([BC06], p. 201) (3) Years later when he introduced the Roman alphabet to replace the Arabic, he went himself to classrooms to teach it sending a powerful message to all government officials that lack of teachers was not going to be an excuse for not following the reform.

These days we also hear a lot of criticism about modern Turkey. Certainly it is not a perfect country or a perfect democracy and it does not compare well with, say, Sweden. But let's also look at the countries around Turkey. Greece had a military dictatorship from 1967 to 1974 and a savage civil war 1945-49. Before WW-II it had an extreme right wing dictatorship and before that assorted coups. The other Balkan countries had also extreme rightist dictatorships before WW-II and dictatorial communist regimes afterwards. Yugoslavia is a horror story all of its own. Turkey may have some bad leaders in the last 50 years but none of them was a match for Serbia's Milosevitz. And of course Turkey is "light years" politically ahead than the countries to its south that also used to be part of the Ottoman Empire. An important fact is that a lot of criticism of the political and social system comes from Turkish writers, such as Orhan Pamuk. The fact that there are laws that interfere with their right of free expressions is bad, but by no means unique in that region. Several other countries in that region treat dissent far more harshly.

Original posting in December 2006. Final version May 2008. Site Map