Benevolent Dictator? Thinking About MK Atatürk

At 9.05 am on 10 November life in Turkey will come to a halt. In every city, town and village throughout the country, sirens will sound, traffic will stop, work-places and schools will fall silent, and for one minute, most of the 70 million population will stand in mute respect for a president who died at that precise minute on that day 71 years earlier.

Now I want to ask you a question. Do you even know who the political leader of your country was in 1938? OK, then, a follow-up: can you think of a leader in the history of your country for whom the whole nation as one would stop and pay such respect (readers in North Korea excepted)?

Perhaps the thing that most strikes first-time visitors to Turkey is the ubiquitous presence of a dead politician. All of those aforementioned cities, towns and villages have prominent statues of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, on horseback, in top hat and tails, as a bas-relief, or a larger-than-life bust. Every school classroom, public building and office workplace has his photograph on the wall. At some stage, the cynical question pops into our minds, is the real religion of this country Islam, football or Ataturkism?

The religious aspect of the matter is accentuated by the inscription on some of the busts and statues. ‘Born 1881 . . . ‘ We Christians know all about that. We measure our calendar according to when Jesus Christ was born, and how old he is now. But most of us don’t take that very seriously these days. The difference is that Turks do! That man in the tinted photographs actually does live on, in their hearts! The leader of a one-party state who held the position of president for 18 years until he died in office; the self-appointed leader of a nationalist resistance movement, who established his own revolutionary government which then duly elected him president. We don’t have many precedents for that kind of thing in Western democracies. But scratch the surface of those democracies, and what do you find? . . .
My father never involved himself directly in politics, but he did his duty as a responsible citizen of a democracy for which he had served in the 2nd World War. He always turned out to vote, supported a political party, and took an interest in the affairs of the country, especially as regards economic policy. In our household we always followed the news media coverage of election night vote counting. When dinner parties were held, the conversation regularly turned to politics and world affairs. But we don’t idolise our politicians in New Zealand – not now, not then.
One topic of conversation I do remember among my father’s friends when they were sounding off about the ills of the nation and the unreliability of its leaders: ‘What we need,’ the refrain would go, ‘is a benevolent dictator.’ As far as I can understand, the reasons were these:
  1. The country is going to the dogs;
  2. You can’t trust our political leaders – they say one thing and do another; promise the earth and do nothing;
  3. Democracy is all fine and dandy, but it’s not a good system for making tough decisions;
  4. I, in fact, know what needs to be done, but I’m too busy and/or lazy to get involved in politics;
  5. The only way to really get things done is to have a dictatorship. However, you can’t always trust dictators to do the right thing, so . . .
. . . we need a benevolent dictator! QED.
Interestingly, the subject cropped up in a recent issue of ‘Time’ Magazine. A certain Joel Stein, in an essay entitled ‘Dictator of My Dreams’, pondered the question of whether ‘America might not be better off under a dictatorship.’ Now perhaps Mr Stein had his tongue in his cheek. Certainly he writes with self-effacing humour. Nevertheless, you feel you may detect a certain wistful longing in his penultimate sentence: ‘But in an age of overwhelming choice, some dictatorial direction would help.’
I’m sure you’ve heard the same idea. You’ll get a few hits if you ‘google’ the phrase, but most of them have to do with a business model. The only thing I came up with in a national context was Fredrick II, the Great, who ruled Prussia from 1740-86. Well, he may have been a fine fellow, but, Prussia? And when you think about it, there wasn’t really much democracy to be found in the world in the 18th century, so dictatorship, as a political system, wasn’t such an unusual thing as it had become 150 years later.
So, there isn’t much competition for the title of ‘Benevolent Dictator’. Neither does there seem to be much agreement on what such a figure might look like if he or she did exist. Nor, in fact, in our age of pretty universal cynicism with respect to the trustworthiness of political leaders, is it easy to imagine even a ‘benevolent’ politician. We are far more inclined to be looking for ways to curb their influence than giving them the all-encompassing powers of a dictator.
Well, I’m going out on a limb, here, and I’m going to propose that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey, is the one leader of a significant nation in the history of the world who may actually qualify for the title. And I know I’m going to cop it from both sides here. Most Turks will reject my use of the word ‘dictator’; Non-Turks will insist that a dictator is a dictator and adding the word ‘benevolent’ merely creates an oxymoronic nonsense. Nevertheless, I’m going to run with it.
Where to start? Probably the first thing we need to do is examine how Turks came to have this man as their political leader. And in addressing this question, we need to understand that, although it may in some senses be true that the modern republic of Turkey sprang from the ashes of the former Ottoman Empire, prior to 1923 there was no political entity corresponding to modern Turkey. Just as, prior to 1870, there was no political entity corresponding to the modern state of Italy, nor a Germany prior to 1871. The difference is that Germany and Italy resulted from the amalgamation of several smaller states and kingdoms; while Turkey was the heartland and rump of a disintegrated empire.
In previous articles I have looked at some of the processes and stages of this disintegration, so I don’t intend to repeat that here. It is enough to remember that, over a period of 100 years from approximately 1820, in spite of its leaders’ best efforts to hold it together, as a result of a series of wars within and without its borders, the Ottoman Empire reached the point, with the signing of the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, where it virtually signed its own death warrant.
There was no military coup where the rightful sultan of the empire was deposed and replaced by a victorious general. Nor, however, was there an election where a sovereign nation state chose a new leader to replace the old. In fact, under the aforementioned treaty, the Ottoman Sultan would have continued to head a nominal Ottoman Empire, since clearly this suited the aspirations of the main sponsors of the treaty, Britain and France. However, it would have been a seriously shrunken, emasculated empire, whose head-of-state would have remained merely as a puppet of the victorious Western powers.
When Mustafa Kemal left the occupied capital of the Ottoman state on 19 May 1919, with an authorisation from Vahdettin, Sultan Mehmet VI, as ‘Inspector of the 9th Army’, his official role was ambiguous, but no doubt, in his own mind, he knew what he had to do. And, according to his recent biographer, Andrew Mango, he knew that he was the man to do it.
For a start, the Ottomans, in spite of past military glories, had had a hard time of it during those previous hundred years. Victories had been few and far between, and a victorious commander was something to be welcomed and cherished. Mustafa Kemal, as the successful defender of the Allies’ attempted Gallipoli invasion, was one such. We can say that he had the military credentials to be taken seriously. Nevertheless, it can’t have been easy to persuade his exhausted countrymen to gird up their loins for another struggle. There were others who believed in the need to fight – but few with the necessary vision and unshakeable self-confidence to inspire and unite the nationalist revival.
It is inevitable that legends will form around a successful national leader, and many are the tales told about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk: from the watch in his breast pocket that miraculously warded off a shrapnel fragment at Gallipoli; the clock in his room in Dolmabahçe Palace ‘stopped’ at the moment of his death; to the mystical significance of the numbers 9 and 19 in his life. It is futile but nevertheless interesting to speculate about whether such leaders are born or made. Hagiograpic biographies imply that Mustafa Kemal was born to save his nation, which may, or may not be true. But undoubtedly, by the time the Greek army set foot in Izmir on 15 May 1919, he was pretty well convinced that his moment in history had arrived.
Revolutionary resistance grew around the charismatic leader and a Representative Committee was established in the central Anatolian town of Erzurum. By the time it was moved to Ankara in January 1920. Mustafa Kemal was its clear leader. By March of that year, he was in a strong enough position to declare that the Sultan’s government in Istanbul no longer represented the Turkish people, and the Revolutionary Committee was the only legal government. At the same time, he was smart enough to let other nations in the Islamic world understand that he was fighting for the Sultan (also the Muslim Caliph) who was being used as a puppet by the Allied forces. In the mean time he was negotiating with the newly formed Soviet Union for the supply of arms and munitions for the nationalist army.
It is not my purpose here to give a detailed description, nor even attempt to summarise the events of the Turkish War of Independence, which lasted from May 1919 to September 1922. It is sufficient for our purposes to note that the Greek Army was finally driven out of Anatolia. French and Italian forces also withdrew from the Marmara region as Mustafa Kemal led his troops north, leaving the British alone to prevent the liberation of Istanbul. The Turks rejected a British ultimatum to withdraw or face the consequences, and in the end, the British also chose to withdraw. As Mustafa Kemal is reputed to have predicted, ‘As they had come, so did they go.’ That is, pretty quietly and without a great deal of fuss.
Mustafa Kemal had been elected leader of the national struggle at Erzurum in July 1919 and president of the Grand National Assembly (we might call it the provisional republican government) in April 1920. In this capacity he swore allegiance to the Sultan and the Prophet – but there can be little doubt that his intention was to establish a republic and to institute reforms aimed at creating a secular state. And it seems equally clear that he recognised that in the short term, popular votes and democratic methods would not achieve these goals. During the course of the war with Greece, dissident elements on the Turkish side were silenced one way or another – unruly local commanders and over-zealous communist sympathisers among them. Now that victory had been won, and Mustafa Kemal was once again the hero, he was in a position to carry out his goals as architect of the rebuilding of his country.
But to return to this matter of the benevolent dictator. Clearly, as well as being highly controversial, it is a self-evident oxymoron. In the normal run of things, a dictator seizes power by military means, and retains it by some form of terror. And, as has been discussed above, while history abounds with dictators, no one has really made a strong case for any of them having benevolence as a salient characteristic. Now undoubtedly, Atatürk was a military man, who achieved much of his early fame through feats of arms. What sets him apart in this area is that his martial efforts were against the forces of alien powers invading his homeland. His own people gave him their whole-hearted support for this very reason – and, for the most part, appear to have given it willingly.
Furthermore, when his army had driven out the last of the invaders late in 1922, and he might have been justifiably intoxicated with success, he ignored more bellicose voices within his own new nation, and resisted the temptation to press on and try to reclaim former lost territories, contenting himself with defence of the Turkish heartland.
Be that as it may, it is also clear that the leader of the new Turkish Republic had powers which the leaders of modern democratic states can only dream of. For one thing, despite the occasional token election, he ruled as head of a one-party state to the end of his life. Opposition parties were briefly allowed (and hastily dissolved) in 1924, 1930 and again in 1934, but the first two-party election was not held until eight years after his death. Here, then, we can find the source of the decisive government for which our ‘Time’ journalist, Joel Stein, has been longing.
Sovereignty is a key concept in the Turkish republic, and it is clear that their first leader believed in it on three levels: for the Turkish nation, it was his unwavering goal. Turkey had narrowly escaped subjugation by the European imperial powers, largely thanks to his efforts. In terms of his leadership, it is equally clear that he saw himself as the saviour of his nation, justified in wielding sovereign power in order to realise his vision. And on a personal level, it is of undoubted significance that he insisted on retaining sovereignty over his private life. His one attempt at marriage lasted two years and ended in divorce. He might have used his virtually absolute power to establish a dynasty but he did not. He enjoyed the comforts of modern civilisation, but accepted financial accountability, and refrained from living in oriental opulence.
During the years following his victory in the War of Liberation, Atatürk[1] transformed his new nation:
  • In 1924, the Islamic Caliphate was abolished, and all members of the Ottoman dynasty were sent into exile. A national system of education was instituted marginalizing traditional Islamic schools. Religious courts were closed down, and the ban on alcohol was lifted;
  • Economic development of the impoverished nation was begun on a system of state monopoly;
  • In 1925, western-style clothing was required by law, with the passing of the famous ‘hat law’. Dervish lodges were closed down as hotbeds of religious reaction; and the wearing of veils and headscarves by women was discouraged; the status of women was further enhanced by legislation the following year;
  • A new penal code based on the Italian system was adopted, and in 1928, Islam ceased to be the official state religion. The Arabic alphabet used for Ottoman Turkish was replaced by a new Latin-based script; and the following year a committee was formed to begin purifying the Turkish language by eradicating and replacing words of Persian and Arabic origin;
  • German Jewish academics, displaced by the Nazis in the early 1930s, were welcomed into Turkey, and encouraged to assist in the westernisation of Turkish universities;
  • The use of Arabic in mosques was discouraged, and the call to prayer was required to be made in Turkish after 1933;
  • In 1934, Turks were required to adopt surnames, and traditional titles and ranks were abolished; the wearing of clerical dress outside of mosques and religious ceremonies was banned, and Sunday was made the day of rest in place of the traditional Muslim Friday.
There can be little doubt that this revolution in the way of life of the people could not have been achieved by a government bound by the need to cajole and appease voters. Turkey under Atatürk was a one-party state, and Atatürk was repeatedly re-elected to the role of president. Not a few dissenters and plotters against the president paid the ultimate penalty for their opposition and disloyalty. However, in Turkey, it was not the party which wielded the power, as in Soviet Russia, but the state. There was no uniformed para-military force suppressing opposition or terrorising the population. Mango says that, in his later years, ‘[Atatürk] behaved not like a modern dictator, but like a latter-day king, who had delegated government to his chief minister.’

When Atatürk died, on 10 November, 1938, his protégé, İsmet İnönü was unanimously elected to succeed him as president of the republic. There was a huge outpouring of national grief, and seventeen nations attended his state funeral, among them, those who had been most embarrassed by his success in founding the Turkish republic. We can be sure that the cultural revolution implemented by Atatürk had its opponents. The religious establishment was a big loser, and an older generation educated in the Ottoman language must have been shocked to see linguistic and literary links to the past severed so abruptly. Yet in spite of that, the ideals of Atatürk’s revolution live on in modern Turkey, and the country is a lone star of westward-leaning democratic secularism amongst its Islamic neighbour and brother states. Turks themselves, regardless of their political leanings, are in no doubt that, had it not been for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, their country would have virtually ceased to exist. Mango prefers the term ‘enlightened authoritarianism’ to describe Atatürk’s government – and Joel Stein would probably be equally happy with that. Whatever term is used, it is not easy to find an equivalent figure in the political history of any other nation. That is the reason for those pictures and statues adorning classroom walls and village squares all over Turkey – and the reason the country will halt its normal frenzied activity for a brief moment on Tuesday, 10 November. Few nations can claim a leader with the stature of Atatürk. Turkey was lucky to get him.


[1] Atatürk – Mustafa Kemal assumed this name after passing a law making surnames compulsory in 1934.
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