I asked a student what I should see in Ankara. He said, "You must visit Ataturk's rest room." In mock horror, I replied, "you just suggested I visit Ataturk's toilet!"
We both got a big laugh out of that. But upon my visit to Ankara, I understood why he recommended that I visit the mausoleum or final resting place of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the secular Turkish republic in 1923. Called Anitkabir, it's a very dramatic setting, reminding me of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Another student told me whenever he visits Anitkabir, "it touches my heart, and brings tears to my eyes."
It is probably impossible to get a full sense of the modern Turkish nation without visiting this spot. One comes away thinking this man Ataturk was certainly a visionary and extraordinarily strong leader. In a few short years, he melded a diverse population into one nation filled with nationalist spirit. "Happy is he who calls himself a Turk," he declared.
Looking at what had been accomplished in Europe and the West, he modernized his country and made radical reforms -- changing even the alphabet and exhorting people to discard old-fashioned styles of dress. The lack of resistance he encountered to such rapid change seems unlikely by today's standards. It can at least partially be explained by the massive illiteracy and desperation of the Turkish people.
As a military leader during World War I and the Turkish War for Independence, Ataturk dramatically mobilized his soldiers. During the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915, he famously told members of the 57th Army regiment of the 19th division who had run out of ammunition, and who had nothing left but their bayonets, "I do not order you to attack. I order you to die! In the time that it takes us to die, other forces and commanders can come and take our place." The casualties at Gallipoli were extraordinarily high, but the Turks, led by Kemal, turned back a massive assault by Allied forces made up of British, French, Australian and New Zealand troops. The battle, known as Canakkale in Turkish, remains a great national symbol of Turkish courage and fierce desire to determine their own future.
When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, would-be European colonizers sought to carve Turkey up, but Ataturk inspired the Turkish people to take up arms, revolt and forge their own nation. Britain's David Lloyd George later conceded the folly of going up against Ataturk: "The centuries rarely produce a genius. It is our bad luck that the great genius of our era was granted to the Turkish nation. We could not beat Mustafa Kemal."
Today, images of Ataturk in Turkey are ubiquitous -- in most every office building and schoolroom, not to mention public squares across the country. (Flickr slide show.) Political leaders of all persuasions claim to revere Ataturk, but they differ in their interpretations of his relevance today.
Once treated as a demigod, he is not above mild criticism today, for embracing a decadent Western lifestyle of heavy drinking and smoking, or for pushing his nation too far in a secular Western direction. I must admit that the "cult of personality" surrounding Ataturk -- trumpeting his favorite foods, for example, or his favorite clothes -- leaves me cold. In a democracy, no one should be above criticism, and no human being should be worshipped. And yet, Ataturk remains an influential and largely positive presence over the modern Turkish nation. And he still holds the hearts of his people. I was surprised on November 10 at 9:05 AM, when automobile traffic stopped, people lept out of their cars, put their hands on their hearts, and stood at attention. It was at that precise time in 1938, I was told, that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, "father of his country," passed from the scene.
- Obama Honors Ataturk in Ankara Visit
- Quotes from Ataturk
- Of Ataturk's Staunch Secularism, and Turkey's Move Toward Moderate Islamist Democracy
- John F. Kennedy's tribute to Ataturk
- Documentary on the Turkish Republic and Biography of Ataturk
- The controversial 2008 documentary, "Mustafa," portraying Ataturk as a human susceptible to depression and existential angst, despite his great accomplishments, is now available on Youtube.com (with English subtitles).