Atatürk: Heir to an empire

University students in Istanbul travel to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's state funeral in Ankara in 1938.

'Mustafa Kemal Atatürk: Heir to an Empire' by Ryan Gingeras (Oxford University Press, 212 pages, $17)

With Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, things are not nearly as clear-cut as either his most ardent admirers or fiercest detractors would like to believe. To the former, the founder of the Turkish Republic was a visionary who single-handedly dragged Turkey from the abyss. To the latter, he was an anti-democratic authoritarian who wrought lasting damage by cutting Turkey off from its Ottoman heritage.

The reality is more complicated. One of the mistakes made by both sides is to suggest that Atatürk's revolution was a bolt out of nowhere. Against the ideologues, many scholars have in recent decades emphasized historical continuities from the Ottoman to the republican periods. The roots of Westernization, military reform, language reform, and secularist modernization can be traced to the latter years of the Ottoman Empire. While spectacular on paper, the Kemalist program actually built on foundations that went back decades into the Ottoman era. 

In this new biography of Atatürk, scholar Ryan Gingeras emphasizes these continuities while also recognizing the huge changes introduced by the early republic. The book adds little original research, but it is a balanced, elegantly written synthesis of existing work. At fewer than 200 pages, it is an excellent introduction to the subject.

One key area of continuity was how the early Turkish Republic largely followed the trajectory established by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), also known as the Young Turks. The generals of the CUP had led a revolution forcing Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamit II to accept constitutional rule in 1908, prioritizing the survival of the state through modernization. The...

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