INTERVIEW: Historian Ryan Gingeras on Atatürk as 'heir to the Ottoman Empire'

An Istanbul local holds a copy of daily Hürriyet on the 50th anniversary of the Turkish Republic, on Oct. 29, 1973.

The legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is still bitterly contested in today's Turkey. Approaching the centenary of the republic's establishment, the process of Westernization, secularization and modernization led by Turkey's nationalist founding father still provides the reference against which various political movements - whether sympathetic or antagonistic - define themselves. 

Ironically, Atatürk's most ardent admirers and fiercest detractors both suggest the Kemalist project came as a bolt out of nowhere. In fact, scholars have in recent years emphasized historical continuities from the late Ottoman to the republican periods. 

A new title by Ryan Gingeras, associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, is the latest book to make that case. At 200 pages, "Mustafa Kemal Atatürk: Heir to an Empire" (reviewed in HDN here) fills a surprising gap in the market for a relatively short biography on Turkey's founder and is an excellent introduction to the subject. 

Gingeras spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about what he learned researching Atatürk's life and times a century on. 

Mustafa Kemal was born in Salonica, Thessaloniki in modern Greece, probably in 1881. But his early life is very thinly sourced. What are the main challenges for a historian researching this period of his life? 

If you look at almost any major political figure from the late Ottoman Empire, it's almost impossible to tell the story of their youth. One of the points I make in the book is that we only begin to get a handle on Mustafa Kemal's youth by the time he's already famous. He gives a very well-known interview in winter 1922, by which point he's already a person of note in world politics. It's very clear at that moment that he's already...

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