Atatürk as Immortal Hero

Ataturk as Immortal Hero

By Talat S. Halman

The Turkish Times December 1, 1995, Year: 7, No: 150

Following text was delivered by Prof. Talat S. Halman, Turkey’s first Minister of Culture, at the Ataturk Memorial Program in New York City, on Friday, November 10th, 1995:

  • “Winston Churchill paid tribute to him, as “a great hero”.
  • To John F. Kennedy, he was “one of the great figures of our century”,
  • to Ronald Reagan, “a towering figure”.
  • Prime Minister David Beri Gurion, a founder of Israel, said; “I know of no greater statesman.”
  • For India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, he was “one of the creators of the modem age.”
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower praised him as “a source of inspiration to independence-seekers around the world.”
  • French President Charles de Gaulle said: “He was the greatest achiever among all the world leaders, because he modernized his nation.”
  • In 1934, Greek Prime Minister Venizelos, who nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, observed that “in the life of a nation it is very seldom that changes to such a radical degree were carried out in such a short period of time … these extraordinary activities have earned him fame as ‘a great man’, in the full sense of the term.”

That ‘great man’, was Ataturk, the immortal hero of the Turks. Political ideologies born in the early decades of the 20th century are already dead.  Few of their national leaders command any following or even respect today.  Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is the only exception.  Many decades after his emergence, he stands as a transcendent and triumphant figure. His ideology – – first known as “Kemalism”, later as “Ataturkism” remains the fundamental doctrine of his Turkish Republic.

Destiny has endowed very few individuals with any of Ataturk’s achievements. Savior of his nation’s sovereignty.  Undefeated commander.  Pioneer of anti-colonialism.  Staunchest foe of imperialism at home and abroad. Creator of a republic.  Transformer of the political, legal and socioeconomic system.  Spell-binding orator.  Secularist visionary. Humanist and international peacemaker.  Model for the leaders of emancipation and of emerging nations.  The hero of a 20th century renaissance. Still fewer are those, in the East or in the West, in this century or earlier centuries, who gained distinction in many of the same achievements. It is virtually impossible to think of any historical knowledge with the extraordinary human qualities.  Classical mythology gave us gods as men-and legends transformed men into deities. For modem philosophy, the hero is a creation of a spectrum of forces. Carlyle argued that history is the work of great men.  Some thinkers have delineated the hero as the embodiment and expression of the Zeitoeist, the spirit of the times.  The euhemeristic view stresses the mythic forces and events as the basis of history.  The hero, according to the sociological approach, is the product of societal imperatives, shaped by historical determinism.  And many scholars make a synthesis of these divergent interpretations. Seen from the broadest perspective, the hero is a charismatic figure of action who emerges inexorably in response to cataclysmic events, dominates the moment by the force of his personality, channels the course of developments through his vision and personal power, and achieves a lasting impact.  In this sense, the hero is, at once, mythic and god-like, the chosen instrument of history and the creative power that re-shapes it, the symbol of the age and its giant stride into the future.

Ataturk is a testament to all of these concepts.  By personality and achievement, he stands “transcendent and preternatural” and as a “compelling product of his nation and time”.  As he often articulated it, his leadership did represent the will and the aspirations of a great nation which rightfully took pride in its heroes and historical grandeur.  But the Turkish nation and the world have known him since the 1910s as an extraordinary epoch-making figure who not only embodied his nation’s greatness but also contributed to his age and the future by his creative-vision. No wonder his ideology lives on in the Turkish Republic.  In fact, there is today an upsurge of the Kemalist, of the Ataturkist ideology-not only as a bulwark against the dark forces of anti-secularism but also as a constructive political system for the country’s enlightenment and democracy.

Here in the United States, too, secular Turks, Turkish-Americans, are re-dedicating themselves to the powerful legacy of that ideology. The Federation in New York, the Assembly in Washington, DC, organizations like the Society of Turkish American Architects, Engineers and Scientists, the Cultural Association of Southern New England, and scores of others in this region and all over America 96 far too numerous to mention one by one are doing their utmost to defend and disseminate the great principles endowed and bequeathed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In Washington DC, in May this year, an energetic new association was established for strengthening Ataturkism.  It is called the “‘Ataturk Society of America, known as “ASA” for short. This new society has enlisted many Turks and Americans as its members. It has been welcomed by many major US political figures, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senator Robert Byrd.

It was in 1923 that “the hero of the Turks” created a republic out of an antiquated empire.  From 1923 to his death on November 10, 1938, in just 15 years, he introduced sweeping reforms to modernize the nation: Arabic writing was replaced with the Latin alphabet; government and education were separated from religion; the legal system was overhauled on the basis of European models; women were given equal rights under the law; hats replaced the traditional headgear and women were discouraged from wearing the veil. A vast transformation took place especially in urban life: Turkey’s cultural life embraced many aspects of Western civilization, technology and arts, including opera, ballet, sculpture.  Schools and universities, too, became Westernized.

The Turkish Republic, based on the Kemalist principle that “Sovereignty belongs to the nation,” took impressive strides towards a secular democratic parliamentary system.  Ataturk was dedicated to the ideal of peace and harmony.  His slogan was “peace in the country, peace in the world.” Having lived through many battles and wars, he was able to say: “Unless a nation’s life faces peril, war is a crime.”

Ataturk was a humanist and international peacemaker.  Few statesmen have served the cause of secularism and progress more successfully than he did. The Turkish nation, inspired by him, will not allow the religious fundamentalist, fanatics, and zealots to create an oppressive regime. Historians, poets, social scientists, journalists, and statesmen, Turkish and non-Turkish, continue to sing Ataturk’s praises.  Such praise is well deserved, mostly an objective assessment.  Two millennia ago, Horace wrote: “The hero who is worthy of her praise / The muse will not let die.” Ataturk is a “hero” who needs no praise to remain immortal.

Date: Wed, 13 Dec 1995 17:41:01 +0000

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