Atatürk: How he did it (communication!)

It was Gizem’s dad who recommended Patrick Kinross’ biography of Atatürk to me. I found it compelling, even though this critique by David Fromkin describes “Rebirth of a Nation” as “an uncritical “official” account.” There’s plenty to dislike about Atatürk the man. Such is discussed in a new biography by Andrew Mango (2000), as described in the aforementioned critique: “It reveals the long suppressed darker aspects of its subject, showing us a far more complex personality than we had seen before. Curiously, however, the main lines of Kemal’s policy and accomplishments emerge as having been much the same as we had believed them to be in the past.”

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I did not meet a single Turk who had anything bad to say about him, despite the tricks he pulled on them to drag them away from a religious to a secular government. (Granted, I only spent significant time with one devoutly Muslim family, who described themselves – passionately! – as “moderates” who hate Hezbullah, asserting that their version of Islam is “based on lies.”)

The way I read the story, there were two key communication elements upon which everything else hinged. Yes, Atatürk was brilliant, perceptive, and insightful. His intelligence is a given; and his good fortune remarkable. When luck could have broken against him (especially in military campaigns during WWI, the War of Independence, and the war against the Greeks) it did not. His mind was able to grasp the totality of the world system as it was evolving. He predicted both the contours of its unfolding and precise moments for intervention in order to shift macrosocial forces in the direction he desired.
All of these factors were no doubt necessary, but in and of themselves would not have led to success. It was Atatürk’s skillful use of language and communication technology – particularly the telegraph – that created the requisite infrastructure on the immaterial level. He literally spoke the nation into being.
Atatürk also didn’t neglect print, getting his ideas into textual form as soon as possible and at strategic moments. As early as 1913 he influenced a couple of newspapers from his military posting in Sofia (p. 63). As Kinross describes, Atatürk used papers and any opportunity to speak to test out his ideas and begin the process of normalization for the reforms he would eventually institute. Simultaneously, and more deeply, Atatürk is creating the fact of a national discourse. In every speech and every text (as far as I can determine), he repeats phrases such as “the nation,” “the national movement” (183), and “a Turkish state” (189). He says these things so often, to so many people, in so many contexts, that a “movement” becomes real and a “nation” is born. In fact, it could be that “the nation” substitutes for himself in most of his direct speech. (A component – perhaps? – of the dynamic that produces Atatürk and Turkey as symbols of each other: practically synonyms?)
Meanwhile, the role of the telegraph in this toddler age of telecommunications is vital. The first mention by Kinross regards the attempt by the Sultan to disrupt the Sivas Congress where the National Pact framework was written and confirmed. Atatürk “spent long hours at the telegraph . . . He owed much to a group of telegraphists loyal to the national cause, who copied and relayed to him the Government’s messages.” Eventually, Atatürk “launched…a battle of the telegraph which was to lead to the rupture of relations with the Constantinople Government” (192).
The rest of the biography includes many more instances of Atatürk’s use of “the nation” and skill with the telegraph. Not to mention the (hundreds? of) telegraph operators who joined his cause. Atatürk’s battles were won via the airwaves just as much as they were won on the ground. A journalist from the US, Louis E. Browne wrote to his paper,
“I have never heard of more efficient use communications than I witnessed that night [during the Sivas Congress]. Within half an hour Erzurum, Erzinjan, Mosul, Diyarbekir, Samsun, Trebeziond, Angora, Malatya, Kharput, Knoya and Brusa were all in communication. Mustafa Kemal sat at one end of the wire leading to all these places, and at the other end sat the military commanders and civil authorities of the respective cities and villages. The whole situation was explained and with one exception Anatolia ordered Mustafa Kemal to use his own judgment and go to the limit” (193).
Atatürk also understood group decision-making processes and the power of consensus-building. 🙂 Atatürk wove the material resources of communication – speech, official proceedings (written documentation and existing texts), telegraph, telephone, newspapers and newsmagazines – into a comprehensive immaterial effect on the values, beliefs, and imagination of an entire people. It is a tremendous achievement on any scale.
Fromkin concludes his critique: “It says much for the enduring value of [Atatürk’s] legacy that, despite his great flaws as a human being and the dark side of his dictatorial and often vindictive politics, his army remains loyal to him. Nearly eighty years after he led them to victory, his troops still would follow him to the ends of the earth.”
And so also, it seems, would the people he forged on the basis of a linguistic union, not an ethnic one.

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