From fez to fedora. He transformed a caliphate into a modern state but he still kept a black eunuch to guard his women. Mark Mazower on a new study of the father of modern Turkey

Ataturk

Andrew Mango <em>John Murray, 666pp, £30</em>

ISBN 0719556120

Picture a great leader, urging his troops on to victory, single-handedly driving his nation towards moral regeneration and social modernisation. He operates within a nominally democratic system, but his largely hand-picked parliamentary party is cowed and obedient, held in check by his strong hand; the opposition is fragmented and marginalised. But Tony Blair is not yet dependent upon the "moderate dose of terror" or the all-night drinking session, nor has he commissioned gigantic statues of himself to dot around the provinces. He has not yet driven the royal family into penurious exile, nor been implicated in the assassination of critics. Britain has not reached the state of Turkish politics in the 1920s.

If one man could ever have been said to have created a modern nation state, it is Mustafa Kemal, better known as Ataturk. As the Saviour Gazi he chased foreign armies from Anatolian soil and gave Turks back their self-respect after centuries of humiliation. As the Great Reformer, he pushed through a programme of westernisation that involved changing the alphabet, doing away with the veil and introducing the European hat in place of the fez - as well as abolishing the caliphate in a concerted assault upon the power of political Islam. In 1934 he made surnames compulsory and chose his own, Ataturk, which means father of the Turks. The Eternal Leader was not a man who suffered from low self-esteem.

Andrew Mango has produced a fluent, thorough and enjoyable biography, which for comprehensiveness, balance and deftness of touch outclasses all the alternatives for the English reader. At a time when other empires are crumbling and when Turkey is re-emerging as a major regional power, the story of this remarkable man is pertinent. Born in Ottoman Salonica, Ataturk - like many giants of modern history - stood at a distance from the society he was to reshape. Salonica was the most westernised city of the empire, the seedbed of the movement for reform that culminated in the 1908 Young Turk revolution. As a young officer, Ataturk was on the fringes of the Committee for Union and Progress, the party that ruled the Ottoman empire on and off thereafter. He shared their reforming zeal and their Turkish nationalism, but he was not prominent enough to be politically damaged by the impact of their fatal decision to enter the first world war on the German side.

He had a good war and achieved fame through his successful defence at Gallipoli (and through assiduous cultivation of journalists and publicists). But the moment of truth came at the end of the war: in May 1919 he sailed from Istanbul into the Black Sea and made his way into Anatolia, ostensibly as inspector of the Ottoman army corps there, but in fact to organise nationalist resistance to the foreign powers in control of the government and the capital. When he left, the sultan and his ministers were pawns in the hands of the Great Powers; the British, French, Italians and Greeks either had or were about to land troops on Turkish soil. On his return, eight years later in July 1927, the Ottoman empire had given way to the Turkish Republic, all foreign troops had been chased out of the country - including most notably the Greek army - and a big population exchange (together with the earlier massacres of Armenians) had helped to homogenise the ethnic composition of the country.

By that point he had shifted the country's political centre of gravity from Istanbul to Ankara and had demonstrated by fair means and foul his mastery of politics as well as war. He had overcome Dervish and Kurdish uprisings, seen off the Bolsheviks and begun his programme to westernise Turkish society. Modernisation meant guidance, for the old ways died hard, not least at home, where Ataturk kept a black eunuch to wait on his womenfolk.

Historians tend to be suspicious of biography. They carp about the shortcomings of the "great man" view of history. What about society, they say? Ataturk may have introduced his alphabet reforms in a well- publicised campaign in 1928, but the Arabic script was being used by provincial civil servants for many years after that. Biographies give the view from the seat of power and exaggerate its effect. All of which is true, but is an argument only against thinking that a biography can give you the whole picture. My main criticism is less sweeping and has to do as much with tone as anything else.

As one reads, one feels the author's mastery of the material, his desire for impartiality, his gentle irony and slight distance from his overwhelming subject. Yet I could not help being reminded of the feel of much pre-1989 western Kremlinology. One has the fragile sense of gliding on ice, guided by an expert hand: one skates along smoothly, but every so often the ice cracks to reveal unseen depths and quickly closes again. By the end, one knows there is far more to be said, and not merely in the sense that there is always more to be said on any subject. Historians of the old Soviet Union found it almost impossible to conduct serious archival research, and it showed. One knew that there was more going on than they could show; the opening of the archives since has confirmed this. Here, too, Mango has not - to judge from the notes - consulted any archives at all. What the state of the Turkish archives is, I do not know; they may not be accessible. But German, French and British archives - to name those easily to hand - must all contain a mass of material on Ataturk, and there does not seem any good reason why they should not have been consulted. In their absence, Mango's raw material is confined to published collections of documents, speeches, memoirs and so forth.

He handles this well. He is not afraid to make it clear when the published material is contradictory or cannot be true. Inevitably, however, he is largely limited to confirming or denying what are often mere stories. A more diverse documentary base for his research would have changed its tone and brought the reader closer to a multi-angled and less guarded picture of its main subject.

The real problem, one suspects, is that Ataturk, the creator of the Turkish Republic, is still - 60 years after his death - too sensitive a figure to be discussed freely. Is this because his heirs feel the precariousness of his achievement? Many of the old sores - Kurds, Armenians, Islamicists, the army's role in politics - have failed to heal. The European hat still wrestles with the black eunuch. One is tempted to say: only when it is possible to treat Ataturk as a historical figure will we be able to say his mission was fully realised. Times dictate the books they produce. This is probably the best we can wish for in ours.

Mark Mazower is the author of "Dark Continent: Europe's twentieth century" (Penguin) and teaches at Princeton University