Customer Reviews: Ataturk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey
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on April 20, 2000
I am a Turkish American who has read almost every Turkish and non-Turkish book about Ataturk's life. While I found this book to be a very well searched and written, it is a hard read. I found it does not pull you like Lord Kinross's Ataturk does. Mango did draw a very honest picture of Ataturk and at the end of the book, despite his weaknesses, you find yourself admiring the subject and what he accomplished. Still, the author talks more about the events surrounding Ataturk's decisions rather than his emotional and mental condition while making those decisions. One think that annoyed me through out the book was his trying to clear some myths and stories told over the years. That would be OK if there was any way of checking the facts but in most cases there are not. He questions stories told by friends, foes and Ataturk himself, without telling the reader why he is questioning them. In other words, he speculates that the particular story must have happened some other way but he does not have any prove to back it up. Still it is an honest book and I am glad he is very even handed dealing with history. Turks usually complain of biases in foreign authors' writings. It is clear Mango has no biases and he reports only the facts. I am also glad he is even handed about Ataturk's private life. Many ugly allegations have been made against Ataturk by his enemies that continues to this day. While he was not perfect, he was not what his enemies have made him out to be and Mango gives a very clear picture of his private life with warts and all. He also explains why and how some of these ugly stories were spread and continue to spread to this day. It is a good book for educational purposes. My favorite, however, is still Lord Kinross's Ataturk.
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on June 3, 2000
When the Turkish Republic made it mandatory for all citizens to adopt surnames, its president Mustapha Kemal selected "Ataturk" - "Father Turk" - as uniquely his own. (His sister and other relatives were not allowed to use it.) The sobriquet embodied Kemal's image of himself, which was shared by many other Turks then and thereafter.
This hefty biography, written by a veteran and sympathetic observer of the Turkish scene, is more detailed and less fawning than Lord Kinross's 1964 tome, previously the best-known English life of Kemal. It is based on an extensive array of printed Turkish sources, synthesizing what a diligent modern Turk would know about Kemal if he read everything that is readily available. On the other hand, the absence of archival research leaves many evidentiary conflicts unresolved and gives the accounts of controversial episodes a "he said, she said" flavor.
The focus is very closely, perhaps too closely, on Kemal himself. We are presented not only with the dramatic incidents of his exciting career (conspiracies, coups, wars, assassinations) and disorderly private life (womanizing, alcoholism, corrupt cronies, broken friendships, suspicions of foul play) but also with itineraries of his travels and summaries of numerous unmemorable speeches. The decrees of "Kemalism" - abolishing the Caliphate and the shariat, secularizing education, reforming the Turkish language, adopting the Christian calendar, granting equality to women, compelling men to wear European-style hats - issue forth from Ankara, but we barely glimpse how they were received in the country at large or how much fundamental change they truly wrought. Recent history makes it obvious that Kemal's project of detaching Turkey from the Islamic world and annexing it to his vision of Western civilization did not win unanimous support. Mango offers little help in understanding the reasons for acceptance or rejection. He also says virtually nothing about economic developments. The absence of statistics on production, incomes and trade is refreshing but leaves out important data that would place political developments in clearer context.
The author's decision to limit his perspective is forgivable. "Father Turk" is a large enough subject without devoting a lot of pages to his "children". Within its confines, the book is clearly written and comprehensive, though there is a certain trailing off near the end of Kemal's life, as he took less part in day-to-day governing and acted more like a king than a dictator. That, too, was the period when he became engrossed in eccentric historical and linguistic theories (not without parallel elsewhere in the 1930's) aimed at proving that every nation that lived or ever had lived in Anatolia was "Turkish" (especially the Kurds, though not, naturally, the Armenians or Greeks). Mango mentions these follies but clearly wishes that he didn't have to.
The book's overall evaluation of its protagonist is positive but not uncritical. Readers with strong partisan predispositions, whether pro or con, will find passages that will annoy or anger them. Kemal's admirers will question the generally favorable view of the Ottoman regime (termed "an inefficient and accommodating despotism" that was moving steadily toward modernity) and the emphasis on the early Republic's brutal and dictatorial ways. Critics will complain that the picture of modern Turkey is sugar-coated, that the sufferings of Greeks, Armenians and Kurds are downplayed and that the destructive side of Kemal's "cultural revolution" is ignored.
So this is not the "ideal" biography of Turkey's founder. It is, nonetheless, an excellent one and is worth the time of anyone who has more than a passing interest in the largest and most powerful nation in the Middle East.
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on August 12, 2000
Anyone concerned with religious fundamentalism should become familiar with Kemal Attaturk, one of the few statesmen in history to confront it headon.
Andrew Mango's book is not easy to read, partially because he tries to be comprehensive. Most American readers will not be interested in many parts of the book. However, Mango is much clearer than Lord Kinross, author of the only other Attaturk biography in English, on certain aspects of Attaturk's life.
Mango is much clearer on the role played by Attaturk at Gallipoli. He points out that although he is now described as the "victor of Gallipoli", that in 1919 the British did not recognize his name (Mustapha Kemal, at that time). Nevetheless, it is clear that Attaturk deserves much credit for the outcome of the battle, even if the credit must be shared with others--including the Germans.
When reading the Kinross biography, I assumed the author was hiding something regarding Attaturk's involvement in the massacre of the Armenians. Mango clearly indicates that Attaturk had no role and was still at Gallipoli when it occurred. I don't claim to be an expert on the subject, but I do wonder where one of the other reviewers, who compares Attaturk to Hitler and Stalin, gets his information.
It is clear that the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s is similar in some respects to ethnic cleansing. However, I suspect that Mango is correct in portraying the atrocities as occurring on both sides. It is also clear that the Greeks were the aggressors in the Turkish War of Independence and the Kemal Attaturk's role in defeating them entitles him to a place in Turkish history equivalent to Washington and Grant.
Mango sheds more light than Kinross on Attaturk's unusual personal life. He also indicates that in 1926 he allowed a number of innocent people to be executed and persecuted to remove all potential competitors from the Turkish political scene.
Whether Attaturk's efforts to wean the Turks from Islamic fundamentalism are successful in the long run remains to be seen. Personally, I regard him very highly for trying, and wish there were more leaders with the courage to confront the religious fundamentalists in other countries, not only the Islamic countries, but also the United States and Israel.
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VINE VOICEon June 23, 2002
Turkey is a key player in a very important region, and it is impossible to understand it without understanding the man who left his mark so deeply in it, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. This biography helped me get some understanding on this great leader whose career has been unjustly neglected in the West. It is mostly a political biography, and thankfully it fails to emphasize the kiss-and-tell tabloid details of Ataturk's life. Author Andrew Mango is no censor and we get a complete view of Ataturk, but Mango keeps the spotlight away from prurient details.
The picture Mango gives us of Ataturk is a compelling one, of a man driven to achieve power from an early age, yet, in an age of expansionist ideology, a man uniquely qualified to be the absolute ruler of his country because he knew his limits and those of his nation. Unlike the fascists and communists, Ataturk concentrated on increasing the quality of life of his people rather than increasing the size of the lands under his dominion.
It is clear Mango softpeadals some major issues in Ataturk's life and Turkish history. For instance, he circumlocutes around the issue of Ataturk's bodyguards murdering a political opponent of his, and there is no mention of the Armenian genocide (which, in any event, took place during the Young Turk revolution, when Ataturk held insufficient political power to be considered at all responsible).
But this is not to say he gives Ataturk a free pass -- we do get a picture of a human being from this book, not a whitewashed icon. Still, if Ataturk was arrogant, greedy for power, and created the form of democracy while never actually allowing contrary opinions to prevail, there is no question that his rule was spectacularly good for Turkey: probably better than democracy or any other dictator could have been. Even allowing for the puffery and legend that has grown up around this admired historical figure -- and Mango is expert in cutting through the laudatory nonsense that has accreted around the Ataturk legend (often with Atatiurk's own connivance) -- history presents Ataturk as a man who was right darn near as often as he thought he was.
The ways he was right, and the ways he stamped his correct ideas on Turkey, have had an enormous effect on Turkey -- and, through Turkey's cultural influence, have influenced its entire region. Understanding Kemal and Kemalism, and understanding Ataturk's genius for creating an effective government out of the fragments of a dying Islamic empire, sheds new light on regional politics in a sensitive area of the globe. While we are unlikely to see a leader as great as Ataturk there again, in his ideas and legacy we can find reason for hope.
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on May 15, 2005
Mustafa Kemal, known to the world as Ataturk, the "father of the Turks", is one of the more important figures in 20th-century history overall and an essential figure in an appreciation of the Middle East. While scholarship on the Ottoman Empire, into which he was born, and the Republic of Turkey, which he helped create, are both quite advanced, this is one of the very few biographies about the man himself. Fortunately, Andrew Mango has written a comprehensive and thorough book.

While other reviewers have complained about certain aspects of Mango's work, these criticisms are largely unfounded. The abundance of Turkish (and Ottoman) terms with translations is obviously necessary to understand the life and times of a man who ascended to lead that country, and the cast of supporting characters who fought alongside and against the subject are also necessary to understand the history of the events in question. While many of the names are confusing to the casual reader, this is an unavoidable fact of the history of that part of the world. As for the criticism that Mango shifts topics within paragraphs, this is simply laughable in its evident lack of familiarity with the book in question.

In writing this biography of Ataturk, Mango has had to tread a very fine path. In Turkey even today, he is revered as a great leader who almost single-handedly saved the nation from oblivion. Thankfully, Mango corrects some of this glowing hagiography by demonstrating that comments attributed to Ataturk date from many years after the events in question and were in fact made to serve a particular agenda.

Mango does not, however, over-correct and paint an unsympathetic picture of the man. What emerges, rather, is an enigmatic man with unquestionable talent and vision as well as an unwavering self-belief. Speaking as a historian, I don't envy Mango his task of painting such a complex character.

Admittedly there are omissions and a rather fond characterisation of the Ottoman Empire in its decay. For the latter, it is probably safe to say that this was at least the impression of the late Empire which would have been held by Ataturk and some of his contemporaries (at least before the First World War). For the former, the scholarship of the rest of Ataturk's life outweighs much of these omissions.

As mentioned above, this is heavy-going as a casual read. The sheer volume of locations, battles, military positions and contemporaries of Ataturk will confuse many readers. Likewise, the scholarly rigour with which Mango addresses himself to the task is perhaps less suited to a non-specialist reader. However, for both the specialist and the non-specialist who is prepared to read a considerable amount of detail (remembering that this is a biography of both a military leader and a man who had unquestioned political power, and who developed a political ideology over his long career), it comes highly recommended.
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on May 13, 2005
This is a disappointing book. The main points of Atatürk's career - hero of his country's war for independence and founder of the modern secular state of Turkey, a man with some remarkably modern views for his place and time - make him one of more attractive hero-figures of the twentieth century.

But somehow Mango does not succeed in giving us the living, breathing man. Indeed, Mango manages to make some of the genuinely exciting events of Atatürk's career read like rather dull broadsheet accounts.

Mango is certainly a scholar. That comes right through, but there is a somewhat lifeless quality that characterizes much of what should be a smashing yarn of great wars, declining empire, and dashing figures. The great number of Turkish place names and people do not make reading any easier, although Mango does offer a guide to pronunciation at the front.

Interestingly, this appraisal is quite at odds with cover quotes from reviews. One gets expert reviewers' ambiguities like "Takes its place at the top," or "...a higher level of biography than any previous account." Book reviewing in major publications has always been something of game, full of backscratching, favors, and artful ambiguities. The gap here between reviewers' words and Mango's actual work is rather notable.

Still this is a biography of an important figure, one about whom there is limited material in English. It is definitely worth reading.
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on January 23, 2004
Andrew Mango first gives his readers an excellent introduction to the declining Ottoman Empire so that they better understand where Mustapha Kemal Atatürk was coming from. The Ottoman Realm, though modernizing slowly, no longer had the means to live up to its ambitions and was shrinking fast under pressure of competing empires and nascent states at the end of the nineteenth century. Furthermore, the Ottoman State was undermined internally by increasingly restive minorities that no longer accepted their subservient condition, as well as, by part of the elite that was dissatisfied with the perceived backwardness and incompetence of the Ottoman ruling class. Born in Salonica in today's Greece around 1880 in a Muslim, Turkish-speaking and middle-class family, Atatürk early on made up his mind to join the westernizing army and thereby discard the external signs of oriental life.
Mango narrates with mastery the steady progress that Atatürk, a successful and popular student, made during his military education. Work was all that mattered to Atatürk. Atatürk became a politically savvy professional soldier while studying hard during his years of military education in Istanbul, the imperial capital. After his admission to the prestigious Staff College at 21, Atatürk kept in touch with his military friends who were assigned elsewhere, a circle that would reveal its greatest usefulness in the accession of Atatürk to the highest post of Modern Turkey two decades later. Because of his subversive political activities, Atatürk was assigned not to Europe but to the Near East after finishing his studies in 1904. Mango does a great job in giving background information, which helps readers understand the environment in which Atatürk was bound to as a soldier while he actively remained involved in politics through his connections in the empire before, during and after WWI. In 1908, the Society of Union and Progress, of which Atatürk became a member, served as the launching path for the Young Turks in their successful military coup. Atatürk understood very fast that the Young Turks, even with the help of Germany later on, were not up to the task to save the empire from its ultimate downfall after the end of WWI. Atatürk was still too junior to play a key role in the new administration. As usual, Atatürk was critical of the new ones on top because he alone deserved to be leader.
From 1911, Atatürk, still an obscure officer, progressively rose to preeminence. Atatürk first tried to quell rebellions in the disintegrating empire before WWI. Atatürk then illustrated his military superiority when he decisively helped ruin the allied venture at Gallipoli in 1915. After a new promotion in 1916, Atatürk, very resentful of the Germans for continuously meddling into military operations from the beginning, spent two agitated years in the Near East where he did what he could to slow down the advance of the allies until the end of WWI. Officers who ultimately played a key role in the War of Independence were placed under his command during these two years. After the armistice in 1918, Atatürk proved to be the most effective of all Ottoman officers who refused the diktats of the victorious allies and thwarted their efforts to carve up the territory of Modern Turkey into pieces. Mango clearly explained how with the help of other nationalist officers, Atatürk turned Anatolia into a redoubt of resistance while accommodating the decadent rule of the sultan in the short term. Atatürk also progressively centralized all military and political levers of power in his hands through shrewd maneuvering. Mango is brutally honest about the enlightened despotism of Atatürk. Modern Turkey needed a strong regime to impose its legitimacy both internally and externally.
It took Atatürk and his army several grueling years before they could finally defeat the Greeks militarily and thereby commanding the grudging respect of the remaining divided allies. The signature of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 was a personal triumph for Atatürk by making the humiliating Treaty of Sevres of 1920 associated with the discredited old regime almost totally obsolete. As George Curzon, a British imperial statesman, noted at the end of the conference: "Hitherto we have dictated our peace treaties. Now we are negotiating one with an enemy who has an army while we have none, an unheard of position." The Treaty of Lausanne, still in existence, has been the most successful and the most lasting of all the post-war treaties. Atatürk was 42 years old when he became the first president of Modern Turkey. He assumed this position until his premature death in 1938. Mango never bores his audience when he overviews the successful and not-so-successful revolutionary reforms that Atatürk enacted during the successive terms of his presidency. Unsurprisingly, Modern Turks still revere Atatürk for westernizing and modernizing at high speed their country at its creation in 1923.
In present times, the adhesion of Turkey and United Cyprus to the European Union should be a fitting tribute to western-bound Kemalism. In addition, this adhesion should help engineer a historic reconciliation between Greece and Turkey, two key U.S. allies. On top of that, Turkey is called to play a key role as a bridge between the European Union and a would-be Islamic Union. Turkey has been an anchor of stability for over 80 years in the most volatile region of the world and has demonstrated with a growing success how to marry democracy, economic liberalism and Islam with one another. Unsurprisingly, Islamic terrorists have had Turkey on their hitting list for this reason.
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on September 18, 2002
A masterful biography. As a non-Turk with an above-average interest in the country, the account only rarely and briefly lost my interest. I can't imagine a better Ataturk biography being written. It is accessible yet comprehensive enough for all but specialist academics. The story and the man are fascinating and the major issues raised are many and topical: East/West relations, Islam/Modernity, Developing Nations/Democracy, Traditional culture/Globalism....Great read.
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on August 26, 2006
Ataturk is an amazing man, both for what he accomplished and for his creation of the modern Turkish state. The book does a good job of taking you through what Ataturk did, how he accomplished it, and the changes he wrought to create Turkey from the remains of the Ottoman empire.

I give it 4 stars instead of 5 because the writer is a good biographer, not a great one. He's not bad, he's just not great. So it's more like you are watching the history unfold instead of being there.

With that said, it's an incredible story. It is one of the most amazing transformations in the history of civilization. He started with the remains of the Ottoman Empire that was about to be divided up into pieces by the great powers and ended with a Turkish state that is secular and part of the modern world. And he did this in 30 years.

Simply amazing.
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VINE VOICEon June 13, 2010
When I read about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, I sometimes think of iron filings suddenly taking order and direction under the influence of a powerful magnet. The iron filings are the ordinary Turks and the magnet being that extraordinary Turk named Atatürk. His thesis is still strong after three scores and a dozen years since his passing.

Andrew Mango's biography of Atatürk without doubt is the most authoritative scholarly work I have come across, even greater in depth and breadth than that of Lord Kinross's. These biographies are written by authors of Great Britain, a nation that once fought against Atatürk; that is why where they come from counterbalances their reverence to achieve an unbiased view.

The book is divided into five parts. Each about hundred pages long, with the exception of part III, titled `The Will Of The Nation', being a little longer. It describes the rise of a new country out of the ruins of an old empire.

An interesting part about Mango's treatment of Atatürk's life is his shedding a fair light on the Ottoman sultans like the Sultans Mahmud II and Abdulmecid. Many of the future leaders of Turkey, including Atatürk and many of his comrades, were educated by the schools established under the progressive reforms of these sultans. However, the attempts to constitutionalize the Ottoman Empire repeatedly because the dynastic infrastructure was too precarious to be also a strong foundation for comprehensive reformations. Mango makes very interesting comparisons of the similarities between Abdulhamit II's thoughts and those of Atatürk's. The latter, however, had the will, the intellect, and the mental capacity to carry through the ideas brewing many decades before the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, most important being the creation of a republic in structure and democracy in its behavior. To succeed, nepotistic culture had to be replaced by meritocracy. Monarchy and the Caliphate had to be abolished.

During the first half of 1916, an Armenian general named Tovmas Nazarbekian, who later became the commander-in-chief of the Republic of Armenia "routed" the 3rd Ottoman Army with a Russian army and captured Bitlis, and then Trabzon on the Black Sea coast, and after that they went on to destroy Turkish towns of Gümüshane, Bayburt, and Erzincan. When the Bolshevik revolution started many of the non-Armenian Russian soldiers deserted Nazarbekian, who was left like a deer in headlights towards an incoming 16th Ottoman Corps lead by Mustafa Kemal Pasha.

Atatürk never lost a single battle in his military career. In many of the battles he fought in he was not the only commander, but for those battles that he was the sole commander ended bitterly for his enemies. In Tobruk, Mustafa Kemal Pasha fought against 2,000 Italians with only 200 soldiers. A 20-to-1 kill ratio resulted with 10 Turkish casualties. In the Battle of Scimitar Hill, for every Turkish soldier, 2 British soldiers were killed. In the Battle of Dumlupinar, for every Turkish soldier, 6 Greek soldiers were killed, with a Greek casualty total of nearly 50,000. It seems leadership, and leadership alone, is the critical determinant of an unequivocal military victory.

Atatürk gave credit to IT, as in Information Technology, for much of his success in the Turkish War of Independence. Most of his work before taking up arms, and during, had to do with telegraphing encrypted messages to all corners of the land, providing key people with tasks and priorities. He'd heard of all the objections before a plan of operations was decided. Thereafter, he expected everyone to obey, and obey they did.

The Founding Fathers of the United States of America and Turkey self-evidently have been cut from the same cloth. They achieved Life and Liberty for their people. What this cloth might be is very eloquently stated by Atatürk, as Mango interprets: "...self-improvement applied as much to communities as to individuals, and that its aim should be participation in the one, universal modern civilization." Thanks to them, for most of us, the sole goal of life is in the pursuit of happiness within the rule of law.

Reading this book has made me very happy, indeed.
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