Atatürk’s frown

June 15 2007

Two of Toynbee’s Turkish friends were Adnan and Halidé Adivar. She was a writer and feminist. Adnan

was not only a modern physician; he was also a modern man, and this for good only, and not for evil. His modernity was of the humane and not the demonic kind. In Adnan Adivar’s lifetime, these two antithetical strains in the modern Western spirit were contending for the mastery of Western souls. In Adnan’s Westernized soul, human feelings had no demonic antagonist to overcome. Adnan’s nature was incapable of harbouring any of the seven devils.

When I first met Adnan [in 1923], he was in politics. He was acting as the Turkish Nationalist Government’s administrator of the City of Istanbul during the interval between the signing of the Mudanya armistice and the conclusion of the Lausanne peace-treaty. Since 1919 Adnan and Halidé had been playing an active and distinguished part in the Turkish resistance movement; but politics was not the natural element of either of them. Turkey after the First World War, like France in the Second World War, met with a crisis in which her very existence was at stake; and, in both countries, on these respective occasions, this supreme emergency drew into active public life a number of high-minded men and women whose temperaments would probably have kept them remote from politics in quieter times. Adnan and Halidé paid for their patriotism by being driven into exile – not by their country’s adversaries at the time when Turkey had her back to the wall. They were exiled, after the national crisis was over, by the national leader who had saved Turkey with the aid of comrades of the Adivars’ disinterested kind. When Atatürk’s death made it possible for the Adivars to come back home, they resumed their natural vocations, which were scholarly. Halidé had made her name early as a novelist and she now became professor of English at the University of Istanbul, while Adnan took a leading part in the production of the Turkish version of The Encyclopaedia of Islam: a new edition that became virtually a new work.

Halidé’s marriage with Adnan [in 1917] was, for Halidé, calm after storm. She had been married before, but her first marriage had ended in a battle; for her first husband, unlike Adnan, had been a modern man only within the limits of his profession. He had been a mathematician but also a reactionary. After Halidé had borne two children, he had announced his intention of taking a second wife; Halidé had told him that she would leave him if he did; he persisted in his course; and Halidé did as she had said. Her refusal to become a party to polygamy required high courage; for, at that date, the institution of marriage was still governed, in Turkey, by the Islamic religious law, under which it is legitimate for a Muslim man to have four wives simultaneously. (It was not till 17 February 1926 that polygamy was made illegal in Turkey by the enactment of the Swiss Civil Code, translated into Turkish, as the law of the land.) In parting from her first husband, Halidé had been fighting a battle for a vital human right in the teeth of the law that was then in force, and she had not been fighting simply for her own hand. It had been a battle for all the women of Turkey and, indirectly, for all the women of the rest of the Islamic World as well. For Halidé, this personal crisis had been as severe as the public crisis of 1919-23 was for her country. Her reward was her meeting and marriage with a man who saw eye to eye with her on moral issues and who captivated her fiercer spirit by his gentler one.


Atatürk’s ex-comrades whom he had driven into exile [the Adivars lived in France and Britain until the eve of the Second World War] were no more unfortunate than my Russian refugee friends were in point of material circumstances, but they had a psychological problem to wrestle with which the Russian refugees had been spared. The Russian refugees had no call to show any consideration for the reigning Communist régime in Russia. They were members of a class on which the Communists had made war to the knife, and they had been lucky to escape with their lives. The Turkish exiles’ relation to the reigning dictator of Turkey was more complex.

These former comrades of Atatürk’s had followed him as their leader in their country’s supreme crisis. They had followed him to victory – a victory in which they too had played their part – and they would have liked nothing better than to go on working with him for the regeneration of their country’s life. In driving them into exile, Atatürk had committed a major crime both against the exiles personally and against his and their common country too. At a time when Turkey needed every public-spirited and honest and able citizen whom she could muster, Atatürk had deprived her of almost all of these except himself, and, in the act, he had convicted himself of lacking the public spirit that his victims had shown. These had been eager to go on working for the country under his leadership; Atatürk had responded by driving them out; and their offence in his eyes had been the inadmissible one that they too were personalities with opinions of their own and that, so long as these other eminent Turkish men and women were working with him, he could not be the lone star in the Turkish firmament. Atatürk had succumbed to a dictator’s occupational infirmity of being unable to co-operate with his equals, and the exiles were paying the price for this. Each of them had as good a right as Dante had had to sign himself exul immeritus. But would it be warrantable for them to assume Dante’s posture of implacable aggrievedness? Atatürk was flagrantly at fault, but he was still the saviour of his and his victims’ country. The exiles still approved of Atatürk’s past acts, and they also continued to approve of much of his current policy. What line were they to take about Atatürk, both among themselves and in the presence of sympathetic foreign friends?

In this difficult moral situation, my Turkish friends in exile showed good judgement and admirable generosity. Their comments on Atatürk’s acts were frank but discriminating and objective. No note of personal bitterness ever crept into what they said; and Ra’ûf Orbay, in particular, invariably accompanied any critical comment that he might have made by adding that, in spite of all, Atatürk was a great man; that his vision and will-power had saved Turkey; and that every patriotic Turk owed him admiration and gratitude for what he had done for the country, irrespective of Atatürk’s behaviour to individuals. Adnan and Ra’ûf were men of different temperaments and gifts. Adnan was primarily a scholar; Ra’ûf was primarily a man of action; but, in nobility of character, they were kindred spirits.

Besides being conspicuously frank and honourable, Ra’ûf was romantic. I have already [in an earlier chapter] mentioned his Abkhazian origin. […] By profession, Ra’ûf was a naval officer. In the First Balkan War he had commanded the cruiser Hamidié and had sallied out in her from the Dardanelles into the Aegean, running the gauntlet of the Greek naval blockade. He had then managed to do some commerce-raiding without being caught, though the Greek navy commanded the sea in which he was operating. After Turkey’s intervention in the First World War, Ra’ûf had made an equally daring land-raid on the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s pipeline between its oilfields and its refinery on Abadin Island. If he had succeeded in this enterprise, he might have brought the British Navy to a standstill. When I first met Ra’ûf, which was at Ankara in 1923, he was Prime Minister in the Nationalist Government. He lived to return from exile and to serve as Turkish Ambassador in London during the Second World War. In private life, he was a friend whose constancy was never in doubt.

Those of my Turkish friends who were in exile during the later years of Atatürk’s régime were the ones whom I had the opportunity of seeing the most often and getting to know the best. But I had, and have, others as well. One of these was Fethî Bey Okyar, a comrade of Atatürk’s whom Atatürk did not choose to evict – though he came near to quarrelling with him at least once. Fethî was able to continue to serve his country without any loss of personal integrity and honour. Fethî’s son Osman is one of my most valued friends of any nationality in the next generation to his father’s and mine. My first meeting with Osman was in 1923, in his parents’ house at Ankara. He was hardly out of his cradle; he grew up to become a distinguished economist, and he is now Rector of the recently-established University of Erzerum. In my own generation, one of my Turkish friends is Şerif Remzi Bey, the star pupil of my old Canadian friend Dr. MacLachlan, the President of the former International College at Izmir. In an older generation than mine, I had Turkish friends who did not all share my Nationalist friends’ political views. (One advantage of being a foreigner is that one’s friendships need not be confined to any one political camp.) There was the lovable ‘Inglîz Rif’at, an Anglophil Turk of the old school to whom I was introduced by Aubrey Herbert and who became my friend too. There was the Platonist philosopher Rizâ Tevfîk, who had made himself persona non grata to the Nationalists to a degree at which it was no longer prudent for him to remain at large. When I first met him, he had taken sanctuary within the bounds of the American College for Girls at Arna’ûtköi. He was afterwards given a permanent asylum in Transjordan by the Amir ‘Abdallah.


In all my dealings with or about the Turks, personal relations had been, for me, the key; and this thought was uppermost in my mind on the evening in the spring of 1923 on which I was Atatürk’s guest for dinner at Ankara. In this enconnter with Atatürk, as in my encounter with Hitler thirteen years later, I had the opportunity of making only a single point; so, in speaking to Atatürk, I tried out on him my conviction of the paramount importance of personal relations in all fields, public as well as private. When Atatürk disagreed with what someone had said, he intimidated the other person visually, before opening his mouth, with a frown that brought the whole of his forehead down, like a thunder-cloud, upon his brows; and I was confronted by this lowering face while he was telling me that I was entirely wrong. Personal relations, he said to me, were of little importance; they produced no appreciable effect. Impersonal public relations were what mattered.

Our exchange of ideas was brief, but it told me that I was in the presence of a mind that was powerful but was also “monadic” in the Leibnizian sense. Atatürk’s mind had, I knew, conceived at least one idea that was a stroke of genius. Atatürk had realized that, for the Turkish people, national salvation lay in renouncing their imperial role in order to concentrate all their energies on the cultivation of their own long-neglected garden. The weakness of this vigorous and imaginative mind was that, when it had conceived an idea of its own, it closed like a clam, and so debarred itself from the possibility of having second thoughts; for the most fruitful source of second thoughts is an exchange of ideas between one’s own mind and others. This clam-like closure of Atatürk’s mind was, I suppose, the price of his demonic will-power. Atatürk’s will-power had saved his country, but his obstinacy was a high price for the country to pay now that he had become her dictator.

In raising with Atatürk the issue of personal versus impersonal relations, I had been guided by my own experience and not by an appreciation of Atatürk’s character; but, as it happened, I had hit a blind spot in him. Atatürk did in truth have no use for personal relations; and he had no use for them because the quality that was lacking in him was love. Atatürk had both intelligence and will-power in a high degree, but the faculty that makes a human being human had been denied to him. If Atatürk can be said to have loved anything at all, what he loved was an abstraction. He loved Turkey (if love is the right word in this connexion), but he did not really love any Turks; and this was unnatural; for, in the heroic resistance movement in which he had taken the lead, he had had a number of human-hearted comrades – among them, my friends Adnan and Ra’ûf. These comrades of Atatürk’s in a great common experience and common achievement had given him their loyalty, and they would have given him their affection too if there had been any answering feeling in him to give their own feelings access to him. Unhappily, Atatürk’s relations with his comrades had left him cold. When the national crisis was over, Atatürk saw in his former companions merely so many objects that were getting in his light; and he dealt with this nuisance by driving into exile fellow-patriots who were nobler-minded than himself. By the time of Atatürk’s death, only two leading figures of his own stature had escaped this fate. One of the two was Fethî Bey Okyar; the other was Ismet Inönü.

Well, I do not agree with Atatürk. For me, personal relations are the most precious thing in life. So, in thinking of my Turkish friends, my thoughts run back to the Adivars, with whom my friendship was the closest of all. My last sight of my old friend Halidé Hanum Adivar was in Istanbul on 19 November 1962. She was still living in the quarter between the Conqueror’s Mosque and the shore of the Marmara in which she and Adnan had settled after their return home from exile. (In choosing to live in the heart of Istanbul Proper, the Adivars had been ignoring the Turkish intelligentsia’s current fashion, which was to migrate to Pera, the Frankish suburb of Istanbul “beyond” the Golden Horn.) In 1962, Halidé was still where I had found her before, but now she was alone and lonely. Adnan had met the same death as Lawrence Hammond, of whom he had reminded me so strongly. Heart-failure had carried off Adnan Adivar too […]. When I had seen Halidé and Adnan together, I had been conscious of an impetuosity in her that had been tempered, but not entirely overcome, by Adnan’s influence. Now, when Adnan was no longer there, the old impetuosity had given way to tenderness. Adnan’s widow was living in her love for him. I could not wish her to go on living a life that was so sad; and, when the news of her death reached me, I felt that this had been, for her, a happy release. Halidé’s life had ended sadly, but she had not lived in vain. As a writer, as a patriot, as a woman, and, above all, as a human being who had loved and been loved, Halidé had lived to the full.

Cf Toynbee, Turkey and Armenia 1.

In one way, Atatürk’s contempt for the personal benefited Turkey: instead of building a system dependent on himself, he built a state which would outlast him.

Halidé Adivar’s memoirs are in print in English.


Acquaintances, OUP, 1967

One Response to “Atatürk’s frown”

  1. […] The birth of Turkish nationalism 1 The birth of Turkish nationalism 2 The birth of Turkish nationalism 3 The birth of Turkish nationalism 4 Toynbee, Turkey and Armenia 1 Toynbee, Turkey and Armenia 2 Europe, 1916-17 Mount Ararat Toynbee, Turkey and Armenia 3 Toynbee, Turkey and Armenia 4 Toynbee, Turkey and Armenia 5 Propaganda and intelligence Atatürk’s frown […]

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