Muhammad Ali Siddiqi
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk died 80 years ago this month — a month that sees Pakistan caught in a mercifully less acerbic controversy on the priceless utility or the pusillanimous strategy of a U-turn. The Father of Turks comes in handy here because he had some insightful remarks to make about Der Fuehrer and the victor of the battle of Austerlitz, the two personalities mentioned by Prime Minister Imran Khan.
History and the vast war literature tell us there is a world of difference between Napoleon and Hitler in terms of the Russian invasion. Napoleon had no opportunity to make a U-turn, because unlike Hitler he had taken Moscow with ease, the czar refusing to give battle. It was the Russians’ scorched-earth policy and his retreat in winter that destroyed the Grande Armée. In contrast, Hitler had a chance to make a U-turn.
Hitler’s Wehrmacht offensive had indeed come to a halt on the gates of Moscow, but if his racist fanaticism hadn’t stood in the way he could have extracted an honourable peace with a Stalin who was at his wit’s end. After all, virtually entire European Russia was under German control. If he had shown flexibility, he could have imposed a diktat on Russia and secured vast territorial concessions in Ukraine, Poland and along the Baltic. This defeat at the hands of ‘Asiatic barbarians’ shook his confidence with disastrous consequences for him and his people.
Mustafa Kemal was appalled by the madness of Hitler’s ideas. Atatürk had read Mein Kampf and was appalled by the madness of Hitler’s ideas. His (Atatürk’s) dictatorship, he said, had freed an enslaved people, but Hitler’s had enslaved a free people. In foreign policy Atatürk’s behaviour was in sharp contrast to other European dictators of his age. He believed in minimising casualties for units under his command, and took Istanbul by bluff. His motto was ‘Don’t fight a battle you cannot win’.
Military victories didn’t go to his head, as for instance his refusal to advance further into the Balkans after he had driven the Greeks out of Anatolia and Asia Minor and secured eastern Thrace and the Straits Zone. He refused when his elated colleagues pressed him to advance toward Macedonia, Kosovo and Bosnia. He asked them to build on what they had achieved, warning that a further push into the Balkans would unite Europe on the half-a-millennium-old war cry, ‘The Turks are coming!’ He was a Macedonian, he said, but he didn’t believe in reckless adventures.
Atatürk had seen Hitler on the march — the takeover of Rhineland, his denunciation of the Treaty of Versailles, his refusal to pay reparations or to accept restrictions on German rearmament, his withdrawal from the League of Nations, his military support to Franco in the Spanish civil war, peaceful Anschluss and the 1938 Munich ignominy. He predicted that war would break out in the spring of 1940, and though he went wrong by about six months, he had made up his mind to keep Turkey out of it.
A cool-headed general and statesman, Atatürk had come to the conclusion that Turkey must develop an understanding with the former enemy, Britain, for whose navy he had respect. Consequently, he never pressed for a solution to the Cyprus issue and thought a British naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean was in Turkey’s interest. To ensure against British hostility, Atatürk astounded his colleagues by saying Turkey must sign a secret military pact with the former enemy.
As his health deteriorated because of excessive drinking, Atatürk thought his first job was to win over Ismet Inönü, the prime minister angry over Ataturk’s lifestyle and the consequent impact on governance. He won over Inönü by accepting all his demands, with both agreeing to retire or transfer to less sensitive posts pro-German officers in the army and foreign ministry. He also asked Inönü to visit Moscow to gauge what Stalin’s intentions were and to sign if possible an economic cooperation agreement. He died a few weeks later, but Inönü remained true to his legacy and steered the country out of history’s most destructive war despite immense pressures from both sides.
Atatürk was Napoleon’s admirer as a general but, as quoted by Lord Kinross in his biography, Atatürk, he said “Napoleon started with his country and ended with himself.” Though an excellent general, he thought, Napoleon was “without a sound political idea, more concerned with his ambition for world conquest than with the national interest of France”. According to Kinross, Atatürk liked to compare Napoleon’s invasion of Russia with the Ottoman push on Vienna “at the expense of the country’s internal welfare”. He was aware of Napoleon’s remarks, “I just go ahead and my progress is the result of my movement.” Atatürk commented: “Those who ‘just go ahead’ finally knock their head against the rock of St. Helena.”