National museum Te Papa says it will look at how it can change a WW1 exhibition following revelations that a famous phrase attributed to Turkey’s former leader and war hero, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, was in part made up. James Robins reports.

The following lines will be familiar to most New Zealanders:

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives…You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us, where they lie, side by side here in this country of ours…You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.

These tender words ‘to the Anzac mothers’ are attributed to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Republican Turkey, in 1934. They have been repeated at Anzac Day commemorations for it seems as long as modern memory can reach back. Ministers and dignitaries use them as an appeal to lofty, conciliatory ideals.

In the liturgy of Anzac Day, our most sacred and revered time of national pride, Mustafa Kemal’s words are among the most imperishable, like John McCrae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’, or Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’ in their undying promise of remembrance.

They appear most prominently in granite at Gallipoli itself, on Anzac Parade in Canberra, and as part of two monuments to Mustafa Kemal himself in Wellington: at Tarakena Bay, and in Pukeahu National Park, directly in front of the National War Memorial.

Because of those ameliorating words, and because he fought honourably against Anzac troops during the Gallipoli Campaign, New Zealanders have come to view Kemal as a noble and inspirational figure: the father of a nation, a progressive reformer and moderniser, an enlightened leader in the Middle East.

But history is often a bitter pill. Recent research from the Australian organisation Honest History, which is committed to challenging “the misuse of history to serve political or other agendas”, has shown that Mustafa Kemal never said those words, wrote them down, nor thought of them, in 1934 or any other time.

That quote, says Peter Stanley, Honest History’s former president and Professor at the University of New South Wales, is “fraudulent”.

“There’s no question. It’s absolutely crystal clear … that the quote was made up [15] years after Kemal’s death.”

One expects that New Zealanders wouldn’t erect monuments to Fascist Italy’s Mussolini, or Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, or Romania’s Nikolai Ceaușescu. So why is Mustafa Kemal so favourably remembered in this country?

And however much New Zealanders might look at Atatürk through rose-tinted glasses, his name is far from spotless.

Mustafa Kemal was born in 1881 to a middle-class family in Thessaloniki, then part of the Ottoman Empire. He joined the military and was quickly inducted into a cloak-and-dagger secret society of fellow officers working to overthrow the Sultan.

This group of shadowy men later became part of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), a radical opposition group. Kemal took part in their 1908 uprising that later became known as the Young Turk Revolution.

It was a fractious time for the Empire. Over the decades leading up to the First World War, it had been losing territory to nationalist movements in the Balkans. Other imperial powers like Britain, France, and Russia toyed with its internal affairs. In order to establish security, the CUP led a coup against the government in 1913, establishing a ruling triumvirate. They took the Ottoman Empire into the war alongside Germany and Austria-Hungary.

However much New Zealanders might look at Atatürk through rose-tinted glasses, his name is far from spotless. File photo: Getty Images

Kemal was stationed very close to Ariburnu (Anzac Cove) when the first New Zealand troops landed on April 25, 1915. He was partly responsible for the bloody defence which stopped Anzac forces pushing further inland. And in August 1915, Kemal was again central to the Ottoman offensive that retook Chunuk Bair – the highest point in the Anzac campaign.

At precisely the same moment as these battles were taking place, the CUP enacted a plan to annihilate the Christian minorities of the Ottoman Empire, including Armenians, Assyrians, and Pontic Greeks. The CUP leaders feared they were a ‘fifth column’ working to destroy the state. More than a million innocent people lost their lives. Today, it is considered a genocide.

Kemal served out the rest of the First World War on various fronts, and was generally respected as an honourable, if hot-headed, commander. He was untainted by the crimes against humanity committed by his CUP comrades.

However, after the armistice, Kemal was chosen to lead the insurgent Turkish Nationalist movement. One of his first campaigns was against the fledging Republic of Armenia, a tiny state populated by refugees and genocide survivors. “It is indispensable,” Kemal told his field commander in September 1920, “that Armenia be annihilated politically and physically”.

By 1922, Kemal had beaten back a Greek occupation force and began renegotiating a peace treaty that would form the basis for the Republic of Turkey.

Because Kemal traced a line from Empire to Republic via Gallipoli, New Zealand leaders have often sought to tie together what they see as a moment of shared nation-building.

For example, in 2000, Prime Minister Helen Clark addressed a state dinner in Ankara: “For New Zealand, the battle at Gallipoli was a defining event which led to a developing recognition of our unique identity as a separate nation. For Turkey, Gallipoli was significant because Mustafa Kemal displayed his great leadership abilities there, and went on to become the founder of the Turkish Republic…”

Or as Winston Peters stated at Gallipoli on Anzac Day 2007 the last time he was Foreign Minister: “After the war, it was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a divisional commander at Gallipoli and later founder of the Turkish Republic, who paved the way for reconciliation…”

Contrary to this popular view of Mustafa Kemal as an enlightened leader, a moderniser, and a ‘man of destiny’, Kemal was, in fact, a ruthless dictator.

The true source of the famous message ‘to the Anzac mothers’, in other words, is a mass-murderer.

New Zealand newspapers from the 1920s and 30s often called him “Turkey’s Mussolini” and compared him to other tyrants of the age like Hitler and Stalin. For the duration of his 15-year tenure, he ruled an authoritarian state in which all opposition parties were banned.

Although there is much pride in the claim that Turkish women got the vote in 1934, there was nothing to vote for as elections were entirely ceremonial. Kemal purged the civil service and universities of perceived enemies, conducted show trials of ‘coup plotters’, and cracked down severely on the press. Kemal’s version of a secular Turkey did not resemble the pluralism of the United States’ First Amendment, but instead expunged religion from society altogether and strictly controlled any remaining religious organisations.

Some historians, such as Uğur Üngör, Associate Professor in the Department of History at Utrecht University and author of The Making of Modern Turkey, have argued Kemal was a “totalitarian” dictator because he sought to control all areas of Turkish life.

Through his marathon, myth-creating speech of October 1927 (known as Nutuk), Kemal created an alternative history for Turkey mostly divorced from truth. This history was used to indoctrinate a new generation of children who had been cut off from their written past completely by the Alphabet Reform of 1928, which changed the written Ottoman script to a Latinised version.

Kemalism was “deeply illiberal”, Üngör says, “by virtue of being Turkish nationalist and excluding all non-Turkish-Muslim political participation.”

“Modernisation and democracy are not synonyms,” Üngör points out. “Stalin modernised Russia, but destroyed millions of lives…The utopia of ‘we’re moving toward modernity’ can be compared to American Manifest Destiny, in which Native Americans were obstacles to ‘progress’ and needed to be weeded out.”

Further still, Kemal hung a veil of silence over what happened to the Ottoman Empire’s Christian population during the First World War. Genocide denial has survived as official Turkish policy ever since.

One expects that New Zealanders wouldn’t erect monuments to Fascist Italy’s Mussolini, or Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, or Romania’s Nikolai Ceaușescu. So why is Mustafa Kemal so favourably remembered in this country?

As detailed in Honest History’s meticulous research, an Anzac veteran and a retired Turkish schoolteacher bumped into each other at Gallipoli in 1977. The teacher carried a guidebook, and in that book was a quote attributed to Mustafa Kemal.

The Anzac relationship between New Zealand and Turkey is a relatively new thing. Photo: Getty Images

The veteran was moved by those words, and asked the teacher to write them down. He took them back to Australia, where they fell into the hands of another digger, Alan J Campbell, who was in the process of building an Anzac memorial in Brisbane.

Campbell wrote to the Turkish Historical Society asking for a source for those words. The Society turned a blank. They only thing they found was a newspaper interview given by Kemal’s former Foreign Minister and Interior Minister Şükrü Kaya in 1953, in which he claimed to have read a speech written by Kemal in April 1934 to a delegation of British and Australian visitors at Gallipoli. Kaya’s 1953 version is very similar to the one so familiar today.

But no one present that April day heard those seismic words. The British and Australian press covering this significant event did not record Kaya giving a speech on Kemal’s behalf. When Kemal died four years later, in 1938, none of his obituaries mentioned the address. No serious biography of Kemal cites those words either.

There is only Kaya’s claim that they are Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s words.

This is especially troubling given that Şükrü Kaya was one of Kemal’s right-hand-men in the early regime, and was a leading perpetrator of the Armenian Genocide. During the First World War, Kaya was head of the Directorate for the Settlement of Tribes and Immigrants, responsible for issuing deportation orders to whole towns and villages of innocent Armenian civilians, sending them to their deaths in the Syrian desert. Kaya’s department also directly oversaw the theft and plunder of Armenian property.

The true source of the famous message ‘to the Anzac mothers’, in other words, is a mass-murderer.

More troubling still is the fact that Alan J Campbell, when organising his Brisbane memorial, simply invented the crucial sentence “There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours…”

How then did these “fraudulent” words end up in history books, museum exhibits, Prime Ministers’ speeches, and on prominent memorials in New Zealand’s capital?

In 1984, a deal was cut. In exchange for Turkey officially renaming Arıburnu, the beach where the first Anzacs landed on April 25, 1915, as Anzac Cove, the Australian government agreed to build a memorial to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk on Anzac Parade, Canberra (unveiled in 1985).

Ever since, and because of the increased popularity of Anzac Day, appearances of the Kemal ‘quote’ have proliferated.

The New Zealand government joined the negotiations, and another Atatürk memorial was dedicated in 1990 atop a rockface overlooking Tarakena Bay – a site chosen for its resemblance to Anzac Cove.

Both memorials feature the Ataturk ‘quotation’, complete with Alan Campbell’s invented line about “the Johnnies and the Mehmets” lying side by side.

Prior to the deal, New Zealand and Turkey did not have intimate ties. Their diplomatic relationship was, as one Ministry of Foreign Affairs briefing paper from the mid-1980s describes it, “generally insubstantial”. The two nations did not have embassies or cross-accredited ambassadors until 1993. The high-level, tripartite Anzac ‘special relationship’ is actually a rather recent phenomenon.

The Tarakena Bay memorial proved controversial, but not because of Kemal’s despotic legacy or the provenance of his famous ‘words’. The Wellington Maori Council pointed out that the proposed site was the location of sacred Pā. Their concerns were ignored, and planning was “carried out under fairly strict secrecy”. And although the Ministry of Culture and Heritage was asked to check Kemal’s role in the Gallipoli campaign, they did not check the origin of the quote.

Ever since, and because of the increased popularity of Anzac Day, appearances of the Kemal ‘quote’ have proliferated.

In 2005, a small memorial cairn bearing the ‘quote’ was built in Auckland’s Domain not far from the Auckland War Memorial Museum. And in 2017, another Atatürk monument was unveiled in Pukeahu National Park, just in front of the National War Memorial, Wellington (designed and built on a commission from the Turkish government by the New Zealand Defence Force’s official artist Matt Gauldie).

The ‘quote’ also appears in the immensely popular Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War exhibition at Te Papa, famous for its super-sized figures created by Wellington’s Weta Workshop. Nearly two million people have walked past the exhibition’s tribute to Atatürk since it opened in April 2015.

That ‘quote’ became an intrinsic part of Anzac Day. However, things are changing.

In response to questions from this writer, a Te Papa spokesperson has stated that the national museum “will look at how we can change the exhibition text to better reflect the quote’s contested origins”.

The renowned historian Christopher Pugsley, author of the seminal Gallipoli: The New Zealand Story (now in its fifth edition), was historical director in charge of the exhibition, and he says the quote was only checked for translation – not for its provenance.

Pugsley admits that if the recent research on the Kemal ‘quote’ had been available when The Scale of Our War was being put together, they would have approached things differently.

“If this was 2014 or 2013 and we had Honest History in front of us, we would have come up with a different solution,” Pugsley says.

Now, Pugsley says that guides for the exhibition will be “briefed on the background to the quotation itself and how recent historiography has raised questions…”

Last year, the Ministry of Culture and Heritage quietly moved to change its website information about both Atatürk monuments to indicate the quote is “widely attributed to Atatürk, although its exact origin is disputed”.

“We wouldn’t want to claim them to be absolute fact anymore,” says Neill Atkinson, Chief Historian for the MCH. “There’s clearly considerable doubt about that.”

“What is valuable,” Atkinson adds, “is to have open debate about these things and to have information out there that people can make up their minds about.”

The debunking of these words shouldn’t threaten the genuine and authentic reconciliation honoured by Anzac Day, Peter Stanley argues.

“Do we decide it’s more important to unite with each other and accept a falsehood, or do we unite and deny the falsehood?” he asks.

Nor should there be a gaping hole in Anzac commemorations now. There is a verifiable and proven statement made by Mustafa Kemal via telegram to Australia in May 1934, widely printed in New Zealand newspapers:

“The landing at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915, and the fighting which took place on the peninsula will never be forgotten,” the telegram reads. “They showed to the world the heroism of all those who shed their blood there. How heartrending for their nations were the losses that this struggle caused.”

However, in the wake of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign which began in South Africa, the removal of Confederate statues in the US South, and controversies in New Zealand over memorials to French explorer Jean-François-Marie de Surville or Colonel Marmaduke Nixon, the question of who New Zealanders choose to memorialise and how they remember them is still as vital as ever.

And even if every footnote, memorial, plaque, or speech could be amended, the question of how we remember Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his brutal legacy still lingers.

As Peter Stanley says: “We don’t believe in lying. We think that lying is bad … So how is it possible to live with something that we know is a lie?”

James Robins asked the Turkish embassy in Wellington for comment but has had no response to date.

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