The brief and stormy marriage of Kemal Ataturk, this nation’s revolutionary founder, has long been shrouded in official secrecy. But the veil of mystery may be lifted this week when the contents of his socialite wife’s private letters and diaries are expected to be made public.
Historians say the private writings of the fiercely independent Latife Usakligil should shed new light on her former husband. Ataturk is revered by millions of Turks as the leader who rebuilt their nation after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and transformed it into one of the more Westernized and secular nations in the Muslim world.
The writings are significant in part because Usakligil refused to comment publicly on Ataturk or the circumstances leading to their wrenching divorce. She died in 1975, surviving her husband by 37 years.
Portraits and statues of the soldier-turned-statesman adorn every public building and school -- by law. Insulting Ataturk is a criminal offense. But liberal commentators argue that unfettered and objective debate about his legacy is a necessary step in expanding Turkey’s democracy as the country seeks entry into the European Union.
“The disclosure of Latife’s correspondence will be an important first step in this regard,” said Ipek Calislar, a veteran Turkish journalist who is writing a biography of Usakligil. “It will at the very least show us the human side of a man who is only known to us as a soldier and administrator.”
Others, who fear the documents may tarnish Ataturk’s image, are calling for an extension of a 1980 court order banning their release. The ban expires today.
“The notes kept by this young woman during her marriage will most likely be exploited by Ataturk’s enemies,” wrote Emin Colasan, a columnist with close ties to the rigidly pro-secular Turkish military. “They are rubbing their hands and salivating with anticipation. Let us not fall into their trap.”
For now, the decision appears to rest with Usakligil’s family. Officials at the Ankara-based historical foundation that has custody of the documents were scheduled to meet with them today to decide which, if any, of the writings should remain secret.
“We need to respect the family’s wishes,” said Yusuf Halacoglu, the chairman of the Turkish Historical Society in a recent interview, though he said at least some of the writings were expected to be made public.
Dilek Bebe, Usakligil’s great-niece, said previous demands for the correspondence were denied. “We were ordered to remain silent,” she told the daily Hurriyet last month. “As a family we have lost our peace of mind,” said Bebe, who will be present at the meeting.
The manuscripts include a 178-page diary written in Ottoman script, 20 letters from Usakligil to Ataturk, and four others from him to her, columnist Colasan said.
Usakligil’s vow of secrecy has allowed detractors to present a one-sided version of her breakup with Ataturk.
“The image they paint of Latife is one of a shrill and bossy woman who did not know her place,” said Calislar, the biographer. “In fact, she was an incredibly intelligent woman with Western values, an intellectual who was simply ahead of her time.”
The daughter of a wealthy merchant from the Aegean port city of Izmir, Usakligil studied law in Paris and spoke German, English and Greek. The couple met in Izmir in 1922 as Ataturk and his nationalists were wresting the city from Greek control.
Ataturk was “intrigued by her forwardness, her frank way of talking, her directness of gaze,” wrote British historian Patrick Kinross. Photographs show a short, strong-jawed young woman with dark, cropped hair and intense brown eyes.
They married in 1923. Friction emerged as Usakligil apparently sought to change her husband’s lifestyle, urging him to drink less and to stop his comrades from invading the privacy of their chambers. Many were appalled when she addressed Ataturk by his first name and sat beside him rather than behind him, as was customary in those days.
Usakligil’s feminist outlook had a profound impact on Ataturk, Calislar says. He ordered Turkish women to cast off their veils, gave them the right to vote, rendered them equal with men before the law, and banned polygamy under the civil code adopted in February 1926.
Ironically, just months earlier, he had ordered Usakligil to leave the Presidential Palace in Ankara and announced that they were divorced. She returned to Izmir, hoping that he would change his mind. Ataturk did not contact her again.
Usakligil never remarried.
“I saw her two days before her death in hospital,” great-niece Bebe recalled. “She had Ataturk’s portrait pinned to her chest.”