It is quite difficult for Greek Australians to oppose the erection of statues of Kemal Ataturk in various sites around Australia, and indeed the proposed erection by the City of Hume in order to commemorate the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign, on the basis that Ataturk was not of good character. This is especially so given that numerous Greek leaders have in the past sung his praises.

Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas, for instance, had this to say about the architect of modern Turkey: “… Greece, which has the highest estimation of the renowned leader, heroic soldier, and enlightened creator of Turkey. We will never forget that President Atatürk was the true founder of the Turkish-Greek alliance based on a framework of common ideals and peaceful cooperation. He developed ties of friendship between the two nations which it would be unthinkable to dissolve. Greece will guard its fervent memories of this great man, who determined an unalterable future path for the noble Turkish nation.”

Similarly, Greek prime minister Eleutherios Venizelos (a statue of whom graces the clubhouse of the Cretans in Brunswick), even nominated Ataturk for the Nobel Peace Prize. He described him thus: “In the life of a nation it is very seldom that changes to such a radical degree were carried out in such a short period of time … Without a doubt, those who have done these extraordinary activities have earned the attributes of a great man in the complete sense of the word. And because of this, Turkey can be proud of itself.”

Venizelos’ successor Panagis Tsaldaris also admired Ataturk, especially because together they were able to sign a comprehensive agreement for peace and co-operation known as the Entente Cordiale.

Captured Greek officers fighting against Ataturk during the Greco-Turkish war described his magnanimity in their memoirs. According to one account, he supposedly ordered the removal of a painting showing a Turkish soldier plunging his bayonet to a Greek soldier by stating “what a revolting scene!”.

Furthermore, Kathimerini newspaper was lavish in its praise of him: “Turkey is in possession of a genius man that friends and foes are astounded with.”

Undoubtedly, Kemal Ataturk’s achievements in modernising a country ravaged by war are many. They are so many in fact that a large number of historians are willing to overlook his institution of a one-party, non-democratic state, his suppression of religious orders and his complete marginalisation of ethnic minorities, both Muslim and Christian, to the point where there was a complete denial that some of these ever existed. This is a man who saw fit to dictate to people the type of headgear they should wear and penalise them if they did not obey. He also permitted the Turkish army to carry out horrific massacres of native Christians in Smyrna and to burn down that city at the end of the Greco-Turkish war.

Nonetheless, the world loves him, including Australians, who have linked him to their own Gallipoli myth, by terming him a magnanimous foe, for his supposed letter to Australian mothers who lost their sons in the Gallipoli campaign wherein he supposedly wrote that: “Those heroes that shed 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 in this country of ours … you, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears.”
Interestingly enough, an increasing number of historians are unable to find evidence proving that Ataturk ever uttered or wrote such words and they may just be a myth.

Arguably, Armenian, Assyrian and Greek community groups are barking up the wrong tree when they oppose the erection of a statue of Ataturk in various locations, including at rate-payers’ expense in the city of Hume, a municipality that houses a large and vibrant Turkish population but also a significant Assyrian population as well. Attempts are being made to link Ataturk to the genocide of the Assyrians, Armenians and Greeks in Anatolia, even though the genocide largely took place just before, during and at the conclusion of the First World War, prior to Ataturk’s assumption of power. While Ataturk did preside over the capture, removal or execution of Pontian guerillas who led a war for independence in the Pontic mountains and ensured that the Greeks remaining in Anatolia were removed, this was done by treaty, and can hardly be compared to the organised attempt to extirpate an entire people as envisaged and carried out by the Ottoman government.

Such attempts to conflate history merely do damage to a serious cause, the long overdue recognition of the genocide of the Christian peoples of Anatolia and at any rate, considering that this genocide tends to leave the vast majority of the English-speaking world unmoved, surely this is not a persuasive argument as to why the erection of Ataturk’s statue should be opposed.

If there is a valid argument against the erection of the statue, it is that Ataturk, just like Leonidas, whose statue was erected in Sparta Place by the City of Moreland, also at public expense, has absolutely nothing to do with Australia and appears more to have to do with placating the politically important Turkish community in the area, just as Leonidas’ inexplicably nonsensical erection swelled the loins of local Greek rate-payers with pride. While it may serve the purposes of the Turkish government to place Ataturk at the forefront of Australian Gallipoli commemorations, the fact remains that it was he who, in the defence of the peninsula and in the course of his duties, was responsible for the mowing down of tens of thousands of Anzacs. There is nothing particularly magnanimous or noteworthy from the Australian point of view, then, that warrants the special honouring of Ataturk by way of a statue.

On the other hand, the reconciliation and the forgiving of past foes sends a powerful message of tolerance for the future. Furthermore, Turkish Australians have made valuable contributions to this country that deserve to be recognised.

To this effect, if the City of Hume and others wished to emphasise the rapprochement and the friendly ties enjoyed by Australia with the Turkish Republic, it could instead erect a statue to any Turkish peasant or soldier who treated captured Australians with care and consideration, at expense or risk to themselves, assuming that cases of this nature exist. If such do not, then the burghers of that city could possibly erect a statue to honour the hundreds of Greek or French peasants who nursed and cared for wounded and dying Australian soldiers in Lemnos and behind the French trenches during that most horrific of wars. For reasons possibly of policy but more likely of romantic myth-making, save for a few cursory acknowledgments by military historians, the sacrifices of these simple but kind-hearted people exist largely outside of the Gallipoli narrative, just as the tremendous sacrifices of the Greek people who hid Australian soldiers during the Second World War and often paid a terrible price for their compassion are also glossed over.

What will transpire once Ataturk is placed upon his pedestal to lord it over Broadmeadows with his steely, Anzac-adoring gaze? Will we then erect a statue to Hirohito in order to celebrate Australian ties with Japan? Or should we, as is proper and right, erect statues at public expense only to honour great Australians or others who contributed to Australia, whatever their national or religious origins? If this is so, then perhaps the good councillors at Hume, Moreland and beyond would deign to commemorate, in marble and bronze, the forgotten Anzacs, the Aborigines. While historian Ken Inglis estimates that there are between 4,000-5,000 war memorials in Australia, there is no official database of Aboriginal war memorials and few such memorials exist, with South Australia only constructing one in 2013.

Prominent Ray Jackson, president of the Indigenous Social Justice Association, has stated: “We must have our own war memorial in our own agreed place. A place that is not shamefully hidden up a dirt track behind the national war memorial.” Surely then our own first Australians are much more deserving of honour when commemorating the centenary of Gallipoli than Ataturk, Leonidas and all the Spartans combined. It is an honour long overdue, and the Greek community, which appreciates the sacrifices of the Indigenous diggers, should make the requisite representations in this regard.

* Dean Kalymniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist.