Atatürk – Father of a Nation

Christopher Fray

Mustafa Kemal & Ottoman Decline

Western readers may be less familiar with the name Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his contribution to Turkish history. But anybody who has visited Istanbul, Izmir or any city or town in Türkiye will have spotted his face on flags, banners and posters, everywhere. From billboards to butcher’s shops, supermarkets to schools. Atatürk is everywhere in Türkiye. But who is he? How did he come to power? And what did he do for his country? Mustafa Kemal was born in Salonika, modern day Thessaloniki in the dying years of the Ottoman Empire and by the time he was old enough, he joined the Ottoman army via the Ottoman Military College. This was the start of a long and complicated relationship with the Empire, which he would eventually have a hand in reinventing. At this point, the Ottoman Empire was beset with problems, both internal and abroad. Since the late 17th century, the Empire had been contracting, slowly losing territory in the Balkans, Greece and Egypt. This prompted the infamous nickname attributed to the Ottoman Empire in this period by the Russians, ‘The sick man of Europe.’ Domestically, the Empire had issues with liberal and Nationalist revolts by groups such as the Young Turks who rejected the Islamisation of the state and wanted to be reunited with other ethnic Turks in Asia. Anti-Empire murmurings were heard all over the state, mostly from young, educated army officers. One of the more cunning and eager of these was Mustafa Kemal and in 1909, he helped to depose of Sultan Abdulhamit with the Young Turks. During his military career before 1909, Kemal had shown himself to be an intelligent officer with strategic sense and courage. He had excelled in leading troops in Syria and Libya and commanded absolute respect and obedience from his soldiers. The state was politically in a state of flux. The Young Turks were in control, but the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 saw all of Ottoman European territory lost to Albania, Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria. The Turkish government was fronted by Enver Pasha, with the puppet Sultan Mehmet V as nothing but a figurehead. Enver was a man jealous of power who sidelined Kemal at every opportunity, even ordering his failed assassination.
Atatürk – Father of a Nation
Mustafa Kemal (centre), 1906 Ottoman Staff College

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Atatürk – Father of a Nation
Mustafa Kemal, 1918

The Commander

It was during the First World War that Kemal particularly came to prominence. With a proven military record, Enver Pasha was forced to bring Kemal back into the fold. The Ottomans had sided with Germany, in the hope that they might protect them from Russia in an impending war. This meant that the might of the British Empire was against them. In 1915, the British attacked Gallipoli, in the hope of penetrating inland and capturing Constantinople. As it was, Kemal was able to push the British back and force a retreat, resulting in over 30,000 British dead. Many of these troops were Australian and New Zealanders. Over 57,000 Ottoman troops were killed in the assault, and although Gallipoli remains in British military memory as a grave defeat, in Turkish military memory it is seen as the Turkish army, and Mustafa Kemal’s crowning success. The determination of his command is summed up well in his famous order to his troops during the assault, “I am not ordering you to attack; I am ordering you to die.” This brutal resolve was to have a large impact on the ‘Atatürk myth’ which would develop over the next 100 years. After the defeat of Germany and the signing of the Armistice in 1918, terms were reached which included a total surrender by the Ottoman state to the Allies. Istanbul was occupied by the British and it was decided that the Ottoman state would be divided among Britain, France, Greece and Italy via the Treaty of Sèvres. Turkey was to be reduced to Central Anatolia, with Ankara at its centre. This was a huge blow for the Ottomans, and Mustafa Kemal knew that if he did not act fast, the state would be overcome. He travelled to Samsun, a city at the top of the country on the Black Sea coastline, on 19th May 1919. This would be the day that the War of Independence began. Defying British and Turkish government orders to stand down, Kemal and his followers declared themselves the true government of the Turks, travelling from city to city gaining massive support from the people. In 1920, an alternative parliament was established in Ankara with Kemal as the President. There were many groups resisting the Sultan and vying for power at this point. Kemal rose to the top of the groups by outmanoeuvring his opponents in sometimes brutal fashion. He had established a stronghold in the centre of the country with huge support, but still much of the country was occupied by foreign powers. The Greek army had been steadily proceeding along the Mediterranean coast and inland to Istanbul, while Kemal was re-capturing Armenia, in the East. Kemal fought the Greeks back through Anatolia with extreme ruthlessness. As the Greeks retreated, they burnt towns and killed thousands of Turks. This would begin a string of brutal war atrocities by both sides throughout the 1920s, the main episode being the capture of burning of the Greek occupied city of Smyrna (modern day Izmir) where Greeks and Armenians were slaughtered by the Turkish troops. Casualties are still debated to this day and the burning of Smyrna remains a dark reminder of the steps Mustafa Kemal was willing to go to carve out a Turkish homeland from the dying Ottoman Empire.
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The Reformer

After securing the Turkish borders and removing the British and French influences from the country, Mustafa Kemal was appointed the President of the new Turkish Republic on 29th October 1923. This was a turning point for Kemal, as he transitioned from a wartime leader to a domestic reformer. He took the name Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, meaning Father of the Turks. Although Turkey was free from foreign occupation, the state of the country was in disarray. After years of war and political strife, Atatürk had an incredible amount of work to do. Atatürk’s vision of the Republic was a complete inversion of the former Ottoman model. He refused to follow a hereditary line so that the Republic would live on after him. His intention for the Republic was to follow Western Republican values, for he saw, in the Western powers, their ability to modernise and progress technologically in ways which were impossible under the rigid Ottoman structure. In the following years he instituted a number of reforms which set to remould the Turkish Republic into a modern industrial state. He introduced a new Latin-based alphabet to replace the Ottoman script which could be read only be the elite. The new language closely resembled the spoken Turkish of the day. It is an extremely phonetic language which made it relatively easy to learn. In 1927, only 8.16% of the 13,600,000 Turkish population was literate. Therefore, most of the population were learning to read and write for the first time under the new alphabet reform. Mustafa Kemal himself went from town-to-town teaching and explaining the new alphabet system in public squares and town halls. He outlawed the Fez, a common Ottoman headpiece and instead called upon male citizens to wear western hats and suits when doing business. He made it mandatory for each citizen to have a first name and a surname in the western style and he introduced the international calendar and clock, as well as the metric system. Alcohol was legalised and the penal and civil codes were reformed and modernised, including full voting rights for women, and the right to be elected for state positions. Finally, secularism was written into the constitution of the young Republic, allowing the human form to be presented in public places (which pre-Republic Islamic law did not allow). His image was everywhere, and a ‘cult of personality’ grew over the years, not dissimilar to that of Lenin in USSR. There is still either an Atatürk bust, statue or framed photograph in every school and every town hall in Türkiye. The Ottoman way of life which had endured for 600 years had been overturned in a period of 14 years. It goes without saying that there was conservative and religious pushback to the Kemal reforms. Many resented the dramatic changes to society and felt that they were losing their Ottoman heritage and identity, replaced by the ‘loose morals’ of the West. Atatürk did not shy away from putting down revolts and insurrections against his regime. His intention was to build and maintain domestic security and he would stop at nothing to achieve this. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk died on 10th November 1938, in the shadow of the Second World War. He died from liver cirrhosis at the age of 55 and lay in state before being moved to Ankara where he remains in a Mausoleum, visited by millions of Turks each year. There is no doubt that Atatürk had a dramatic impact on Turkish life and society from broad ranging legal reforms to the micro level, with his emphasis on the importance of teaching geometry and mathematics in schools. Turning our gaze to modern Türkiye, just over 100 years after the founding of the Republic, Atatürk is still the key political figure in Turkish society. Whatever one makes of his politics there is no doubt that the ‘Atatürk legend’ which has surrounded the man for over 100 years has been essential to the formation and longevity of Türkiye as a country. Without Mustafa Kemal, the Türkiye of today would surely not exist.
Atatürk – Father of a Nation
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, 1930s
Atatürk – Father of a Nation

Christopher Fray

Christopher Fray is a London based historian who holds an undergraduate degree in Classics from the University of Manchester and a master’s in history from Birkbeck College, University of London. He writes for a number of online history magazines and enjoys covering a wide range of topics in his writing, from antiquity to modern history.
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