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Kemal Atatürk
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Kemal Atatürk

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (March 12, 1881 - November 10, 1938), Turkish soldier and statesman, was the founder and first President of the Republic of Turkey. He was born in the Ottoman city of Selânik (now Thessaloniki in Greece), where his birthplace is preserved as a museum. In accordance with the then prevalent Turkish custom, he was given the single name Mustafa. His father, Ali Rıza (Efendi) was a customs officer who died when Mustafa was a child, his mother was Zübeyde (Hanım).

Table of contents
1 Early career
2 War commander
3 Nationalist leader
4 President of Turkey
5 Kemal's reforms
6 Legacy

Early career

Mustafa studied at the military secondary school in Selânik, where he was given the additional name Kemal ("perfection") by his math teacher in recognition of his academic brilliance. As Mustafa Kemal he entered the military academy at Monastir (now Bitola) in 1895. He graduated as a lieutenant in 1904 and was posted to Damascus. He soon joined a secret society of reform-minded officers called Vatan (Fatherland) and became an active opponent of the Ottoman regime. In 1907 he was posted to Selânik and joined the Committee of Union and Progress commonly known as the Young Turks.

The Young Turks seized power from the Sultan Abdul Hamid II in 1908, and Kemal, became a senior military figure. In 1911 he went to the province of Libya to take part in the defence against the Italian invasion. During the first part of the Balkan Wars Kemal was stranded in Libya and unable to take part, but in July 1913 he returned to Constantinople and was appointed commander of the Ottoman defences of the Gallipoli area on the coast of Thrace. In 1914 he was appointed military attache in Sofia, partly to remove him from the capital and its political intrigues.

War commander

When the Ottoman Empire entered World War I on the side of Germany, Kemal was posted to Rodosto (now Tekirdag) on the Sea of Marmara. His area of command again included the Gallipoli area, and he was thus the Ottoman commander against the invading allied forces during the Gallipoli landings by British, French and ANZAC forces in April 1915. Here he made his name as a brilliant military commander, although he was extremely wasteful of the lives of his troops, who died in large numbers in "human wave" attacks. Nevertheless he was the first Ottoman military commander to defeat a western army in living memory, and became a national hero, awarded the title Pasha (commander).

During 1917 and 1918 Kemal Pasha was posted to the Caucasus front fighting the Russian forces with some success, and then to the Hejaz, where the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule was in progress. He became increasingly critical of the incompetent conduct of the war by the Sultan's government, and also of German domination of the Empire. He resigned his command, but eventually agreed to return to command Ottoman forces in Palestine.

In October 1918 the Ottomans capitulated to the Allies, and Kemal became one of the leaders of the party which favoured a policy of defending the Turkish-speaking heartlands of the Empire, while agreeing to withdraw from all the non-Turkish territories. Turkish nationalist sentiment was aroused by the Greek occupation of Izmir (Smyrna) in May 1919, in accordance with the Treaty of Sevres (this Treaty was signed by the Sultan under Allied duress but never ratified by the Ottoman parliament.)

Nationalist leader

The government banished Kemal to eastern Anatolia, but he seized this opportunity to leave the capital and found a Turkish nationalist movement based at Ankara. In April 1920 a provisional Parliament at Ankara offered Kemal the title President of the National Assembly. This body repudiated the Sultan's government and the Treaty of Sevres.

The Greeks understood the threat posed to their position in western Anatolia by Kemal's forces and advanced inland to meet them. After advancing most of the way to Ankara, the Greeks were defeated by Kemal and his lieutenant Ismet Pasha (later Ismet Inönü) at the battles of Sakarya (August 1921) and Dumlupinar (August 1922). In September Kemal's forces took Izmir. Kemal's victory in the War of Independence saved Turkey's sovereignty. The Treaty of Lausanne superceded the Treaty of Sevres and Turkey recovered all of Anatolia and eastern Thrace from the Greeks.

President of Turkey

The Republic of Turkey was founded on October 29, 1923, and Kemal was elected the republic's first president. Although the outward forms of democracy were established, Kemal was in practice a dictator, although a relatively moderate one. In any case his prestige was so high that for most of the 1920s there was little opposition to his government. Kemal admired some aspects of the Soviet Union and of Fascist Italy, but he was neither a communist nor a fascist. Private property was protected and encouraged, and political opponents usually suffered no worse fate than banishment to the provinces.

On the other hand Kemal was a militant Turkish nationalist, determined to create a homogenous Turkish state. By agreement with the Greek government, the great majority of the large Greek minority was expelled from the country, and an influx of Turks from Greece and Bulgaria was accepted in their place. The Kurds were not persecuted, but Kemal insisted that they were really just a variety of Turk, and their language and culture was discouraged.

Kemal's reforms

Kemal's most lasting legacy was the campaign of secularization, modernization and westernization which he imposed on a sometimes reluctant Turkish nation. The Caliphate (the position of nominal head of the Islamic faith, held by the Ottoman Sultans), was abolished in March 1924. The title of Pasha was abolished, so Kemal Pasha became once again simple Mustafa Kemal. The theological schools were closed, the Sharia law of Islam was replaced by a law code based on that of Switzerland. The Italian Penal Code and the German Commerce Code were also adopted.

The emancipation of women was encouraged by Mustafa Kemal's marriage in 1923 to a Western-educated woman, Latife Hanim (they were divorced in 1925), and was set in motion by a number of laws. In December 1934, women were given the vote for parliamentary members and were made eligible to hold parliamentary seats.

In a typically idiosyncratic gesture, Kemal regarded the fez (the Ottoman hat) as a symbol of feudalism and banned it. He wore a European-style suit and hat, and insisted that all Turks do likewise. The veil for women was banned and women were encouraged to wear western dress and enter the work force. In 1928 the government decreed that the Arabic script be replaced by a modified Latin alphabet, which was easier to learn and teach and made publishing much easier. All citizens from six to 40 years of age were made to attend school and learn the new alphabet. The Turkish language was "purified" by the removal of many Arabic and Persian words and their replacement by new Turkish ones.

Visual representation of human forms was banned during Ottoman times following the Islamic faith. Kemal opened new schools to teach art to boys and girls. Atatürk also lifted the Islamic ban on alcohol: he had a great appreciation for the national liquor, raki, and consumed vast quantities of it. In 1934 he required all Turks to adopt western style surnames. He took the name Kemal Atatürk, meaning "father of Turks."

In 1931 the official ideology of the regime, Kemalism, was promulgated by the ruling Republican People's Party, which Kemal founded and controlled. Its six principles were republicanism, nationalism, populism, statism, secularism and revolutionism. These vague principles became an increasingly thin cover for Kemal's personal rule and during the 1930s opposition to his government increased and became better organised. Opposition was tempered, however, by fear of both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

Atatürk gave Turkey a new prestige in the international field by his achievements in both military and political fields, crowned in July 1936 by the restoration of Turkish sovereignty over the Straits under the Montreux Convention. Despite the increasingly capricious nature of his rule, Atatürk was still generally popular with the mass of the Turkish people when he died in 1938 of complications due to cirrhosis of the liver, a consequence of his heavy drinking over many years.


Atatürk's successor, Ismet Inönü, fostered a posthumous Atatürk cult which has survived to this day, even though the introduction of a genuine democratic system after World War II saw the Republican People's Party lose power in 1946. Atatürk's face and name are seen and heard everywhere in Turkey: his portrait can be seen in all public buildings, on all Turkish banknotes, and even in the homes of many Turkish families. Giant Atatürk statues loom over Istanbul and other Turkish cities. He is comemmorated by Atatürk International Airport in Istanbul, the Atatürk Bridge over the Golden Horn and many other memorials all over Turkey.

Few countries have been as genuinely and permanently changed by a single ruler as Turkey was by Atatürk. He admired the Soviet Union and Fascist Italy, but his reforms proved more lasting than the revolutionary changes of those regimes. Although he was by nature an authoritarian, he was farsighted enough to create a political system which could adapt to the introduction of democracy fairly easily. His secularist and westernising reforms proved permanent, and gave Turkey domestic peace and a measure of prosperity even in his lifetime. But Kemalism has also left Turkey with a divided identity - Europeanised but not quite European, alienated from the Islamic world but still a Muslim country.

Atatürk's legacy also survives in the Turkish military, which sees itself as the guardian of Turkish nationalism and secularism. Kemalist officers staged coups in 1960 and 1980 in defence of what they saw as the principles of Atatürk against corrupt politicians, and even today the moderately Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has to tread carefully on issues such as Cyprus and Kurdistan for fear of offending Kemalist sentiment in the military. The power of the army and the authoritarian Kemalist strain in Turkish politics remain obstacles to Turkey's acceptance into the European Union.