"I stand for the nation's dreams, and my life's work is to make them come true."
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkish general and statesman; b. Thessaloniki 1881-03-12, d. Istanbul 1938-11-10. Founder and first president of the Turkish Republic, 1923-38.
Young Mustafa was born in the city of Salonika (now Thessaloniki again) in Macedonia which has since become part of Greece. The son of Ali Riza, a former customs official turned lumber merchant, he was orphaned at an early age and, along with his sister, raised by his mother Zubeyde, by most accounts an iron-willed woman. Like many young boys in that age he went to a religious school but then changed to a regular school. At the age of twelve he enrolled in a military school where his academic excellence in the field of mathematics earned him the second name Kemal (perfection). Thus he became known to the world as Mustafa Kemal. He then went on to study at the Istanbul War Academy from which he graduated with the rank of staff captain.
Soon after gaining his commission and while posted to Damascus he began taking an active part in a secret military movement opposing the Sultan, named Homeland and Freedom, and was involved in the Young Turks' coup against the Sultan on 1908-07-03 that led to the deposition of Abd al-Hamid and installation of Mehmet V. The nationalist policies inspired by the Young Turks would later become a critical factor in the dissolution of the Empire as they raised strong Arab resentment.
Kemal saw service in all corners of the Empire and distinguished himself in combat from Albania to Libya, and pretty much everywhere in between. He only spent a short time out of combat units--once while serving as a staff officer in his native city and once while on a diplomatic mission as attaché to the embassy in Sofia.
The turning point for the army officer Mustafa Kemal came while he held the rank of major and commanded the 19th Division at Gallipoli. The Ottoman Empire, on its shaky last legs, was allied with the Central Powers against the Entente and Russia. What was basically a series of miserable choices by the Allies handed Kemal, an acknowledged strategist with a record of leading daring attacks, the opportunity to deal them a spectacular blow. Setting out with a defence riddled with weaknesses and with demoralised troops, he inspired his men to hold their strategic positions on the peninsula and pinned down the allied forces, many of them ANZAC troops, right where they landed. Positioning and knowledge of the terrain would turn this battle into a rout the likes of which Britain would not be seen again until Dunkerque. With good leadership and luck on his side, including having a shell fragment destroy his pocket watch, he entered the public conscience as the saviour of Istanbul. A legend had been created. As a 35-year old general the following year he led the otherwise dissolving Ottoman armies to victory in Anatolia and over the next two years to triumph in Syria and Palestine.
Despite Kemal's best efforts on the front, the end of World War I found the Ottoman Empire, long dubbed the "sick man of Europe," on the losing side and its capital occupied. Victors Britain, Italy, Greece and Russia staked hefty claims on the remnants of the Empire. While Russia had domestic troubles of her own to deal with and renounced most claims, most significantly that of control over the Bosporus, Italy and Britain squabbled over western Asia Minor. Greek forces, backed and supplied by Britain, took Izmir (Smyrna) in May 1919. They then proceeded to invade eastern Thrace, and advanced deep into Turkish territory, at one point even threatening Ankara.
Around the same time as the Greek landing at Smyrna, the date being 1919-05-19, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, coming from Istanbul, arrived in Samsun on the Black Sea coast with nothing less than revolution in mind. His message, cabled to the Grand Vizir, was clear and blunt:
"I cannot accept protection by a Foreign power. The greatest source of protection and support for me is in the bosom of my nation."
Kemal then proceeded to Erzurum where he was Chief Inspector of the 9th Army. On 1919-07-08 he formally resigned from the army in order to become a leader in politics. Later that year he would preside over the Erzurum and Sivas Congresses. He later established his headquarters in Ankara, where he opened the opposition Grand National Assembly on 1920-04-20. This action was deemed an act of treason by the Istanbul government, which sentenced him to death in absentia the following month. In the meantime, the Greek expeditionary force continued to advance. Unlike a hundred years earlier though, when the plight of the Greeks during their struggle for independence had encouraged the West to intervene, this time it was the Turkish population that suffered. Eventually public opinion in Britain led the British government to stop supplying the rampant Greek army. The Great Powers negotiated the Treaty of Sevres which was unacceptable to Kemal.
The die had been cast for Kemal Pasha. Under sentence of death from his own government and in the face of the enemy's advance, he saw it as his mission to rescue his country. For the next fifteen months the Assembly consolidated its powerbase in Anatolia and in August 1921 Mustafa Kemal Pasha was appointed commander-in-chief of its armed forces. During the year that followed nobody could stand in his way as he marched westwards, demolishing his internal foes, defeating local warlords backed by foreign powers and thwarting the advancing Greeks.
Cut off from their British suppliers and with no base between their front line and Izmir, the Greeks retreated until finally, 1922-09-22 saw Gazi ("Victor" as he had been named after the first major battle of this war) Mustafa Kemal Pasha's army enter Izmir and more or less literally throw the Greek occupation forces into the sea in what remains modern Greece's most humiliating military defeat. For the first time in a hundred years the Greek state's expansion at the expense of the Ottoman Empire had been checked. Retaliation for the Greek army's actions was savage and not few of the ethnic Greeks and Christians would die at the hands of Turks. By October all occupational forces were leaving and a treaty or armistice was in place with all neighbouring countries. In more far-reaching repercussions, the government of Lloyd George fell after the British misadventure in Asia Minor.
Kemal was not to stop there though. Having subdued the external foes he was able to turn his full attention to the internal struggle for an independent Turkish nation. On 1922-11-01 the Grand National Assembly declared the sultanate abolished and sixteen days later the Sultan fled under British guard. Kemal's forces consolidated their hold on the entire country. On 1923-07-24 the Treaty of Lausanne, which still stands as a significant pillar of Greco-Turkish relations, was signed and defined the borders of the new Turkish state, estalished the status of the Straits and that of the citizens of Turkey and the other countries carved out of the Ottoman Empire as well as their minority populations. Its most lasting consequences concerned the population exchange between Greece and Turkey which reached a seven-digit number. At the same time Greece conceded the right for reparations and Kemal's Turkey did not claim them. It's likely that this apparently magnanimous gesture was prompted by the realistic fact that there was no way Turkey would be seeing that sort of money from a cash-strapped country burdened with a million refugees.
By October the last of the occupiers had left Istanbul and on the 13th of that month Ankara was proclaimed capital of the new Turkish state. On 1923-10-29 the Grand National Assembly formally proclaimed the Turkish Republic with Mustafa Kemal as its president. There now existed a Turkish nation-state, unencumbered, with the exception of the Kurds in the south-east and a small Greek minority in the north-west, by the non-Turkish subject populations of the Ottoman era. In March of the following year Kemal abolished the Caliphate and shut down all religious courts. Following a religious revolt in the east, the Assembly forbade mixing religion and politics. By the end of 1925 all convents were closed and the international calendar used in the west was adopted.
1926 was a revolutionary year in the young Turkish Republic. With a calendar and dress code pointing firmly westwards (the fez had been banned in 1921 and Kemal himself had taken to wearing strictly western attire), law and culture were the subject this time and the most important change was the founding of numerous guiding educational and cultural institutions, culminating in the adoption of the Latin alphabet as the country's official script, finalised in 1928. An undefeated general in war and revolution, one of very few in history, Kemal was a no less formidable peacetime leader and had a clear vision of the country's future.
"Following the military triumph we accomplished by bayonets, weapons and blood, we shall strive to win victories in such fields as culture, scholarship, science, and economics ... the enduring benefits of victory depend only on the existence of an army of education."
The sweeping legal reforms of 1926-34 that he instigated were by any measure a remarkable change in a very short time. Gone were the anachronistic laws of the Ottoman Empire and religious law. They were replaced by a modern legal system grafted together from elements of the Swiss civil code, the Italian penal code and German business law. While it may be argued that its society was unprepared for many of these reforms, Kemal farsightedly provided the country with more than its then needs in terms of legal infrastructure. His egalitarian legal code included the principle of "one man, one vote" and enfranchised women on 1934-12-05, many years before neighbouring countries, nominally closer to the West, would be able to say the same.
"The nation has placed its faith in the precept that all laws should be inspired by actual needs here on earth as a basic fact of national life."
1934 was the greatest of this extraordinary reformer's last years. The Turkish parliament named him Atatürk, Father of the Turks, as part of a new law requring the use of surnames. In the same year his sometimes nemesis, sometimes friend, but always admirer Eleftherios Venizelos, prime minister of Greece on several occasions, nominated Atatürk for the Nobel Prize for Peace.
"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 ... these extraordinary activities have earned him fame as 'a great man', in the full sense of the term." --Eleftherios Venizelos
He remained in the presidency until his death in 1938 and long after that lives on in the history books and the collective conscience of a nation. An individual devoted to his country before himself and family, he married once in 1923 but divorced two years later. This, mind you, may also have had something to do with his reported chronic love affair with both wine and women.
Few reformers of the first half of the twentieth century had such a lasting impact on the countries they led. Lenin's Soviet Union is no more. Reza Shah Pahlevi's creation of a secular Iran fell to the revolution of 1979. An analogy may be drawn to Mexico a decade before Kemal's rise but the early death of Francisco Madero and his inability to unite the nation meant there was no single figure that would guide a troubled country in the same way Kemal did. The year 2007 sees a Turkey which may have been weakened by political strife and poor fiscal policies but nonetheless quarrels with itself on the foundations and within the principles that Atatürk laid in 1923, even when the argument is about the principles themselves. His vision has guided his people long after the death of the man himself.
"There are two Mustafa Kemals. One the flesh-and-blood Mustafa Kemal who now stands before you and who will pass away; the other is you, all of you here who will go to the far corners of our land to spread the ideals which must be defended with your lives if necessary. I stand for the nation's dreams, and my life's work is to make them come true."
While still in charge of an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, the Turkish state stands as a powerful and quite remarkable buffer between Islamic fundamentalism and the West. When the voices of radicalism and religious zealotry become a threat to the secular Republic, they are silenced by whatever means necessary. One must not be quick to condemn the brash and maybe oppressive means without understanding that the alternative, at least for the Western world, is one of the world's biggest military powers under the rule of Islamic zeal at the very gates of Europe. This explains why the Turkish state is able to "get away with murder" as some would put it. Instead, there is a not totally stable but independent, functional and resilient republic allied with the West. This is the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This is, one may presume, the will of the Turkish people who inherited and preserve this legacy.
The Turkish Times
National Library of Turkey