Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

views updated

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

Salonika, in the Ottoman Empire
November 10, 1938
Istanbul, Turkey

Military leader, political leader, statesman

The name Atatürk means "Father of the Turks," and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk earned the title by devoting his life to making positive changes in his native land. Often called the founder of modern Turkey, Atatürk was a great general who defeated invading armies and led a revolution to gain independence for Turkey. He also was a great visionary who understood the kinds of changes that would be necessary for Turkey to join the new Europe that would emerge after World War I. As president of Turkey for fifteen years, Atatürk introduced many changes and reforms in Turkish law and society. Though some Turks resisted these changes to their traditions, Atatürk is still honored in Turkey as a great hero.

Poverty and Struggle at the End of an Empire

When Atatürk was born in the old Greek city of Salonika in 1881, that city was part of the Ottoman Empire, which had been created by the Ottoman Turks in the fourteenth century. The armies of the Ottoman Empire conquered the entire Middle East and much of North Africa. By the 1500s, it had become the most powerful state in the world. When the Ottomans tried to push westward into Europe, however, European nations banded together to stop them. After that, the empire's decline was slow but sure. Born near the end of the Ottoman Empire's sixth century, Atatürk grew up in poverty in the Turkish section of Salonika, and the miserable conditions of his life made him angry. He hated the class system that separated the rich from the poor. He hated the traditional clothes he had to wear—loose trousers and blouse with a sash—that branded him as a peasant. He hated the rigid religious schools that poor Turks attended. He hated the corrupt government officials who controlled the city. Unwilling to accept authority without questioning, he fought with his parents and his teachers as often as he fought with the Greek children in the streets of his city.

Atatürk finally refused to go to religious school and was sent to a modern, secular (nonreligious) school; there he began to wear western clothes like pants and a shirt, instead of his traditional clothes. In 1893, he entered a military school, where he was very successful. He had been given only the name Mustafa, because common people generally had no last names, but his mathematics teacher added the name Kemal, which means "perfection." Mustafa Kemal graduated in 1905 with the rank of staff captain. In military school, he had not only learned how to be a soldier, he also had learned that the government of the failing empire was dishonest and corrupt. And, from the extremely patriotic Greeks and Macedonians, he had learned about nationalism—a fierce devotion to one's nation.

Fighting for a New Turkey

Atatürk had a distinguished military career, serving all over the vast Ottoman Empire and advancing to the rank of pasha, or general. He played a major role in defending the Ottoman Empire during World War I, becoming a beloved war hero. In April 1915, he led a brilliant defense of the Turkish seaport of Gallipoli against an Allied invasion. Though defeated by the British at Megiddo in September 1918, he regrouped his forces and faced Allied troops again in October, holding a defensive line at Aleppo until an armistice (peace treaty) was signed with the British on October 30. He did not forget his early dislike of the corrupt Ottoman government, however. (The sultan was the ruler of the Ottoman Empire.)

His skill on the battlefield went hand in hand with his rebellion. Early in his career he helped form a secret organization of officers called "Homeland and Freedom" to plot against the sultan. During World War I, Atatürk angered his superiors by suggesting that the army should withdraw its support from the non-Turkish parts of the empire.

Although the armistice dissolved the Ottoman army, Atatürk kept the Turkish armies together to defeat the Greeks who, encouraged by the other Allies, were invading Turkey's west coast. In 1919, Atatürk landed in the Black Sea port of Samsun to launch Turkey's War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire. On April 20, 1920, Mohammed VI, the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire, signed the Treaty of Sèvres with the Allies. This treaty gave large parts of Turkey to various Allied nations, leaving only a tiny, powerless nation that would be under Allied control. Atatürk was determined to resist the terms of the treaty and gain international recognition for a new Turkey. On April 23, 1920, the first Grand National Assembly took office with Atatürk as president. By 1923, under Atatürk's leadership, the assembly had created the Republic of Turkey, replacing the absolute monarchy of the sultan with a democratic parliamentary form of government. The Treaty of Sèvres was replaced by the more acceptable Treaty of Lausanne, which the new nationalist government signed on July 24, 1923.

Turkey's First President

During the fifteen years of his presidency, from 1923 to 1938, Atatürk worked to modernize and westernize his country. He abolished Islam as the state's religion and replaced Turkey's

legal system, which was based on Islamic law, with a secular legal system. Religious leaders were stripped of much of their power. The veil worn by women and the fez, or brimless hat, worn by most Turkish men were symbols of the religious state and were therefore outlawed, to be replaced by western-style clothing. They also adopted the western calendar, which took as its reference point the birth of Jesus Christ. The Turkish language would no longer be written in Arabic script, but in the Latin alphabet used by most western nations. Atatürk himself traveled throughout the country with a blackboard to teach people how to pronounce the unfamiliar letters. He believed that a good education system was the key to a free and powerful nation, and he worked hard to improve Turkish schools.

The status of women also was improved by Atatürk's sweeping reforms. Girls were allowed to attend school, and women were given the right to vote and hold office. Atatürk also required the use of last names for everyone and founded the Institutes of Turkish History and Turkish Language. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was that, in a land that had been a ragged remnant of a dying empire, Atatürk inspired people with pride that they were Turkish. In 1934, the parliament officially gave him the name Atatürk—Father of the Turks—in recognition of all that he had done for the Turkish people.

Not everyone welcomed the changes that Atatürk brought to Turkey, however. Many Turks were devout Muslims (the followers of Islam) who clung to the religious state and still honored the old traditions and the local religious leaders whose power Atatürk had removed. Others in Turkey resented Atatürk's intense nationalism. For example, the Kurds, a large ethnic minority living within Turkey and other nearby countries, felt that by concentrating on a Turkish identity within Turkey, Atatürk would smother the Kurdish culture. During his presidency, Atatürk defeated two Kurdish rebellions against his authority.

Though Atatürk had a great desire to make Turkey a democratic nation, he held onto a dictator's power until the end of his life. His political party, the Kemalists or People's Republican Party, was the only political party allowed. Atatürk passed and enforced his new laws not only with the strength of his powerful personality, but also with the strength of his military. However, he looked forward to a time when dictators would no longer rule in Turkey, and he had a great respect for the common people. He did not hold himself apart from the peasants and even worked side by side with other farmers on a government farm he set up on his estate near Ankara.

Atatürk always put the interests of Turkey above his personal life. He was married for only two years (1933–35) late in his life. He worked to improve conditions within Turkey up until his death, from liver disease, in 1938. Atatürk is still revered in his native land; most public buildings and many private homes proudly display his portrait.

For More Information


Brock, Ray. Ghost on Horseback: The Incredible Atatürk. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1954.

Heller, Deane Fons. Hero of Modern Turkey: Atatürk. New York: J. Messner, 1972.

Mango, Andrew. Atatürk. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2000.

Walker, Barbara K., Filiz Erol, and Mire Erol. To Set Them Free: The Early Years of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. North Haven, Conn.: Shoe String Press, 1981.


Lawlor, Eric. "His Name Meant 'Father Turk,' and That He Was." Smithsonian, March 1996, 116–28.

Web sites

"Mustafa Kemal Atatürk." [Online] (accessed April 2001).

"Mustafa Kemal Atatürk." [Online] (accessed April 2001).

What's in a Hat?

"We are going to adopt the modern, civilized, international mode of dress … including a headdress with a brim," Mustafa Kemal Atatürk told his people, according to Deane Fons Heller in Hero of Modern Turkey: Atatürk. When Atatürk banned the wearing of the fez, a brimless hat, in 1925, many of his fellow Turks were stunned and horrified. It may seem odd that the brim of a hat should be so important, but the fez was a meaningful symbol to the Muslim people in Turkey.

Within the Ottoman Empire, different populations had been distinguished less by nationality than by religion. Some were Jewish, others were Catholic or Orthodox, but the dominant religion of the empire was Islam. Those who practice Islam are called Muslims. Islam is a religion rich with tradition and strictly enforced customs. One of the most sacred of these customs is that Muslim men always keep their heads covered. For centuries, men in Islamic countries have worn turbans. Because this kind of headdress covers the head while allowing the wearer to touch his forehead to the floor in prayer, the wearing of the turban became a revered tradition. In countries like the Ottoman Empire where Islam was the government as well as the religion, these traditions solidified into law. In the 1700s, the turban was replaced within the empire by the fez that served the same religious function as the turban. The fez symbolized much of what it meant to be a Muslim man, and all Muslim men wore it.

Because Atatürk wanted to separate religion and government, he felt it was necessary to end the practice of wearing the fez, to remove this symbol of the power of Islam from everyday Turkish life.