Atatürk, Mustafa Kemal (1881–1938)

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Founder and first president of the Turkish Republic.

Although Atatürk ("Father of Turks") left this world behind in 1938, in Turkey his movie hero profile, icy-blue stare, elegant silhouette, and classically tailored suits remain everywhere to be seen. His portrait adorns the walls of teahouses as far flung as Van and Gaziantep. He was the founder of modern Turkey, the new nation-state forged from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire just after World War I. Sensing his death and wishing to secure his role in history for eternity, Mustafa Kemal began calling himself Atatürk in 1934, and it is the name posterity has assigned him as well. His extraordinary destiny captivated his contemporaries and continues to elicit the interest of historians. The "Kemalist Experiment" represented a crucial moment in the twentieth-century history of the Muslim developing countries. The West has yet to comprehend that what was being erected in Turkey during the 1920s and 1930s was a highly original model of nationalism and authoritarianism that continues even in the twenty-first century to function as the glue cementing the Turkish state and society in place. No other entity in the twentieth century, constructed purely of ideology and history, has so effectively preserved its political power.

In Turkey, Atatürk remains an icon and symbol of veneration and celebration. He is both the historical founder of the Republic and its actual and present foundation as well. His life's story, officially codified, written and told by Atatürk himself on multiple occasions (the most famous of which was the "Six Day Speech" in October 1927), is blended with the history of Turkey and constituted a radical break with Ottoman tradition. Atatürk sought to supply the new nation-state with previously unrecognized roots in the more or less mythical past of the Hittites, in order to deemphasize the Ottoman Empire and its inevitable decline. Atatürk conceived this history while he was building the nation-state, thereby laying the definitive groundwork for a national model that was only beginning to be contested at the turn of the twenty-first century, as Turkey opened to the European Union and with the installation of a moderate Islamic government.


Originally from Macedonia, one of the richest and most strategically important Ottoman provinces, the young Mustafa Kemal entered the military school at Salonica. He quickly stood out and his military career advanced rapidly because of both his aptitude for command and his personal abilities, but also because he fought in diverse campaigns at a time when the Ottoman Empire was forced to fight on numerous fronts. At the same time he became involved in the Young Turk movement, which was active precisely among those functionaries and officers of the European provinces concerned with reforming the empire in order to avoid its dismantlement, particularly in the Balkans. When Sultan Abdul-Hamid II (r. 1876–1909) surrendered to the demands of the Young Turks on 24 July 1907, what was an insurrection that had bubbled up in Macedonia was transformed into a revolution. The liberal constitution of 1876 was restored and general elections were planned. However, as a series of military and diplomatic reversals mounted, a Muslim-dominated conservative counterrevolution sought to regain power in Constantinople. The Young Turks, though, ultimately succeeded in reversing the situation and consolidating their revolution by having the sultan deposed.

During this period, Mustafa Kemal was earning his stripes (he was promoted to lieutenant-colonel after commanding an infantry division during the Balkan Conflict in 1912) and did not take part directly in these political events. He did, however, pay close attention to the Young Turk experiment (and studied their theoreticians of Turkish nationalism, such as Mehmet Ziya Gökalp [1875–1924]), which would prevail in 1913 in a coup d'état carried out by the most authoritarian members of the Committee of Union and Progress (or "Unionists"). The Young Turk Triumvirate that came to power ended the liberal era launched in 1907 and installed a military dictatorship. The desire to exact revenge against Russia and the Balkan states brought the Ottoman Empire into World War I against the Triple Entente powers (the United Kingdom, France, and Russia). Its new rulers wanted not only to preserve its unity but also to realize a project of pan-Turkish expansion into the Caucasus region. The army, even with Germany's powerful support, proved incapable of repelling the Russian onslaughts, however. The humiliation of these defeats, at Sarikamish in particular, and the nationalist propaganda denouncing the presence of minorities in the empire, drove the Unionist leadership to unleash the twentieth century's first genocide, perpetrated against the Armenians.


At the same time, near the end of April 1915, the Ottoman Empire faced an offensive in the Straits of the Dardanelles when French and English forces landed on Gallipoli. Stiff resistance by the Ottoman army and the heroism of certain of its leaders, including Mustafa Kemal, thwarted the operation; Kemal was then sent to fight the Russians on the Caucasus front, where he was promoted to the rank of general. Following this, Kemal assumed various commands in Syria (as part of the prestigious Yildirim Army Corps) and then in Palestine, where victories on the front line prevented, during two years of conflict, the empire's total collapse. At the beginning of October 1918, the Allies were threatening Constantinople; the Triumvirate withdrew from power, and a new government signed an armistice whose conditions were hard on the empire—in particular Article 7, which authorized the Allies to proceed with the occupation of any territory they deemed necessary. The sole concession made to the empire in the armistice was the right to reassemble troops scattered across its territories in the region of Anatolia and allowing them to retain their light weaponry. The Germans evacuated the Unionist ministers, and the Young Turk movement was effectively scuttled. An Allied fleet entered the Dardanelles and Constantinople was occupied. British, French, Russians, Greeks, Armenians, and even Italians assumed control over almost the entire empire based on secret accords. Simultaneously, the Liberal Entente government eliminated the last vestiges of Young Turk power, hoping this reaction would avoid the empire's complete dismantlement, and thereby sign the movement's political death warrant. The Allies, however, dashed these hopes when the Treaty of Sèvres, signed 10 August 1920, consecrated the end of Ottoman sovereign rule and the empire's permanent partition.

Anatolia was the only region to avoid Allied occupation. However, this large central province, whose Turkish population had become wholly homogenous following the destruction of the Christian communities formerly residing there, was largely destabilized due to its exposure to pillage by demobilized soldiers, the destruction of its infrastructure, and the destitution of its population. A national resistance movement found refuge there, but it was divided between outlaw Young Turks, stragglers devoted to the dream of pan-Turanianism, and Ottoman dissidents. Lauded for his military successes and reputation for authority, at just thirty-nine years of age Kemal was sent to Anatolia in 1919 by the Entente government and entrusted with the mission to reorganize the remaining military troops there, as part of an effort to reassert Constantinople's sovereignty. He landed at Samsum, birthplace of the great Kemalist era, and entered Anatolia where he encountered a fierce but fragmented nationalism based on a hatred aimed equally at both the imperial government and the European powers. Kemal immediately understood the opportunity laid out before him to head up the nationalist movement by offering it a plan for a nation-state founded on three primary values: military strength, Turkishness, and modernity.

This program was deeply Young Turk in inspiration, although it also contained a strong nationalist component. From the outset, numerous and prestigious groups supported Kemal in the great design he set out to accomplish under cover of his official mission. On 22 June 1919 in Amasya, he proclaimed the Turkish nation in danger, launched a call to arms to all patriots, and convoked a national congress. The British then demanded his immediate recall; he chose secession instead. "I shall remain in Anatolia until the Nation has regained its complete independence," was his reply to the sultan as he tendered him his resignation. The national Congresses at Erzurum (July 1919) and Sivas (September 1919) laid the groundwork of Kemalism proper. The National Pact, adopted by delegates assembled from throughout the empire, affirmed the fundamental indivisibility of the Turkish people and the mission to engage in a radical struggle for territorial integrity. Following this, a parliament created by empire-wide general elections defied the Allies by siding with the rebels. Kemal had successfully countered threats from both Constantinople and the maneuverings of the former members of the Unionist Triumvirate. He responded to them by forming a Turkish Grand National Assembly in April 1920 and a government he controlled seated at Angora, the future Ankara.


Possessing a galvanized and well-organized army, Kemal launched his early military offensives, first against the Armenian forces that had proclaimed an independent republic in the Caucasus. Armenia's incorporation into the Soviet Union, and the common interests shared by the Kemalists and the Soviets (formally laid down by the "Treaty of Brotherhood and Friendship" signed in March 1921), allowed Kemal to divert his troops toward the west. France and Italy quickly ceded the battlefield, making it possible for Kemal to mobilize his forces against the Greeks who were occupying a large portion of Asia Minor but whose troops were dispersed over a large swath of territory. The signing of the Treaty of Sèvres strengthened his political hand in a rebellion he did not entirely control, by allowing him to don the cloak of "reluctant savior of the Turkish nation." His initial military and political successes had already rendered him the title of ghazi, or triumphant commander. The legend of Kemal had begun. Its telling and retelling would erase his earlier ties with the Young Turks, his strivings after a ministerial career in 1919, and his religious leanings that had made it possible for him to refuse the sultan's fatwa in April 1920.

The Kemalists reached the end of winter 1920–1921, and the renewal of the Greek offensives, in a relatively strong position. Kemal managed to resist the first waves of enemy pressure, and in July 1921 the Grand National Assembly accorded him full powers and named him Generalissimo, at which point he issued the famous order: "Soldiers! March! Objective: The Mediterranean Sea!" After a difficult and at times uncertain battle at Sakarya in August 1921, the Grand National Assembly granted him the title of marshal and officially elevated him to the rank of ghazi. The diplomatic isolation relented after the conclusion of the 16 March 1921 treaty with Moscow and the complete surrender of Cilicia by France on 20 October of the same year. The renewal of the Greek offensive in the spring of 1922 was followed by a victorious counteroffensive conducted by Kemal himself. The Greeks, who had agreed to the Armistice of Moudania (Mudanya) on 15 October 1922, chose negotiation, as did the Allies, who were counting on the sultan and the government in Constantinople to deal with the rising Kemalist regime.


In order to counter the maneuverings of the Allies, Kemal directed his offensive against the remainder of the Ottoman Empire and its institutions. He denounced the sultanate before the Grand National Assembly, which led to a vote for its abolition on 2 November 1922. Sultan Mehmed VI (r. 1918–1922) fled Constantinople and the Kemalists proclaimed his downfall. The ghazi then picked up the pace of his transformation of the old empire by creating a sizable political party known as the Republican People's Party, whose lines of support began with his Anatolian clients. The Republican People's Party handily won the general elections organized for the following June, and Kemal himself was elected head of state by the Grand National Assembly.

The extent to which his victory was complete was then measured by the concluding of the Treaty of Lausanne, which ended the War of Independence. Opened at the beginning of 1923, the treaty's negotiations were quickly cut short by Kemalist intransigence.Theyresumedon23AprilandtheTreaty wassignedon23July, constituting a bitter reversal of the Treaty of Sèvres, but also the concretization of the ghazi's political and military crusade. At that point the National Pact was entirely completed. The young Kemal regime, sole interlocutor with the Allies, was legally recognized and given full sovereignty over the Turkish territories of the former empire up to and including Thrace in the east, excluding the islands bordering Asia Minor. The sole concession granted was for the Armenians, Greeks, and Jews, who obtained official status as "minorities." The Lausanne Treaty emerged out of a series of other treaties delineating the demographic and territorial map of modern day Turkey, most notably involving a large-scale population exchange of 900,000 Orthodox Christians who moved to Greece, and 400,000 Muslims transferred to Turkey.

On 6 October 1923, Kemalist troops entered Constantinople, which would assume the name Istanbul and lose its status as capital in favor of Ankara. The Republic of Turkey was officially declared on 29 October 1923. The makeup of the government highlighted a profound shift away from the form of an empire, and by designating the entire country "Turkiye" (ratified by the Constitution of 1924), the Kemalist regime was rejecting Ottoman and pan-nationalist solutions in order to affirm a nationalist Turkish identity that was incorporated into the state institutions and the territory itself.


To achieve the model Turkish nation and to ensure his own dominion as well, Kemal envisioned a national regime and discourse that borrowed equally from both the fascist regimes and the democracies of the West. The radical modernity of the Kemalist program nonetheless revealed deep-rooted ties to the past, including both the Young Turks, to whom he owed the essentials of his political formation, and the Ottoman Empire, whose cloak of conservative notability he donned in Anatolia. His political bases, steepedintradition, revealed numerous practices put in place in Ankara that detract from Kemalism's revolutionary character.

Pluralism was suppressed after the Kurdish revolt in February 1925, when a single-party system was instituted by the promulgation of a law to "restore public order" and by the reactivation of the "Independence Tribunals" that had been used to condemn to death hundreds of opposition figures during the war. The Progressive Republican Party was banned along with numerous journalists. An assassination attempt against Kemal at Izmir (Smyrna) on 15 June 1926 was followed by a new phase of repression that decimated the ranks of the remaining Young Turks who had escaped capture previously, along with some of their former collaborators.

The new political path being followed led to the construction of a single-party system centered on one man, the Supreme Head of the Nation and State. The similarities to Italian fascism and Russian sovietism, which arose at that time, were real. The only things missing were the ideological underpinnings and the revolutionary credo that Kemal was to proclaim in his Six-Day Speech at Nutuk, at the first congress of the Republican People's Party from 15 to 20 October 1927. Considered the "Sacred Book of the Turks," this event demonstrated the consolidation of the single-party system and the Kemal cult of personality. By rewriting the entire history of the Turkish people from the Golden Age to the Ottoman downfall, and up until the realization of the Republic in 1923 for which he was proclaimed a hero, Kemal conferred upon future generations, the army, and the state the duty to perpetuate this inaugural and definitive story. This grand historiographic plan would not, however, prove sufficient to anchor Kemalism in Turkish society.

The "Six Pillars," elaborated in 1931, encapsulated the bases of Kemal's regime: nationalism, republicanism, populism, statism, secularism, and finally revolutionarism. The invention during these same years of Turkishness, of being Turkish, was not directly contradictory with this universal project because it proclaimed the Turkish origin of humanity itself. At the same time, Turkishness defined a particular ethnicity whose historical birthplace, according to a racializing framework that nourished serious racism and anti-Semitism, was Anatolia.


The experiments conducted in the 1930s made way for Kemal to strengthen his control over the Turkish state and society by considerably increasing the cult of personality surrounding him. Already ghazi and "Eternal Leader," he became Atatürk ("Father of the Turks") in 1934 through a special law that also forbade all other Turks from the use of the same name. A large number of statues and monuments also appeared during this time. The principle of submitting to the decisions of national leaders, and the most preeminent one among them in particular, was diffused throughout all segments of society. Anything that might disturb national unity or threaten Turkey's territorial integrity was violently attacked. Persecution of the Armenians and Greeks remained prevalent even after the Treaty of Lausanne, and Kurdish revolts were suppressed with extreme harshness.

Atatürk, however, was not a presence among his people solely in the guise of a force of repression and coercion. He instituted a series of highly radical social changes, including the introduction of the Swiss Civil Code in 1926, and the renunciation of the Arabic alphabet in favor of the Latin as part of a purification of the Turkish language in 1928. In 1934 women were accorded the right to vote (in the midst of a single-party system), and in 1935 he instigated the "Six Pillars," including secularism.

This last reform was certainly the most emblematic of the nature of Kemal's political project for Turkey—in which conservatism was harnessed to the needs of revolution. Even as the politico-religious institutions associated with the Ottoman Empire were radically suppressed, the Muslim faith acceded in practice to the status of state religion, because true religious liberty could not exist so long as it threatened Turkish unity and identity.

The final years of Atatürk's life and reign were not the most brilliant. He abused alcohol and shut himself off from the outside world, primarily in his Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul (the former palace of the last sultans), where he died on 10 November 1938. He left behind a stable, economically developed, and highly cultivated country, most notably in the large cities of Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, but also in the regions populated by Kurds and saturated with nationalist sentiment. A colossal mausoleum was erected in Ankara, and an outpouring of iconography was put on display in every public place imaginable. Atatürk's death had transfigured him into a symbol that could be used as justification for any act, benign or malign. A critical historiography could not develop as long as his cult was omnipresent, especially in the army, which guaranteed that his role and regime would live on. Contestation of this official version would only arise at the dawn of the twenty-first century, with the rise to power of moderate Islamic governments ready to replace Kemalist nationalism with a different one: one wrapped in the national flag, as emblem for another kind of ethnocentrism, religious fervor, and populism. Having invented Turkey but being unable to adapt to democratic forms, Atatürk and his Kemalism had become barriers to political and social change. However, given the fact that they continue to embody contemporary Turkey, they remain charged with its problems and impasses.

See alsoArmenia; Armenian Genocide; Istanbul; Turkey.


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Vincent Duclert