president of Turkey,
original name Mustafa Kemal, also called Mustafa Kemal Paṣa
(Turkish: “Kemal, Father of Turks”)
born 1881, Salonika [now Thessaloníki], Greece
died Nov. 10, 1938, Istanbul, Turkey
Founder of modern Turkey.
Dedicated by his father to military service, he graduated near the
top of his class in military school. As a young officer, he was critical
of the government of the Ottoman Empire and became involved with the
Turkish nationalist Committee of Union and Progress. He nevertheless
fought for the government during World War I (1914–18), achieving great
success against Allied forces during the Dardanelles Campaign. The
eventual Allied victory brought British, French, and Italian troops to
Anatolia; appointed to restore order there, he used the opportunity to
incite the people against the Allied occupation. Greece and Armenia,
territorial beneficiaries of the Ottoman defeat, opposed the Turkish
nationalists, but Mustafa Kemal overcame all opposition, and the
Republic of Turkey was established in 1923. He was given the name
Atatürk (“Father of the Turks”) in 1934. He pursued a policy of
Westernization and secularization, in which Western styles of dress and
appellation were made mandatory, seclusion of women was abolished, and
the legal and educational system was overhauled. See also Enver Pasha;
soldier, statesman, and reformer who was the founder and first president
(1923–38) of the Republic of Turkey. He modernized the country’s legal
and educational systems and encouraged the adoption of a European way of
life, with Turkish written in the Latin alphabet and with citizens
adopting European-style names.
One of the great figures of the 20th century, Atatürk rescued the
surviving Turkish remnant of the defeated Ottoman Empire at the end of
World War I. He galvanized his people against invading Greek forces who
sought to impose the Allied will upon the war-weary Turks and repulsed
aggression by British, French, and Italian troops. Through these
struggles, he founded the modern Republic of Turkey, for which he is
still revered by the Turks. He succeeded in restoring to his people
pride in their Turkishness, coupled with a new sense of accomplishment
as their backward nation was brought into the modern world. Over the
next two decades, Atatürk created a modern state that would grow under
his successors into a viable democracy. (For a more complete discussion
of this period in Turkish history, see Turkey, history of: The emergence
of the modern Turkish state.)
Early life and education
Atatürk was born in 1881 in Salonika, then a thriving port of the
Ottoman Empire, and was given the name Mustafa. His father, Ali Riza,
had been a lieutenant in a local militia unit during the Russo-Turkish
War of 1877–78, indicating that his origins were within the Ottoman
ruling class, if only marginally. Mustafa’s mother, Zübeyde Hanım, came
from a farming community west of Salonika.
Ali Riza died when Mustafa was seven years old, but he nevertheless
had a significant influence on the development of his son’s personality.
At Mustafa’s birth, Ali Riza hung his sword over his son’s cradle,
dedicating him to military service. Most important, Ali Riza saw to it
that his son’s earliest education was carried out in a modern, secular
school, rather than in the religious school Zübeyde Hanım would have
preferred. In this way Ali Riza set his son on the path of
modernization. This was something for which Mustafa always felt indebted
to his father.
After Ali Riza’s death, Zübeyde Hanım moved to her step-brother’s
farm outside Salonika. Concerned that Mustafa might grow up uneducated,
she sent him back to Salonika, where he enrolled in a secular school
that would have prepared him for a bureaucratic career. Mustafa became
enamoured of the uniforms worn by the military cadets in his
neighbourhood. He determined to enter upon a military career. Against
his mother’s wishes, Mustafa took the examination for entrance to the
military secondary school.
At the secondary school, Mustafa received the nickname of Kemal,
meaning “The Perfect One,” from his mathematics teacher; he was
thereafter known as Mustafa Kemal. In 1895 he progressed to the military
school in Monastir (now Bitola, Macedonia). He made several new friends,
including Ali Fethi (Okyar), who would later join him in the creation
and development of the Turkish republic.
Having completed his education at Monastir, Mustafa Kemal entered the
War College in Istanbul in March 1899. He enjoyed the freedom and
sophistication of the city, to which he was introduced by his new friend
and classmate Ali Fuat (Cebesoy).
There was a good deal of political dissent in the air at the War
College, directed against the despotism of Sultan Abdülhamid II. Mustafa
Kemal remained aloof from it until his third year, when he became
involved in the production of a clandestine newspaper. His activities
were uncovered, but he was allowed to complete the course, graduating as
a second lieutenant in 1902 and ranking in the top 10 of his class of
more than 450 students. He then entered the General Staff College,
graduating in 1905 as a captain and ranking fifth out of a class of 57;
he was one of the empire’s leading young officers.
Mustafa Kemal’s career almost ended soon after his graduation when it
was discovered that he and several friends were meeting to read about
and discuss political abuses within the empire. A government spy
infiltrated their group and informed on them. A cloud of suspicion hung
over their heads that was not to be lifted for years. The group was
broken up and its members assigned to remote areas of the empire.
Mustafa Kemal and Ali Faut were sent to the 5th Army in Damascus, where
Mustafa Kemal was angered by the way corrupt officials were treating the
local people. Becoming involved again in antigovernment activities, he
helped found a short-lived secret group called the Society for
Fatherland and Freedom.
Nevertheless, in September 1907 Mustafa Kemal was declared loyal and
reassigned to Salonika, which was awash with subversive activity. He
joined the dominant antigovernment group, the Committee of Union and
Progress (CUP), which had ties to the nationalist and reformist Young
In July 1908 an insurrection broke out in Macedonia. The sultan was
forced to reinstate the constitution of 1876, which limited his powers
and reestablished a representative government. The hero of this “Young
Turk Revolution” was Enver (Enver Paşa), who later became Mustafa
Kemal’s greatest rival; the two men came to dislike each other
In 1909 two elements within the revolutionary movement came to the
fore. One group favoured decentralization, with harmony and cooperation
between the Muslims and the non-Muslims. The other, headed by the CUP,
advocated centralization and Turkish control. An insurrection
spearheaded by reactionary troops broke out on the night of April 12–13,
1909. The revolution that had restored the constitution in 1908 was in
danger. Military officers and troops from Salonika, among whom Enver
played a leading role, marched on Istanbul. They arrived at the capital
on April 23, and by the next day they had the situation well in hand.
The CUP took control and forced Abdülhamid II to abdicate.
Enver was thus in the ascendancy. Mustafa Kemal felt that the
military, having gained its political ends, should refrain from
interfering in politics. He urged those officers who wanted political
careers to resign their commissions. This served only to increase the
hostility of Enver and other CUP leaders toward him. Mustafa Kemal
turned his attention from politics to military matters. He translated
German infantry training manuals into Turkish. From his staff position
he criticized the state of the army’s training. His reputation among
serious military officers was growing. This activity also brought him
into contact with many of the rising young officers. A feeling of mutual
respect developed between Mustafa Kemal and some of these officers, who
were later to flock to his support in the creation of the Turkish
The CUP, however, was fed up with him, and he was transferred to
field command and then sent to observe French army maneuvers in Picardy.
Although consistently denied promotion, Mustafa Kemal did not lose faith
in himself. In late 1911 the Italians attacked Libya, then an Ottoman
province, and Mustafa Kemal went there immediately to fight. Malaria and
trouble with his eyes required him to leave the front for treatment in
In October 1912, while Mustafa Kemal was in Vienna, the First Balkan
War broke out. He was assigned to the defense of the Gallipoli
Peninsula, an area of strategic importance with respect to the
Dardanelles. Within two months the Ottoman Empire lost most of its
territory in Europe, including Monastir and Salonika, places for which
Mustafa Kemal had special affection. Among the refugees who poured into
Istanbul were his mother, sister, and stepfather.
The Second Balkan War, of short duration (June–July 1913), saw the
Ottomans regain part of their lost territory. Relations were renewed
with Bulgaria. Mustafa Kemal’s former schoolmate Ali Fethi was named
ambassador, and Mustafa Kemal accompanied him to Sofia as military
attaché. There he was promoted to lieutenant colonel.
Mustafa Kemal complained of Enver’s close ties to Germany and
predicted German defeat in an international conflict. Once World War I
broke out, however, and the Ottoman Empire entered on the side of the
Central Powers, he sought a military command. Enver made him cool his
heels in Sofia but finally gave him command of the 19th Division, which
was being organized in the Gallipoli Peninsula. It was here that the
Allies attempted their ill-fated landings, giving Mustafa Kemal the
opportunity to throw them back and thwart their attempt to force the
Dardanelles (February 1915–January 1916). During the battle, Mustafa
Kemal was hit by a piece of shrapnel, which lodged in the watch he
carried in his breast pocket and thus failed to cause him serious
injury. His success at Gallipoli thrust Mustafa Kemal onto the world
scene. He was hailed as the “Saviour of Istanbul” and was promoted to
colonel on June 1, 1915.
In 1916 Mustafa Kemal was assigned to the Russian front and promoted
to general, acquiring the title of pasha. He was the only Turkish
general to win any victories over the Russians on the Eastern Front.
Later that year, he took over the command of the 2nd Army in
southeastern Anatolia. There he met Colonel İsmet (İnönü), who would
become his closest ally in building the Turkish republic.
The outbreak of the Russian Revolution in March 1917 made Mustafa
Kemal available for service in the Ottoman provinces of Syria and Iraq,
on which the British were advancing from their base in Egypt. He was
appointed to the command of the 7th Army in Syria, but he was appalled
by the sad state of the army. Resigning his post, he returned without
permission to Istanbul. He was placed on leave for three months and then
assigned to accompany Crown Prince Mehmed Vahideddin on a state visit to
On his return to Istanbul, Mustafa Kemal fell ill with kidney
problems, most probably related to gonorrhea, which it is believed he
had contracted earlier. (His physical problems would later require him
to have a personal physician in constant attendance throughout his years
as president of the Turkish republic.) He went to Vienna for treatment
and then to Carlsbad to recuperate. While he was in Carlsbad, Sultan
Mehmed V died, and Vahideddin assumed the throne as Mehmed VI. Mustafa
Kemal was recalled to Istanbul in June 1918.
Through Enver’s machinations, the sultan assigned Mustafa Kemal to
command the collapsing Ottoman forces in Syria. He found the situation
there worse than he had imagined and withdrew northward to save the
lives of as many of his soldiers as possible.
Fighting was halted by the Armistice of Mudros (Oct. 30, 1918).
Shortly afterward, Enver and other leaders of the CUP fled to Germany,
leaving the sultan to lead the government. To ensure the continuation of
his rule, Mehmed VI was willing to cooperate with the Allies, who
assumed control of the government.
The nationalist movement and the war for independence
The Allies did not wait for a peace treaty to begin claiming Ottoman
territory. Early in December 1918, Allied troops occupied sections of
Istanbul and set up an Allied military administration. On Feb. 8, 1919,
the French general Franchet d’Espèrey entered the city on a white horse,
emulating Mehmed the Conqueror’s entrance in 1453 but signifying that
Ottoman sovereignty over the imperial city was over. The Allies made
plans to incorporate the provinces of eastern Anatolia into an
independent Armenian state. French troops advanced into Cilicia in the
southeast. Greece and Italy put forward competing claims for
southwestern Anatolia. The Italians occupied Marmaris, Antalya, and
Burdur, and on May 15, 1919, Greek troops landed at Izmir and began a
drive into the interior of Anatolia, killing Turkish inhabitants and
ravaging the countryside. Allied statesmen seemed to be abandoning
Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points in favour of the old imperialist views
set down in the secret treaties and contained in their own secret
Meanwhile, Mustafa Kemal’s armies had been disbanded. He returned to
Istanbul on Nov. 13, 1919, just as ships of the Allied fleet sailed up
the Bosporus. This scene, as well as the city’s occupation by British,
French, and Italian troops, left a lasting impression on Mustafa Kemal.
He was determined to oust them. He began meeting with selected friends
to formulate a policy to save Turkey. Among these friends were Ali Fuat
and Rauf (Orbay), the Ottoman naval hero. Ali Fuat was stationed in
Anatolia and knew the situation there intimately. He and Mustafa Kemal
developed a plan for an Anatolian national movement centred on Ankara.
In various parts of Anatolia, Turks had already taken matters into
their own hands, calling themselves associations for the defense of
rights and organizing paramilitary units. They began to come into armed
conflict with local non-Muslims, and it appeared that they might soon do
so against the occupying forces as well.
Fearing anarchy, the Allies urged the sultan to restore order in
Anatolia. The grand vizier recommended Mustafa Kemal as a loyal officer
who could be sent to Anatolia as inspector general of the 3rd Army.
Mustafa Kemal contrived to get his orders written in such a way as to
give him extraordinarily extensive powers. These included the authority
to issue orders throughout Anatolia and to command obedience from
Modern Turkish history may be said to begin on the morning of May 19,
1919, with Mustafa Kemal’s landing at Samsun, on the Black Sea coast of
Anatolia. So psychologically meaningful was this date for Mustafa Kemal
that, when in later life he was asked to provide his date of birth for
an encyclopaedia article, he gave it as May 19, 1919. Abandoning his
official reason for being in Anatolia—to restore order—he headed inland
for Amasya. There he told a cheering crowd that the sultan was the
prisoner of the Allies and that he had come to prevent the nation from
slipping through the fingers of its people. This became his message to
the Turks of Anatolia.
The Allies pressured the sultan to recall Mustafa Kemal, who ignored
all communications from Istanbul. The sultan dismissed him and
telegraphed all provincial governors, instructing them to ignore Mustafa
Kemal’s orders. Imperial orders for his arrest were circulated.
Mustafa Kemal avoided dismissal from the army by officially resigning
late on the evening of July 7. As a civilian, he pressed on with his
retinue from Sivas to Erzurum, where General Kâzim Karabekir, commander
of the 15th Army Corps of 18,000 men, was headquartered. At this
critical moment, when Mustafa Kemal had no military support or official
status, Kâzim threw in his lot with Mustafa Kemal, placing his troops at
Mustafa Kemal’s disposal. This was a crucial turning point in the
struggle for independence.
Kâzim had called for a congress of all defense-of-rights associations
to be held in Erzurum on July 23, 1919. Mustafa Kemal was elected head
of the Erzurum Congress and thereby gained an official status. The
congress drafted a document covering the six eastern provinces of the
empire. Later known as the National Pact, it affirmed the inviolability
of the Ottoman “frontiers”—that is, all the Ottoman lands inhabited by
Turks when the Armistice of Mudros was signed. It also created a
provisional government, revoked the special status arrangements for the
minorities of the Ottoman Empire (the capitulations), and set up a
steering committee, which then elected Mustafa Kemal as head.
Mustafa Kemal sought to extend the National Pact to the entire
Ottoman-Muslim population of the empire. To that end, he called a
national congress that met in Sivas and ratified the pact. He exposed
attempts by the sultan’s government to arrest him and to disrupt the
Sivas Congress. The grand vizier in Istanbul was driven from office. The
new government, which was sympathetic to the nationalist movement,
restored Mustafa Kemal’s military rank and decorations.
Unconvinced of the sultan’s ability to rid the country of the Allied
occupation, Mustafa Kemal established the seat of his provisional
government in Ankara, 300 miles (480 kilometres) from Istanbul. There he
would be safer from both the sultan and the Allies. This proved a wise
decision. On March 16, 1920, in Istanbul, the Allies arrested leading
nationalist sympathizers, including Rauf, and sent them to Malta.
The conciliatory Istanbul government fell and was replaced by
reactionaries who dissolved the parliament and pressured the religious
dignitaries into declaring Mustafa Kemal and his associates infidels
worthy of being shot on sight. The die was cast—it would be the sultan’s
government or Mustafa Kemal’s.
Many prominent Turks escaped from Istanbul to Ankara, including İsmet
and, after him, Fevzi (Çakmak), the sultan’s war minister. Fevzi became
Mustafa Kemal’s chief of the general staff. New elections were held, and
a parliament, called the Grand National Assembly (GNA), met in Ankara on
April 23, 1920. The assembly elected Mustafa Kemal as its president.
In June 1920 the Allies handed the sultan the Treaty of Sèvres, which
he signed on Aug. 10, 1920. By the provisions of this treaty, the
Ottoman state was greatly reduced in size, with Greece one of the major
beneficiaries. Armenia was declared independent. Mustafa Kemal
repudiated the treaty. Having received military aid from the Soviet
Union, he set out to drive the Greeks from Anatolia and Thrace and to
subdue the new Armenian state.
As the war against the Greeks started to go well for Mustafa Kemal’s
forces, France and Italy negotiated with the nationalist government in
Ankara. They withdrew their troops from Anatolia. This left the
Armenians in southeastern Anatolia without the protection of the French
troops. With the French and Italians out of the picture, Kâzim then
moved against the Armenian state. He was assisted by the Bolsheviks, who
had established relations with the government of the GNA. Deserting
their Armenian protégés, the Russians supplied the nationalists with
weapons and ammunition and joined the assault on the Armenian Socialist
Republic, which had been their own creation. This combined attack was
too much for the Armenians, who were crushed in October and November
1920; they surrendered early in November. By the treaties of
Alexandropol (Dec. 3, 1920) and Moscow (March 16, 1921), the
nationalists regained the eastern provinces, as well as the cities of
Kars and Ardahan, and the Soviet Union became the first nation to
recognize the nationalist government in Ankara. Turkey’s eastern borders
were fixed at the Arpa and Aras rivers.
The Greeks were more difficult to overcome, as they continued the
advance toward Ankara which had begun in June 1920. By the end of July
they had taken Bursa and were pushing on toward Ankara. Ali Fuat was
relieved as commander on this front and replaced by İsmet. The Turkish
army stood its ground at the İnönü River, north of Kütahya. They threw
the Greeks back on Jan. 10, 1921, at the First Battle of the İnönü.
The Greeks did not resume their offensive until March 1921. İsmet
again met them at the İnönü River, in a battle that raged from March 27
to April 1. On the evening of April 6–7, 1921, the Greeks broke off the
engagement and retreated. In 1934, when the Turks were required by law
to take last names, İsmet assumed the surname İnönü in memory of these
Undaunted, the Greeks launched another offensive on July 13, 1921.
İsmet fell back to the Sakarya River, so close to Ankara that the
artillery fire could be heard there. Opposition to Mustafa Kemal
developed in the GNA, led by Kâzim, who had grown jealous. The
opposition demanded that Mustafa Kemal’s powers be curtailed so that a
new policy could be developed. In addition they sought to have Mustafa
Kemal assume personal direction of the war against the Greeks,
anticipating a Greek victory that would result in the destruction of
Mustafa Kemal’s stature and charisma. On August 4, Mustafa Kemal agreed,
on the condition, which was accepted, that he be granted all the powers
assigned to the GNA. He then assumed the role of commander in chief with
total authority. He defeated the Greeks at the Battle of the Sakarya
(Aug. 23–Sept. 13, 1921) and initiated an offensive (Aug. 26–Sept. 9,
1922) that pushed the Greeks to the sea at Izmir.
With Anatolia rid of most of the Allies, the GNA, at the behest of
Mustafa Kemal, voted on Nov. 1, 1922, to abolish the sultanate. This was
soon followed by the flight into exile of Sultan Mehmed VI on November
17. The Allies then invited the Ankara government to discussions that
resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne on July 24, 1923. This
treaty fixed the European border of Turkey at the Maritsa River in
The nationalists occupied Istanbul on October 2. Ankara was named the
capital, and on October 29 the Turkish republic was proclaimed. Turkey
was now in complete control of its territory and sovereignty.
The Turkish republic
Mustafa Kemal then embarked upon the reform of his country, his goal
being to bring it into the 20th century. His instrument was the
Republican People’s Party, formed on Aug. 9, 1923, to replace the
defense-of-rights associations. His program was embodied in the party’s
“Six Arrows”: republicanism, nationalism, populism, statism (state-owned
and state-operated industrialization aimed at making Turkey
self-sufficient as a 20th-century industrialized state), secularism, and
revolution. The guiding principle was the existence of a permanent state
of revolution, meaning continuing change in the state and society.
The caliphate was abolished on March 3, 1924 (since the early 16th
century, the Ottoman sultans had laid claim to the title of caliph of
the Muslims); the religious schools were dismantled at the same time.
Abolition of the religious courts followed on April 8. In 1925, wearing
the fez was prohibited—thereafter Turks wore Western-style headdress.
Mustafa Kemal went on a speaking tour of Anatolia during which he wore a
European-style hat, setting an example for the Turkish people. In
Istanbul and elsewhere there was a run on materials for making hats. In
the same year, the religious brotherhoods, strongholds of conservatism,
The emancipation of women was encouraged by Mustafa Kemal’s marriage
in 1923 to a Western-educated woman, Latife Hanım (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.
Almost overnight the whole system of Islāmic law was discarded. From
February to June 1926 the Swiss civil code, the Italian penal code, and
the German commercial code were adopted wholesale. As a result, women’s
emancipation was strengthened by the abolition of polygamy, marriage was
made a civil contract, and divorce was recognized as a civil action.
A reform of truly revolutionary proportions was the replacement of
the Arabic script—in which the Ottoman Turkish language had been written
for centuries—by the Latin alphabet. This took place officially in
November 1928, setting Turkey on the path to achieving one of the
highest literacy rates in the Middle East. Once again Mustafa Kemal went
into the countryside, and with chalk and a blackboard he demonstrated
the new alphabet to the Turkish people and explained how the letters
should be pronounced. Education benefited from this reform, as the youth
of Turkey, cut off from the past with its emphasis on religion, were
encouraged to take advantage of new educational opportunities that gave
access to the Western scientific and humanistic traditions.
Another important step was the adoption of surnames or family names,
which was decreed by the GNA in 1934. The assembly gave Mustafa Kemal
the name Atatürk (“Father of the Turks”).
After having settled Turkey firmly within its national borders and
set it on the path of modernization, Atatürk sought to develop his
country’s foreign policy in similar fashion. First and foremost, he
decided that Turkey would not pursue any irredentist claims except for
the eventual incorporation of the Alexandretta region, which he felt was
included within the boundaries set by the National Pact. He settled
matters with Great Britain in a treaty signed on June 5, 1926. It called
for Turkey to renounce its claims to Mosul in return for a 10 percent
interest in the oil produced there. Atatürk also sought reconciliation
with Greece; this was achieved through a treaty of friendship signed on
Dec. 30, 1930. Minority populations were exchanged on both sides,
borders were set, and military problems such as naval equality in the
eastern Mediterranean were ironed out.
This ambitious program of forced modernization was not accomplished
without strain and bloodshed. In February 1925 the Kurds of southwestern
Anatolia raised the banner of revolt in the name of Islām. It took two
months to put the revolt down; its leader Şeyh Said was then hanged. In
June 1926 a plot by several disgruntled politicians to assassinate
Atatürk was discovered, and the 13 ringleaders were tried and hanged.
There were other trials and executions, but under Atatürk the country
was steadfastly steered toward becoming a modern state with a minimum of
repression. There was a high degree of consensus among the ruling elite
about the goals of the society. As many of those goals were achieved,
however, many Turks wished to see a more democratic regime. Atatürk even
experimented in 1930 with the creation of an opposition party led by his
longtime associate Ali Fethi, but its immediate and overwhelming success
caused Atatürk to squash it.
In his later years Atatürk grew more remote from the Turkish people.
He had the Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul, formerly a main residence of
the sultans, refurbished and spent more time there. Always a heavy
drinker who ate little, he began to decline in health. His illness,
cirrhosis of the liver, was not diagnosed until too late. He bore the
pain of the last few months of his life with great character and
dignity, and on Nov. 10, 1938, he died at 9:05 am in Dolmabahçe. His
state funeral was an occasion for enormous outpourings of grief from the
Turkish people. His body was transported through Istanbul and from there
to Ankara, where it awaited a suitable final resting place. This was
constructed years later: a mausoleum in Ankara contains Atatürk’s
sarcophagus and a museum devoted to his memory.
Atatürk is omnipresent in Turkey. His portrait is in every home and
place of business and on the postage and bank notes. His words are
chiseled on important buildings. Statues of him abound. Turkish
politicians, regardless of party affiliation, claim to be the inheritors
of Atatürk’s mantle, but none has matched his breadth of vision,
dedication, and selflessness.