Atatürk - Father of the Turks Documentary
The man known to history as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was born in the Turkish port of Salonika at some point in the early months of 1881, he was born as Mustafa and the name Ataturk, which he is most commonly known by, is one he would acquire much later in life. His father was Ali Riza, a lieutenant in a local militia, who had served during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 to 1878 as an officer, a role which indicates that he was part of the minor Ottoman nobility, unfortunately Ali Riza died when Mustafa was just seven years of age, although it is generally agreed that he had a bearing on his son’s later development, in that he insisted that Mustafa should attend a secular rather than a religious school, a significant development which the future Ataturk would later cite as important in his upbringing. Mustafa’s mother was Zubeyde Hanim, who came from a farming community near Salonika, she may have been of Yoruk ancestry, a Turkish ethnic subgroup, although Mustafa’s ethnicity in general, is somewhat complex and it has been suggested that he had some Albanian, Bulgarian or Jewish blood, although he was primarily Turkish.
After Ali Riza’s death Mustafa’s mother moved the family back to her childhood farming community in the countryside outside Salonika, but when he reached his teenage years, Mustafa was sent to a secondary school in the town itself, it was here that he acquired the name Kemal, meaning ‘the Perfect One’, a title which was bestowed on him by a mathematics teacher in the school, in recognition of his precocious intelligence and maturity, thus, by the mid-1890s Mustafa had become known as Mustafa Kemal, he would not acquire the name by which he is more commonly known, Ataturk, meaning ‘Father of the Turks’, until 1934, when he was formally granted the title by the Turkish parliament. Also, in his early teenage years, Ataturk was already developing a desire to join the military and his path forward in life seemed to be becoming clearer by this time, it was perhaps unsurprising that in 1896, at just 15 years of age, he joined the Monastir Military High School. The Ottoman Empire was changing around Mustafa Kemal as he grew up, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the empire had been a great power, with the sultans in Istanbul ruling over Turkey, North Africa, the Levant and most of the Balkans, even threatening the Austrian city of Vienna as late as 1683, but the eighteenth century had seen imperial power decline markedly, just as the Christian states of Europe were entering modernity with industrialisation and the advent of greater military power. Indeed, the decline of the Ottoman Empire was seen in successive defeats, in wars with Russia, in the late eighteenth century and then in the first half of the nineteenth century, the empire further fragmented as regions such as Greece revolted and gained independence from the sultan. Consequently, by the 1850s, Europeans had begun to refer to the Ottoman Empire as ‘the sick man of Europe’, a label used to denote its rapidly declining state and failure to modernise in the same manner in which Britain, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia were, in the nineteenth century.
The decrepit state of the empire generated internal concern within it and a concomitant reform movement, and so, in 1865 a secret society known as the Young Ottomans was established, amongst a cohort of Turkish intellectuals, who were determined to rejuvenate the empire, the goal was to modernize the state by establishing a constitutional government, one which would reduce the power of the sultan and his court in Istanbul and devolve it into the hands of modern cabinet of ministers and civil servants, furthermore, the Young Ottomans wished to maintain Islam as a central part of Ottoman identity, but they also believed that modern ideas of liberalism, democracy and technological development needed to be introduced across the empire, if it was to keep pace with its European rivals. In 1876, the Young Ottomans succeeded in forcing the Sultan Abdul Hamid II to introduce the first Ottoman constitution, while the power of the sultan himself was reduced, however, this was just a brief experiment and in 1878, Abdul Hamid II decided to resume his absolutist power, curbing the attempted reforms of the Young Ottomans and dissolving the recently established parliament. However, the matter of Ottoman reform, did not end there, as during Kemal’s youth, a new movement calling themselves the Young Turks, emerged in the empire, again determined to modernise and rejuvenate the Ottoman state, these were a mixed group of intellectuals, revolutionaries and military men, many of whom were not Turks and were actually Greek, Jewish and Arab citizens of the empire, and by the early twentieth century they had formed into a powerful organisation through an umbrella group called the Committee of Union and Progress or the CUP for short, soon the Young Turks and the CUP would move centre stage in Turkish politics in ways which would have profound implications for the young Kemal’s life.
Meanwhile, having finished high school Ataturk had enrolled at the Ottoman Military Academy in Istanbul in 1899 and after three years there moved on to the Military College, finally completing his military training in January 1905, already by this time there were signs of his less than conformist political leanings, and due to stated objections to the powers held by the sultan Abdul Hamid II, he was briefly incarcerated later in 1905 and upon his release he was possibly assigned to Damascus in Syria, as a kind of punishment for his earlier transgressions, overall he was lucky not to have been dismissed entirely from the military at this time, and by 1907, he had been relocated to the empire’s remaining European territories, with commands in Macedonia and parts of what is now southern Bulgaria, it was here that he joined the CUP, the political wing of the Young Turks, on the eve of one of the most significant moments in modern Turkish history. The Young Turks and the CUP had continued to agitate in the early twentieth century for the political reform of the Ottoman Empire and a return to the constitutional system which had been briefly developed, between 1876 and 1878. By this time, there was a very real threat, that owing to its political and military weaknesses, the empire would lose further territorial possessions in the region of Macedonia, just to the west of Istanbul itself, but when this threat arose a group of army officers, who were Young Turks, marched on Istanbul, in the summer of 1908 and demanded that Abdul Hamid II renounce much of his power and reintroduce the constitution of 1876, and so, this Young Turk Revolution ushered in a period of constitutional government and effectively ended the sultan’s absolutist rule over the Ottoman Empire. It was the inception of a period of profound political change in Turkey, in which Mustafa Kemal would soon play a great part. Ataturk participated in the Young Turk Revolution himself, though he would play an even greater role in the turmoil which subsequently gripped the empire and following the curtailing of Sultan Abdul Hamid II’s power, parliamentary elections were called for the winter of 1908 and the Turkish Senate was also reconvened for the first time since 1878. These elections would result in a plurality of parties gaining support across the empire, some such as the CUP and the Liberals did well, as had been expected, but other groupings representing the empire’s socialists and ethnic minorities, such as the Jews, Armenians and Arabs of the empire, also gained a solid representation, however, the rapid pace of these changes quickly resulted in a counter-revolution, when on the 31st of March 1909, elements within the military and the Muslim church, attempted to overthrow the new government and re-establish the power of the sultan, but in the course of April, the conservative backlash was quickly defeated when one of the leading military commanders of the empire and Young Turks, Enver Bey, marched on Istanbul and seized the capital for the new government.
As a result, Abdul Hamid II was then forced to abdicate in favour of his brother Mehmed, who now became Mehmed V. In the aftermath of the failed coup, Ataturk’s career began to run in two opposing directions, as in the months that followed, he was responsible for translating a series of German infantry training manuals into Turkish and pushed for the reform of the Ottoman military, so that it might be better able to enter combat with its European neighbours. As a result of these efforts, the young Ataturk, who was not yet thirty, began to acquire a considerable reputation amongst some of the officer class of the Turkish military, but, conversely, he had also engendered the hostility of the CUP leadership, particularly Enver Bey,. Subsequently, in the course of 1909 and 1910, owing to his contention, which he was not slow to vocalise, that the militant wing of the CUP should not play an active role in Turkish politics going forward, he was transferred overseas, to observe the French army in northern France.
The outbreak of the first of a series of wars, which the Ottoman Empire would fight during the early 1910s, initiated Kemal’s rehabilitation, starting in September 1911, when the kingdom of Italy took advantage of a rebellion in the Turkish province of Yemen, to invade Libya, at that time the western-most province of the Ottoman Empire in North Africa. In the year-long war which followed, Ataturk excelled in combat for the first time, leading the Turkish forces, which managed to repel an Italian attack on Tobruk in late December 1911, but just weeks later, he would suffer a debilitating injury, when a splinter of limestone pierced his eye during an Italian bombing raid at the Battle of Derna in mid-January 1912, the wound would never fully heal and the tissue damage would leave his sight permanently impaired in his left eye for the remainder of his life. The injury also forced Kemal out of the Italo-Turkish War, as he was sent back to Europe to receive specialist medical attention, at an eye clinic in the city of Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was while he was here in the autumn of 1912, that he received news of the outbreak of a further conflict that being the First Balkan War, which was launched by a coalition of smaller Balkan states, including Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia, in an effort to prize further lands away from the Turks, while the Ottomans were distracted militarily by the war in Libya. After this, Kemal was quickly assigned to the defence of the Gallipoli Peninsula in Eastern Thrace on the western extremity of the Dardanelles, but neither he, nor any other Turkish commander, was in a position to make a positive impact on the course of the conflict, having been completely overwhelmed by the superior numbers of the Balkan allies, and eventually, by the end of 1912, the vast majority of the Ottoman Empire’s European territories other than Istanbul itself and its hinterland had been conquered. The Empire’s fortunes were now at an unprecedentedly low ebb, already in October 1912, upon the outbreak of the war in the Balkans, the government in Istanbul had finalised the Treaty of Lausanne with Italy, whereby it surrendered Libya to the Italians, effectively ending the Ottoman presence in North Africa, and so in May 1913, at the conclusion of the First Balkan War, the Ottoman Empire had to recognise the loss of over 80% of its remaining territory in the Balkans, and only Istanbul and a small enclave around it in Thrace, remained in Turkish hands, the rest was divided amongst Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia. However, some pride was restored, just a few weeks later, when Bulgaria, unhappy with the division of territories following the conflict, went to war with its former allies in Greece and Serbia, in the resulting Second Balkan War, which lasted just six weeks.
Consequently, the Turkish state was able to reacquire some of its recently lost territory, most important in this respect, was the recapture of the city of Edirne or Adrianople, a symbolic centre in the Ottoman Empire, which had served as its capital, in the century prior to the final conquest of the Byzantine Empire, as well as the capture of Istanbul in 1453. Ataturk himself, had been involved in the seizure of Adrianople in the late summer of 1913 and his military reputation was soaring as a result. The Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 had major internal ramifications within the Ottoman Empire, as disgust at the catastrophic loss of territory in the opening weeks of the First War, drove military elements within the CUP, led by Enver Bey, Mehmed Taalat and Cemal Pasha, to launch a coup d'etat on the 23rd of January 1913, when the central palaces in Istanbul were seized, the Minister of War, Nazim Pasha, was killed and the Grand Vizier, Kamil Pasha, was forced to resign, following this, the sultan, Mehmed V, now became a mere puppet, and power for the next several years in the Ottoman Empire, would rest in the hands of the CUP and in particular the triumvirate of Enver Bey, Mehmed Taalat and Cemal Pasha.
This triumvirate would soon be tasked with directing the empire through its greatest crisis yet, an emergency which would see Ataturk begin his rise to power. For over thirty years two major political problems had been brewing in Europe, one concerned the division of the continent into two antagonistic military camps, on one side was the Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia, and on the other the Triple Alliance of Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy. These countries were acting in an increasingly jingoistic fashion in the early twentieth century, with, for example, Britain and Germany engaged in a naval arms race to build more Destroyer-class warships, whilst, the second flash point was in the Balkans where nationalist sentiment amongst a number of minorities such as the Serbs and Bulgars, had served to destabilise the region.
The Ottoman Empire was central to this, as the nationalist sentiment was at its most extreme in lands which had long formed part of the sultan's territories in Europe, but which had largely fragmented, into a number of breakaway states. Additionally, the retreat of the Ottoman border towards Istanbul, was creating a fresh source of unrest for Europe's two alliances, as Austria-Hungary and Russia vied to acquire a dominant position in the Balkans, as Ottoman influence there waned. Now all of this came to a head in the summer of 1914, when on the 28th of June, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by a Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Princip in the streets of Sarajevo, the response was initially confined to a diplomatic standoff between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, but in the weeks that followed it ballooned into a full blown European crisis, as Russia threatened to intervene should Austria-Hungary invade Serbia and in late July, the Tsar’s government in St Petersburg, ordered mobilisation of its troops, then, on the 1st of August, Germany declared war on Russia in defence of its Austrian ally, and two days later the Germans opened a second front in Western Europe, by declaring war on France and then invading neutral Belgium the following day. This in turn, led Britain to declare war on Germany, thus, a regional crisis in the former lands of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, expanded in the late summer of 1914, into a general European war, which would soon become the First World War. The triumvirate did not immediately bring the Ottomans into the conflict, although the Turks had been loosely aligned with Germany for some time, in fact, it was this loose alliance which somewhat inadvertently pushed the empire into the war, The government in Istanbul had recently purchased two warships from Germany which were in the Black Sea in October 1914, which were still commanded by German officers, when these ships attacked Russian ports in the Black Sea, the Russians replied by declaring war on the Ottoman Empire on the 1st of November 1914, followed by Britain and France four days later. Thus, the empire had now joined the First World War, and over the next four years, it would fight on several fronts, largely against Russia on its northern borders in the Balkans and the Caucasus and against the British in the Middle East, the London government having effective control over Egypt.
Ataturk was soon in action, in his first major command which was in one of the most significant clashes of the entire war, as no sooner had the Ottomans entered the fighting, than the then, British Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Winston Churchill, began promoting a scheme to secure the Straits of Gallipoli, between Europe and Turkey for the Allies. Churchill's belief was that with possession of Gallipoli and the Dardanelles, the Allies would be in a position to undertake a naval bombardment of Istanbul, this would either neutralise the Ottomans or force them out of the war entirely, in the process giving the Russian Black Sea fleet access to the Mediterranean and securing Egypt and the Suez Canal for the British, and so, having convinced the Allies of the feasibility and benefits of the initiative, a huge naval campaign was launched at Gallipoli in February 1915, it would eventually involve half a million Allied troops, many of them drawn from the Anzac countries of Australia and New Zealand, whilst on the Ottoman side, less numbers were involved, but as the Allies soon learned, the defensive position the Turks enjoyed in the Dardanelles and Gallipoli, more than compensated for their numerical inferiority. Kemal had been placed in charge of the 19th division of the Ottoman Fifth Army, but he was quickly promoted, effectively to overall command of the Ottoman effort in the Gallipoli campaign, when he had the distinction of predicting how the Allies would launch their attack, and so, he was soon commanding the foremost military victory the Ottomans managed, in the whole of the First World War. Then, between February and April, the Allied command made several unsuccessful attempts to force the Straits, with nearly twenty warships, but when several of these were lost, their troops became bogged down on the beachheads, on either side of the Dardanelles, here Ataturk was able to inflict serious damages from the entrenched Ottoman forces, who had occupied defensive forts in the highlands near the sea coast, and by the autumn of 1915 it was clear that the campaign was a defeat for the Allies, but it took until January 1916 for them to fully extract their forces, and by then, over 250,000 Allied troops, mostly from the Commonwealth nations, had been either killed or wounded. Although the Turks had suffered similar losses, the repulsing of the Allies was considered a major victory, for a country which had suffered military humiliations at the hands of the European powers for decades, as a result, Kemal was celebrated as a war hero.
With this newfound status, Ataturk was quickly placed in a senior command in the Caucasus against the Russian offensive in 1916. By the spring of 1916 the Russians had advanced through the Caucasus into northeast Turkey itself, seizing the key Black Sea port city of Trabzon and there was now a genuine fear, that Central Anatolia would be overrun, bringing the Tsar’s armies into the heartland of Turkey. And so, Kemal was appointed to command the defence of the region in the summer of 1916 and launched a counteroffensive, which succeeded in recapturing the town of Bitlis, in eastern Turkey, in August, thereafter, the fighting stalled, as a bitterly cold winter began to set in and the two sides could not gain a further strategic advantage, eventually political developments in Russia would turn the tide of the Caucasus Campaign, as the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in early 1917, saw the Russian offensive stall and then collapse in the months that followed. The outbreak of the Russian Revolution and the collapse of the Caucasus Campaign freed Ataturk for service elsewhere and he was quickly reassigned to the Ottoman front against the British in Syria and Iraq, where he was appointed to command the Seventh Army in Syria in July 1917, but he was appalled by the state of the Ottoman forces there and clashed with the German military advisors in the province, and following a report he compiled on these problems, he was rejected and he resigned from his post and returned to Istanbul, whilst there, he was commanded to accompany the Crown Prince, Mehmed Vahideddin, the brother of Mehmed V and heir to the empire, on a state visit to Germany, during this trip, he had a chance to visit the Western Front in northeast France and concluded that the Allies were going to win the war, an opinion which he was not shy in expressing to the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, in Berlin. On returning to Istanbul Ataturk became ill with kidney problems, which was most likely the result of having contracted gonorrhoea sometime earlier, the condition would cause him serious physical problems for the remainder of his life and in later years he had a personal physician in constant readiness nearby, should his services be needed, as a result of the illness, in early 1918, he travelled to Vienna for treatment and then to the spa town of Carlsbad in Bohemia, to the west of Prague to recuperate, while there in July 1918, he learned that Mehmed V had died and been succeeded by the Crown Prince, as Mehmed VI, and Kemal, who had not seen active duty in nearly a year at this time, was now recalled to the capital, by the man he had escorted to Germany the previous year. It was perhaps through the machinations of the triumvir and the Minister for War, Enver Bey, who were fearful of Ataturk’s growing reputation, that Ataturk was assigned to command the collapsing Ottoman forces, on the Southern Front in Syria, in August 1918.
Upon his arrival there, Kemal found the situation to be far worse than he had experienced the previous year, as a result he withdrew northward, to try to save as much of the Ottoman Seventh and Eight Armies as possible and to consolidate the frontlines, north of the city of Aleppo, it was whilst he was stationed here, in late October 1918, that the Ottoman government agreed a cessation of the conflict in the Middle East with the Allies, ultimately, the war was ending in a catastrophic defeat for the Ottomans, having lost most of their territory in the Middle East, however Ataturk was one of the very few Turkish politicians and generals to come out of the First World War with his reputation improved, as in four years of conflict, he had never suffered a major military defeat, in any of his postings and had been central to the only major victory won by the Ottomans at Gallipoli. The Armistice of Mudros, as the deal agreed on the 30th of October 1918 was called, constituted a complete capitulation by the government of Mehmed VI, as under its terms the Ottomans agreed to surrender their remaining garrisons, everywhere outside of Turkey itself, furthermore, the Ottoman army was to demobilise and there was even a realisation of Churchill’s earlier ambitions, in a provision which allowed the Allies to occupy a series of strategic sites around Gallipoli and along the Dardanelles, and most egregiously, from the Turkish perspective, the Allies were to be allowed to occupy Istanbul itself, and so, in mid-November, French and then British detachments entered the Ottoman capital, ultimately, the humiliating terms of the armistice, would insight a reaction which would lead to the collapse of the last vestiges of the 600 year old Ottoman Empire. However, that would come slightly later, as the most immediate consequence of the Armistice of Mudros and the collapse of the Ottoman war effort, was that it brought about the end of the triumvirate of Enver Bey, Mehmed Taalat and Cemal Pasha, and by the 4th of October 1918, Mehmed VI had already dismissed Enver Bey from his position as Minister of War, the rest of the government resigned ten days later, and so, the Armistice and its humiliating terms, just over two weeks later, were a clear indictment of the triumvirate and their governance of the empire during the war, and fearing reprisals, all three fled into exile in the first days of November, eventually reaching Germany just days before the Central Powers agreed their own armistice with the Allies on the 11th of November, bringing the First World War to an end. The triumvirate’s legacy was worse still, as during the course of the war it had overseen the genocide of the Armenian subjects of the empire, ultimately resulting in the murder of somewhere between one and one and a half million people. The end of the First World War in no way brought the turmoil which had wracked the Ottoman Empire for years to an end. In its immediate aftermath, Ataturk was placed in charge of consolidating what remained of the Ottoman armed forces, and from the early summer of 1919, he was stationed in the north Turkish city of Samsun, where he quickly began preparing to lead an independence movement, after which, in June he released a proclamation known as the Amasya Circular, along with several other leading military commanders, in which they declared, that the independence of the Ottoman state, was fundamentally endangered by the Allies’ aggressive actions, Kemal then resigned from the military, on the 8th of July and by the early autumn, was forming a coalition of military figures and politicians in Central and Eastern Turkey, to challenge the government in occupied Istanbul.
At the heart of this new stance, was a fervent opposition to the proposed peace terms being offered by the Allies, many observers would have wholly expected that Britain and France would carve up the Ottomans’ territories in the Middle East between themselves, including Palestine, Syria and Iraq, but in the course of 1919, it was increasingly being considered, that the rest of the empire would also be divided up as spoil amongst the victors, an idea of the extent of this proposed partitioning of the empire can be gained from looking at the Treaty of Sevres, which was initially offered to the Ottomans in 1920, under this, much of eastern Turkey would be granted to the new state of Armenia as well as a proposed state for the Kurdish people of eastern Turkey and northern Iraq, Britain would take Cyprus and many of the Aegean Islands closest to the west coast of Turkey, including Rhodes, were to be ceded to Italy. Yet the most inflammatory proposal was for Greece to acquire nearly all of the empire’s remaining European lands, other than Istanbul plus a narrow strip of land around it, along with a sizeable enclave on the mainland of western Turkey around Smyrna, such terms were completely unacceptable to Turkish nationalists such as Ataturk and it was this which led to the War of Independence that followed. Following his resignation from the Ottoman military in the summer of 1919, Ataturk moved to consolidate his position as head of the resistance movement, in September, he assembled a congress in Sivas in Central Turkey, but the split with Mehmed VI in Istanbul was not complete as yet, and instead, Ataturk launched a political grouping called the Association for Defence of Rights for Anatolia and Rumelia, which stood candidates throughout the country, for elections to the Ottoman parliament, which were held in December 1919. Following this, when the party won a large majority, it became clear that Mehmed’s approach had been widely rejected throughout the country and Ataturk’s resistance to the Allies was favoured, by the majority of the empire’s Turkish population, however, the parliament only lasted several weeks before it was dissolved, by the occupying British forces, in March 1920, who now tightened their control over Istanbul. This was the spark which led to the Turkish War of Independence becoming an active war for the liberation of the country, although scholars generally define the War of Independence as having begun with Kemal’s arrival at Samsun in May 1919.
In April 1920, a new Grand National Assembly assembled at Ankara in Central Turkey, with Ataturk serving as its first speaker, there were now two governments within the Ottoman Empire, one in Istanbul headed by the sultan and effectively directed by the occupying Allied forces, and one in Ankara, headed by Ataturk and representing the Independence movement. In May 1920, a death sentence was passed on Ataturk by the sultan’s administration in Istanbul, by now, though, the die was cast, the parliament in Ankara was assembling a large army to undertake a war on several fronts, on the one hand, the Ankara government faced the newly independent state of Armenia on its eastern flank, while in the west, in addition to the sultan’s government in Istanbul and the Allies there, the Ankara regime also had to engage in a separate war with Greece, from the enclave they had occupied in Smyrna in western Turkey, however, Ataturk was not without a major ally, following the Russian Revolution of 1917, the new socialist government there had faced concerted opposition from their former allies in Britain and France, consequently in 1920, the Bolshevik government in Petrograd was a natural ally of Ataturk’s efforts to expel the British, French and Greeks from what remained of the Ottoman Empire, and so, throughout the Turkish War of Independence, vital financing, weapons and aid, were supplied to the Independence movement in Ankara by the Russian government. The War of Independence would last until 1923, and throughout it, Ataturk was the paramount military figure, officially serving as Commander in Chief of the Ankara government’s military forces, from August 1921 onwards, however, by early December 1920, the war with Armenia had been brought to an end, resulting in the establishment of the modern-day boundaries between Turkey and Armenia, although shortly thereafter, the short-lived First Armenian Republic was brought to an end, as the country fell under Soviet Russian influence.
This end of the campaign in the east, allowed Ataturk and the Ankara government to focus their attentions to the west, and by the spring of 1921, the Greeks had expanded out of their enclave at Smyrna and were advancing towards Ankara itself, but the onslaught was stopped, at the Battle of the Sakarya, fought in Ankara Province, between the 23rd of August and the 13th of September 1921, with a battlefront stretching over sixty kilometres and over 100,000 troops committed by each side. This was the decisive clash of the war, ending in a major victory for Kemal, in large part, because the Greek supply lines had been cut off by the Turks and thousands of Greek troops began deserting in the first days of September. The Battle of the Sakarya was the decisive turning point in the War of Independence, as one observer later remarked, “The retreat that started in Vienna on the 13th of September 1683 stopped 238 years later,” and in honour of his victory, Ataturk was bestowed with the title of Gazi after the battle, by the Ankara government, an honorific title in Islam which had initially been held by the Prophet Muhammad, after his initial conquests in Arabia in the seventh century. In the weeks and months that followed, the Ankara government’s forces pushed back westwards, a last major counteroffensive in the summer of 1922 succeeded in reconquering the vast majority of Smyrna and as a result, the Greco-Turkish War effectively came to an end in October 1922 and with the British clearly resolved to establish peace, the conflict essentially over, and the Ankara government victorious, a resolution was passed by the breakaway regime, to abolish the sultanate and depose Mehmed VI, on the 1st of November 1922, this officially brought the Ottoman Empire to an end after over 600 years.
There now remained the matter of a new peace treaty to resolve, the Sevres agreement had been scrapped as the basis for a settlement of the Turkish question, and late in 1922, new negotiations opened between the Ankara government and the Allies at Lausanne in Switzerland, the resulting Treaty of Lausanne, which was signed on the 24th of July 1923, was the last major peace settlement resulting from the First World War, it effectively established the modern-day borders of the Turkish state, hence the plans which had been included in the abortive Treaty of Sevres, to establish a Kurdish state in eastern Turkey were abandoned, with lasting repercussions down to the present day, and while Greece relinquished its claims to Smyrna in western Anatolia as well as other lands in European Turkey, some measures in the earlier treaty were agreed to. As a result, Italy received twelve major islands off the southwest coast of Turkey, including Rhodes, while the British retained possession of Cyprus, elsewhere, the Ankara government formally relinquished all claims to its Middle Eastern and North African lands in Syria, Iraq, Arabia and Libya. The Treaty of Lausanne brought the wars which had started way back in 1911, with the Italian invasion of Libya, to an end, the Ottoman Empire was also over, and in its place, the Republic of Turkey was proclaimed on the 23rd of October 1923, its capital would continue to be located at Ankara and the Grand National Assembly, which had been established in April 1920, was formed into Turkey’s primary legislative body, similarly, the Association for Defence of Rights for Anatolia and Rumelia, which Ataturk had set up at the outset of the War of Independence in 1919, was renamed as the People’s Party, later to become the Republican People’s Party, it would govern the new republic, largely as a one party state, until the aftermath of the Second World War, and the man who would lead the party for the first fifteen years of independence and serve as president of the republic throughout that time, was none other than Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The central characteristic of Ataturk’s presidency, was his efforts to modernise and westernise the country, central to this, was the new constitution of Turkey which was ratified on the 20th of April 1924, this formalised the creation of a legislative assembly with elected officials to govern the country, but perhaps the most consequential aspects of it, in terms of the modernisation of Turkey, are found in Section V, which defined the rights and freedoms which Turkish citizens would enjoy in the new republic, these included the right to free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement and freedom of religion. Modelled on the constitutions of other European countries, such as France, Switzerland and Italy, these freedoms were a far cry from the rigid hierarchical society which had persisted for so long under the Ottoman Empire, other signs of the modernisation process were more tangible in peoples’ day to day lives, for instance, throughout the 1920s, Kemal popularised the adoption of western-style dress over Middle Eastern traditional attire, suits were adopted and in 1925, the Hat Law was passed, which introduced the wearing of western-style hats over the more traditional fez, similarly, a system of adopting western-style surnames was implemented in 1934, and it was this which occasioned the Grand National Assembly’s bestowal of the surname ‘Ataturk’, meaning the father of the Turks, on Kemal. Perhaps the single most significant aspect of the modernisation process, though, was the separation of church and state in the new republic.
Throughout its entire 600 plus year history, the Ottoman Empire had been governed as a religious state, with Islamic clerics playing a central role in the governance of the empire and its citizens and religious law forming a core part of the judicial system, and also, how peoples’ lives were regulated. Under Ataturk the new republic diverged sharply from these earlier practices, for example on the 8th of April 1924, a law was passed abolishing the sharia religious law courts, a few weeks earlier the caliphate, the concept of the Turks being ruled as part of an Islamic religious state, had also been officially abolished, these measures were combined in the months and years that followed, with concerted efforts to separate church and state in Turkey and create a modern, secular country, for instance, polygamy was banned and civil marriage became obligatory in Turkey during Ataturk’s presidency. Not all of this was popular and there were periodic bouts of unrest during the 1920s and into the 1930s, from within the religious community and civil society, most notably in 1926, when a plot to assassinate Kemal, by a group who were disillusioned by the abolition of the caliphate, was uncovered and foiled. Hand in hand with this drive to separate the Islamic church in Turkey from the state itself, was a major initiative to improve the educational system in the country, Ataturk believed firmly in the power of education as a modernising and progressive influence, and so, in the summer of 1924, he invited the American educational reformer, John Dewey, to the Turkish capital to provide advice, on how the education system of the new republic should be structured, a special concern was primary education, in a country where as little as 10% of people were literate in the 1920s. Following these consultations, one of Dewey’s central contentions, was that the use of the Arabic script as the main basis of the education system, was an impediment to increasing literacy levels and improving the education system in general throughout the country. As a result in the years that followed, a new Turkish alphabet, based on an altered form of Latin, was developed, it was formally introduced late in 1928 and within weeks was being used in the nation’s print media, in order to spread its application.
Other measures were taken to improve education and the state of learning in the new republic, special symposiums were held to promote the study of a wide range of subjects including the arts, history and sciences. For example, in 1931, the Turkish Language Association and the Turkish Historical Society were both formed, while in 1928, the Turkish Education Association had been created to provide financial aid to promising students, at the higher education level, Istanbul University was reorganised as a modern third level institution and a new university was established in Ankara. The best measure of these collective efforts to improve the education of Turkish citizens can be seen in the literacy rates throughout the country, which increased from just over 10% in 1927, to nearly 23% by 1940, whilst the number of students attending primary school increased by 225% during Ataturk’s presidency. Incredibly, the number of those attending high school in Turkey, expanded by 1700% between 1923 and 1938, and any assessment of Ataturk’s legacy, must acknowledge his enlightened approach to promoting education in the new Republic of Turkey. Similarly progressive, was Kemal’s legislating for the position of women in Turkish society, Turkish women were not to be confined to their homes in Ataturk’s Turkey and many could obtain skills, which were necessary for joining the economy, and as early as 1924, coeducation of men and women in Turkey’s universities, had been sanctioned and the same policy was extended throughout the education system in the years that followed. On the political front, in December 1934, the country granted full political rights to women, a memo of the time which had been sanctioned by Ataturk bluntly stating, quote: “There is no logical explanation for the political disenfranchisement of women,” as a result, in the 1935 general elections, more female MPs were returned to the Turkish parliament, than sat in the parliaments of countries such as Britain and the United States at the time, most conspicuously there was no onus on women in the new Turkey to wear a veil or head-covering of any kind, however, although any specific strictures around women’s dress were avoided in the legislation of the time, the basic principle which the regime followed, was that women should be free to choose what they wore themselves.
Part of this progressive approach was perhaps due to Ataturk’s own personal affairs, he was in several significant relationships throughout his life, but only married once, to Latife Usakligil, a liberal, progressive woman, who had been educated in Paris and London and whom Kemal had met in Smyrna, after the recapture of the region from the Greeks, in late 1922. They were married early the following year and part of his attitudes towards women’s rights in Turkey, might well have been shaped by her outlook, yet it was not to be a long union and they divorced in 1925, however, Ataturk’s attitudes to Turkish women were not solely shaped by Latife, as throughout his life and relationships, Kemal adopted upwards of a dozen children and his adoptive daughters would have provided a clear picture to him, of where Turkish women wanted to be in the future. Beyond the modernisation of the country, with all its attendant stresses on the separation of church and state, the fostering of the education system and the liberalisation of women’s rights, there was also a country to be run, which had practical economic requirements, in 1923 the country’s economy and infrastructure was massively underdeveloped, and so, to begin improving this, Ataturk implemented an extensive programme of road and railway construction.
In line with the times and developments in other countries, a policy of nationalisation was adopted, especially with regard to the tobacco and cotton industries, Turkey’s two largest export commodities. Five year economic development plans were also initiated and there was an effort to decentralise the economy from its base in Istanbul. Furthermore, in 1924, the first Turkish bank, named Is Bankasi, was set up and seven years later in 1931, the Turkish Central Bank was formed, as elsewhere globally, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression which followed it, caused considerable economic hardship in Turkey, but by the closing years of Ataturk’s time as president, some considerable signs of economic progress were evident, thousands of miles of new road and railway lines had been laid down, new cotton, steel, sugar and textile factories had been opened and the country had a small but emerging airline and automobile industry.
On the foreign policy front, Ataturk’s tenure of the presidential office saw the new republic steer a peaceful approach towards its neighbours, a central plank of its diplomatic alignments, was a continuation of the friendly relations which had been established with Soviet Russia in 1920, and throughout the remainder of that decade and into the 1930s, more complex were efforts to mend relations with the many countries with which the Ottoman Empire had been at war in the 1910s, Britain was a particularly thorny issue, as the mid-1920s witnessed an ongoing dispute over where the border should lie between the southeast of Turkey and the new British protectorate in Mesopotamia or modern-day Iraq. In contention was possession of the region around Mosul in the far north of the country, a district which the British claimed, but which the Turks argued, had been occupied by the Allies after the establishment of the armistice with the Ottoman Empire in October 1918. The heart of the matter here, was that there were almost certainly oilfields in Mosul, but despite the best efforts to acquire these by the Turkish republic, when the matter was sent to the League of Nations to be adjudicated on, that body, a forerunner of the United Nations, ruled in favour of British claims, despite this, in the course of the 1930s, Turkey formed increasingly friendly relations with Britain, exemplified in the granting of loans from London to the government in Ankara in order to develop the Turkish economy.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Ataturk’s foreign policy was the state of affairs in the Balkans. Despite the acrimony which had characterised Turkey’s relationships with states such as Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, the successor state to Serbia, and especially Greece, developments in the second half of the 1920s and into the 1930s, led to a rapid rapprochement, in particular the rise to power of Benito Mussolini in Italy, a fascist dictator who made no secret of his desire to re-establish the Mediterranean as a Roman lake, as it had been two thousand years earlier. This gave the Balkan states common cause with Turkey, and diplomatic ties between Turkey and Greece improved to an astonishing degree in the late 1920s and early 1930s as a result, then in 1935, Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia and Romania entered into the Balkan Pact, whereby they promised to provide mutual aid to each other, should any one of them be attacked by Italy, or another power, such as Bulgaria, which was flirting in the 1930s with an alliance with Hitler’s Germany, yet, while the Balkan Pact was an immense foreign policy success at the time, it was ultimately not enough to prevent Italy, Germany and Bulgaria overrunning Yugoslavia and Greece, in the course of 1940 and 1941. All of this raises the question of what the underlying ideology of Ataturk’s government was.
In a wider sense, his presidency was dominated by the concept of Kemalism, or what he termed ‘the Six Arrows’, these six arrows were Republicanism, Populism, Laicism, Reformism, Nationalism and Statism, by these Ataturk believed that Turkey should be a republic, one in which nationalism and a strong state were paramount, but which was also focused on reform or modernisation, laicism was the separation of church and state, and populism, was the transfer of sovereignty to the people, and away from the narrow clique of religious officials, aristocrats and military hierarchies which had ruled Turkey under the Ottoman Empire. There is something of a contradiction here, in terms of the ostensible authoritarianism and one-party rule which characterised Ataturk’s Turkey, but this needs to be qualified by assessing the circumstances in which Kemalism developed, Ataturk did experiment with a multi-party system at various points in the late 1920s and 1930s, however the time seemed unpropitious for this, it was also in the nature of the times, that a hard line was also needed to ensure Turkey did not either backslide into being a religious state, or end up adopting the overt authoritarianism that had emerged in Russia, Italy and eventually Germany in the course of the 1920s and early 1930s. It is difficult to say whether Ataturk would have relinquished power had he governed for much longer, or how he might have responded to the threat of the Second World War, as Nazi control of Europe was established, but Kemal would never live to see those ominous times, as in 1937 his health had declined considerably and the situation had deteriorated by early 1938, to the extent that, he underwent extensive tests in Istanbul, the prognosis was dire, Ataturk had been a semi-heavy drinker throughout his adult life, and it was now revealed that he was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, then as now, an almost entirely untreatable disease, especially when diagnosed at an advanced stage, it would quickly strike down the founder of the Turkish republic, and on the 10th of November 1938, he died at the Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul. Shortly afterwards, a major state funeral was held, though perhaps the more impressive interment came fifteen years later, in 1953, when Ataturk’s remains were transferred to the Anitkabir, an imposing purpose-built mausoleum in Ankara. Ataturk’s legacy is very considerable, there is little denying his immense contribution to the history of modern-day Turkey, originally a military commander, albeit one with major political interest, it was not until the First World War rose him to prominence, largely on the back of his role in the victory at Gallipoli in 1915, that his full political aspirations were revealed, as a result in 1919, as the Allies sought to carve up the Ottoman state, Ataturk became the head of the independence movement and the driving force behind the successful establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, as such he can be rightfully termed the father of modern Turkey. And yet his legacy extends much further, as the republic’s first president, between 1923 and 1938, he oversaw a significant programme of modernisation in the country, hallmarks of which included the separation of church and state, the development of a progressive education system and the granting of extensive political liberties to women in the country.
There are some marks against his name, for instance, it was under Ataturk, that the Turkish state began its long history of denying that the Ottoman Empire had been responsible for the Armenian genocide during the First World War, a denialism which has become a staple of successive governments in Ankara down to the present day, this is not to say that Ataturk had any role in the genocide, but the failure to acknowledge it, was perhaps indicative of how the Turkish state was born out of an overt nationalism itself in the early 1920s. Perhaps, though, Ataturk should be judged primarily in terms of whether the lives of Turkish people were improved during the course of his rule, the answer is surely yes, a woman with a desire to engage in economic activity outside of the home, or play a role in politics was immeasurably better off in Ataturk’s Turkey during the 1930s, than her mother or grandmother would have been in Ottoman times, equally, by the mid-1930s, many Turkish workers were able to avail of jobs in factories and new sectors of the economy, ones which utilised the better standard of education they might have received in the first years of the republic, fifty years earlier, their near relatives might have only aspired to a subsistence life, as a farmer or cash-crop producer, probably being illiterate for most of their lives and hampered in terms of any upward social mobility, Ataturk’s primary legacy, is that he laid down the roots of modernisation, which allowed for that shift in opportunity, between the early twentieth century and the mid-twentieth century, as the Ottoman Empire ended and the Republic of Turkey emerged. What do you think of Kemal Ataturk? was he an authoritarian nationalist who seized power in Turkey and never relinquished it in his lifetime, or should he be understood as a figure who salvaged a Turkish state from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire and did his best to reform and modernise the country during a highly complex period in its history? Please let us know in the comment section, and in the meantime, thank you very much for watching.