Biography of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

Black and white photo of Ataturk, the first president of modern Turkey.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk led Turkey to become a modern, secular state.

Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was born on an unrecorded date in either 1880 or 1881 in Salonika, then part of the Ottoman Empire (now Thessaloniki, Greece). His father, Ali Riza Efendi, may have been ethnically Albanian, although some sources state that his family was comprised of nomads from the Konya region of Turkey. Ali Riza Efendi was a minor local official and a timber-seller. Ataturk's mother, Zubeyde Hanim, was a blue-eyed Yoruk Turkish — or possibly Macedonian — girl who (unusually for that time) could read and write.

Deeply religious, Zubeyde Hanim wanted her son to study religion, but Mustafa would grow up with a more secular turn of mind. The couple had six children, but only Mustafa and his sister Makbule Atadan survived to adulthood.

Religious and Military Education

As a young boy, Mustafa reluctantly attended a religious school. His father later allowed him to transfer to the Semsi Efendi School, a secular private school. When Mustafa was seven, his father died.

At the age of 12, Mustafa decided, without consulting his mother, that he would take the entrance exam for a military high school. He attended the Monastir Military High School and in 1899, enrolled in the Ottoman Military Academy. In January of 1905, Mustafa Kemal graduated from the Ottoman Military College and began his career in the army.

Ataturk's Military Career

After years of military training, Ataturk entered the Ottoman Army as a captain. He served in the Fifth Army in Damascus (now in Syria) until 1907. He then transferred to Manastir, now known as Bitola, in the Republic of Macedonia. In 1910, he fought the Albanian uprising in Kosovo. His rising reputation as a military man really took off the following year, during the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12.

The Italo-Turkish War arose from a 1902 agreement between Italy and France over dividing Ottoman lands in North Africa. The Ottoman Empire was known as the "sick man of Europe," so other European powers were deciding how to share the spoils of its collapse long before the event actually took place. France promised Italy control of Libya, then comprised of three Ottoman provinces, in return for non-interference in Morocco.

Italy launched a massive 150,000-man army against Ottoman Libya in September of 1911. Mustafa Kemal was one of the Ottoman commanders sent to repel this invasion with only 8,000 regular troops, plus 20,000 local Arab and Bedouin militia members. He was key to the December 1911 Ottoman victory in the Battle of Tobruk, in which 200 Turkish and Arab fighters held off 2,000 Italians and drove them back from the city of Tobruk, killing 200 and capturing several machine guns.

Despite this valiant resistance, Italy overwhelmed the Ottomans. In the October 1912 Treaty of Ouchy, the Ottoman Empire signed away control of the provinces of Tripolitania, Fezzan, and Cyrenaica, which became Italian Libya.

The Balkan Wars

As Ottoman control of the empire eroded, ethnic nationalism spread among the various peoples of the Balkan region. In 1912 and 1913, ethnic conflict broke out twice in the First and Second Balkan Wars.

In 1912, the Balkan League (newly-independent Montenegro, Bulgaria, Greece, and Serbia) attacked the Ottoman Empire in order to wrest away control of areas dominated by their respective ethnic groups that were still under Ottoman suzerainty. Through suzerainty, a nation maintains internal autonomy while another nation or region controls foreign policy and international relations. The Ottomans, including Mustafa Kemal's troops, lost the First Balkan War. The following year, in the Second Balkan War, the Ottomans regained much of the territory of Thrace that had been seized by Bulgaria.

This fighting at the frayed edges of the Ottoman Empire was fed by ethnic nationalism. In 1914, a related ethnic and territorial spat between Serbia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire set off a chain reaction that soon involved all of the European powers in what would become World War I.

World War I and Gallipoli

World War I was a pivotal period in Mustafa Kemal's life. The Ottoman Empire joined its allies (Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire) to form the Central Powers, fighting against Britain, France, Russia, and Italy. Mustafa Kemal predicted that the Allied Powers would attack the Ottoman Empire at Gallipoli; he commanded the 19th Division of the Fifth Army there.

Under Mustafa Kemal's leadership, the Turks held off a 1915 British and French attempt to advance up the Gallipoli Peninsula for nine months, inflicting a key defeat on the Allies. Britain and France sent in a total of 568,000 men over the course of the Gallipoli Campaign, including large numbers of Australians and New Zealanders (ANZACs). Of these, 44,000 were killed, and almost 100,000 more wounded. The Ottoman force was smaller, numbering about 315,500 men, of whom about 86,700 were killed and over 164,000 were wounded.

Mustafa Kemal rallied the Turkish troops throughout the brutal campaign by emphasizing that this battle was for the Turkish homeland. He famously told them, "I do not order you to attack, I order you to die." His men fought for their beleaguered people as the centuries-old multi-ethnic empire they had headed crumbled around them.

The Turks held on to the high ground at Gallipoli, keeping the Allied forces pinned to the beaches. This bloody but successful defensive action formed one of the centerpieces of Turkish nationalism in the years to come, and Mustafa Kemal was at the center of it all.

Following the Allied withdrawal from Gallipoli in January of 1916, Mustafa Kemal fought successful battles against the Russian Imperial Army in the Caucasus. He refused a government proposal to lead a new army in the Hejaz, or western Arabian Peninsula, correctly predicting that the area was already lost to the Ottomans. In March of 1917, Mustafa Kemal received command of the entire Second Army, although their Russian opponents withdrew almost immediately due to the outbreak of the Russian Revolution.

The sultan was determined to shore up the Ottoman defenses in Arabia and prevailed upon Mustafa Kemal to go to Palestine after the British captured Jerusalem in December of 1917. He wrote to the government noting that the situation in Palestine was hopeless, and proposing that a new defensive position be established in Syria. When Constantinople rejected this plan, Mustafa Kemal resigned his post and returned to the capital.

As the Central Powers' defeat loomed, Mustafa Kemal returned once more to the Arabian Peninsula to supervise an orderly retreat. The Ottoman forces lost the (ominously named) Battle of Megiddo, aka Armageddon, in September of 1918. This truly was the beginning of the end of the Ottoman world. Throughout October and early November, under an armistice with the Allied Powers, Mustafa Kemal organized the withdrawal of Ottoman forces remaining in the Middle East. He returned to Constantinople on November 13, 1918, to find it occupied by the victorious British and French. The Ottoman Empire was no more.

The Turkish War of Independence

Mustafa Kemal Pasha was tasked with reorganizing the tattered Ottoman Army in April of 1919 so that it could provide internal security during the transition. Instead, he began to organize the army into a nationalist resistance movement. He issued the Amasya Circular in June of that year, warning that Turkey's independence was in peril.

Mustafa Kemal was quite right on that point. The Treaty of Sevres, signed in August of 1920, called for the partition of Turkey among France, Britain, Greece, Armenia, the Kurds, and an international force at the Bosporus Strait. Only a small rump state centered around Ankara would remain in Turkish hands. This plan was completely unacceptable to Mustafa Kemal and his fellow Turkish nationalist officers. In fact, it meant war.

Britain took the lead in dissolving Turkey's parliament and strong-arming the sultan into signing away his remaining rights. In response, Mustafa Kemal called a new national election and had a separate parliament installed with himself as speaker. This was the "Grand National Assembly" of Turkey. When the Allied occupation forces tried to partition Turkey as per the Treaty of Sevres, the Grand National Assembly put together an army and launched the War of Turkish Independence.

The GNA faced war on multiple fronts, fighting the Armenians in the east and the Greeks in the west. Throughout 1921, the GNA army under Marshal Mustafa Kemal won victory after victory against the neighboring powers. By the following autumn, Turkish nationalist troops had pushed the occupying powers out of the Turkish peninsula.

The Republic of Turkey

Realizing that Turkey would not sit by and allow itself to be carved up, the victorious powers from World War I decided to make a new peace treaty to replace Sevres. Beginning in November of 1922, they met with representatives of the GNA at Lausanne, Switzerland to negotiate the new deal. Although Britain and the other powers hoped to retain economic control of Turkey or at least rights over the Bosporus, the Turks were adamant. They would accept only full sovereignty free from foreign control.

On July 24, 1923, the GNA and the European powers signed the Treaty of Lausanne, recognizing a fully sovereign Republic of Turkey. As the first elected president of the new Republic, Mustafa Kemal would lead one of the world's swiftest and most effective modernization campaigns ever. He had just married Latife Usakligil as well, though they divorced less than two years later. Mustafa Kemal never had any biological children, but he adopted twelve girls and a boy.


President Mustafa Kemal abolished the office of the Muslim Caliphate, which had repercussions for all of Islam. However, no new caliph was appointed elsewhere. Mustafa Kemal also secularized education, encouraging the development of non-religious primary schools for both girls and boys.

As part of modernization, the president encouraged Turks to wear western-style clothing. Men were to wear European hats, such as fedoras or derby hats, rather than the fez or turban. Although the veil was not outlawed, the government discouraged women from wearing it.

As of 1926, in the most radical reform to date, Mustafa Kemal abolished the Islamic courts and instituted secular civil law throughout Turkey. Women now had equal rights to inherit property or to divorce their husbands. The president saw women as an essential part of the workforce if Turkey was to become a wealthy modern nation. Finally, he replaced the traditional Arabic script for written Turkish with a new alphabet based on Latin.

Of course, such radical changes all at once caused pushback. A former aide to Kemal who wanted to retain the Caliph plotted to assassinate the president in 1926. Late in 1930, Islamic fundamentalists in the little town of Menemen started a rebellion that threatened to topple the new system.

In 1936, Mustafa Kemal was able to remove the last obstacle to full Turkish sovereignty. He nationalized the Straits, seizing control from the international Straits Commission that was a remnant of the Treaty of Lausanne.

Ataturk's Death and Legacy

Mustafa Kemal became known as "Ataturk," meaning "grandfather" or "ancestor of the Turks," because of his pivotal role in founding and leading the new, independent state of Turkey. Ataturk died on November 10, 1938, from cirrhosis of the liver due to excessive alcohol consumption. He was only 57 years old.

During his service in the army and his 15 years as president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk laid the foundations for the modern Turkish state. Today, his policies are still being debated, but Turkey stands as one of the success stories of the twentieth century — due, in large part, to Mustafa Kemal.