Biography of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Founder of the Republic of Turkey

Black and white photo of Ataturk, the first president of modern Turkey.

Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (May 19, 1881–November 10, 1938) was a Turkish nationalist and military leader who founded the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Atatürk served as the country's first president from 1923 to 1938. He oversaw the passage of numerous reforms responsible for transforming Turkey into a modern nation-state.

Fast Facts: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

  • Known For: Atatürk was a Turkish nationalist who founded the Republic of Turkey.
  • Also Known As: Mustafa Kemal Pasha
  • Born: May 19, 1881 in Salonica, Ottoman Empire
  • Parents: Ali Rıza Efendi and Zubeyde Hanim
  • Died: November 10, 1938 in Istanbul, Turkey
  • Spouse: Latife Usakligil (m. 1923-1925)
  • Children: 13

Early Life

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was born on May 19, 1881, in Salonica, then part of the Ottoman Empire (now Thessaloniki, Greece). His father, Ali Riza Efendi, may have been ethnically Albanian, though some sources state that his family was made up of nomads from the Konya region of Turkey. Ali Riza Efendi was a minor local official and a timber-seller. Mustafa's mother, Zubeyde Hanim, was a blue-eyed Turkish or possibly Macedonian woman who (unusually for that time) could read and write. 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 then attended the Monastir Military High School and in 1899 enrolled in the Ottoman Military Academy. In January 1905, Mustafa graduated and began his career in the army.

Military Career

After years of military training, Atatürk entered the Ottoman Army as a captain. He served in the Fifth Army in Damascus until 1907. He then transferred to Manastir, now known as Bitola, in the Republic of Macedonia. In 1910, he fought to suppress the Albanian uprising in Kosovo. His rising reputation as a military man took off the following year, during the Italo-Turkish War of 1911 to 1912.

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 at that time 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 1911. Atatürk 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.

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.

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 (made up of 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 Atatürk'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 Atatürk'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. Atatürk predicted that the Allied Powers would attack the Ottoman Empire at Gallipoli; he commanded the 19th Division of the Fifth Army there.

Under Atatürk's leadership, the Turks held off a British and French attempt to advance up the Gallipoli Peninsula, 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. 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.

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 Atatürk was at the center of it all.

Following the Allied withdrawal from Gallipoli in January 1916, Atatürk fought successful battles against the Russian Imperial Army in the Caucasus. In March 1917, he 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 Atatürk to go to Palestine after the British captured Jerusalem in December 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, Atatürk resigned his post and returned to the capital.

As the Central Powers' defeat loomed, Atatürk returned once more to the Arabian Peninsula to supervise an orderly retreat. The Ottoman forces lost the Battle of Megiddo in September 1918. This was the beginning of the end of the Ottoman world. Throughout October and early November, under an armistice with the Allied Powers, Atatürk organized the withdrawal of the remaining Ottoman forces 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.

Turkish War of Independence

Atatürk was tasked with reorganizing the tattered Ottoman Army in April 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 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 state centered around Ankara would remain in Turkish hands. This plan was completely unacceptable to Atatürk and his fellow Turkish nationalists. 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, Atatürk called a new national election and had a separate parliament installed, with himself as the speaker. This was known as 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.

Throughout 1921, the GNA army under Atatürk 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.

Republic of Turkey

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, Atatürk would lead one of the world's swiftest and most effective modernization campaigns ever.

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

In 1926, in the most radical reform to date, Atatürk abolished the Islamic courts and instituted secular civil law throughout Turkey. Women now had equal rights to inherit property and 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, Atatürk replaced the traditional Arabic script for written Turkish with a new alphabet based on Latin.

Death

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

Legacy

During his service in the army and his 15 years as president, Atatürk laid the foundations for the modern Turkish state. Today, while his policies are still debated, Turkey stands as one of the success stories of the twentieth century—due, in large part, to Atatürk's reforms.

Sources

  • Gingeras, Ryan. "Mustafa Kemal Atatürk: Heir to an Empire." Oxford University Press, 2016.
  • Mango, Andrew. "Atatürk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey." Overlook Press, 2002.