This man was an Ottoman army officer, politician, writer, and the founder of the Republic of Turkey on October 29, 1923. Who was this man? And how does current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan relate to Atatürk?
Before going into the life of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, it is helpful first to give a brief overview of the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Ottoman Empire: ‘The Sick Man of Europe’
All kinds of ethnic differences within the borders and the emerging nationalism of various population groups caused the Ottoman Empire to fall apart in the nineteenth century. Revolts and wars — among others against Russia, the Greeks, and the Persians — continued to weaken the empire. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire has nicknamed ‘the sick man of Europe.’
Greece officially became an independent kingdom in 1832, and in 1840 the Ottoman Empire also lost Syria, followed by Egypt in 1867. The focal points of the Ottoman Empire’s territorial disintegration in Europe lay in the years 1875–1878 and 1912–1913. To cite the most important examples: in 1878, after the Russo-Turkish War, the following territories obtained autonomy: Crete, Serbia, Montenegro, Cyprus, and Romania.
Bulgaria, after the country had previously been given more autonomy, declared itself completely independent in 1908. The First and Second Balkan War (1912–1913) caused the Ottoman Empire to lose almost all of its remaining territories in Europe, such as Albania, Kosovo, Thrace, and Macedonia. This territorial landslide led to the migration of large populations from Europe and into Anatolia. Partly because of this, (Turkish) nationalism grew like wildfire in Anatolia.
The crises and misery of the Ottoman Empire were given additional ‘nourishment’ by the Great Depression of 1873–1896, an international agricultural crisis, and increased complexity with the Young Turks’ rise. At its core, this movement consisted of a group of senior officers who opposed the 34th Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamit II (1842–1918).
This sultan, who was also a self-proclaimed caliph, had in 1876 inactivated the constitution and preached jihad against the West. In 1908 the Young Turks successfully staged a coup. They only wanted one thing: a secular, West-oriented democratic state. For example, besides Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Republic of Turkey’s founder, Enver, made part of this Young Turks group. Both leaders were involved in the 1908 coup d’état.
Atatürk’s childhood and private life
Atatürk was probably born on May 19, 1881, to a Turkish-Muslim family in Thessaloniki, Ottoman Greece, as Mustafa. Kemal had siblings, all of whom died in childhood, except for himself and a sister.
As a youngster, he started cadet training in 1899 to enter the Ottoman army. Here he got the nickname Kemal: ‘the perfect one,’ and he learned — in addition to all kinds of military matters — French and German. Mustafa was a good student and completed his training as a staff officer in Constantinople in January 1905.
From 1923 to 1925, Mustafa Kemal was married to Latife Uşşaki. The couple did not have children. After his marriage, Mustafa himself adopted seven daughters and a son. Mustafa’s daughter, Sabiha Gökçen, would become the first Turkish female pilot ever and the world’s first female fighter pilot.
Coup and war
In 1908, Mustafa Kemal was involved in the coup by the Young Turks. Sultan Abdulhamit II was deposed and exchanged for his brother Mehmet V, who barely had any power left.
Shortly afterward, the First World War broke out. Mustafa Kemal played an important role in this war in the Battle of Gallipoli (1915–1916) when the Turks achieved one of their greatest victories by repelling the Allies. The Ottoman Empire that fought on the side of Germany lost the war.
After the war, Mustafa Kemal led the demilitarization, which the Allied occupiers had ordered the empire. The Allies occupied large parts of the Ottoman Empire and reduced the influence of all kinds of nationalities.
The Turks, for example, only had some say in the region around Ankara. In May 1919, the so-called Turkish Civil War (1919–1923) broke out, followed by establishing a Turkish Parliament in Ankara on April 23, 1920. The Turks fought the Turkish sultan, who had signed all kinds of allied treaties, and the allied occupiers. The Turks conquered large parts of Anatolia in the war.
Independent Turkey: Modernizations
On July 24, 1923, the Turkish Civil War came to an end with Lausanne’s Peace, and Turkey’s independence was recognized. The Allies withdrew completely from Anatolia. Turkey began officially on October 29, 1923, when the Republic of Turkey was proclaimed. In 1928, the Republic of Turkey abolished Islam as the state religion, and a separation between church and state was the new starting point. The new capital of the empire became Ankara, which was still a village at the time.
Under Atatürk, Turkey developed into a country that distanced itself from the past in several ways. For example, the president had thousands of new schools built and made primary education free and compulsory. Besides, the tax for farmers, among other things, was reduced. In 1926 Atatürk banned the wearing of a fez (a type of headgear).
He had the Arabic alphabet replaced by Latin in 1928. It was also important to introduce women’s suffrage in 1930 and fully active and passive women’s suffrage in 1934. In 1934, Turkey was one of the first modern countries to give women full suffrage.
In July 1932, Turkey joined the League of Nations. In June 1938, President Atatürk also introduced the mandatory use of family names. Finally, he set up a one-party structure, which existed until 1945. After the Second World War, Turkey started to experiment with multiparty systems, but this process was interrupted several times by the Turkish army’s intervention in politics (in 1961, 1970, 1980, and 1997).
After the Second World War, Turkey joined the United Nations (1945) and NATO (1952).
In 1934, the Turkish Parliament gave Mustafa Kemal the nickname Atatürk, meaning ‘Father of the Turks.’ It was established that no one else was allowed to bear that name. Mustafa Kemal Atutürk died of cirrhosis of the liver on November 10, 1938, at 57. He is buried in a mausoleum built especially for him in Ankara, Anitkabir. President Ismet Inönü succeeded him.
Recent political events in Turkey naturally raise questions about Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister of Turkey from 2003–2014 and president of the country since 2014. If Turkish history makes several things clear, it is that the country has several structural vulnerabilities.
The country is multi-ethnic (think of minorities like the Kurds, Armenians, and Alevis). It does not have a strong democratic tradition (the multiparty system is only half a century old and rickety) and the army regularly intervened in politics.
The past makes Turkey vulnerable and offers space for power-hungry people or opponents of secularism. Erdogan is not a secular Turk, far from it.
Everything indicates that Erdogan wants to turn secular Turkey into an Islamic state reminiscent of the former Ottoman Empire, dreaming of surpassing Atatürk as a statesman.
We’ll see what it all ends up in, but it seems very much that Erdogan is trying to erase Atatürk’s legacy.