Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

From RationalWiki
(Redirected from Mustafa Kemal)
Jump to navigation Jump to search
He salutes people in 1937.
Oh no, they're talking about
Icon politics.svg
As usual
Country sections
United States politics British politics Canadian politics Chinese politics French politics Indian politics Iranian politics Israeli politics Japanese politics South Korean politics

Kemal Atatürk[1] (also Ali Rıza oğlu Mustafa, Mustafa Kemal, Mustafa Kemal Bey, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, Gazi Mustafa Kemal Pasha, Kamâl Atatürk,[2] or just the Man of Seven Names)[3] (1881–1938) was an Ottoman-born Turkish general, revolutionary leader, mass murderer, prolific author,[note 1] freethinker, and the first President who modernized and secularized Turkey. In 1934, he was officially given the surname "Atatürk"[note 2] by himself, although he had been popularly called that for at least a decade[note 3]. He was also a very good ballroom dancer, and it would be fair to say that he "enjoyed the occasional beverage", as that was largely responsible for his death in 1938 at the age of 57.

He's a big deal in Turkey. Seriously. Atatürk is the Founding Father, his thumb-print is visible on the land a century later, current Turkish leaders have to tread carefully as they attempt to erase said prints.[5][6]

Part of the reason for his many names was due to traditional Turkish naming conventions; which often used nicknames, honorifics and similar in lieu of Western-style surnames to aid identification of individuals. For example, "Gazi" denoted "a Muslim fighter against infidels" while "Pasha" was similar to "senior officer".

Early life[edit]

Atatürk during the Italo-Turkish WarWikipedia.

Atatürk was born in Salonika in 1881, a city then on the edge of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Like many folks from multi-ethnic states, his precise "ethnicity" is difficult to identify, leading to him being claimed by several ethnic groups. Notwithstanding, he was a native Turkish speaker and referred to himself as a Turk thoughout his life. Said empire appeared close to full colonisation by European powers (said Salonika being lost to Greece in 1912 and now known as Thessaloniki); the young Atatürk soon came to the conclusion that only enforced modernisation and force of arms would stop this. This might be an embellishment or retrospective justification for choosing a military career, but it's not likeWikipedia he was the onlyWikipedia one to come toWikipedia this conclusion.Wikipedia At least, this is the story he later told to justify choosing a military career.

He was drawn early into the conspiracies and complaining of the Young Turks,Wikipedia first coming to the attention of the authorities for his political activities while still at the Istanbul military academy. By a combination of poor luck[note 4] and being slightly younger, Atatürk generally found himself on the edges of the political arena, but thick in the military one where he cut his teeth fighting the various enemies of the Ottoman state and/or the Young Turks, arriving at 1914 as a competent, trustworthy and clearly ambitious young officer.

First World War[edit]

Atatürk (left) in a Gallipoli trench.

Atatürk's "public rise" began as a result of the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915. This was a historically significant battle for many of the participants, most notably the ANZACs (Australia and New Zealand) and, obviously, Turkey. The Turks gained a national hero and some morale-boosting national pride from having "defended the motherland", while the ANZACs slowly (and resentfully) came to realize that the British had sent them on a suicide mission.

Covering the entire battle of Gallipoli would take too long, so in essence, here's what happened. The British High Command decided that taking the Dardanelles would be a grand idea, both capturing the Ottoman capital and opening up the sea-lane to their ally Russia in one swoop. So far so good. However, the British decided to then make the naval force up with ships too obsolete to face the Germans and led by officers too incompetent to be posted to the Western Front. But it should go okay, because it's not like the Turks were a real match for Europeans, right? Yes and no; the former as the Turks were very unprepared for such an attempt, but then the latter as the British kindly moved so slowly they got time to prepare. Stripping away the later mythologisation suggests that while Atatürk proved himself most competent in the defence, he was too junior to be in overall charge of this operation and nor was he hailed in the general public as the hero.

He continued his military rise throughout the war, serving with distinction against the Russians and then British again (in Palestine). That is, when he wasn't arguing with his German superiors, pelting the War Ministry with unbidden advice and pushing himself for promotion. By the time of the Armistice in 1918, Atatürk was in command of the Ottoman forces lining what would end up becoming the southern border of the Turkish Republic. It can be said at this point he was clearly known and respected, but hardly a "first-rank" figure. Yet.

War of Independence[edit]

The collapse of the Central Powers had brought the fears of nationalists like Atatürk to pass; planned partition of the Ottoman EmpireWikipedia under European "protection", ordered by a Sultan who appeared to care about his own position over everything else. Even more galling was the projected loss of much "core" Turkish land to their former Armenian and Greek subjects. For a people who were battered but not outright defeated, it was too much; resistance began in earnest. Cometh the hour, cometh the man; Atatürk was determined to be that man, and as the nationalists more senior to him had been discredited by leading the Empire to the wrong side of the World War and to it's defeat, the field was relatively clear.

Like George Washington before him, Atatürk's strengths were more the provision of the political strength of will and plotting strategy than front-line leadership; carefully husbanding his (relatively meagre) supplies and forces, melding together a disparate group of people in what was technically treason and cannily picking off his enemies one by one; be it the Russians, Greeks, Armenians, Italians, French, British or finally, what was left of the Sultan's regime. After four years of this, the Allies finally decided to cut a new treaty with Atatürk's alternative government in Ankara, which not only ended up with him walking away with the majority of his demands (of which nearly all had been insistent would be impossible to achieve) but also effectively recognising said government over that of the the Sultan's in Istanbul. Interestingly, the Treaty of LausanneWikipedia was the only treaty with a WW1 loser which has (generally) survived the test of time, perhaps due to the fact it was negotiated, not merely imposed by the victors.

Genocide and ethnic cleansing[edit]

The Lausanne treaty was condemned at the time and since for granting a general blanket amnesty for all crimes "connected to political events", which was taken to include the Armenian Genocide,[7] the forced expulsion of the Greeks,Wikipedia pogroms such as Burning of SmyrnaWikipedia or the bloody suppression of revolts by Turkish irregulars. How much of these crimes Atatürk was directly responsible for is debatable; several of the events happened under the watch of the previous Ottoman regime and/or other senior figures and there does not seem to be much, if any evidence that he personally ordered such crimes to be committed. However, there is ample evidence that at very least, he considered them not much more than "shameful events" which were best glossed over. This might be seen as the dark side of his "pragmatism" which allowed him to succeed in the Independence War; that too many of the culprits (such as the ones imprisoned in the Turkish courts-martial of 1919–1920Wikipedia) were both still "useful" to him and were viewed as "patriotic victims" of the vindictive Allies by important segments of the population, as well as not seeing any real benefit for disturbing the conspiracy of silence regarding the material gains from such crimes.

President of Turkey[edit]

Giving a speech as President in 1924

From this point on, two things became obvious; that Atatürk had a clear vision for his new "Turkey" and had no intention of brooking any dissention on said vision; be it from members of the Ottoman dynasty, clergy (including the Caliph, the nominal head of the Islamic world), foreigners, Communists, ethnic minorities, formally-useful allies or even fellow generals who'd been alongside him during the Independence War[8]. However, to the mild surprise to some, Atatürk did not help himself to either a crown or a dictator's uniform; Turkey was at least a nominal parliamentary republic throughout his tenure, which allowed it do develop into a genuine one after the Second World War.

During a military exercise

Said vision was nothing short of the wholesale rebuilding of Turkey along modern linesWikipedia - whether it wanted it or not. From the elimination of Islamic law to the secularisation of education, the emancipation of women to the adoption of the metric system, the country was to join what he called "universal civilisation" by adopting best practice. Atatürk's drive for this took at times what appears to modern eyes ludicrous levels; such as the outright banning of traditional ("backward") dress and the enforcement of European ("modern") norms, such as suits and hats[9]. In these goals he gained the friendship of the Soviet Union; another country which desired to enforce "modernity" on their people even harder than he did. However, this did not go as far as ideological agreement; not only did Atatürk oppose Communism wholesale but his motivation was nationalistic in nature - that a "modern, civilised" Turkey would be able to defend her rights and people better than the Ottoman sultans ever could. To this end he was strongly autarkic economically; remembering the "Capitulations" which had led foreigners to dominate the Ottoman economy and later on, how the Great Depression shook nations around the world. He also generally opposed irredentism, which made him rather a rarity in inter-war Europe.

Along with his undoubted talents and generous dollop of vanity Atatürk had a clear case of "chip on shoulder" syndrome; hailing from the era of scientific racism and feeling the myriad of barbs of being (allegedly) a member of an inferior "yellow race" (sic) filled him with two goals; to prove to the world that yes, Turks could "do it all themselves"[note 5] and secondly, that Turks themselves were a "white race". The first led to the positive policies of encouraging higher education and foreign study, the latter the general negatives such as the promotion of such bollocks as the "Sun-Language Theory"Wikipedia (a piece of pseudolinguistics which said all the world's languages stemmed originally from Turkish) or the general claims that every ancient civilisation was in fact, ultimately Turkish[10]. It can be said neither of these were helpful long-term, what with their effect on Turkish nationalism.


Numerous Turks attend marches and meetings in memory of Atatürk on 10 November, the day of his death. His famous word is written on this billboard: "My moral heritage is science and reason."[11]

Atatürk died with his "project" somewhat unfinished; widening a division between the "secularist" and "religious" camps in Turkey which continues to this day. The military, in particular revere his memory and see themselves as the "custodians of his legacy", causing them to launch two coups (1960 and 1980) to "defend the Republic" and forcing out another government in 1997 by sending a public letter to (then) Prime Minister Erbakan "inviting" him to resign[12]. This was also the motivation behind the 2016 coup attempt, unless you suspect it was in fact incited by Erdoğan himself to allow himself to crack down on the opposition[13]. Unlike most military coups, the generals generally kept to their words in restoring democracy relatively quickly, though it can't be said their interventions were viewed as pleasant. His cult of personality has both helped and hindred Turkey; it may have been one of the main roadblocks to Erdoğan's own authortarianism (who is seen by many as the anti-Atatürk; a religious, neo-Ottoman ruler[14]) which naturally, makes him unpopular to Erdoğan's fans. His other main legacy can be seen on the cities of Turkey; with the amount of statues, busts and large billboards with his visage giving visitors vague déjà vu of lands such as North Korea.

He is often cited as a modern example of the "benevolent dictator"; the ruler who used their power to achieve generally positive ends for the country, even if they had to tread on some (or a lot) of toes to make it happen. Like many a strongman, Atatürk argued that he was the best option for Turkey; that dissent - even if well-meaning - would be harnessed by religious reactionaries which would destroy the Republic and the painstaking gains since 1918. That while democracy was good, a country needed to be "prepared" for it first - that his reforms would have never have happened if it had been down to popular votes. He was also somewhat technocratic in motivation; some of his staunchest supporters then and now being the well-educated, "Westernised" urban classes (of which he was by adoption).


Atatürk never hesitated to criticize dogma, and according to his statement, life guided him:

We do not consider our principles as dogmas contained in books that are said to come from heaven. We derive our inspiration, not from heaven, or from an unseen world, but directly from life.
—Atatürk 1937, in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey[15]
Foreign state officials at Atatürk's funeral

He made it clear that Islamic dogmas has numbed the Turkish nation for centuries:

Even before accepting the religion of the Arabs, the Turks were a great nation. After accepting the religion of the Arabs, this religion, didn't effect to combine the Arabs, the Persians and Egyptians with the Turks to constitute a nation. (This religion) rather, loosened the national nexus of Turkish nation, got national excitement numb. This was very natural. Because the purpose of the religion founded by Muhammad, over all nations, was to drag to an including Arab national politics.
—Atatürk 1931, in his own work titled Vatandaş için Medeni Bilgiler[16]

In his address to the Reichstag on 4 May 1941, Adolf Hitler said:

Turkey had been our ally in the World War. Its unfortunate result was as heavy a burden for Turkey as it was for us. The great and ingenious reconstructor of the new Turkey gave his Allies, beaten by fate, the first example of resurrection. While Turkey, thanks to the realistic attitude of her State leadership, preserved her independent attitude Yugoslavia fell a victim to British intrigues.
—Hitler 1941, in the Reichstag[17]

On the 25th commemoration of Atatürk's death, John F. Kennedy said:

The name of Atatürk brings to mind the historic accomplishments of one of the great men of this century, his inspired leadership of the Turkish people, his perceptive understanding of the modern world and his boldness as a military leader.
—JFK 1963, in Washington D.C.[18]

Memory of Gallipoli[edit]

Atatürk was a gifted orator, and Turkish schoolchildren learn many of his utterances by heart. However in the West his most famous quote is the one engraved on a monument at a war cemetery in Gallipoli, and it is one which has reduced countless Australian and Kiwi backpackers to a snivelling mess:

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives... you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country.

Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours...

You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace.

After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.
—Atatürk 1934
Memorial at Anzac Cove, commemorating the loss of thousands of Ottoman and ANZAC soldiers in Gallipoli.

External links[edit]


  1. Producing an impressive 30-volume set of collected works.[4]
  2. "Father of the Turks"
  3. Led by a generally unfree press
  4. Relatively unconnected, his military postings were sometimes inconvenient for politicking.
  5. Much of the Allies arguments after WW1 being their racist beliefs that Turks lacked the "capacity" to correctly run their own affairs.


  1. ID card from 1934
  2. ID card from 1935
  3. Door to Dreamland - TIME
  4. Atatürk'ün Bütün Eserleri by Kemal Atatürk (1998-2011) Kaynak Yayınları.
  11. İsmet Giritli, Kemalist Devrim ve İdeolojisi, İstanbul Üniversitesi Yayınları, 1980, p. 13.
  15. Atatürk'ün Türkiye Büyük Millet Meclisi'nin V. Dönem 3. Yasama Yılını Açış Konuşmaları. Full statement (in Turkish): "...Bizim devlet idaresindeki ana programımız, Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi programıdır. Bunun kapsadığı prensipler, idarede ve siyasette bizi aydınlatıcı ana hatlardır. Fakat bu prensipleri, gökten indiği sanılan kitapların dogmalarıyla asla bir tutmamalıdır. Biz, ilhamlarımızı, gökten ve gaipten değil, doğrudan doğruya hayattan almış bulunuyoruz. Bizim yolumuzu çizen; içinde yaşadığımız yurt, bağrından çıktığımız Türk milleti ve bir de milletler tarihinin bin bir facia ve ıstırap kaydeden yapraklarından çıkardığımız neticelerdir."
  16. Afet İnan, Medenî Bilgiler ve M. Kemal Atatürk'ün El Yazıları, Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1998, p. 364.
  17. Adolf Hitler's Address to the Reichstag (4 May 1941)
  18. John F. Kennedy's speech to the Turkish people in November 1963