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The Life of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk
Nowadays, overwhelming majority of the world’s developed nations opted for building their life on democratic principles of social organization. Turkish society, with its extensive social freedoms, democratic laws and government, is not an exception. But everyone, who visits Turkey or is interested in its modern life, can see that the concept of personality cult, which is considered to be a characteristic feature of communist or authoritarian systems, is still practiced there. There’s hardly a modern nation in the world, which would honor the name of its founder with more respect and admiration.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Father of the Turks), a heaven born leader, a creator of modern Turkish state and a victorious military commander, is simply worshiped by Turkish nation for his contribution to social development of the country, ideological innovations and numerous important social, economic, cultural, legal, political, educational reforms, which completely changed social life of the Turks in the beginning of the twentieth century. There is a portrait of Ataturk in every governmental office, and a monument to him is built next to every school in the country. His name is written with giant letters on many important governmental buildings, and it is impossible to find a city which does not have the main street named after Ataturk.
Future Father of the nation of Turks was born as Mustafa (in those times there was no system of surnames in the Ottoman Empire and people had only several first names) in spring of 1881, in a small town of Salonika (Selânik). His father, Ali Ryza (Ali Rıza Efendi), who was a police officer and then worked as a merchant, was a man of Macedonian origin. His mother, Zoobeide (Zübeyde Hanım) was a native Turkish. Mustafa had 5 more siblings, but 4 of them (except his sister Makbule) died in early ages. The boy started his education in primary Hafyz Mehmet Efendi’s (Hafız Mehmet Efendi) school, and later on his parents insisted on transferring him to Shemsi Efendi (Şemsi Efendi) religious school.
After finishing Moolkie Rooshtiye (Mülkiye Rüştiye) secondary school in Salonika, Mustafa, who dreamt about becoming a military officer, joined Manastir (Manastır) military high school. He was a brilliant and very diligent student. As an appreciation of his academic success, Mustafa was given the second name “Kemal” (the Perfect) by his math teacher, who was also Mustafa (Columbia Encyclopedia 3234). Mustafa Kemal demonstrated great talents on many subjects, that is why he successfully finished the school and was invited to enter the Military Academy in Istanbul. In 1905 he graduated from the Academy with great prospects to start his professional career as a military major and succeed in his life.
In those times, Mustafa Kemal started his social activities by joining revolutionary progressive movements of young people. This resulted in his participation in preparation for so called the Young Turks Revolution, which was an early attempt to launch constitutional government in the Empire. However, active position of Turkey on international stage and numerous territorial misunderstandings with neighboring countries diverted the attention of young protester to pursuing his career goals. Thus, in 1909 he was assigned for the military activities in Syria, and in 1910-1911 he served in Libya during the military campaign against the Italians. In 1911 Mustafa Kemal became a commander and won several principle combats, including the battles at Tobrook (Tobrük) and Derne (Derne).
In 1913 during the Balkan War, the young commander participated in the battles against Bulgarian army. His troops contributed greatly to several victories in modern region of Trakiya (Trakya): in particular, they liberated the city of Edirne, an important cultural center of the Empire. As a result, Mustafa Kemal was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel and received a diplomatic mission to Sofia. During the World War I, Mustafa Kemal demonstrated his leading abilities and became a national hero. While defending the lands from the French and British forces, which were ordered to win access to the Black Sea, the young commander managed to motivate his soldiers and did not allow the enemy to enter the Dardanelles. This principle battle is known as the Battle of Chanakkale (Çanakkale) and it was one of the most memorable fights in the whole history of the Ottoman Army.
Mustafa Kemal’s courage and determination became legendary, and many soldiers could never forget the orders of their commander: “I do not order you to attack, I order you to die” (Karpat 88). For this successful military campaign, in 1915 Mustafa Kemal received the rank of colonel. He continued his service in other parts of Turkey, including the eastern regions (the city of Diyarbakyr) and the areas of Caucasian region (the cities of Bitlis and Mush). In 1918, the 37-year-old commander was back to occupied Istanbul, where he joined the movement of national resistance. He became one of the most influential national leaders, who were able to mobilize the forces and prepare them for the War of Independence.
As one of the main organizers of the independence movement, Mustafa Kemal started forming the armies in the south and in the west of Turkey. Moreover, his idea was to change governmental and social structure of the country, using the benefits of the situation. In June 1919, together with his supporters, Mustafa Kemal issued his famous Amasya Circular (Amasya Tamimi), in which he called for joining the efforts of all Turkish people and fight for their independence. He wanted to form alternative democratic elites and obtain independence not only from foreign invaders, but also from the old Ottoman rulers.
Practically, those were the first revolutionary steps of Mustafa Kemal. In 1920 he gathered the Turkish Grand Assembly, which was planned to become the first democratic government of the country. Nevertheless, rescuing Turkish lands from the Greek, British, French and other invaders was the primary task. Therefore, Mustafa Kemal agreed to lead national patriotic army. Due to brilliant intuition and wise strategic decisions of the commander, Turkish forces successfully defeated American armies in the east of the country (the battles of Kars, Chukurova, Gaziantep, etc.), and won a number of principle battles in the western parts of Turkey, including the battles for Izmir, Sakarya and the Great (final) Attack. In spring of 1923, after signing the Peace Treaty in Lausanne, Turkish Independence war was over, and Mustafa Kemal was honored by receiving the rank of marshal.
As a result of this glorious victory of the Independence war, Mustafa Kemal freed the nation from old-fashioned Ottoman rule and mobilized a group of his supporters to make serious social changes. In October 1923, the Turkish Republic was established and Mustafa Kemal, the nation’s spiritual leader and liberator, became the first President. For the next several years he worked on creating an extensive system of radical reforms, which were aimed on making Turkey a developed, advanced and modern society. For his infinite patriotism, resolution and progressive social ideas, Mustafa Kemal was honored with the name of Ataturk (Atatürk), which means the Father of Turkish Nation.
General idea of Ataturk’s reformative revolutionary strategy was to create a secular state and separate the government from religion. At that, Islam was supposed to remain as a sovereign symbol of faith. A number of important reformations were implemented by Ataturk in economic sector. They included, first of all, creating a specific plan for economic modernization and development of the Turkish Republic. Such tactical steps as abolition of some taxes and improvement of fiscal system, launching the system of governmental support of industrial companies, creating more favorable environment for investments, especially in transportation infrastructure, etc. resulted in certain economic rise.
In addition, a lot of principal and important reforms in political, legal and governmental sectors were implemented. One of the main purposes of these revolutionary changes was abolition of the Caliphate and the rule of Sultan, that is why Ataturk’s supporters seized the power and established a new democratic regime. Following the ideas of democracy, Ataturk introduced a new Turkish Civil Code, which was very progressive for those times. It offered a great deal of new civil rights, as well as new opportunities for improving social life of Turkish nation. Therefore, the country became the first Islamic community, where women were granted equal rights with men to get married, to participate in public vote, to receive education, and so on.
Another contribution of Ataturk to economic sector was launching the program directed on encouraging farming and support of agricultural sector. However, in order to boost economic development, the President had to face and find solutions for such problems, as unemployment, absence of qualified workforce and massive illiteracy. That is why he concentrated his efforts on total reformation and reconstruction of the country’s educational system, which had serious lack of facilities and competent teachers. Ataturk was the first to organize and support several colleges and universities throughout the country.
In addition, a series of social reforms and innovations, introduced by Ataturk, had enormous positive effects, as they set the nation on the way of westernization and integration into European societies. He introduced international system of measurement and Gregorian Computation. Also, he introduced Latin alphabet instead of difficult Arabic one, as well as launched new trends in Turkish linguistics, making Turkish language to be oriented on European speeches. He put to order the system of social identification, abolished nicknames and titles and introduced a system of surnames. Finally, Ataturk completely changed common dressing code of the Turks, trying to promote modern Western-style outlook (Ataturk.com).
Undoubtedly, all these reformations and innovations can be called revolutionary, and it was very hard for conservative Turkish society to adopt such great number of social changes and accept them. That is why in that historical period, not every innovative idea of Ataturk was receiving positive feedback and public understanding. Several acts and movements of public disagreement and protests against new rules of writing, new requirements as to the outfit and other regulations took place throughout the country and contributed in discrediting new policies of the President and his allies.
In addition, Ataturk’s reformations were severely criticized by the representatives of old Ottoman patriotic elites and supporters of the Sharihat, who demonstrated a lot of antagonism to political reformations and, especially, to westernization of the country. They did everything possible in order to interrupt Ataturk’s programs, especially legal and language reforms. As a reaction on secularism and minimization of the role of religion, many were blaming Ataturk for his hidden aspiration to weaken the influence of Islam and destroy the country’s religious traditions (Karpat, 215).
It is impossible to deny that some ideas of Ataturk were not implemented properly or proved to be too liberal for Turkish society of those times. However, his reformations brought to numerous social improvements and cultural progress. Undoubtedly, Ataturk’s reformist ideology was absolutely constructive, balanced, rational, and all his innovations were aimed only on social or political modernization. Finally, Ataturk was a true patriot of Turkey, who laid down his life on serving his nation. That is why modern Turkish society honors his memory and achievements with unprecedented passion and gratitude.
Ataturk served as the President of Turkey for 15 years. During the last years of his life, he continued vivid social activities and participated in several charity campaigns. He was supporting orphan houses and different cultural programs. He was found of theater, dancing, reading and leading active life-styles. Ataturk died in November 1938 in Istanbul and was buried according to Islamic traditions. Years later, in 1953 Ataturk’s remains were transferred to the capital Ankara, to the Anitkabir (Anıtkabir, the Ataturk’s Mausoleum).
The strong personality, determination and effective leadership style of Ataturk influenced other political and social leaders, both in Turkey and abroad. Ataturk had a lot of admirers among the members of local social and military circles, who helped and supported his reforms and innovations. His close associate Ismet Inonu (İsmet İnönü) was a significant figure during the establishment of the republic and solving numerous military conflicts. He was Ataturk’s successor as the President of the Turkish Republic and, together with his ally Shurku Sarachoglu (Şükrü Saraçoğlu), he continued following the path of reforms.
Ataturk’s revolution had a great impact on many worlds’ leaders and inspired them for vivid activities directed on improving people’s social life and welfare. In particular, the leader of Russian revolutionary movement Vladimir Lenin was highly evaluating the achievements of Ataturk: “Mustafa Kemal … is a good organizer, with great understanding, progressive, with good thoughts and an intelligent leader… I believe that he will break the pride of the imperialists and that he will beat the Sultan together with his friends” (Madak).
Another significant reformer and important political personality Jawaharlal Nehru was highly impressed with personal charisma, ambitiousness and incomparable leadership qualities of Ataturk: “Kemal Atatürk … was my hero during my youth. I was very moved when I read about his great reforms. I met with great praise the general efforts made by Atatürk on the course of modernizing Turkey. His dynamism, undauntedness and unawareness of fatigue created a great effect on people. He was one of the builders of the modern age in the orient. I continue to be among his greatest admirers” (Madak).
Finally, the personality of Ataturk was a point of great interest of many American political leaders, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, as well as of our other numerous political ideologists and historians. Such enormous domestic and international appreciation and acknowledgment of the achievements, career, personal identity and political legacy of the Father of Turkish Nation entitle specialists to consider Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to be one of the most significant and influential personalities of the twentieth century.
Karpat, Kemal H. Studies on Turkish Politics and Society: Selected Articles and Essays. Boston: Brill, 2004.
Madak, Ozgur. “World Leaders Praise Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.” Turkish Time. Assembly of Turkish American Associations. June 2003. 19 Apr, 2008 <http://www.theturkishtimes.com/op-madak.html >.
“Mustafa Kemal.” The Columbia Encyclopedia. Sixth Edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.
“Mustafa Kemal Ataturk” Ataturk.com. 2008. 19 Apr, 2008 <http://www.ataturk.com/content/view/12/26/>.