Home > C. The Thinker As Hero, F. Politics & the Velvet Revolution > Attaturk: Father of a Nation (Part 1)

Attaturk: Father of a Nation (Part 1)

High on the list of RT’s dream destinations, Turkey has exercised a powerful fascination on him since shortly after college, when he ran across an old book on Turkish culture. Then he read Romilly Jenkin’s magisterial Byzantium: The Imperial Centuries and was completely hooked.

One could go on and on about the sights to be seen and the immense variety in landscape and culture encompassed by Asia Minor, but perhaps the most important fact to hold on to is the diversity in culture: Turkey is home both to 1) the great city Istanbul and the adjacent small but important section of European Turkey and 2) the deeply Middle Eastern region around Lake Van and the headwaters of the Euphrates-Tigris river system.  Gilgamesh and Herakles rolled into one (so to speak), and somehow the Turks have not only managed to hold the condominium together, but are actually enjoying a noticeable degree of prosperity.

How has Turkey been able to carry off this not-so-small political miracle? Surely Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, first President of the Republic of Turkey, deserves no small part of the credit.

Attaturk’s story is one of the more amazing (at a time filled with amazing stories). He was born in Salonika in 1881 to a middle-class family and served in the Turkish army during WWI. At the end of the war, with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Attaturk led a revolution that modernized Turkish society in some of the most fundamental ways: not only did his party replace the old sultanate with a parliamentary republic modeled on western institutions, but the Turks also replaced the Arabic script with a modified Roman alphabet and replaced traditional garb with western dress.


By the time that Attaturk entered the fray, the Ottoman Empire was in steep decline. After the death of Suleiman the Magnificent (1566), the empire had begun to drift, at first gradually, then picking up speed during the 18th and 19th centuries. At its height, the empire stretched from the gates of Vienna in the west to Baku in the east, and from the Crimean Peninsula in the north to the border of Sudan. The Ottomans had gained control of the territories of their predecessors, the Byzantine Empire, adding some of their own along the way. But they soon found themselves facing the same problems that had led to the fall of the Byzantines: maintaining effective control over such a large area and dealing with the tensions that inevitably arose between the empire’s many ethnic minorities.

But doubtless the chief cause of the Ottoman’s decline was Europe’s rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of  the Byzantine collapse and the fall of Constantinople (1453). The rise of imperial Spain, funded by a massive infusion of wealth from its new colonial empire, followed by the scientific, industrial, and democratic revolutions, proved more than the Ottomans could handle. Despite periods of reform–most notably, the Tanzimat (1839-1876) and the First Constitutional Era (1876-1878)–the Ottoman Sultanate was indeed the “Sick Man of Europe” at the end of the 19th century. Weak as it was, however, the sultanate retained most of its political authority on the eve of WWI.

It was onto this stage that Mustafa Kemal stepped in 1905. Notably, in his early years, he showed little interest in religious affairs, preferring a military career. After graduation from officer school, he served in Syria and Macedonia and took part in the Young Turk Revolution of 1908. Starting with the Italian-Turkish War (1911-1912), he saw action in the series of wars that cost the Ottomans control of Libya and most of the Balkans; he distinguished himself in the fighting and by 1913 had attained the rank of Colonel.

During WWI, Mustafa Kemal Bey continued his rise through the military ranks, ending with command of the 7th Army in Syria. The army was destroyed by aerial bombardment in September 1918, and this disaster was followed by the Armistice of Mudros, which took the Ottomans out of the war. Mustafa Kemal Pasha returned to an occupied Constantinople.

At this point, we confront the mystery behind Attaturk’s life–what compelled a senior military officer in a majority Muslim empire to embrace westernization and a democratic political life? 1) Part of the answer lies in the Turks’ political situation: though their fortunes had reached their nadir, a de facto power vacuum existed in Constantinople after the war. And power vacuums by their nature tend to draw out great leaders. 2) Part of the answer lies in Anatolia’s long history; it has always served as a bridge between cultures, and the influence of European culture has been significant. 3) And part of the answer lies in Attaturk himself. To begin with, Attaturk absorbed (and represented) elements of both European and Middle Eastern civilization; he was a polyglot, fluent in French and German, and with a knowledge of Arabic sufficient for him to understand and interpret the Quran. He was an autodidact who maintained a considerable library of books on technical subjects. He was a lover of nature who worked to establish a zoo in Ankara. And he was something of a bon vivant, enjoying waltzing, raki, and folk songs. To this we can add that Attaturk was married and adopted three children. Perhaps it can be said that he was open to the best in the many cultures he traveled through as a child and young man. While the Allied powers worked to partition the Turkish homeland (via the Treaty of Sevres), Attaturk had the vision and confidence to act.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Turkish Revolution was the energy of its leaders. Starting in 1919, they signaled their resistance to foreign occupation and began to plan for a new national government with its seat in Ankara. The last Ottoman parliament, dominated by Attaturk’s party, met in Istanbul in the winter of 1920 and promulgated the National Pact, a declaration of six principals regarding the future of Ottoman territories, most important of which was the assertion of the Turkish homeland’s right to be a free and independent nation.

The Ottoman parliament was disbanded on March 16, 1920, when Constantinople was occupied by Allied forces; the first session of Turkey’s Grand National Assembly met on April 23 in Ankara, dominated by Attaturk’s Republican People’s Party.

By then, the Turkish War of Independence had broken out, a struggle which led to the proclamation of the Republic of Turkey on October 29, 1923.


Photos: Top: Mustafa Kemal Pasha, 1918. Middle: Ottoman Parliament. Bottom: Leaders of the Sivas Congress, 1919. All Photos: WikiCmns; Public Domain.

  1. September 26, 2012 at 9:43 pm

    spent a month in turkey doing an artist residency–cappadocia region. The amazing thing is all the layers of civilsations you can still see and experience. Would go back there tomorrow.

  2. September 27, 2012 at 12:33 am

    A&Sg: congratulations! there’s nothing better than experiencing a great civilization in all its complexity…thx for stopping by and commenting! RT

  3. aubrey
    October 3, 2012 at 5:06 am

    Once, I came very close to visiting Turkey. I study the battles of WWI, and while the horrors of Gallipoli repel me, its history holds me. I had hoped to visit the cemetary there – but I confess my travel plans were overly complex and things of course fell through.

    • October 3, 2012 at 3:20 pm

      aubrey: I’ve done very little traveling since my family came back from overseas in ’78…lots of drama to deal with in the U.S. But as things are settling down domestically, maybe the time has come to venture abroad again…and I’m sorry to hear that your trip fell through…maybe you will beat me to the punch as regards Turkey! RT

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