The Robinson LibraryTHE ROBINSON LIBRARY
The Robinson Library >> General and Old World History >> Balkan Peninsula >> Turkey >> 20th Century
Kemal Atatürk

[kuh mahl' ah tuh turk'] the first President of the Turkish Republic

Kemal Ataturk

The man known to history as Kemal Atatürk was born in Salonika (now Thessaloniki) in 1881. Named Mustafa at birth, it was his mathematical ability at a military school in Monastir (now Bitola, Macedonia) that earned him the second name Kemal, which means "perfection." His military career began after he graduated from the War College in Istanbul (as a Second Lieutenant) in 1902, and from the General Staff College (as a Captain) in 1905.

Revolutionary and Military Career

Kemal’s military career almost ended soon after his graduation when it was discovered that he and several friends were meeting to read about and discuss political abuses within the Ottoman Empire. The group was broken up and its members assigned to remote areas of the empire, with Mustafa Kemal being assigned to the 5th Army in Damascus (now the capital of Syria). Angered by the way corrupt Ottoman officials treated the local people, Kemal helped found a short-lived secret group of reformist officers called the Society for Fatherland and Freedom.

Despite being once again involved in anti-government activities, Kemal was declared loyal in 1907 and reassigned to Salonika. There, he joined the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), which had ties to the nationalist and reformist Young Turk movement. He was one of many military officers who participated in the Young Turk Revolution of July 1908 that forced Sultan Abdülhamid II to relinquish most of his powers and establish a representative government (constitutional monarchy). In April 1909, Kemal was instrumental in the suppression of a counter-revolution staged by a group of soldiers. With the revolution now "complete," he turned his attention from politics to military matters.

In 1910, Kemal was sent to the Ottoman provinces in Albania, which at that time was revolting against Ottoman rule. While there he met with Eqerem Vlora, one of the signatories of the Albanian Declaration of Independence. Later that same year, he was sent to observe French army manuevers in Picardy. In 1911 he was assigned to the Ministry of War (Harbiye Nezareti) in Istanbul. Although consistently denied promotion due to his criticism of the revolutionary Ottoman government, Kemal refused to give up his military career.

Italo-Turkish War

In late 1911, Italy attacked Libya, then an Ottoman province, and Kemal immediately volunteered to fight the invaders. Despite often being outnumbered and outgunned, his forces managed to repel the Italians on a number of occasions. On January 16-17, 1912, while his troops were assaulting the Italian-held fortress of Kasr-i Harun, Kemal's left eye was damaged by shrapnel. Complications from the injury, combined with an attack of malaria, forced him to leave the front for treatment in Vienna.

Balkan Wars

Kemal was still in Vienna when the First Balkan War broke out, in October 1912. In December he was assigned to the defense of the Gallipoli Peninsula, an area of strategic importance with respect to the Dardanelles. Within two months, however, the Ottoman Empire lost most of its territory in Europe. The Second Balkan War saw the Ottomans regain part of their lost territory, and the restoration of relations with Bulgaria. Former schoolmate Ali Fethi was subsequently named Ambassador to Bulgaria, and Kemal accompanied him to Sofia as military attaché. He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in March 1914.

World War I

Although he disagreed with government leader Enver Pasha's decision to ally the Ottoman Empire with Germany, Kemal asked for a military command after war broke out. Initially forced to stay in Sofia, he was finally given command of the 19th Division, which was being organized in the Gallipoli Peninsula. It was his division that ultimately forced the Allies to abandon their assault on Gallipoli, and his victory was rewarded with a promotion to full Colonel in June 1915.

In 1916 Kemal was promoted to General and sent to the Russian front. The only Turkish General to defeat the Russians in their own territory, he took over command of the 2nd Army in southeastern Anatolia later that same year. After the Russian Revolution took Russia out of the war, Kemal was appointed to the command of the 7th Army in Syria. Finding that army woefully unprepared for battle, Kemal resigned his post and returned without permission to Istanbul. He was placed on leave for three months, and then assigned to accompany Crown Prince Mehmed Vahideddin on a state visit to Germany. On his return to Istanbul, Kemal fell ill with kidney problems and was forced to seek treatment in Vienna.

While Kemal was recuperating, Sultan Mehmed V died and Crown Prince Mehmed Vahideddin assumed the throne as Mehmed VI. The new sultan recalled Kemal to Istanbul in June 1918 and assigned him to command the collapsing Ottoman forces in Syria. Finding the situation in Syria far worse than he had imagined, Kemal instituted a strategic withdrawal to the north in order to save the lives of as many of his soldiers as possible.

Fighting was halted by the Armistice of Mudros, which was signed on October 30, 1918. Kemal's last official service in the Ottoman Army was organizing the return of Ottoman troops to Turkey. By the time he returned to Istanbul on November 13, 1919, the CUP leaders had fled the country, leaving Sultan Mehmed VI to lead the government. To ensure the continuation of his rule, the Sultan was willing to cooperate with the Allies, who assumed control of the government.

Turkish War of Independence

The occupation of the capital city by the Allies was just one in a series of events that sparked the establishment of the Turkish National Movement and the Turkish War of Independence. Under a punitive postwar peace treaty signed in August 1920, the Allied powers stripped all Arab provinces from the Ottoman Empire, provided for an independent Armenia and an autonomous Kurdistan, put the Greeks in charge of a region surrounding Smyrna (now Izmir), and asserted economic control over what little country remained. By then, however, Kemal had left Istanbul and was organizing an independence movement based in Ankara. The Sultan's government in Istanbul sentenced Kemal to death in absentia, but that failed to prevent him from building up both military and popular support.

With assistance from Soviet Russia (in the form of both money and weapons), Kemal's troops crushed the Armenians in the east and forced the French and Italians to withdraw from the south before turning his attention to the Greeks. In August and September 1921, Kemal's army stopped the Greeks at the Battle of Sakarya. By August of the following year the Greeks had been pushed completely out of Turkey.

With Kemal now poised to attack Istanbul, the Allies agreed to negotiate a new peace treaty and sent invitations to both the sultan's government in Istanbul and Kemal's government in Ankara. Before the peace conference could begin, however, the Grand National Assembly (GNA) passed a resolution declaring that the Sultan's rule had already ended (on November 1, 1922). This was soon followed by the Sultan's abdication and exile, after which the Allies agreed to negotiate a new treaty with the GNA. The Treaty of Lausanne was signed on July 24, 1923, the GNA occupied Istanbul on October 2, and the Turkish Republic was proclaimed on October 29.

President of the Turkish Republic

Upon proclamation of the Turkish Republic, the National Assembly unanimously elected Mustafa Kemal its first President. He was re-elected in 1927, 1931, and 1935.

As President, Kemal led wide-ranging reforms in social, cultural, and economical aspects. Under his guidance, the Islamic-based legal system was replaced with a Western-styled system, women were emancipated, universal education was introduced, and the Latin alphabet replaced the Arabic one in the Turkish language. In foreign affairs, Kemal sought to keep Turkey, although the country did join the League of Nations. He also established friendly relations with Greece, the Soviet Union, and other neighbors.

In 1934, Turkey officially adopted the use of surnames. That same year, the Turkish National Assembly passed a law conferring upon its President the surname Ataturk, meaning "Father of the Turks," and forbidding the use of that name by anyone else. Kemal Ataturk died at the Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul on November 10, 1938.

PRINT SOURCES
Collier's Encyclopedia New York: Crowell-Collier Educational Corporation, 1969
World Book Encyclopedia Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International, 1978

WEB SOURCES
BBC
www.bbc.co.uk
Encyclopædia Britannica
www.britannica.com
History Channel
www.history.com

SEE ALSO
Albania
Balkan Wars
Dardanelles
World War I

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> General and Old World History >> Balkan Peninsula >> Turkey >> 20th Century

This page was last updated on June 09, 2017.