Ataturk, Part I
Perhaps the least known, great figure of the twentieth century
was the founder of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal, better
known as Ataturk. Why do we know so little about this man
who, with today''s war on terrorism, looms larger than ever?
Why should we care about Turkey?
Ataturk is little known for precisely the reason why we should
pay closer attention to the vital nation he created; that is, he
concentrated on building a nation, as opposed to conquest.
Over the next few weeks we are going to spend some time
detailing Ataturk''s role in the founding of the republic and how
he transformed the remnants of the Ottoman Empire into a
secularized nation, one which eschewed Islamic tradition in its
many forms. It is a story that has huge implications for today''s
Mustafa was born in the winter of 1880-81 (most books say
1881) in Salonika, what today is the Greek city of Thessaloniki, a
thriving port on the Aegean. His father was a former minor
customs official who was beset by all manner of business
problems when he attempted to set up his own timber operation
near Mount Olympus. After this failed he died in 1888, some
would say of depression, leaving his wife to care for their six
children, including little Mustafa.
Mustafa''s early years were fairly normal. At first his mother
hoped he would become a religious teacher, but at the age of 12
he entered a military academy, against her best wishes. It was at
the school where he was given the name Kemal ("Perfect") by a
math teacher in order to distinguish him from other boys of the
When war broke out in 1897 between Greece and the Ottoman
Empire, Mustafa Kemal tried to join the action at the front, but
he was returned to the school and later enrolled in the Istanbul
War College. His second year he placed 20th in a class of 460
and in his third, 8 of 459. While in school he widely read the
works of banned Ottoman writers, such as Namik Kemal, the
"poet of the Fatherland". One of Namik''s couplets would later
spur Mustafa into action.
The enemy has pressed his dagger to the breast of the
Will no one arise to save his mother from her black fate?
In the military, Mustafa Kemal rose quickly through the ranks,
while all around him the Ottoman Empire was crumbling. The
army offered him a terrific opportunity to expand his horizons,
and through postings in places such as Istanbul, Tripoli, Cairo,
and Damascus, as well as side trips to European cities, he
became aware of the modern world outside his home region.
Mustafa learned French and devoured the classics, like the works
of Voltaire and Rousseau. "The Turkish nation has fallen behind
the West," he once told a German officer. "The main aim should
be to lead it to modern civilization."
In 1907 Mustafa was promoted to adjutant-major and posted in
Macedonia and then in 1908 he played a key role in the Young
Turk revolt. This was a group, founded back in the 1880s, which
desired that the Ottoman Empire become a modern European
state with a liberal constitution. The political arm was the CUP,
or Committee of Union and Progress, the forerunner to Mustafa
Kemal''s Turkish Nationalist Party. But we''re getting a bit ahead
Because of the actions of the Young Turks the Sultan Abdul
Hamid was eventually forced into exile, to be replaced by his
brother. Then in 1913, the CUP''s Enver Pasha (for whom
Mustafa Kemal was a chief aide) launched a coup, which
resulted in the dictatorship of Enver, who ruled throughout the
struggles of World War I.
It was during this war that Mustafa gained a national reputation
when he heroically commanded the Turkish forces to victory in
the Battle of Gallipoli, beating back a British-led invasion of the
crucial Dardanelles strait (a battle plan drawn up by the First
Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill).
Over eight months the Turks battled British, French and ANZAC
(Australia and New Zealand) forces, with tens of thousands
losing their lives on both sides. As a result of the heroic
leadership of Mustafa, he not only gained national recognition,
he emerged as Turkey''s only hero from the Great War.
On April 25, 1915, the Allies landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula,
anticipating a swift victory. At the strategic heights of Chunuk
Bair, the ANZAC forces (who were left off at the wrong place),
confronted the Turks. Towards the end of the first day, some of
the Turkish soldiers began to withdraw as they ran out of
ammunition. Commander Mustafa Kemal reached the men
pulling out and asked, "Why are you running away?" "The
enemy, sir." "Where?" "There."
Mustafa looked at the hill that the Australians were about to take,
with clear sailing beyond, and yelled at his forces, "One doesn''t
run away from the enemy." Since they had no ammunition they
fixed bayonets and laid down facing the invaders. Then, with
reinforcements, Mustafa began to charge the Australians as they
continued to clamber up the slope from the beach. Historian
Martin Gilbert relates:
"Successive waves of Turks, hurling themselves on their
adversary, were killed by machine-gun fire as they clambered
over the bodies of the previous wave. More and more Australian
wounded were falling back to the narrow breach. ''There was no
rest, no lull,'' one Australian soldier wrote, ''while the rotting
dead lay all around us, never a pause in the whole of that long
day that started at the crack of dawn. How we longed for
nightfall! How we prayed for this ghastly day to end! How we
yearned for the sight of the first dark shadow!''"
It was just the start of the 8-month conflict, with Mustafa
continually leading his soldiers with declarations like, "It is our
duty to save our country, and we must acquit ourselves
honorably and nobly. I must remind all of you that to seek rest
or comfort now is to deprive the nation of its rest and comfort for
ever." But, as Mustafa himself later admitted, it was for Allah
that many of his men died, for the prospect of becoming a
martyr, destined to ascend to heaven.
I had to include this bit on Gallipoli because, as I''ve been writing
in my "Week in Review," the Turks can be huge allies in our
current war on terrorism, particularly should the United States
move on Iraq. There is a history of performance our leaders can
As for Mustafa Kemal, we''ll resume his story next week.
"Ataturk," A.L. Macfie
"Crescent & Star," Stephen Kinzer
"The First World War," Martin Gilbert
Note: April 25 is a national holiday in Australia and New
Zealand because of the tremendous heroism displayed by
ANZAC soldiers at Gallipoli, even in defeat.