Mustafa Kemal Atatürk: The Father of the Turks

One of the most influential politicians of the 20th century, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk brought Turkey into the modern age.

Dec 25, 2023By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

mustafa kemal ataturk turks


Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, known as the “Father of the Turks,” is a beloved figure in his native Turkey. He is credited as being the creator of the modern Turkish state, pulling it into prosperity from the dying remnants of the Ottomans and asserting Turkey’s influence on an international level.


His reforms changed the entire country dramatically, yet not all his contributions were seen as positive, especially in the 21st century when current social norms are applied. However he was received, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was a powerful figure who changed his country and helped shape the world’s political dynamics that continue to have lasting effects to this day.


Early Life of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

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Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in his younger days as a senior Captain in the Turkish Army, 1907, via


Atatürk was born around 1881 in Salonica (Thessaloniki) in present-day Greece. This was during the time when Greece was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. He was born into a middle-class family. His father was an officer in the military, and his mother was a deed clerk and lumber trader. His first brush with schooling was at his mother’s behest. She wanted him to attend a religious school, but he was reluctant and did not enjoy the religious upbringing. Choosing an option that would make young Mustafa happier, he was then enrolled in a private school with a more secular curriculum.


When Mustafa was just seven, his father died, and as he grew up and neared the end of his junior years in school, his mother was adamant that he learn a trade. He defied her wishes and enrolled in Monastir Military High School, intent on a career in the military. In 1899, he enrolled in further education at the Ottoman Military Academy in Pangaltı. After graduating in 1902, he enrolled in the Ottoman Military College in Constantinople and graduated in 1905.

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During his time at college, his political views evolved, and he became distinctly anti-monarchist. Atatürk became politically active and involved in political movements, and shortly after he graduated, he was arrested for anti-monarchist behavior. He was released with the help of his former school director and sent to Damascus with the Fifth Army, where he received his first post as Staff Captain in the army. While there, Atatürk joined a society of reformist officers who opposed the Ottoman monarchy.


Atatürk in the Military

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Illustration of an Italian soldier in Bersaglieri fighting against the Turks during the Italo-Turkish War, via Smithsonian Institution; with An illustration celebrating the Young Turk Revolt, which restored the Ottoman Empire to a constitutional monarchy, via Daily Sabah


Atatürk’s career in the military was long and extremely eventful. He was involved in the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, in which Sultan Abdülhamid II was deposed, and the constitutional monarchy was restored. His service over the next few years saw him take important parts in suppressing revolts in various parts of the Ottoman Empire.


In 1911, he volunteered to take part in the Italo-Turkish War, where he served near Derna and Tobruk. Atatürk took part in many actions and became a seasoned veteran. He was wounded in combat, receiving shrapnel to his left eye. He recovered most of the vision.


In 1912, Atatürk was appointed commander of the Turkish forces in the city of Derna, where he achieved considerable success, saving the city from repeated Italian assault until the end of the war, in which Italy achieved final victory.


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Atatürk during his time in the military, via


Without pause, Atatürk soon found himself fighting in the Balkans as an alliance of Balkan states entered into war with the Ottomans. After fighting two short wars in the Balkans, Atatürk was appointed to the position of military attaché to all Balkan states.


In 1914, the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War on the side of the Central Powers. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk won incredible fame during this war. He became the front-line commander of the Ottoman forces during the Allied attack on Gallipoli and was instrumental in securing victory against the enemy. This was a massive strategic and media victory for the Turks, and it propelled Atatürk’s career. Along with it came prestige and prominence, and he continued to distinguish himself throughout the rest of the war, eventually commanding entire armies.


According to Scottish historian Lord Kinross, who wrote a biography of the Turkish leader, Atatürk was the only general in the Ottoman army who never suffered defeat.


After the First World War

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Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Kâzim Karabekir, via Deniz Kartali


In 1919, Atatürk was tasked with reorganizing what was left of the Turkish army. The defeat of the First World War had been a significant blow to Turkey, and the country was occupied by Allied forces as a result. Instead of humbly carrying out his duties, Atatürk decided to spread insurrection in the face of occupying forces who wished to break up the Ottoman Empire, as well as cede parts of Turkey to neighboring countries.


By spreading the Amasya Circular, which declared that the independence of Turkey was in danger, Atatürk organized an effective movement to combat the influence of the occupation and the Ottoman government. He resigned from the service of the Ottoman government, and a warrant for his arrest was issued. Atatürk, however, was in little danger. A number of top generals, officers, and parts of the military supported his movement and recognized him as their leader. Of critical importance was the support of General Kâzim Karabekir, who commanded 18,000 troops.


Forming the Association for Defence of Rights for Anatolia and Roumelia, Atatürk took the movement to the Ottoman parliament and won a sweeping majority in the elections of 1919. His message that the Sultan was effectively a prisoner of the Allied occupiers and that Turkey was in danger of losing all independence was popular, and he won widespread support throughout the nation.


This move was seen as an extreme threat by the British occupiers, and under their authority, along with their puppet government in Istanbul, dissolved the Turkish parliament, but not before Atatürk had already established his own government and parliament called the Grand National Assembly (GNA) in Ankara. The empire effectively became ruled as a diarchy, with two competing governments claiming supreme authority.


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An illustration of Turks and Greeks in combat during the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922), via the Smithsonian Institute


In June 1920, the Sultan signed the Treaty of Sèvres drawn up by the Allies. It greatly reduced the size of the Ottoman state, with the main beneficiary of the ceded lands being Greece. Armenia also achieved great gains in this treaty and was declared independent from the Ottoman state. With military aid from the newly created Soviet Union, Atatürk declared war on Greece and Armenia. The Allied forces negotiated their own withdrawal with Atatürk’s government, leaving the Armenians completely unprotected. General Kâzim Karabekir moved against Armenia, and by November 1920, their forces had been completely defeated.


The war against Greece did not go as smoothly. They were on the offensive, marching towards Ankara, and had gained several strategic positions. The Turks, under the command of Mustafa İsmet and outnumbered 3 to 1, managed to halt the Greek advance at the First Battle of the İnönü on January 10, 1921. On March 27, the Greeks renewed their offensive, and İsmet beat them at İnönü for the second time.


Despite their defeats, the Greeks pushed on and forced the Turks to fall back, forming new defensive lines near Ankara. The GNA, fearing defeat, demanded that Atatürk take complete control as commander-in-chief. After this development, from August to September 1921, he defeated the Greeks at the Battle of Sakarya, which represented a turning point in the war. A year later, the Turks were able to go on the offensive and pushed the Greeks all the way back to the coast of Izmir.


With complete victory, Atatürk abolished the sultanate. This forced the Allies to enter into negotiations with Atatürk and his government, resulting in the recognition of Turkey’s territorial and legal integrity. On October 29, 1923, the Turkish Republic was proclaimed, with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as its first president.


The Turkish Republic

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Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the later years of his life, via Stockholm Center for Freedom


Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s first priority was the modernization of Turkey. He made great strides in bringing his country into the 20th century. He formed the Republican People’s Party and began an aggressive campaign to create the Turkey he envisioned with his “Six Arrows” plan, which focused on republicanism, nationalism, statism with nationalized industries, populism, secularism, and revolution.


Turkey had been ruled as a caliphate since the 16th century, and one of Atatürk’s first moves was to abolish the theocratic nature of the state. Along with the abolition of the caliphate, Atatürk did away with religious courts and even targeted Islamic conservatism that wasn’t tied to the state. One such law was the banning of wearing the fez, a hat symbolic of Turkish culture and religion but seen by Atatürk as an obsolete remnant of the past.


Instead of Islamic law, Turkey adopted a system based on German, Swiss, and French law. This strengthened another of Atatürk’s goals: the emancipation of women. Despite the attention given to suffrage, it would be a decade later, in 1934, when women were given the right to vote for parliamentary members and the right to hold seats in parliament.


Of all his reforms, one of the most noteworthy was the adoption of the Latin script to replace the Arabic script. Along with this change was a huge focus on education, and as a result, literacy rates climbed dramatically.


Atatürk’s foreign policy was progressive, and although his life had been forged in conflict and war, his policies were peaceful. He sought peaceful relations with all of Europe, especially Greece, a historic enemy of Turkey for thousands of years.


His policies weren’t received with unanimous positivity, however. Radical Muslims, especially from the Kurdish demographic, revolted against Atatürk’s policies, and the revolt was violently quashed.


Atatürk’s Final Years

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The mausoleum of Atatürk in Ankara, via Travel Atelier


In the final years of his life, Atatürk withdrew from public life. He spent much of his time at home drinking heavily. He developed cirrhosis of the liver, and his condition was diagnosed too late for anything to be done.


Despite his considerable pain, he held himself with dignity until the very end. At 9:05 in the morning of November 10, 1938, Atatürk passed away. He was 57 years old. His funeral was a great event and generated grief across the whole nation. His body is located in a grand mausoleum in Ankara.



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The burning of the city of Smyrna in September 1922, via the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center


Before Atatürk’s time in power, the Young Turk movement had become violent and radical. It went on to commit genocide against the Armenians, as well as the genocide against Syriac Christians in Persia’s Azerbaijan province during the First World War. Although fingers point towards Atatürk by his detractors, the issue of his involvement is not as straightforward, as he was not in overall command during this time. Directly after the fact, Atatürk publicly condemned the atrocities rather than denying them. This stance, however, would change.


The main person responsible, Enver Pasha, was disliked by Atatürk, who viewed him as a dangerous man who could bring Turkey to ruin. Nevertheless, it was Atatürk’s views, espoused notably in his 1927 Nutuk speech, that solidified the rhetoric that would be used in the decades that followed, right up until the present. The Turkish state has, based on Atatürks guidelines for the future of Turkey and its revisionist narrative, never admitted to the genocides.


Of great importance is also the burning of the city of Smyrna (today Izmir) several days after the Greco-Turkish War had ended in 1922. Turkish troops set the city ablaze, killed thousands of Greeks and Armenians, and committed mass rape. As many as 100,000 people may have perished in this atrocity. There are those who claim that the Turkish army had nothing to do with the event and that the crimes were committed by mobs. Whoever was guilty, however, seemed to have made little impact on Atatürk, who, as head of the armed forces, chose to do little to stop the atrocity.


On a similar note, the Greek genocide, and notably the Greek Pontic genocide, was carried out before and during the time that Atatürk’s government was in power. Several hundred thousand Christian Ottoman Greeks died between 1914 and 1922, and those who survived fled to primarily to Greece. Even today, remembrance of the Greek Genocide is a source of contention between Turkey and Greece.


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Atatürk graffiti, via The Economist


As a result of Atatürk’s policies, Turkey has also pursued a policy of homogenization, which has resulted in the disenfranchisement of many minorities within the country. Of note is the treatment of the Kurds, who generally hold a negative view of Turkish domination. Animosity between Kurdish people and the Turkish state has existed for decades, an issue that has brought about much violence and bloodshed, including the systematic deporation of Kurds from 1916 to 1934. Many Kurds strive for independence and administer their lands as such.


Today, Atatürk is a beloved figure in Turkey, and he is seen as the father and figurehead of the modern state. His image is prevalent throughout the country, and many homes have his picture hanging on the wall.


Like all great leaders, Atatürk was also a controversial figure. He had supporters and detractors when he lived, and he has them today. But no matter how he is viewed, it cannot be denied that he played an extremely important part in world history.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.