It is a great honour to speak to you on the 71st anniversary of the passing of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
In September, my wife Laura, Amy Cull (who is here today and helped with the research and writing of this talk) and I completed a 3700 kilometre train, boat and bus tour across a fairly large portion of Turkey's landmass. One of our first stops in Ankara was the monument to Atatürk, which is superior to any I have seen to a nation's hero in any capital. Many parts of Turkey appeared to be ongoing monuments to the man whose memory we honour today. Even the smallest shopkeeper in virtually every community we visited seemed to proudly display a photo of the late president.
Andrew Mango's contemporary biography, Atatürk, begins:
Atatürk is one of the most important statesmen of the twentieth century. He established and shaped the Turkish republic, today (1999) the strongest state between the Adriatic and China in the broad Eurasian land belt south of Russia and north of the Indian subcontinent. He influenced the history of his country's neighbours. For peoples' ruled by foreigners, he showed a way to national independence in amity with the rest of the world.
Atatürk was born in Salonica (today part of Greece) in the winter of 1880/1881. His mother, Zübeyde, was a traditional and strong-willed woman; his father, Ali Riza, was a reformist public servant.
That Atatürk was destined for greatness was indicated when he was young. Although born “Mustafa,” a teacher at his military high school, also known as Mustafa, gave him the name “Kemal,” in recognition of his excellence in mathematics. Kemal, as you'll know, means “perfection” in Turkish. Forever after, he was known as “Mustafa Kemal.”
From an early age, Atatürk aspired to be a military officer. He would in fact devote thirteen years to his formal military education, graduating second in his class. He also excelled in the War Academy in Istanbul, graduating eighth out of about 700 students and with the rank of Staff Captain.
Atatürk spoke several languages, including French and German. A visit to his private library, lined floor to ceiling with a staggering array of books, gives you some indication of what a worldly and learned man he was. The library is kept well-preserved in the Ankara Anitkabir Mausoleum.
Atatürk's political views, like many young officers, were reformist: all Ottoman subjects should be equal before the law; nepotism and corruption must end; the Ottoman state should be run by a parliamentary government, not a sultan.
Rise of a Leader
In 1911, Turkey's long war with Italy began when Rome attempted to wrest away Tripoli and Cyrenaica Province, the last Ottoman possessions in North Africa. The conflict lasted until 1923. These years saw Atatürk rise from a junior officer to Marshall and to the internationally-recognized leader of the new Turkish nation. The promotions began with him becoming a major and then commander of a regiment in Cyrenaica, with more advances in rank coming during the two Balkan wars.
When World War I began in November of 1914 (95 years ago almost to the day) the Ottoman Empire, 600 years old and visibly in its final years, was on the side of Germany. In April 1915, the Battle of Gallipoli began. Atatürk demonstrated such heroic military leadership there that he is to this day credited by both sides with playing a major role in stopping the Allied advance. The battle is viewed as a defining moment for the Turkish people. It marked a final victorious onslaught by the Turkish army, with the centuries-old Ottoman Empire receding in the wake of a burgeoning new republic.
Anzac Cove is considered one of the most moving occurrences of World War I, where terrible numbers of dead and wounded were found on both sides of the one kilometre radius that constituted the front line. This fall, we visitors were all touched by Atatürk's tributes to both the Mehmets and the ANZAC soldiers. The monument at Anzac Cove contains Atatürk's sincere words to the mothers of the thousands of ANZAC soldiers “now lying in the soil of a friendly country”. The words offer a glimpse of the humanity and generosity of Turkey’s great leader.
Early in 1916, the defeated Allies completed their evacuation of Gallipoli. Atatürk was moved to the Caucuses as Commander, where his 16th corps won two battles against the Russians. In 1918, as leader of the 7th army in Syria, he managed to check the British advance in Syria and Palestine, but the Ottoman state, finally accepting its fate, soon afterwards signed an armistice.
Following their victory, the Allies had hoped to partition Turkey at the heart of the Ottoman Empire. British soldiers occupied Istanbul. Atatürk, however, now a national hero for his victories at Gallipoli and elsewhere, was an excellent organizer. He soon left the Ottoman army and by late 1919 was leading the countrywide resistance in a drive to push back all invading armies and secure Turkey's land base. All of his leadership qualities would be sorely tested in the early 1920s after he was elected president of the Grand National Assembly in Ankara in 1920 and President of the new country in 1923.
As Commander-in-Chief and later Marshall (both National Assembly appointments) the same year, Atatürk defeated the Greeks at Sakarya and in a final offensive the following year drove them out of Turkey. The Lausanne peace treaty confirmed the present boundaries of Turkey.
The National Assembly abolished the sultanate—with the last one, Vahdettin, fleeing on a British warship—but kept the caliphate. A constitution was passed and women were given equal civil rights.
Father of New Republic
In 1923, Greece and Turkey agreed to exchange their populations living within the other’s territories. Negotiations on the boundaries of Turkey ended with the ratification of the Lausanne Treaty, recognizing the current boundaries. Occupying forces left Istanbul in October. The Grand National Assembly proclaimed the Republic of Turkey.
Atatürk as president moved quickly to implement far-ranging reforms to transform Turkey into a modern country. As he put it:
Following the military triumph we accomplished by bayonets, weapons and blood, we shall strive to win victories in such fields as culture, scholarship, science, and economics ... The enduring benefits of victories depend only on the existence of an army of education.
In 1924, a rule-of-law legal system introduced. Women received equal legal status to men in 1934. Polygamy and divorce by renunciation were banned and civil marriages were authorized. A Turkish alphabet based on Latin replaced Arabic script in 1928. Arabic and Persian words were replaced with Turkish equivalents. The numeric system was introduced in 1928, followed by the metric one in 1931. Turks were encouraged to adopt surnames in 1934.
In 1928, Turkey was declared a secular state without an official religion. Religious schools were closed earlier when public education was secularised and made coeducational. In 1935, Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia or “Ayasofya,” as it is known in Turkish, originally the world’s largest cathedral and later a great mosque, was converted to a museum.
Atatürk believed that there is no place for religious fundamentalists in the governance of a tolerant, modern state.
In terms of education, education at the primary level was made compulsory, with Atatürk himself leading some of the classes. In 1923, literacy was less than 9%; by 1938, it rose to more than 33%. Today, about 87 percent of Turkey's almost 77 million nationals are considered literate.
Atatürk encouraged reforms to the economic system, explaining, “National sovereignty should be supported by financial independence. The only power that will propel us to this goal is the economy. No matter how mighty they are, political and military victories cannot endure unless they are crowned by economic triumphs.”
In 1924, the Grand National Assembly introduced a new constitution, establishing it as a unicameral parliament elected to four-year terms by a universal vote. The president, who is to be elected to a four-year term by the assembly, appoints the prime minister.
Atatürk told the assembly, “There is a need to separate Islam from its traditional place in politics and to elevate it in its appropriate place. This is necessary for both the nation's worldly and spiritual happiness. We have to urgently and definitively relieve our sacred and holy beliefs and values from the dark and uncertain stage of political greed and of politics. This is the only way to elevate the Muslim religion." On February 25th, 1925 the Grand National Assembly prohibited all religious activities in politics.
In 1927, Atatürk was re-elected President. He would remain so until his death, with his term being extended in 1931 and again in 1935.
In 1932, Turkey joined the League of Nations.
In 1934, Women were given the right to vote and to hold office. Speaking at a meeting of the International Women's Congress in Istanbul in 1935, Atatürk said, “I am convinced that the exercise of social and political rights by women is necessary for mankind's happiness and pride. You can rest assured that Turkish women together with world’s women will work towards world peace and security.”
In November, 1934, Atatürk was given his new surname (meaning 'Father of the Turks' or 'Father Turk') by the Grand National Assembly in recognition of his contribution to the formation of the modern Turkish state. He is now known as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, or Kemal Atatürk.
Atatürk: The Man
In 1923, Atatürk married Latife Hanim, the daughter of a merchant from Izmir. Latife was known as well-educated and outspoken. After about two years of marriage, however, the couple divorced. A man who clearly loved children, Atatürk adopted eight—seven girls and one boy. He also took two boys under his protection. It is also well-known that he cared very much for his horse, Sakarya, and his dog, Fox. The gentle side of our great hero endears him even more to our hearts.
On the 10th of November, 1938, Atatürk died at Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul at the age of only 58. The entire country mourned the passing of the leader that had dedicated his entire life to serving their country. On November 10, 1953, his body was placed in the newly-completed Anitkabir Mausoleum overlooking Ankara.
Atatürk’s vulnerability to death reminds us that, it is true, he was indeed mortal. When we look at all this one noble person was able to accomplish in his relatively short lifetime, it reminds us that he was unique. His incredible accomplishments, his values and his integrity place him with Abraham Lincoln and very few others in any pantheon of history's greatest leaders.