Mustafa Kemal Atatürk: the Founder of Modern Turkey

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is one of the most important individuals in the history of Turkey. He was the one who pioneered the national movements in Turkey that took place after Ottoman Empire losing World War I. The reforms and innovations he pioneered in Turkey are the kinds of reforms and innovations that could change the history of a country for good.

The political viewpoint of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is typically defined as secularist and nationalist. His main aim was to establish a republic that is modern, secular, and progressive. Indeed, the movements in Turkey that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk lead is carrying out the features of modernism, secularism and they were progressive in a way that can estimate the future needs.

In addition to being the founder of the Republic of Turkey and pioneering the national movements in Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is remembered for his character, world viewpoint, and farsightedness. Today, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is very much respected and remembered with longing by most of the people. Such that, people in Turkey commemorate Atatürk with the lines “If you weren’t, we wouldn’t be.”

Biography of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

The life story of this man, who has such an impact on the country and is admired by many people due to his character, has always been a matter of curiosity. Such that, the biography of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is on the primary school curriculum in Turkey in addition to detailed history lessons on middle school and high school.

Early life, childhood, and youth of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk 

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was born in Koca Kasım Paşa neighborhood, Salonica (Today’s Thessaloniki in Greece), in the year 1881. His father was a militia officer named Ali Rıza, and his mother’s name was Zübeyde. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had 5 siblings yet 4 of them died in their childhood. One of his siblings who survived the childhood period died in the year 1956.

When the time came for his school period, his parents Ali Rıza and Zübeyde had a conflict about which school Atatürk should go to. His mother wanted him to go to a normal traditional school at that time, whereas his father insisted on Atatürk going to a newly opened secular school. Even though he began to school as his mother wanted, in a traditional school later he transferred to a relatively modern school.

In the year 1988, Ali Rıza passed away which led Ataturk and his mother to move out to a farm, which belongs to Ataturk’s uncle. Here, Ataturk started to do farming work, yet his mother wanted her to get an education. He listened to his mother and completed his education in his school. 

His parents wanted him to learn the trade and get into the trade business, yet Ataturk applied for a military school without consulting them and got accepted from Salonica Military School in the year 1893. Later, he registered to the Ottoman Military Academy in the year 1896 and graduated from here in the year 1902. 

Mustafa Kemal was regarded at the Military Academy and the Military College as an enlightened and forward-thinking person who is profoundly involved within issues in the country and society when he was still a student.

He wanted to participate in Ottoman–Greece war in the year 1897 as a soldier yet due to being 16 years old and being in the military academy, this was not possible. After that, he enrolled in Ottoman Military College and graduated from there in the year 1906, as a staff captain.

Military and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

After Ataturk graduates from the Ottoman Military College as a staff captain, he and his friends rented a house in Yenikapı, and due to a notice from a neighbor, Ataturk and his friend Ali Fuat get arrested. They both got evacuated after a while and subsequently, Ataturk was appointed to the Fifth Army in Damascus.

While he is in the Fifth Army, he joined a secret society that is related to reformist officers, named Vatan ve Hürriyet (means Motherland and Liberty in Turkish). In the year 1906, Ataturk went to the Salonica secretly and established a branch of this society there. This society, which remained a secret, converged with the Committee of Union and Progress in the year 1907, which is the same year with Ataturk getting the rank of “senior captain”.

He was sent here to relieve the unrest in Tripolitania. Having successfully completed this task, Atatürk returned to Salonica in 1909. In the year 1911, he voluntarily participated in Italo – Turkish War. After his success in Italo–Turkish War, his rank changed to squadron leader from being a staff captain.

Atatürk demanded to actively participate in World War II. Due to his demand, Atatürk was assigned to an army as the commander of a division. Atatürk’s and his army’s success in the Canakkale region are known as legendary today. Such that, allied states on the World War I., said that “Canakkale is impassable” after this defense.

His success at the front and in the war, in general, was not negligible. After the Armistice of Mudros, allied states started to attack the Ottoman armies. Due to the recent attacks on armies, Atatürk went to Samsun on May 19, 1919. The date May 19, 1919, marked as the day when the Turkish Independence War started. Insomuch as, even though Atatürk’s birth date remains uncertain, May 19 is accepted as his birthday due to his demand.

Turkish Independence War

As calendars showed June 22, 1919, Atatürk issued a circular that makes a call to a gathering of the Sivas Congress, to defend the country. Between the dates 4 -11 September, Sivas Congress was gathered, and the plans were made for the salvation of the homeland.

Grand National Assembly of Turkey was established on 23 April 1920. The establishment of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey plays a big role in the success of the Turkish Independence War. The Head of parliament and government was chosen as Atatürk in the first Grand National Assembly of Turkey.

Right after its establishment, the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, some laws were enacted and implemented in order to achieve success in the war. Kuvay-i Milliye, which is an irregular militia that fought with the allied states who signed the Treaty of Serves. Treaty of Serves is a treaty that Ottoman lands were shared between allied states.

Later, a regular army was formed to fight in a more systematic way. With the integration of Kuvay-I Milliye and the regular army, the Turkish Independence War resulted in success with the Treaty of Lausanne. After the Turkish Independence War, Atatürk got the marshal rank and veteran title by the Grand National Assembly of Turkey.

Foundation of the Republic of Turkey

On April 23, 1920, the Grand National Assembly of Turkey opened in Ankara, which is the predictor of the new republic. As the caliphate and sultanate separated from each other on November 1st, 1922, all the bonds with the Ottoman Empire were diminished.

On 29 October 1923, the Republic of Turkey was officially established, and the first president of Turkey was chosen as Ataturk. On 30 October 1923, the very first government of the new Republic of Turkey was found by İsmet Inonu.

Personal Life of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

The personal life of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is a topic in which people are curious about in terms of research purposes and in general. Since not everyone can accomplish such great things, it must have something to do with Ataturk’s character and personal life in some sense.

Ataturk generally lived a simple life and did not like showing off. His great interest in books carried a significance according to him. Such that, he once said, “I was poor while growing up. If I had 2 pennies, I would buy a book with one of them. If it were not so, I would not have done any of this”. It is known that Atatürk read around 4000 books in his lifetime (3977, to be more specific).

Atatürk married Latife Hanım on October 12, 1923. This marriage lasted for 2 years. Atatürk loved children, but he did not have any children biologically. He adopted 8 children and took 2 children under his protection.

In addition to reading, his hobbies included horse riding, listening to music, dancing, and swimming. He was especially interested in zeybek dance and Greek folk songs. He loved playing backgammon and billiards. He had a very rich library. He usually invites statesmen and scientists to dinners and discusses governmental issues with them.

Ataturk always was careful about how he dresses up, and be clean. He knew fluent German and French. He loved nature and visited Atatürk Forest Farm as much as possible. It is known that Atatürk loved drinking, and it can be said that he was moderate to a high drinker. Some say that he drank half a liter of raki daily.

It is a controversial issue whether if Ataturk was a Muslim or not. Some sources refer to Ataturk as a religious Muslim, whereas some sources refer to him as a religious skeptic in addition to those sources refer to Ataturk as an agnostic or atheist. According to him, the belief was a good thing and he never discriminated in terms of religious beliefs.

Atatürk’s Last Days and Death

The health conditions of Atatürk started to get worse in the year 1937, a year before his death. He got diagnosed with cirrhosis at the beginning of 1938. From the beginning of 1938 to November, he got various treatments from doctors in and out of Turkey, but nothing helped.

Atatürk died on November 10, 1938, at 09:05 AM in Dolmabahçe Palace. His death was met with great sorrow and mourning. Such that, the headline of an important newspaper of that time was “we lost our father”. His funeral was carried to Ankara with a ceremony, and his dead body was buried to Ethnography Museum of Ankara, temporarily.

After 15 years when the construction of his tomb was over, and he was carried to Anıtkabir to rest in peace there, forever. In his testament, he demanded to give his assets to the Turkish Language Association and the Turkish Historical Society. His testament included his sister Makbule Atadan living in Çankaya, fixing salary to MakbuleAtadan and her daughters, and paying for Ismet Inonu’s daughters’ higher education.

In Memory of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

The founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk remembered after over 80 years of his death with respect and longing. Today, one can observe various structures, objects, buildings, etc. that were made for keeping the memory of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

In every city and district of Turkey, you can observe the monuments of Atatürk. Especially there are sculptures or busts of Atatürk in governmental institutions. Besides, you can see lots of Atatürk themed items including posters, pencils, t-shirts, rings, phone cases, and so on.

There are various institutions, buildings, and organizations named after Atatürk. The following are some of those institutions, buildings, and organizations:

  • Atatürk Airport
  • Atatürk Bridge
  • Atatürk University
  • Atatürk Forest Farm
  • Atatürk Park
  • Atatürk Square

In the year 1952, a law was made under the name of “Law on Crimes Committed Against Atatürk”. With this law, it is considered a crime to insult the memory of Atatürk verbally or harming objects representing Atatürk.

Atatürk Principles and Reforms

The Republic of Turkey was found in the light of Atatürk principles and reforms. Those principles and reforms have a great significance in the establishment of the Republic of Turkey. The principles are formed on the directions of reforms. In other words, principles and reforms are undivided.

Those principles and reforms were mainly aimed to bring Turkey to the level of contemporary civilizations in the light of science and modernity. Researchers divided Atatürk principles into two as basic principles and complementary principles.

Initially, Atatürk principles were a part of the Republican People’s Party’s principles since Republican People’s Party was the only party back then. With a law that was made in 1937, those principles added to the 1924 constitution, and those principles became a part of Turkey. The basic principles consist of 6 items.

Basic Atatürk Principles

As I mentioned earlier, Atatürk principles are divided into two categories by researchers regarding their context. The basic Atatürk principles include republicanism, populism, nationalism, secularism, statism, and revolutionism.

Republicanism

Republicanism refers to the state administration style where the country ruled as a republic. Republic refers to a regime where the people rule themselves and have the right to speak in terms of the administration. Republic administration was added to the constitution in the year 1923, as the first article of the constitution.

Nationalism

The definition of nationalism in Atatürk principles includes everyone living in the country regardless of their religious beliefs, race, and ethnicity. The nation was described under the concepts of language, culture, and political togetherness.

Populism 

Populism is an Atatürk principle in which national sovereignty is highlighted. According to the populism principle, the government should act accordingly to the comfort of the population, and the population must benefit from the facilities government provide equally. In other words, no class or group has privilege different from others and everyone is equal before the law. No one could be treated as superior solely based on their religion, language, race, or economic condition.

One of the most significant reforms made in the light of populism is the rights given to women. The reforms include the importance of populism are unitedness in education, and acceptance of a new alphabet that everyone can understand.

Secularism

Secularism includes equal treatment to the population regardless of their religious beliefs, in addition to the separation of religion and government issues. A secular country’s administration includes nothing about any religion, which makes it neutral to all religious beliefs. Besides, an important feature of a secular country is that individuals are free to choose any religion they would like or any of them.

The implementation of secularism in Turkey occurred with the steps of the abolition of the sultanate in 1922, the abolition of the caliphate in 1924, closing lodges and tombs in 1925, and finally, ejecting the phrase “the government’s religion is Islam” from the constitution in 1928.

Statism

According to Atatürk, a government’s development was highly dependent on the economics and improvements in technology, and the statism principle was about fixing and improving the economics of the country. In other words, statism in Atatürk principles refers to the implements to growing economic activity to reach a modern country.

Economic activities could be done independently from the government, yet no private economic activities could be held away from the government’s control. Atatürk interpreted the principle of statism parallel to the principle of populism. To improvise the poor and neglected population, the statist principle aimed to increase production and enrichen the population.

Revolutionism

Revolutionism refers to the improvement and adoption of Atatürk principles to improvise and modernize Turkey, in addition to protecting those principles. There are two sides of revolutionism in Atatürk principles context. One of them is the disappearance of the institutions that are not modern, up to date, and lost their functionality to replace them with modern institutions, up to date, and meets society’s needs.

The other side of the revolutionism in Atatürk principles context is about the continuity of those revolutions. In other words, revolutionism should be applied in a way that there is always a place for change for good. Atatürk knew that conditions could not stay the same throughout time, and new necessities would arise in the future. So, continuous revolutionism is an important aspect in those terms.

Complementary Atatürk Principles

The second division of Atatürk principles is named the complementary Atatürk principles. There are five complementary Atatürk principles, named modernity, rationalism, national unity, national sovereignty, and national independence.

Modernity

According to Atatürk, civilization meant a resultant of the improvement of a country in terms of governmental issues, economical issues, and intellectual life. The modernity movement has not resulted from pressures from outside but instead, it has resulted from the developments and necessities inside of the country.

Atatürk stated that modernity should be based on national sovereignty, national independence, human rights, and freedoms.

Rationalism

Science and rationalism carried a great significance for Atatürk. Such that, he stated that his “spiritual heritage” was science and rationality. The complementary principle of rationalism was the basis for the improvements in the education life of Turkey.

Various reforms were made to improve education and to bring the education conditions in Turkey as modern as possible by adopting Western techniques. New, modern universities and faculties were established to maximize the education level in Turkey.

National Unity

Atatürk highlighted the significance of national unity as much as possible. Such that, he once said that there is no such a thing as we, and the nation. We and the nation are one unite. According to him, national unity was one of the most important things in the continuity of a country.

One can observe the significance Atatürk assigned to national unity in various acts. For instance, Atatürk did not start the Turkish Independence War before the Turkish nation became a unit. Atatürk has never mentioned homeland and nation separately.

National Sovereignty 

National sovereignty refers to the nation holding the power to rule the government, not some specific groups or groups of people. It is one of the most important characteristics of a republic. If there is no national sovereignty, mentioning a republic would not sit right.

Starting from the first Grand National Assembly of Turkey, Atatürk frequently highlighted the importance of national sovereignty, and all the power is held by the nation. According to Atatürk, there is no greater power than the people living in this nation and they can change everything, if they become united.

National Independence

National independence is a principle that was valued a lot by Atatürk and the population. The name is pretty self-explanatory, according to the national independence principle, a nation should be independent of any other authorities. The independence must be present in terms of political, economic, cultural, military-related, or judicial issues. 

Reforms

Atatürk reforms refer to the regulations on the cultural, society-related, legal, economic issues on the way to transforming theocratic and multi-nationalist Ottoman Empire into secular and democratic Republic of Turkey.

Big changes cannot happen overnight, and Atatürk knew that very well. Instead of suddenly making changes and expecting people to adopt them immediately, Atatürk made a set of reforms that resulted in change step by step. This way, people had the time and opportunity to adapt to new conditions.

There are different opinions about the starting of the Atatürk reforms. Some accept the starting date of reforms as the first date of the Turkish Independence War, some accept the starting date of reforms as the first meeting of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, whereas some accept the starting date of reforms with the acceptance of the Turkish Constitution of 1921.

Atatürk indicated the aims of those reforms as to stop the backwardness of the nation and to reach the level of contemporary civilizations by moving forward. Indeed, with the Atatürk reforms, Turkey has reached the level of contemporary civilizations. There are various reforms made in light of this aim. The following are some of the most important Atatürk reforms:

  • Abolition of the Sultanate (1 November 1922, a political reform): It was the first step of being a secular country. With the law that officially pronounces that the sultanate is abolished, Ottoman Empire was officially ended.
  • The proclamation of the Republic of Turkey (29 October 1923, a political reform): With a change in the constitution, the regime of Turkey was proclaimed as a republic.
  • Abolition of the caliphate (3 March 1924, a political reform): Another step of being a secular country.
  • The recognition of the women’s right to elect and be elected (5 December 1934, a political reform): Before many countries, women in Turkey had the right to elect and be elected.
  • The Surname Law (June 21, 1934, a social reform)
  • Unitedness in the Education (March 3, 1924, and educational reform)

The Significant Incidents and Facts about the Life of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

Of course, the biography of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is not limited to those things. He lived a full life with tons of things to say, such that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s life is on the curriculum of high schools and universities. It could be a little bit difficult to mention all of the important stuff in Atatürk’s life, yet there are some highlights and facts that might help you to understand Atatürk better.

  • Atatürk’s birth name was Mustafa, but his other name “Kemal” was given to him by his teacher because they both having the same name.
  • A death sentence was given to Atatürk by the Istanbul government in the year 1920 because his activities were found as threatening the country.
  • Atatürk got his last name with a law made by the Grand National Assembly of Turkey in the year 1934.
  • He was chosen to Erzurum Congress Presidency on 23 June 1919.
  • He was chosen to Sivas Congress Presidency on 4 September 1919.
  • His mother died on October 14, 1923.
  • He was appointed as Commander-in-Chief by the Grand National Assembly on August 5, 1921.
  • His favorite dish was kuru fasulye (Turkish white bean stew) and rice.
  • His biggest dream was to travel the world.
  • His favorite book was Çalıkuşu (The Wren) by Resat Nuri Güntekin.
  • All of his shirts were white.
  • He loved sports and mathematics.

Frequently asked questions about Ataturk

Atatürk and his personality is a subject which is wondered and written by many different sources. The following are some of the frequently asked questions about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Is Atatürk the first president of Turkey?

Yes, Atatürk is the first president of Turkey.

What are the birth and death dates of Atatürk?

Atatürk was born in the year 1881 and died on November 10, 1938.

Why was Atatürk important?

Atatürk is the founder of the Republic of Turkey and the pioneer of the reforms made in Turkey which resulted in a more modern society.

How many times Atatürk was chosen as the president of Turkey?

Atatürk was chosen as the president of Turkey 4 times.

Did Atatürk have children?

Atatürk had no biological children, yet he adopted 8 children and took 2 children to his protection.

How many wars did Atatürk participate in?

Atatürk participated in 10 wars in total.

Who were the parents of Atatürk?

His mother’s name was Zübeyde and his father’s name was Ali Rıza.

When after got the title “veteran”?

Atatürk got the title veteran after the Battle of Sakarya.

İsmail Çamönü

Hi! I am Ismail. I am a digital nomad from Turkey. I lived in many cities around Turkey during my life and I am passionate about traveling. At Nomad's Guide to Turkey, I share travel tips for nomads, expats, and tourists who would like to visit Turkey.

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