09.02.2007Mustafa Kemal AtatürkFrom Saloniki to AnkaraModern Turkey is inconceivable without its founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The republic he established and its ensuing cultural orientation toward the West paved the way for Turkey to join the system of Western alliances. By Klaus Kreiser
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey. His reforms followed Western models without imitating the institutions of European countries The verdict of posterity on Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is conflicting. Yet his contemporaries who governed as dictators in other countries have justifiably received much worse marks overall.
A personality cult that started in his lifetime – in 1926 the first statue was uncovered in Istanbul, countless others followed – has obstructed to this day our view of this versatile, visionary, and resolute man.
Mustafa Kemal Pasha, born in 1881 in Macedonian Saloniki, until 1912 an Ottoman provincial capital, was the founder of the new Turkey. Not until 1934, toward the end of his life, did he have the Grand National Assembly in Ankara, the parliament of the republic, bestow upon him the name Atatürk.
Nonetheless – unlike his birth name Mustafa, also unlike the name "Kemal" given to him by his teacher – the world knows him today as "Father of the Turks." In Turkey his honorary titles "Gazi" (Victor) and "Halaskar" ("savior, liberator") have not been forgotten.
A number of research obstacles make studying Atatürk difficult. Material is still guarded in the General Staff Office's archive and elsewhere and is equally inaccessible to both Turkish and foreign researchers. This is even true of the original document of his "Great Speech" (Nutuk), in which Atatürk in 1927 described his role in the war of independence (1919-1922).
Advancement in the military
Kemal Atatürk grew up in modest circumstances and had, unlike many of his influential contemporaries, no close or distant relatives, who could have helped him forge a career.
Only the military gave talented young men without protection and fortune an opportunity to advance socially. The young student officer certainly must have glanced often at the maps of his pocket atlas and wondered whether the Ottoman Empire, spread across three continents until 1911, could hold out against powerful enemies such as Russia.
After the outbreak of the First World War Atatürk was successful in thwarting an attempt by an Allied expedition corps to land on the peninsula of Gallipoli. This was the only noteworthy Ottoman military success during the world war.
Despite this battle on and around the straits the Ottoman Empire, allied with the Central Powers (mainly Germany and Austria-Hungry) could not withstand English and Russian pressure. In the Treaty of Sèvres, signed in Paris in 1919, Turkey was not left much more than a part of inner Anatolia, Istanbul, and Eastern Thrace.
Mustafa Kemal, however, unlike the Sultan-Caliph, was not willing to accept the loss of his country's independence. In 1919 he placed himself at the head of resistance that was carried by many forces – religious and nationalist – in Anatolia.
President of the first Turkish nation-state
Marveling, the international community began to wonder if this ex-general Mustafa Kemal, meanwhile condemned to death by the Sultan, was not himself seeking the Caliphate. The impression was not entirely unwarranted.
The troops fighting on many fronts between the southern Caucasus, Syria, and the Aegean were united by nothing stronger than the Islamic religion. The Turkish military commanders, however, were convinced of the superiority of their culture and language over all other Islamic groups, especially the Kurds.
After the invading Greek army was driven out of West Anatolia the victor was able to proclaim in 1923 the first Turkish nation-state in 1923. He remained its president until his death. An international conference in Lausanne sealed Atatürk's most important foreign policy goal, the restoration of Turkey's independence.
Atatürk and his comrade-in-arms now faced the task of forming a homogeneous nation out of a very diverse population. Between 40 and 45 percent of the population were immigrants to Anatolia – refugees and displaced persons from the Caucasus countries, the Black Sea region, and Southeast Europe.
Persuasion und coercion ("the carrot and the stick") were the instruments of this ultimately successful nation-building process, which, however, was denied to most of the Kurdish minority.
In 1922 the last Sultan was sent into exile, in 1923 the capital was moved from Istanbul to Ankara, and in 1924 an increasingly irrelevant Caliphate was dissolved. From this point on, an unparalleled reform program began, whose implementation increasingly called for authoritarian measures.
In 1925 the country was governed without oppositional parties. Soon there was no free press or academic independence. The "Republican People's Party," founded by Atatürk, increasingly merged with state institutions.
Without exception Atatürk's reforms followed Western models without imitating the institutions of European countries. The translation and subsequent adoption of the Swiss Civil Code and the Italian Penal Code took place at a breathtaking tempo.
Women, who had been disadvantaged in Islamic law, were the primary beneficiaries. The granting of suffrage to women (in 1930 for local elections, in 1934 for national elections) enabled their political participation. At least symbolically, Atatürk encouraged the participation of women in numerous fields and professions previously occupied by men.
The Civil Code revision passed in 2001 would not even be conceivable without Atatürk's legal revolution.
Prohibition of head dress
Atatürk's language and writing reform, which he pursued just as passionately, had an equally lasting effect. Its success in increasing literacy among broad segments of society became apparent soon after the conversion (1928) from the Arabic script to the Latin script.
Atatürk viewed all religions, including Islam, without sympathy. He had the meeting places of the dervish fraternities closed in 1925. He was convinced that sooner or later even attendance at mosque services would dwindle.
The so-called "hat reform" attracted a lot of attention in the West. This regulation, originally intended only for civil servants, led to the prohibition of all traditional head dress, especially the male turban.
Taking off the hijab, or veil, was not stipulated in legal regulations, but came to be taken for granted with the participation of women in public life.
Cultural orientation toward the West
Although Atatürk's authoritarian reform agenda, often referred to as an "enlightened dictatorship," cannot be called democracy, the "format" he established – a republic as the form of state with elements of the separation of powers – created the conditions for an amazingly gentle transition to a multi-party system (1946).
The consistent cultural orientation toward the West made it easier for Atatürk's successors to join Western alliances. Without the unprecedented Westernization agenda of the 1920s and 1930s Turkey's membership in the European system of alliances would be hard to imagine.
© Qantara.de 2007
Klaus Kreiser is emeritus professor of Turkish language, history, and culture at the University of Bamberg.
Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce