Who was he?
Mustafa Kemal was a Turkish nationalist leader and military commander. He founded the Republic of Turkey and was the country’s first president.
Did he always break the rules?
No, not always. Despite initially opposing the Ottoman Empire’s involvement in WWI, predicting a German defeat, he served his country well when it entered the conflict on the side of the Central Powers, and he was in command at a number of major victories.
Nevertheless, Kemal’s revolutionary inclinations were evident from an early age, and he joined the Committee of Union and Progress – ‘the Young Turks’ – a political reform movement that overthrew Sultan Abdülhamid II’s absolute monarchy in 1908, establishing constitutional government and a multi-party parliament.
He later developed strong disagreements with the CUP, but many of their policies stuck with him, such as their commitment to social and political reform, and their rejection of monarchy and theocracy.
What did he do during WWI?
Having fought in the Italo-Turkish and Balkan Wars, Kemal really made a name for himself as a commander during the First World War, proving his strategic skill and personal bravery in his defence of Ottoman territory.
The Entente powers landed on the Gallipoli peninsula in April 1915, having failed to batter a way through the Dardanelles straits using naval power alone. The aim was to relieve the military pressure on Russia and open a supply route across the Black Sea.
Kemal led the decisive counterattack against the Anzac landings on the west coast of the peninsula, ordering his 19th Division into action piecemeal as they arrived on the battlefield after forced marches from their base on the straits. Kemal prevented the Anzacs from reaching the Sari Bair heights and breaking out across the peninsula.
Later in the year, he organised a successful defence against fresh Entente landings at Suvla Bay, cementing the battle for Gallipoli as the Ottomans’ greatest WWI victory.
But Kemal was magnanimous. In 1931, Kemal told Brisbane’s Daily Mail that the Turks ‘will always pay our tribute on the soil where the majority of your dead sleep on the windswept wastes of Gallipoli.’
Impressive. But why did he seek an independent Turkey?
Although the Armistice of Mudros concluded hostilities between the Entente and the Ottomans on 30 October 1918, it granted the former the right to occupy any Ottoman territory if the Allies’ security was thought to be under threat.
Taking advantage of the ambiguity inherent in this agreement, Britain, France, Italy, and Greece proceeded to occupy strategic points in the area, including the Dardanelles and Istanbul, with a view to dismembering the defeated empire.
Unlike Sultan Mehmed V, who wanted to repair relations with Britain, Kemal condemned the heavy-handed treatment of Turkey by the Versailles powers, saying, ‘the rights of our Caliphate and Sultanate, the honour of our government, and the dignity of our nation are being subjected to attacks and humiliation…’. Opposing the Sultan also aligned with his anti-monarchical politics.
In 1919, he resigned from the army and led a war of independence against
the occupying forces. He established the elected Great National Assembly at Ankara to rival the Sultan’s government in Istanbul, and soon after the GNA raised a National Army.
Kemal’s forces won a number of important battles against the foreign powers. But there were atrocities, sometimes amounting to genocide. The Battle of Marash alone saw the massacre of between 5,000 and 12,000 Armenian civilians. The powers were forced to enter negotiations in 1922, and in July 1923 both parties signed the Treaty of Lausanne. The Republic of Turkey was proclaimed on 29 October, with Kemal as its first president.
He sounds intimidating. What was he like in office?
Kemal made a number of social and political reforms during the 15 years of his presidency. He wanted to transform the predominantly Muslim Turkey into a modern, Westernised, secular state. He was a proponent of women’s rights, established a common curriculum for all state schools, introduced laws prescribing Western dress, and closed all Islamic courts
But while many of his reforms were progressive, his imposition of single-party rule has been criticised, and some consider him anti-Islamic.
He died in 1938 and is still celebrated. Insulting his legacy remains illegal in Turkey.