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Kemal Atatürk: ‘Father Turk’

Posted in History, Politics on Wednesday, 30 March 2011

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This edited article about Kemal Atatürk originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 928 published on 3 November 1979.

Among Kemal Ataturk's plans to modernise his country was the replacing of the traditional fez with western-style headwear. Illustration by John Keay

Among Kemal Ataturk’s plans to modernise his country was the replacing of the traditional fez with western-style headwear. Illustration by John Keay

While still at school, Mustapha stood out among his fellows for his ability and energy. It was a teacher who gave him the name Kemal, meaning “perfection”, and it stayed with him for the rest of his life.

The Turkey in which Mustapha had been born in 1880 was a mere shadow of the power it had once been. The Ottoman Empire which had dominated the Mediterranean world was tottering under the feeble and corrupt government of its sultans.

After he left school Mustapha was sent to a military academy in Constantinople. There, and as an officer in the Army, he brilliantly fulfilled the early promise he had shown.

These were restless times, and many in Turkey were campaigning for reforms and national revival. Discontent was especially rife among students and young professional men, among whom was formed the association known as the Young Turks.

Mustapha Kemal was a member of this movement, but only for a time. His patriotism, and his desire for reform, were intense; but he had no taste for intrigue. He was a man of action – and was only at his best as a leader.

His great chance came at the end of the First World War. Turkey, which had fought on the losing side, had lost the last remains of her empire. When the Greeks, whom the Turks hated and despised, were allowed to land troops on the coast of Turkey’s mainland, indignation boiled over.

Kemal, who had served with outstanding distinction in the war, now acted. In defiance of the Sultan, Mehmed VI, who had accepted the Allies’ humiliating peace terms, Kemal gathered an army and set up a rebel government at Ankara.

By extraordinary feats of organisation and leadership, he knit his rebel movement into an irresistible force. He defeated the Greeks and drove them from the country, deposed the sultan and forced the Allies to recognise his nationalist government and revise the peace terms.

In October, 1923, Kemal’s government proclaimed Ankara as the new capital, replacing Constantinople. On the 29th of that month the national assembly declared Turkey a republic; and on the next day elected its first president, Mustapha Kemal.

Until his death 15 years later, he retained the presidency, being duly re-elected every four years. Throughout his rule, his constant aim was to “westernise” Turkey; to modernise its institutions, and its people’s way of life.

One of his innovations, introduced in 1934, was the rule that everyone should have a “surname”, which had not been the practice previously. The one he himself adopted was Atatürk, which means “Father Turk”. For the man who was indeed the father of modern Turkey Kemal Atatürk was a most appropriate name.

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