Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938)
Although the leaders of Turkey seem embattled now because of the protests taking place in Istanbul, one has to consider that, for the most part, the nation has been admirably stable. Especially when one considers the immediate neighborhood: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Cyprus, Greece, and Bulgaria. That was mostly due to the efforts of one man, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who almost single-handedly changed the course of Turkish history.
Born in Salonika (now Thessaloniki in Greece), Atatürk was not even Turkish. Although a Muslim, he always considered himself a Macedonian. Commissioned as an officer in 1907, he began his career at a time when the Ottoman Empire was in transition between the absolutism of the Sultan (and Caliph) and the rising Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), which has come to be known as the Young Turks.
Mustafa always preferred to stay at arm’s length from the CUP officers and their leader Enver Pasha, whom he felt to be a poseur. Knowing this, the CUP leadership essentially sent him to various places to keep him out of the way.
Until World War One. The Empire allied itself with the Kaiser and put German officers in charge of army units. At the Battle of Gallipoli, however, it was Mustafa Kemal who ignored the advice of Liman von Sanders of the German General Staff and destroyed an Allied army consisting mostly of Australian and New Zealand troops.
Then, after the war, Greece under Eleftherios Venizelos attacked Turkey. Many of the coastal areas of Turkey were at this time under control of Britain, Italy, and France; so Mustafa Kemal based himself in Angora (now called Ankara) where he would be free of the Greek-loving Allies. Once again, he proved his mettle by destroying the Greek army and driving them into the sea. In connection with this, he is usually blamed for atrocities at Smyrna (now Izmir). Although casualties were in the low thousands, most of the damage was done by fires set by the fleeing Greeks.
This military victory, combined with equally important diplomatic victories at European peace conferences, led to the Allied occupations coming to an end and Atatürk’s government in Angora becoming the de facto power. In short order, Atatürk abolished the Sultanate, allowing the last Sultan to go into exile in Europe, and choosing one of the ex-Sultan’s family to be the Caliph. Within a year, he also abolished the Caliphate and put Turkey on the road to becoming a secular Muslim republic. (Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?)
Within the first few years of his rule, Mustafa Kemal abolished Arabic script in favor of the European alphabet, abolished the fez and turban as required headgear for Turks, and secularized the Turkish Army. He stayed in Angora, partly because Istanbul was crawling with elements of the discredited CUP faction.
Curiously, the old Ottoman Empire was only partly Turkish. Toward the end, the Sultans had drawn their heirs from a harem of Albanian, Greek, Circassian, and other women, mostly from far-flung parts of the Empire. Nominally, they were still descendants of Osman, after whom the Empire was named, but did not give any special privileges to the Turks of Asia Minor. It was Atatürk who made Turkey a Turkish nation, with relatively small minorities of Armenians and Kurds. (In case you’re wondering, the Armenian genocide took place before he came into power.)
Mustafa Kemal could have become another Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin, but instead he wanted to empower his people. Admittedly, he kept his fingers on the scales and would intervene personally when he felt that his successors were going in the wrong direction. He was something of a dictator, and something of a founding father. But he created a nation.
There is an interesting biography by Lord Kinross entitled Atatürk: A Biography of Mustafa Kemal, Father of Modern Turkey.