The Greatest Leader in History: Ataturk

Oil painting of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk at the Anitkabir, Ankara, Turkey.

Today, I have a treat for you all.

In celebration of this blog’s twentieth post (in fact, this was pure coincidence, but I’m going to run with it), a good friend of mine, who wishes to go by the alias Savas Alparslan, has kindly written the following article detailing the life of Turkey’s founding father. We briefly touched upon Ataturk in my post regarding India’s Khilafat Movement, and so this is sure to add some much-needed context. Furthermore, it is worth noting here that Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father, actually took inspiration from Ataturk and the Turkish nation-state in his own struggle against British Imperialism.

If you haven’t worked it out already, Savas is of Turkish heritage, and like me, he is an avid reader of history. Unlike me, Savas actually studied history in school. I’m sure it goes without saying that the views expressed in this article are not mine, and all credit should be attributed to Savas.


Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938)

DISCLAIMER: It is important to note that I will refer to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as Ataturk throughout this post. However, Ataturk is also known as Mustafa Kemal Pasha, Kemal Pasha, Mustafa Kemal, or just Mustafa.

If you have ever visited Turkey, you are certain to have crossed a picture of Ataturk at the airport, any restaurant you visit, or any hotel you go to. Why? Ataturk is a revered figure in Turkey to the extent that no other nation-state leader was or is. Ataturk was believed to be a socialist by Hitler, a fascist by Stalin, even a dictator by others, but Ataturk is known in Turkey as the “Father of the Turks”.

What makes a leader a great leader? One who is moral? Well, Genghis Khan was not a moral leader, but he was certainly a great leader who built one of the greatest Empires and changed the course of world history. What about a leader who is accomplished? George Washington was an accomplished leader who led his country to independence, but he owned slaves. What about a leader who is respected? Erwin Rommel was respected by both friend and foe during the Second World War but still lost the North Africa campaign. It is hard to define a great leader because a great leader is subjective to personal definitions. Accordingly, for the purposes of this article, a great leader will be defined as someone who has all the qualities mentioned above.

The story of modern Turkey starts in 1881, in Thessaloniki, Greece. It was then known as Selanik, part of the Ottoman Empire. Ataturk was born as Mustafa into a middle-class family, with a pious mother, Zubeyde Hanim, and an Alevi customs official father, Ali Riza Efendi[1]. Thessaloniki was a multicultural and modern city for the Ottoman Empire’s standards. As such, Ataturk grew up with Greeks, Turks, Jews, Albanians, and Slavs. This would be important in shaping his later views.

In his youth, Ataturk became passionate about warfare and the military. His mother wished for him to be a religious leader. But Ataturk was not interested in religious studies and preferred to talk about politics and the military with his friends. He graduated from military school excelling in mathematics, where he was given the nickname “Kemal”, meaning “perfection”, by his teacher[2] as well as science, history, and philosophy. Ataturk was promoted to an officer at once and started his post in Syria. There he met some very radicalised Turks who believed the rule of the Ottoman Sultanate must come to an end.

The Young Turks

The Young Turks were a movement in the Ottoman Empire that sought to create a Nationalist Constitutional Monarchy that limited the Sultan’s powers to just a figurehead. The Grand Vizier (or the Prime Minister) would be the ruler with the Sultan as the head of state. The Young Turks were extremely militarist and expansive. They believed that the Ottoman Empire can be saved if they were to ally with the Germans. Ataturk joined this organisation because of his personal hatred against the Sultan and had a minor part to play in the Young Turk Revolution.

But once the revolution succeeded, Ataturk was cast aside by Enver Pasha, who elevated himself to war minister. Ataturk disagreed fundamentally with the Young Turks, which now became the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP).

The CUP believed that Islam and the Sultan glued the Ottoman nation together, but Ataturk disagreed. He acknowledged the growing rebellions across the Empire, which indicated that the Sultan’s influence was weakening.

Ataturk also disagreed with the Social Darwinist policies of the CUP, which was modelled after the Japanese policy of making the “Japanese race the strongest in the far east.” The CUP wanted to make the Turks the strongest in the near east. This idea was too idealist for Ataturk, who himself believed in nationality rather than race.

Since Ataturk was not interested in throwing the Ottomans into conflict, he felt the Caliphate was a post that no longer served a purpose. The CUP, however, used the Caliph to influence Indian Muslims to resist British recruitment in World War One.

The CUP’s underground members would even attempt to assassinate Ataturk in 1926. This, of course, failed.

Enver Pasha (1881-1922)

Enver Pasha was one of the three Pasha of the triumvirate period towards the end of the Ottoman Empire. He also served as the minister of war and was Ataturk’s main rival towards 1918-1923.

Ataturk’s original plan for the territorial extent of the Turkish Republic.

Ataturk believed the Empire had to be abandoned for a Republic that will rule over a majority ethnic Turk land. Ataturk saw Kurds as equals to Turks and therefore kept them in the equation.

Enver Pasha’s dream of an empire expanding over the region of Turan.

On the other hand, Enver Pasha dreamed of an expansive imperialist empire that would cover the region of “Turan”. Turan is the collection of all Turkic states into one single country. Ataturk dismissed these and ardently disagreed. He believed Enver Pasha was delusional. As such, Ataturk remained a colonel with limited military and political influence. Many of these Turanists actually joined the Nazi Turkestan Legions during World War Two.

The CUP government was disastrous. The Ottomans lost control of Libya to the Italians and lost the entire Balkans to the Bulgarians and Greeks. Although Enver Pasha managed to reclaim Thrace, the Empire lost 33% of its lands within the space of only 3 years[3], including the strategic and important city of Thessaloniki, Ataturk’s place of birth. Regardless of these Ottoman defeats, Ataturk achieved spectacular results and proved himself to be a promising commander. In Tobruk, Ataturk defeated 2,000 Italians with only 200 soldiers[4]. He nearly drove the Italians out of all strategic cities, but his command tent was bombed by an Italian warplane, which caused his eye to be damaged. It is for this reason Ataturk’s seems to be cross-eyed in later pictures.

The First World War

Ataturk in Gallipoli (pictured fourth from the left)

The Ottomans joined the German side of the First World War. Ataturk and his more Liberal circle of friends warned the government that this would result in the end of the Ottoman Empire. Enver Pasha’s stubbornness and lack of administrative experience denied these warnings. Within a few months of joining the war, Enver Pasha lost 43,000 men, more than half of which died before the battle even started, while fighting the Russians[5].  Although the Russians were successful against the outdated Ottoman army, they struggled to fight against the disciplined, coherent, and robust German army.

As a result, Sir Winston Churchill, the lord of the admiralty, would devise a plan which looked very good on paper but would result in the worst military defeat in British history. If British and French ships could pass the Dardanelles, they could bomb Istanbul (which was the capital) to the ground and kill millions of people in the process. This would cripple the Ottomans into submitting. However, the Turks were prepared for this and ambushed the British Navy in 1915. This forced the British to do a landing to secure the beachheads.

Location of the Dardanelles.

The Dardanelles is a geographic area that links the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara (and therefore Istanbul). The British had a powerful ANZAC and Indian contingent backed by the world’s strongest navy. But the Ottomans also had a superweapon that they did not know existed: the 34-year-old Ataturk.

The British attack was overwhelming. The Ottoman army did not have enough ammunition and was equipped with older rifles that jammed easily. The British easily gained a foothold in Gallipoli and managed to push the Turks many miles from the beaches, except in one area. Ataturk was just a colonel in command of about 10,000 men[6]. His superior was General Otto Liman von Sanders, a German who was losing ground to the British. Ataturk was tasked to defend Chunuk Bair, a critical peak that oversaw the whole battleground. The fate of Istanbul and the entire Ottoman Empire fell into Ataturk’s hands.

Although Ataturk’s men fought tirelessly, they were eventually routed because they ran out of ammunition. Ataturk caught his soldiers fleeing the field and asked them where they were going. A soldier pointed out that they lacked ammunition, to which Ataturk replied:

“If you don’t have ammunition, you have bayonets! FIX BAYONETS! GET DOWN!”[7]

This made the ANZACs believe the Turks were reinforced, forcing them to call off any further attacks. Ataturk single-handedly took a big risk but held back the British for 24 hours. Enough time for reinforcements to arrive. At the end of the first day, only Ataturk’s division out of the six initial divisions held their ground.

A couple days later, the British intensified their attacks, and Ataturk’s division was put in reserve. The British made a risky but successful landing at one of the beaches that lead directly to Chunuk Bair. Upon hearing this, Ataturk, without permission from higher command, collected his men and moved out to intercept the British. He gave his most famous order:

“Men, I am not ordering you to attack. I am ordering you to die. In the time that it takes us to die, other forces and commanders can come and take our place.”[8]

Ataturk now led from the frontlines and kept motivation among his troops high. He beat back the British forces at Chunuk Bair and saved the Ottoman war effort in Gallipoli. After these successes, Ataturk was promoted and eventually given full command of the entire Ottoman defence at Gallipoli. He launched counter-attacks using storm tactics to beat his enemy. Within a few months of taking control, Ataturk broke the stalemate and shifted the momentum in the Ottoman’s favour. Ataturk saved Istanbul and a million Turks from certain death. His name was being shared across the world for this famous victory.

Meanwhile, the situation against Russia was dire. Enver Pasha lost all his battles against them and began relocating Armenians from the frontlines. The Ottomans, however, were now able to send fresh and experienced troops from Gallipoli under Ataturk’s command. Ataturk held back Russian assaults at Bitlis, which caused the Russian offensive to collapse and triggered the 1917 Russian Soviet Revolution. Ataturk was once again successful and promoted. Now a General, Ataturk was sent to Arabia, where he had his first confrontation with Enver Pasha since 1914.

Ataturk proposed a general retreat towards Anatolia to force the British to march through the deserts unprepared until a confrontation could happen. However, Enver Pasha, backed by von Sanders, suggested that the Ottomans had a numerical advantage and should use it as soon as possible (although they did not). Ataturk was right. The Ottomans suffered their final major defeat at Megiddo, where the British restocked up on water supplies. The Ottoman armies were destroyed, and Ataturk was finally given command of the whole Ottoman army, or what was left of it. Understanding the war was lost, Ataturk sent a letter of rage to the Sultan:

“The withdrawal … could have been carried out in some order, if a fool like Enver Paşa had not been the director-general of the operations, if we did not have an incompetent commander—Cevat Paşa—at the head of a military force of five to ten thousand men, who fled at the first sound of gunfire, abandoned his army, and wandered around like a bewildered chicken; and the commander of the Fourth army, Cemal Paşa, ever incapable of analysing a military situation; and if, above all, we did not have a group headquarters (under Liman von Sanders) which lost all control from the first day of the battle. Now, there is nothing left to do but to make peace.”[9]

Ataturk withdrew to Aleppo and held back all further British attacks, giving way to the Treaty of Mudros. The middle eastern theatre ended, and the Ottoman Empire surrendered after Ataturk refused to continue fighting.

The War of Independence

Results of the Treaty of Sevres.

The Treaty of Sevres was far worse than the Treaty of Versailles and reduced the Ottomans to less than 10% of their land before the First World War. Ataturk was proven right; the Empire was destroyed after joining the World War. Within 4 years, Islam’s greatest Empire was on its death bed. The treaty demanded[10]:

  1. The Ottomans pay crippling reparations, which would last until 1980.
  2. The Ottomans pay crippling and unfair debts, which will also last to 1980.
  3. The Ottomans limit their forces to less than 50,700 men, disbanding their air force and tank regiments as well as downsizing their navy.
  4. Istanbul and the straits world fall under International control.
  5. France, Italy, Armenia, Britain, and Kurdistan will take most of Anatolia (Britain annexed the Kurdish territories before it could form a state)
  6. Turkey would essentially be a puppet of France and Britain, alternating between the two.

To Ataturk, this treaty was worse than death. Turks are an interesting ethnic group in that they are one of the few ethnic groups to have always ruled themselves. As Napoleon once put it:

“The Turks can be killed, but they can never be conquered.”[11]

For Turks to accept this treaty would be an insult to their ancestors and their past. Ataturk managed to rally up eager Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Alevis, and Alawites to fight the War of Independence. In the end, he managed to muster 80,000 men, but he was facing four major combatants on four different fronts against 250,000 men[12]. It was suicide.

Ataturk, however, was perhaps the most accomplished military leader at the time. He was the only Central Powers commander who was not defeated in the field of battle and was loved by his men. Ataturk was quick to strike on the Armenians and French forces, ending their threat by 1921. He negotiated with the British and used the fact that the British public opposed a war to his advantage. However, the bigger threat was Greece. Greece was opportunistic in their goals and used the fact that the Turks were up in arms as a pretext to establish a Greater Greece, known as the Megali Idea. 217,000 Greek forces entered Anatolia, the largest Greek army to enter the region in history[13].

Ataturk could not defeat them in a battle unless he chose the battleground. He made a tactical retreat to Ankara, drawing the Greeks further and further away from their supply routes and tired them in the process. At Sakarya, Ataturk unleashed his trap. Nearly 22,000 out of the 120,000 Greek force lost their lives or were captured[14]. Even King Constantine was almost caught by Turkish troops. Ataturk ended the Greek advance and turned the tide of the war. It was now the Greeks who were on the defensive.

In 1922, Ataturk unleashed his final offensive towards Izmir. 90,000 Turks against 130,000 Greeks[15]. It was all or nothing. Ataturk, within 2 weeks, liberated Izmir and surrounded the Greek army and captured their most renowned Generals. The Generals were treated with considerable kindness. Ataturk’s right-hand man, Ismet Pasha (later known as Ismet Inonu, the second President of Turkey), told the Greek General Trikoupis that his men would not be harmed and that he had the Turkish army’s respect for doing his duty. Ataturk was also offered to step on a Greek flag in the same area that King Constantine stepped on the Ottoman flag 3 years earlier, but Ataturk refused[16]. He is quoted as saying:

“The Greek King might have made a mistake by insulting a National Symbol, I Won’t repeat the same mistake.”

Istanbul was later liberated by Ataturk without firing a single bullet. The Sultanate was abolished, and the Ottoman Empire came to an end in late 1922. Ataturk’s revolution, known as Kemalism, took its first big step.

Ataturk’s Presidency

Ataturk changed Turkey forever. The Republic of Turkey was founded on 29th October 1923, a year after the Ottoman Empire was disbanded. Ataturk brought in a new radical reform to Turkey known as Kemalism or Ataturkism.

Kemalism has 6 arrows or pillars:

  1. Nationalism

Ataturk’s view on nationalism was very modern and rejected all forms of ethnic, cultural, and ultra-nationalism. Ataturk rejected Turanism, rejected imperialism, and rejected unification through religion or ethnicity. Ataturk instead opted for Civic-Nationalism, a form of nationalism that united people through a common duty to a nation regardless of their background. In Ataturk’s form of nationalism, Alevis were emancipated for the first time in Turkish history, Kurds were seen as Turkish citizens, which enabled Inonu (a Kurd) to become the first Prime Minister of Turkey, and even one of the world’s first black fighter pilots was Turkish[17]. Turkish did not mean someone who was ethnically a Turk, but rather as Ataturk said:

“The folk which constitutes the Republic of Turkey is called the Turkish nation.”[18]

  1. Republicanism

Ataturk believed in a parliamentary democracy. Although Ataturk ruled as a benign or benevolent dictator, his end goal was democracy. Ataturk saw himself as the first and last dictator of the Turkish Republic. A dictator that Turkey needs so they may never have a dictator again. Ataturk demanded democracy, but the Turkish people were not educated and ready for it yet.

  1. Populism

Kemalist populism is not the same as the populism we have today. Populism in the Kemalist sense was the aim to enable the people to understand the importance of their citizenship and sovereignty. Populism in the Kemalist sense was designed to create a unifying force for the Turkish people to encourage them to work, contribute to their country, and advance.

  1. Laicism

The most controversial policy of Kemalism is its ardent secularism. Ataturk banned the niqab and fez according to the public code. But he never forbade the headscarf, contrary to popular belief. The headscarf in Turkey was banned after the 1980 coup. Ataturk simply discouraged its use. Ataturk put all religious buildings under state supervision, and the state equally distanced itself from all faiths. The official religion of Turkey was no longer Islam. The call to prayer was to be done in Turkish rather than Arabic. Religious schools were closed. Since Sharia Law in the Ottoman Empire banned girls from being educated, Ataturk now made schools mandatory for girls. Classes were now mixed. Ataturk’s biggest religious impact would come in 1924 when he abolished the Caliphate. The Caliph was a post that existed ever since the death of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. This was widely supported in Turkey, with the only opposition coming from the Kurds, whose rebellions were subsequently suppressed.

  1. Statism

Turkey was technologically and socially behind other countries in 1923. Statism demanded that the state do its part to ensure Turkey’s complete modernisation via economic and technological development. Ataturk’s Turkey underwent mass industrialisation leading to dramatic economic growth[19]. The state also nationalised all foreign businesses, which were seen as exploiting Turkey’s resources and people. These businesses, especially tobacco industries, became successful enterprises and were later privatised by Turkish owners.

  1. Reformism

Ataturk believed traditional institutions must be replaced with modern ones that overlooked a much larger part of Anatolian and Turkish culture and history. Islamism in Turkey saw old Hittite and Assyrian buildings and statues destroyed. Ataturk believed the Hittite culture to be a part of the modern Turkish culture. Islam was adapted to become compatible with Turkey. According to Ataturk, up until this point, conservative Islam had been allowed to control the customs, diet, and even intimate thoughts of the Turkish people.

Ataturk’s reformism was vastly based on resurrecting old Hittite, Assyrian, and Anatolian culture while combining it with Turkey’s Nomadic and Islamic history. For example, the national symbol of Ankara was the Hittite flag. Ataturk never opposed Islam. He only opposed an interpretation of Islam that was suited to an Arab context and was therefore unsuitable to the needs of the Turkish people.

Ataturk increased national GDP, tripled GDP per capita[20], modernised Turkey within a decade, made education compulsory for all, which saw literacy rates skyrocket. Turkey gave women full equal suffrage where polygamy was banned and equal inheritance was mandatory. This was ahead of many European countries. Turkish women congratulated American women for having the right to vote, and British women held signs saying, Are we worth less than Turkish women?[21]

Ataturk had saved Turkey, emancipated all faiths and minorities, and has gained international respect. In 1981, the UN formally honoured Ataturk by naming it The Atatürk Year in the World. Nobody else has been given such recognition:

“The General Conference,

Convinced that eminent personalities who worked for international understanding, co-operation, and peace, should serve as an example for future generations,

Recalling that the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, will be celebrated in 1981,

Bearing in mind that he was an exceptional reformer in all the fields coming within Unesco’s competence,

Recognising in particular that he was the leader of one of the earliest struggles against colonialism and imperialism,

Recalling that he set an outstanding example in promoting the spirit of mutual understanding between peoples and lasting peace between the nations of the world, having advocated all his life the advent of ‘an age of harmony and co-operation in which no distinction would be made between men on account of colour, religion or race.’”[22]

Many world leaders visit his grave, including Putin, Obama, the Pope, Theresa May, the Japanese royal family, and many others. All bow to Ataturk.

The Words of Ataturk

“Peace at home, peace in the world” – Ataturk to the public during his tours of Anatolia[23].

“Unless a nation’s life faces peril, war is murder.” – Ataturk after witnessing the devastation wrought by the Gallipoli campaign[24].

“Humankind is made up of two sexes, women and men. Is it possible for humankind to grow by the improvement of only one part while the other part is ignored? Is it possible that if half of a mass is tied to earth with chains that the other half can soar into skies?” – Ataturk on the importance of women[25].

“Heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives! You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.” – Ataturk in honouring the fallen soldiers that fought against Turkey[26].

Ataturk has statues and streets named after him in many countries, including countries in which Ataturk fought. Ataturk is not only moral, not only accomplished, not only respected; he is the greatest leader in history.

[1] Mango, A., 1963. Ataturk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey. John Murray.

[2] İnan, A., 1950. Atatürk hakkında hâtıralar ve belgeler. Turkiye Is Bankasi Kultur Yayinlari.

[3] Blakemore, E., 2019. Why the Ottoman Empire rose and fell. National Geographic, [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 16 April 2021].

[4] Military Wiki. n.d. Battle of Tobruk (1911). [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 17 April 2021].

[5] Sanborn, J., 2021. Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire. Oxford University Press, p.88.

[6] Mango, A., 1963. Ataturk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey. John Murray.

[7] Wikiquote. n.d. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. [online] Available at: <ürk> [Accessed 16 April 2021].

[8] ibid

[9] Mango, A., 1963. Ataturk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey. John Murray.

[10] Helmreich, P., 1974. From Paris to Sèvres: The Partition of the Ottoman Empire at the Peace Conference of 1919-1920. Cambridge University Press.

[11] Bonaparte, N., 1912. Napoleon in his own words. Trieste Publishing Pty Limited.

[12] Pallis, A., 1937. Greece’s Anatolian Venture–and After: A Survey of the Diplomatic and Political Aspects of the Greek Expedition to Asia Minor (1915-1922).

[13] ibid

[14] ibid

[15] Mango, A., 1963. Ataturk: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey. John Murray.

[16] ibid

[17] Nicolle, D., 1994. The Ottoman Army 1914–1918. Osprey Publishing.

[18] Wikipedia. n.d. Kemalism. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 17 April 2021].

[19] Pamuk, Ş., 2019. Uneven centuries: Turkey’s experience with economic development since 1820. The Economic History Review, Vol. 72.

[20] Pamuk, Ş., 2019. Uneven centuries: Turkey’s experience with economic development since 1820. The Economic History Review, Vol. 72.

[21] n.d. British womens demanding their rights: “Are British Women Worth Less Than Turkish Women?”. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 16 April 2021].

[22] UNESCO, 1979. Records of the General Conference Twentieth Session Paris, 24 October to 28 November 1978 Volume I Resolutions. [online] p.69. Available at: <> [Accessed 16 April 2021].

[23] Goodreads. n.d. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk Quotes. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 16 April 2021].

[24] ibid

[25] ibid

[26] ibid

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