Father of the Turks

He was using only two modest rooms in the Sultan's palace. He died there on November 10, 1938. Every Turkish child knows that it happened in the morning, at 9.05 a.m. Why? Because every year at this exact time, life in Turkey stops for one minute. When he died, he was 57. His death was the only thing he did wrong in his life. He simply left too soon.

"Kemal Atatürk removed the Ottomans from power. But if it hadn’t been for him, Turkey would not have existed at all. He was the one who created Turkey anew and for that he deserves gratitude." This acknowledgement was offered in a Turkish TV interview by a man who had every reason to dislike both the creation of the Republic of Turkey as well as the man responsible since the tribute came from Ertugrul Osman, the seventh Sultan in exile.

Osmanoglus (the surname descendants of the Ottomans took) are scattered around the world but the family retains the dynastic rules from the time they ruled the empire. Despite not having a chance of regaining the throne -- not that they aspire to -- the eldest of the family, as in the past, always becomes the head of the House of Ottomans.

Had Ertugrul Osman disliked Atatürk it would have been understandable. With the establishment of the Republic, the Ottomans lost not only their power, but also their homeland. The entire extended family of the Sultan (156 people) was ordered to leave the country immediately. Princes with the right to succession had to leave within 24 hours, women and princes of lower rank were given a week to go. It was the decision of Mustafa Kemal Pasha, who was elected President on 29 October, 1923, the day the Republic was proclaimed.

There is no greater compliment for a leader than that of being appreciated by his enemies. Atatürk's achievements were recognised by not just the descendant of the sultans, but also by the leader of Greece, the eternal enemy of the Turks. In 1934, despite many years of war and the defeat that the troops led by Kemal had inflicted on the Greeks in Asia Minor several years earlier, Eleftherios Venizelos, eight-times Greek PM in the years 1910-1933, considered by Greeks the greatest Greek politician of the 20th century, nominated Atatürk as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.

"Peace in the country, peace in the world"

In a letter to the Nobel Committee in Oslo, Venizelos wrote: "For nearly seven centuries, the entire Middle East and much of Central Europe were the scene of bloody wars caused by the Ottoman Empire. (...) The national movement led by Mustafa Kemal Pasha and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey put an end to this." He further emphasized that Turkey, having come to terms with the loss of a significant part of its former lands, had become "a true pillar of peace in the Middle East." He added: "We, the Greeks who had been involved in a bloody confrontation with Turkey for centuries, were the first to feel the effects of these great changes. We extended our hand to the reborn Turkey and it was sincerely accepted. The man who has made such a great contribution to the cause of peace is Mustafa Kemal Pasha, President of the Republic of Turkey."
Mustafa Kemal w mundurze Marszałka Sił Narodowych w 1921. Fot. TYalaA – Praca własna, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia
From the beginning of the 20th century, Greece and Turkey were constantly at war with each other, with varying degrees of success. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey's weakness and the looming prospect of its partition after WWI, which England and France, among others, discussed had raised hopes in Greece for a takeover of the stretch of Turkish terrritory from the coast of the Aegean Sea to the east. This, the hope was, would result in the recreation of ancient Greater Greece, at least partially. Optimism remained high as Greek troops advanced as far as Dumlupınar in Kütahya Province, but there they were defeated on August 30, 1922.

The peace treaty signed a year later in Lausanne between Turkey and the superpowers as well as with her neighbors sanctioned Turkey's existence and defined basic principles, including borders, the functioning of the Turkish straits [replaced with the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits in 1936] and population exchange provisions. In 1930, Greece and Turkey signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation, but -- as is often the case -- arrangements at the government level did not reflect the public mood. For the Greeks, Atatürk remains an enemy to this day. Yet Venizelos saw it differently.

     In his letter to the Nobel Committee, the Greek PM made no mention of the declaration the Turkish leader had made three years earlier when travelling around Turkey, yet it is difficult to imagine that he was unaware of the statement. At the time, Kemal declared: "If I have to describe the goals of the policy of the Republican People's Party (CHP, the party he founded, that today is the main opposition party in Turkey), I can sum it up briefly as: we work for peace in the country and peace in the world".

Pasha, save Turkey!

These words -- in the concise form, "Peace in the country, peace in the world" -- have since become the motto of Turkish foreign policy (they appear, of course, on the website of Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs), but above all, they have entered into general circulation. Like Kemal's other comment: "Happy is he who can call himself a Turk." Contrary to appearances, this is not a light, throwaway remark. In this way, albeit not fully understood outside Turkey, Atatürk was emphasizing the meaning of the changes that had occurred following the abolition of the Sultanate. A "Turk" is a citizen of the Republic. In the multinational empire, he was not a "Turk" but a "Muslim", because the inhabitants of the Ottoman state defined themselves by their religion, which was then more important as an identifier than an individual's ethnic affiliation. The awakening of national consciousness, although immeasurable, was therefore one of the foundations of the new Turkey.

Kemal Atatürk is one of three European leaders who defended their countries against attempts to encroach by their neighbors after WWI. Other than their military status, none of the three had too much in common. Józef Piłsudski [1867 –1935, the Polish statesman, viewed as a father of the Second Polish Republic, which was re-established in 1918, 123 years after the final Partition of Poland in 1795] and Finnish Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim [often referred to as the father of modern Finland] did have a common enemy in Russia -- at first tsarist and then Soviet. However, neither had to face a task as fundamental as the one undertaken by Kemal Pasha. None of them had to build a state from scratch on the ruins of the previous one, of which even the smallest remnants.

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So Kemal took on an extraordinary task, while knowing that he didn't have much time, if any. If Turkey was to survive in a hostile world where superpowers and neighbors were just waiting for the moment to tear it apart, reform had to happen quickly. It could not be spread over many years since the state might not survive.

Why Kemal? Already at the end of the First World War, he had acquired a unique position. After the Battle of the Gallipoli Peninsula, where the Turks defeated the British allied troops (largely composed of soldiers from Australia and New Zealand, who suffered huge losses), Kemal arrived, hailed for his glorious victory, into İstanbul -- still called Constantinople, unchanged since Byzantine times. The soldiers loved him, the people admired him, the last Sultan Mehmet VI Vahidettin certainly appreciated him. If it had been otherwise, he would not have burdened Kemal with the task he himself was no longer able to fulfill. "Pasha, you have rendered great service to the country and you already have your place in history. But now you can do even more: save the country," the Sultan told him during his final audience prior to Kemal's departure to the front where he was to inspect the troops.

The Sultan's instructions concerned military tasks. It is certain that Mehmet VI could not have imagined how far Kemal would go to save Turkey. He was not to realise that in a matter of a few years, on November 1, 1922, the sultanate would be abolished, the Ottoman Empire would cease to exist after 623 years (even more, if you take into account the earlier pre-Ottoman Turkish states), and that a republic would take its place, much less that he himself would leave Turkey before the republican authorities ordered all Ottomans to leave.

Taming the new world

The establishment of the Republic changed everything in Turkey, starting from the basics, i.e. the state system, and ending with the very essence of identity, as mentioned previously. It is difficult to rate the significance of the various changes given, for example, that even something as seemingly innocuous as the introduction of European clothing assumed an importance of its own insofar as it influenced the development of a new life style model, in the process accustoming people to the new world.

Everything took on its own importance: the introduction of a parliamentary system, with a president elected by parliament; voting rights for women; the abolition of the Sultanate and Caliphate; the liquidation of religious brotherhoods, courts and schools; secularization; the transformation of the Byzantine temple of Hagia Sophia, a mosque since the conquest of Constantinople, into a museum; the introduction of the Western calendar, and many more. Friday, the Muslim holiday, was superceded by the Christian Sunday. Constantinople changed to İstanbul. Universal education was introduced as were new laws modeled on the Swiss (civil law) and Italian (criminal law) codes. The capital was moved to the then tiny Angora, whose historical name was changed to Ankara. The Latin alphabet replaced the Arabic that had been used for centuries. Language reform focused on returning to the purest possible form of Turkish, stripping it of Arabic influences. European costumes became a requirement for men, only a recommendation for women. A cap or hat took the place of the fez, which had been in common use since the early 19th century, when turbans were banned.
This awakening of the national consciousness -- indispensable in a modern country -- included the addition of surnames, a practice even the Ottomans in exile adopted. Their former subjects had to do this too. It was then that Mustafa Kemal Pasha became Atatürk -- the "Father of the Turks", as the Turks saw him. Ismet, his closest companion, received the surname Inönü, after the name of the river on which he fought an important battle.

The foundations on which the state and social life were based were presented in the pictorial form of Atatürk's Six Arrows. Republicanism, Nationalism, Secularism, Reformism, Egalitarianism and Statism became the foundation of Kemalism. In theory, they still are there today, life and changing times having verified their usefulness, on, in the case of Statism, eliminating it.

In a matter of a dozen or so years, Turkey, as someone once rightly noted, traveled a path that took other countries over a century to traverse. However, Kemal assessed in advance that to act effectively, you must act quickly. "Unlike others, I do not believe that reforms can be done slowly so that people can get used to the changes," he wrote in his diary in 1918, a time when he had not yet even dreamed of the enormity of the tasks awaiting him.

Diplomacy and love

Ataturk held the title of pasha, i.e. general. In Turkey the word not only meant the highest military commanders, it was also applied to high-ranking administration officials. He fought in the Balkan Wars and the war in Libya with the rank of colonel. He was victorious at Gallipoli and Dumlupınar. Commander-in-Chief in the Revolutionary War, creator of the new Turkey, a brave and imaginative reformer, the first president, he was the epitome of a national hero.

A small house stands in a side street in the center of Thessaloniki, once the second largest city in the empire, and for more than a hundred years Greece's second largest city. A Turkish flag flies above it. Back in the 1920s, when Venizelos was in power, the Greek authorities gave this house to Turkey in a gesture of friendship. This is where Mustafa, the son of an official, was born in 1881. The name Kemal would not be added until he entered school.

The precise date of his birth is unknown, a confusion arising from the fact that back then two different calendars were in use in Turkey. The civil register offers no indication as to which calendar was used in recording Mustafa's date of birth. Years later, a symbolic solution was adopted and May 19th, the date the War of Independence began in 1919, was chosen to mark Kemal's official birthday. It was Kemal himself who came up with the suggestion.

Mustafa Kemal graduated from the military school in Monastir and the academy in Constantinople, his subsequent service including a stint with a unit in Syria, where he was sent as a form of punishment for having participated in the anti-monarchist movement. During his military career he was to make friends with officers who were to become his faithful companions in battle and in reforming the state. This helped shape the view that was to become a motto not only for himself, but also for his successors, when he wrote in his diary: "Those who believe that the army should stay away from politics are wrong."
Whatever the initial problems that led to his posting in Syria, they were not serious enough to harm Kemal's career as an officer and diplomat. In 1913 -- after Libya and before Gallipoli -- he was apppointed a military attaché in Sofia. He led a lively social life and it was there that he met the woman who, according to insiders, was reportedly the love of his life. Dimitrina Kovaczewa was the daughter of the Minister of War, so her parents knew Kemal well and apparently liked him. However, marriage with a Muslim was out of the question.

When asked many years later if he had ever been in love, Kemal responded: "In love? Did I have time for this?"

In a small house in the forest

I'm not sure he really did, although there were a few significant women in his life. The most mysterious was his relationship with Fikriye [Zeynep Fikriye Özdinçer], his stepfather's niece. Their relationship was very unconventional for the times, given that they lived together in Angora without being married. Fikriye, who had previously divorced her husband, formally acted as Kemal's assistant. When he married Latife Uşakîzâde, a modern, Paris-educated girl from a wealthy family from Izmir, Fikriye committed suicide. Kemal never mentioned her name again.

The marriage with Latife was not successful and lasted only two years. No great surprise since Kemal entered into it primarily for didactic reasons, you might say. He was convinced he had to show the Turks what a modern marriage between modern people should look like in the new Turkey. Both appeared together in public, serving as role models for others, but in the privacy of their home they were hardly examples of marital happiness [after three years of marriage, they divorced]. Relatives witnessed the domestic scene. Latife recalled how once, when complaining to a family friend, she was told: "You married not a husband, but a tiger. You can't tame a tiger."

In his family life, Kemal had to be satisfied with thirteen adopted children (twelve girls and one boy) -- he had no children of his own. One, Sabiha Gökcen, the first female pilot in Turkey and one of the first female fighter pilots in the world, was to gain fame. The İstanbul airport on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus was named after her. The airport on the European shore [that in 2022 ceased operations regarding passenger flights which are now served by İstanbul Airport] is named after her father.

Kemal derived all his enormous authority from his achievements. He lived modestly, did not expect splendor and rather than spend time in the presidential Çankaya Palace in Ankara preferred to stay in a small house that he had been gifted by friends in the nearby forest (today it is the site of the new, huge residence built for President Recep Erdoğan). Kemal liked to feast there in the company of his male friends, a predeliction that likely contributed indirectly to his death. He had been in poor health since his youth, first with kidney problems, later with liver problems. He suffered from insomnia. The hardships of countless military campaigns and his tireless work for the state exacted a toll, and his daily consumption of a bottle of raki did nothing to improve his condition.

When in İstanbul, as befitted his position, Kemal would stay in the Sultan's Palace of Dolmabahçe, but rather than make use of the large chambers, he insisted on maintaining two modest rooms. It was there that he died on November 10, 1938. Every Turkish child knows that it happened in the morning, at 9.05 am, because ever since, as a mark of respect, life in Turkey stops for one minute at precisely that time. He was 57 years old. As one Internet user put it aptly, death was the only thing Kemal did wrong in his life. Because he left too soon.

– Teresa Stylińska

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Agnieszka Rakoczy
Main photo: On February 1, 1931, Atatürk visits a girls' high school in İzmir. Photo: Public domain, Wikimedia https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5391878
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