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Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

(1881 - 1938)

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was born in 1881 in the former Ottoman Empire. As a young man he was involved with the Young Turks, a revolutionary group that deposed the sultan in 1909. Ataturk led the Turkish War of Independence and signed the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which made Turkey a republic. He was elected its first president and ushered in reforms that modernized Turkey.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was born simply "Mustafa" on March 12, 1881, in Salonika, in what was then the Ottoman Empire (his birthplace is now known as Thessalonika, in modern-day Greece). When he was 12 years old, Mustafa was sent to the military academy in Istanbul. There, his mathematics teacher gave him the name Kemal—meaning "perfection"—because he excelled in academics. He graduated in 1905.

As a young man, Mustafa Kemal became a member of the Young Turks, a revolutionary movement of intellectuals. He participated in the Young Turk Revolution of July 1908, which successfully deposed Sultan Abdülhamid II. From 1909 to 1918, Mustafa Kemal held a number of posts in the Ottoman army. He fought against Italy in the Italo-Turkish War in 1911 and from 1912-1913 he fought in the Balkan Wars. During the second Balkan War he became chief of staff before being posted at the Turkish embassy in Bulgaria. He made a name for himself as the commander of the 19th Division, where his bravery and strategic prowess helped thwart the Allied invasion of the Dardanelles in 1915, and received repeated promotions until the Armistice of Mudros ended the fighting in 1918.

Although the battles had ended, the treaty gave the Allies the right to occupy forts that controlled major waterways, as well as any territory that might pose a threat to security. In 1919, Ataturk organized resistance to these forces, and when the Treaty of Sèvres was signed at the end of World War I, divvying up the Ottoman Empire, Mustafa Kemal demanded complete independence for Turkey. The Great National Assembly—the new Turkish parliament—engaged in a series of battles with Greek and Armenian forces until Mustafa signed the Treaty of Lausanne on October 29, 1923. This established the Republic of Turkey, and Mustafa Kemal became the country’s first president.

Mustafa Kemal's first order of business was to modernize and secularize the country, which he did by studying Western governments and adapting their structure for the people of Turkey. He believed that modernization necessarily entailed Westernization, and he established a policy of state secularism, with a constitution that separated the government from religion.

Social and economic reforms were a crucial part of his strategy as well. He replaced the Arabic alphabet with a Latin one, introduced the Gregorian calendar and urged people to dress in Western clothes. Mustafa industrialized the nation, establishing state-owned factories around the country as well as a railway network. And a multitude of new laws established legal equality between the sexes. Mustafa removed women’s veiling laws and gave women the right to vote.

Although he believed he was advancing the country, not all of Mustafa Kemal’s reforms were warmly received. His policy of state secularism was particularly controversial, and he was accused of decimating important cultural traditions.

Mustafa Kemal was married briefly from 1923 to 1925, and although he never fathered children, he adopted 12 daughters and one son. In 1935 he introduced surnames in Turkey, and he took the last name Ataturk, which means "Father of the Turks." He died on November 10, 1938, from cirrhosis of the liver.

Sources: The editors,