No one who visits Turkey can fail to miss the omnipresence of Atatürk. You will probably arrive in Atatürk Airport in Istanbul. Your bus or taxi into town will pass along the Atatürk Avenue. You may see a concert or a ballet at the Atatürk Cultural Centre. Or an international football game at the Atatürk Stadium. In every town in every school, university, sports centre, post office, tax office, public and private foundation and institution, bank, most offices, many shops, you will see pictures and busts of Atatürk, but never in any mosque or Islamic foundation.  

Today, October 29th, the day which commemorates the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the brass bands are practicing for the parades, and bunting and banners , pictures of Atatürk, and the red flag with the white star and crescent are flying from houses, apartments, office building, often covering the whole side of a twenty-storey building, all over Turkey, especially here in Etiler, middle-class Republican district of Istanbul par excellence.  

There is an exhibition of photos of Atatürk in the nearby Akmerkez Shopping Centre; Atatürk young at cadet school in Salonika with twirling moustaches, Atatürk in uniform, smart in tails, plus-fours, a natty cap; Atatürk with the King of Afghanistan, the Shah of Iran, Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson; Atatürk swimming; Atatürk with his adopted daughters or groups of women, unveiled, of course; Atatürk looking up, Atatürk looking down; a paunchy Atatürk a year or so before his death through liver cirrhosis on Nov 10 1938, aged 58; and, inexplicably, Atatürk leaning out of a train window fingering a set of Islamic prayer beads. Well, maybe he was traveling through a particularly religious area. Many of these are on permanent exhibition on the walls opposite the Dolmabahçe Palace. 

The Atatürk foundation has been active on the streets and in the shopping malls selling magnets, bookmarks, paperweights, mirrors, heart-shaped pill boxes, calendars, cigarette cases, jewellry boxes. Atatürk has become a symbol, an icon. Liberal Turks I have met, especially women, university teachers, have on their desk or walls small framed pictures of Atatürk. 

But wait a minute, you tell me, wasn’t Atatürk a dictator: Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini… and Atatürk? How can this possibly come about?  

I am told: if it had not been for Atatürk, we would still be in the Dark Ages. We would still be wearing the veil; we might not have the chance to work; Turkey might be like…, well, Iran. And because of Atatürk we can work, wear what we like and live much as women do in the West. And they may quote Atatürk: “Human kind is made up of two sexes, women and men. Is it possible that a mass is improved by the improvement of only one part and the other part is ignored? Is it possible that if half of a mass is tied to earth with chains and the other half can soar into skies?”  

Mustafa Kemal, who took the name of Atatürk, “Father of the Turks” in 1934, when, through his own decision, all Turks had to take surnames, gained fame as the Ottoman colonel at Gallipoli in 1915 who held back and prevented the British and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) landing. Then on the Syrian border in 1917 he managed to hold onto as much territory as possible before the inevitable defeat of the flailing Ottoman Empire, allied to Germany, before the Anglo-French forces.  The Ottoman Empire had crumbled. With the Treaty of Sevres in 1920 the European powers gave themselves slices of the cake of Turkey. Greece was to administer the west, Italy the south, Britain the south, France the Syrian border, Armenia got the far east, and only a rump Turkey in the north and east of Anatolia was to be maintained. 

The defeated Sultan Mehmed VI, Vehideddin, sent Kemal as an army inspector to eastern Turkey, to inspect the troops. A piece of luck, as he raised the call to get rid of the foreign invaders.  He organized the Erzurum and Sivas congresses of 1919 and called for a Turkish state. He was elected Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. The task was arduous. Equipment and supplies were lacking. Brigandage was rife. A Kurdish uprising was put down. Agreements were made with the French and Italians, and eventually the English, but the Greeks wanted to hold on to territory which had been part of the Ancient Greek Empire. Defeats were suffered. But, playing on patriotism, the desire for a Turkish nation, a new sense of patriotism, Kemal’s own enormous prestige and charisma, the Greeks were eventually defeated and left Syrrna, Izmir, in 1923. Atrocities took place on both sides. The Armenians were forced back, and now the killings of the Armenians by Turks in 1920 has become the greatest problem for Turkey to enter the EU. The Turkish Republic was proclaimed on 29th October 1923. Kemal was elected President.  The country was unified at last. Borders were just about fixed, to include an apparently unified Turkish speaking population. 

Differently to Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, Kemal did not embark on any attempt to conquer other territories. Despite opposition from those who thought he wanted to become another Sultan, he, with the support of the armed forces, managed to hold onto power through the 1920s and 1930s. An opposition party was attempted in 1924-5, but when it was looking too successful it was withdrawn. Its leaders were linked to an unsuccessful assignation attempt in 1926, and some were hanged. 

Kemalism became established with its distinctive traits: republicanism, nationalism, populism, statism, secularism and reformism. And Turkey never became a Stalinist state with “the dark menace of the concentration camp” (Volkan and Itzkowitz in Atatürk, A.L. Macfie, p.190). 

Socially, Kemalism brought about great changes. The Caliphate and religious courts were abolished in 1924. Religious symbols were outlawed: the fez was banned in 1925. Men were ordered to wear European headwear: European companies dumped their unsold stock of pink bowler hats in Turkey.

The Swiss legal system was adopted in 1926. Atatürk encouraged de-veiling, held mixed dances and dinners, and may even have been the first ever Turk to have danced (the foxtrot) with a woman, at least in public. Polygamy and repudiation of wives became illegal in 1931, though, ironically, this was how Atatürk had divorced his wife, Latife, Hanim, in 1925, after just two years of marriage. Women were given the right to vote and could stand for elections in the same year. 

Almost overnight, the alphabet was changed. Few, less than 10%, could read the Ottoman script, which mixed Turkish, Persian and Arabic. On 3 November 1928 Turkey began to use the Roman alphabet. Illiteracy improved almost immediately, and, where possible, Turkish words were introduced in place of Arabic and Persian, and future generations would be unable to read anything written before 1928. Indeed, today, very very few can, even at Boğaziçi University. 

And Turkish gained the status of a national language. The Koran was translated into Turkish in 1931. The Turkish Historical Society emphasized that Turks were “citizens linked together by a community of language, culture and ideals”; and in 1932 the Turkish Linguistic Society identified Turkish as the sun-language, “the original language, from which Semitic and Indo-European languages had evolved”. 

In the middle-class suburbs of Istanbul and Ankara the flags are waving, but there will be much less celebration in the working-class Islamic suburbs.


21 Responses to “Atatürk”

  1. Marilise Rezende Bertin Says:

    Very interesting text, John, lots of points to be made, discussed.
    I remember talking to you about Monteiro Lobato and his ‘admiration’ for Salazar, considered by many a dictator. Indeed he might have been one. I don’t know the historical period when he governed but many say so. But what draws my attention is that what ML was in favour of, and correct me if I’m wrong, was the idea of progress allied to a feeling of patriotism. Changes or not would occur, but everybody was united all together as a nation to grow.
    Getúlio Vargas is responsible for bringing ‘progress’ if we think in terms of industries, Brazil is beginning to be part of the industrialized world. Again many forces work together. We have editora brasiliense and others bringing culture to many, books are cheap…
    Have we lost other things by gaining others? Maybe we have.
    Have the Turks lost a lot and gained more, or less? Ok, your blog is about a divided country. And I’m conscious that each country has its specific characteristics. But it’s very interesting to observe how ‘progress’, this wave that reaches all of us works in all, isn’t it? How countries are affected by this ‘progress’.

    Nice, very nice text, John! I really enjoyed reading it all.

  2. Regina Alfarano Says:

    Your blog is an open door to revisit Turkey. And quite a pleasant invitation! Yes, the changes brought by Atatürk can definitely be seen in Turkey when compared to some other Islamic countries. I found it most interesting to have such detailed information when spotting the first woman wearing a burka in a little town on our way to Capadoccia and Konya, back in 1999. Before any questions, our most knowlegeable guide started his explanation by saying: “That is not allowed in Turkey, but the government makes an exception in this part of the country. We all pretend we don´t see them dressed like that”. One of the so many interesting aspects in Turkey: those few who still want to “be tied to earth” are given that choice. Thank you for sharing such rich experience!

  3. Philippe Willemart Says:

    Excellent reportage John.
    Comment les Turcs voient-ils le massacre des Arméniens? Les Occidentaux prennent toujours le parti des Arméniens, mais que disent les Turcs pour justifier ce massacre?

  4. jmilton6000 Says:


    Ici il y a une répudiation totale de la position de la France. Une manchette a dit “Libertá, fraternité, stupidité”. On a vu que la votation a été dominée par les parlementaires arméniens et que le parlement s’est rendu a ce groupe. Après le vote, il y a eut des protestes assez grandes dehors du consulat français. La position oficielle turque est que oui, il y avait des atrocités des deux côtés, mais jamais quelque type de “génocide” prémedité. Pamuk a été accusé pour demander une enquête oficielle et de critiquer la position oficielle. Les journaux plus nationalistes ont dit qu’il a protesté contre la position de gouvernément turque seuelment comme moyen de renforcer ses tentatives de gagner le Prix Nobel. Le cas a été terminé par cause des technicalités judiciales.



  5. Elizabeth Harkot de La Taille Says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience, John. Very enriching.

  6. Masako Haraguchi Says:

    I had met a few progressive, open-minded Turkish students in the U.S. and now I can understand where it all started.

    I remember when I was a teenager, decades ago, people would speak about “Turks” in a derrogative way mainly as a rudish, backward people.

    Thanks, Mr. Milton, your text is a lesson.


  7. Masako Haraguchi Says:

    As above.

  8. Leda Motta Says:

    Linda aula, bela escrita. Bj. Leda.

  9. İrem Üstünsöz Says:

    Dear Mr. Milton,

    I couldn’t help smiling as I read your text on Atatürk, gazing in between the lines at his poster on the wall of my study.What I find amazing is the amount of information you’ve gathered on Atatürk; your observations are remarkable…I enjoyed reading them.

    Let me say a few words about my feelings for Atatürk… Today we find it hard to believe in heroism, after all, how can a man alone lead a country invaded and captivated by the most aggressive imperialist powers into victory; a victory which becomes all the more incredible when you consider the devastated state of the country? Incredible as it sounds, this is what happened after he started the Turkish War of Independence on 19th,May,1919.He was the leader who encouraged his people to believe in victory. But I think even more important than his military success is the fact that he believed in democracy and the republican regime. Although he could have chosen to become the next sultan empowered by the title of Caliphate, he founded a modern republican state. In that sense, I think it would be unfair to compare him to Stalin or any other dictator; he wanted freedom and independence for all the Turks and he believed in peace for the whole world (“Peace at home, peace in the world” is one of his well-known quotations.) I think I don’t need to say that I admire Atatürk and feel indebted to him- like most Turkish women- for my very existence and chance to live and work the way I choose unlike any other woman oppressed and treated almost like a slave in most Islamic states.

    Maybe, it is our weakness-as Turks- that we sometimes fail to see that Atatürk was also a humanbeing, with all his strengths and weaknesses… He was a man who had spent long years of his life in the battlefield; a very lonely man, in fact, despite all the masses adoring him. As a woman, I do not approve of the way he divorced his wife. But, being finally able to read in detail about Latife Hanım’s life story in a book written by İpek Çalışlar, I think she was “a hard nut” for even a man like Atatürk; she had studied Law at Sorbonne, she spoke a number of Western languages, in fact, she worked as a translator; a personal assistant for Atatürk who himself spoke French. She was certainly overqualified given the fact that the majority of the Turkish population-let alone women- were illiterate in those days. It is inevitable that there had been personality clashes between them, it must have been a great challenge to work out the marriage.

    In fact, I would have liked to recommend you two books; one about Latife Hanım and the other on the Turkish War of Independence: “Latife Hanım “by İ.Çalışlar ( a female writer) and “Şu Çılgın Türkler” (“Those Crazy Turks”) by Turgut Özakman, but I’m afraid they have not yet been translated( there is not even a “factory translation” version!)



  10. İrem Üstünsöz Says:

    Reading my own text, I realized a vocabulary mistake, “captured” of course (in line 8) not “captivated”; a slip of the keyboard!


  11. Paula Lopes Levi Says:

    Dear John,
    How enriching to read all your texts.
    Apart from the historical information, you bring light to a way of living we don´t normally hear about. Your descriptions make me nearly feel the smell of the streets and the places you´ve been visiting.
    Congratulations! And thank you!

  12. Tunca Says:

    “1999 San Diego Film Festival Finalist
    1999 Chicago International Film And Video Festival Third Prize
    “I don’t act for public opinion; I act for the nation and for my own satisfaction!” A brilliant soldier, a revolutionary statesman! A man who joined his fate with destiny of his nation.

    In nineteen-eighteen, he emerged from World War One as the only undefeated Ottoman Commander. Four years later, he led his people in their struggle against the invading Greek forces and won back their independence. In nineteen-twenty-three, on the ruins of the defunct Ottoman Empire, he founded and became the first president of the Rebuplic Of Turkey. Six months later, he became the first leader to attack and defeat Islamic theocracy. With the seeds of democracy he planted, the nation he cultivated, endured tribulations both from the inside and the outside for decades.

    Stalin considered him as a fascist; Hitler and Mussolini said he was a communist; others called him a dictator…His people called him Atatürk, Father Turk…

    Atatürk / English & Turkish (DVD)

  13. Bee Says:

    Sayin Irem ve Tunca,

    My heartfelt thanks to you both….

    ATATURK was genius, brilliant, gentle giant! caring, loving yet would not give an inch from his principles, determine, steadfast, successful in everything he said, and he has DONE. He devoted himself to his people and his YURT that he loved the MOST…

    The whole world knows his legacy, which will live FOREVER


  14. Cenk Kutlu Says:

    Thanks for the superb article on Atatürk. I read it with pleasure as I took a quick glimpse of Atatürk’s picture. Living in the United States hasn’t diminished my respect for him one iota.

    He is still the only great news that many of my American colleagues and friends know about, as I try to divert discussions usually stemming out of bad news people have read about Türkiye recently: “Did you hear about Turkey shutting down YouTube?” “What’s going on in Turkey about wearing scarfs?” “Is South Eastern Turkey really a shit hole?” “I would never go to that part [all of Middle East, and Türkiye is included rightly or wrongly] of the world! It’s too dangerous.”

    So I try to change the subject a little to alleviate my sadness: “Have you heard about the time Atatürk told these couple of soldier running away from the Gallipoli front because they were out of ammunition to fight? He said:I AM NOT ORDERING YOU TO FIGHT, I AM ORDERING YOU TO DIE.”

    Most Americans are kindred spirits to Turks. They understand sacrifice, courage, bravery, integrity, and hard work. So, after a quick anecdote about Atatürk the conversation changes to how great he was and everything he did. And I am happy.

  15. Tonguc Yumruk Says:

    I would like to say that it is utterly impossible to take a peek to the Turkish culture from a particular point of view and truly understand it. Ataturk is the world’s greatest leader of all time, make no mistake about that.

  16. umut Says:

    I love Ataturk

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