Mustafa was born in 1881 in Salonica, then an Ottoman Turkish city, in modern day Greece. His father, Ali Riza, a customs official-turned-lumber merchant, died when Mustafa was still a boy. His mother, Zubeyde, a devout and strong-willed woman, raised him and his younger sister by herself. First enrolled in a traditional Islamic religious school, he soon switched to a modern school. In 1893, he entered a military high school where his mathematics teacher gave him the second name Kemal (meaning perfection in Turkish) in recognition of young Mustafa’s superior achievement. He was thereafter known as Mustafa Kemal.
In 1905, Mustafa Kemal graduated from the War Academy in Istanbul with the rank of Staff Captain. Posted in Damascus, Syria, then a part of the Ottoman Empire, he started with several colleagues a clandestine society called “Homeland and Freedom” to fight against the Sultan’s despotism. In 1908, he helped the group of officers who toppled the Sultan. Mustafa Kemal’s career flourished as he won his heroism in the far corners of the Ottoman Empire during the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12 as well as the Balakan Wars of 1913 in which he saw action in Albania and Tripoli, Libya. He also briefly served as a staff officer in Salonica and Istanbul and as a military attache in Sofia, Bulgaria.
In October, 1914, the Ottoman Empire offically entered World War I alongside Germany and Austria as part of the Central Powers fighting the Allies of Great Britian, France, Italy and Russia. In 1915, when the Dardanelles/Galipoli campaign was launched, Mustafa Kemal, recently premoted to Colonel, became a national hero by winning successive victories against the landing British French and ANZAC armies, pinning them down at their beacheads, which finally forced the invaders to evacuate Galipoli in January 1916. Promoted to General later that year, at age 35, he liberated two major provinces in eastern Turkey against the Russian armies. In the next two years, from 1917 to 1918, he served as commander of several Ottoman armies in Palestine, Aleppo, and elsewhere, achieving another major victory by stopping the British advance at Aleppo just before the war-weary Turkish armies agreed to an armistice with the British on October 31, 1918 which ended World War I in the Middle East. As a result of the Ottoman Empire’s defeat, the Turks lost all of their Middle East territories with the exception of the traditional Turkish area around the region of Asia Minor.
On May 19, 1919, Mustafa Kemal Pasha landed in the Black Sea port of Samsun to start the Greco-Turkish War, (known to the Turks as the War of Independence.) In defiance of the Sultan’s government, he rallied a liberation army in Anatolia and convened the Congress of Erzurum and Sivas which established the basis for the new national effort under his leadership. On April 23, 1920, the Grand National Assembly was inaugurated. Mustafa Kemal Pasha was elected as its President. Fighting on many fronts, he led his forces to victory against rebels and the invading Greek armies. Following the Turkish triumph at the two major battles at Izunu in Western Turkey, the Grand National Assembly conferred on Mustafa Kemal Pasha the title of Commander-in-Chief with the rank of Marshal. At the end of August 1922, the Turkish armies won their ultimate victory. Within a few weeks, the Turkish mainland was completely liberated, an armistice with Greece was signed, and the rule of the Ottoman dynasty was abolished.
In July 1923, the national government signed the Lausanne Treaty with Great Britain, France, Greece, Italy, and others countries which regonized the new country of Turkey. In mid-October, Ankara became the capital of the new Turkish State. On October 29, the Republic was proclaimed and Mustafa Kemal Pasha was unanimously elected President of the Republic. Kemal married Latife Usakligil in early 1923. The marriage ended in divorce in 1925.
The account of Kemal Atatürk’s fifteen year Presidency (1923-1938) is a saga of dramatic modernization. With indefatigable determination, he created a new political and legal system based on a Swiss Civil Code, abolished the Islamic Caliphate and made both government and education secular, gave equal rights to women, changed the Turkish language by transfering the written language from the Arabic script to the Roman alphabet, and the attire from Islamic to Western, and advanced the arts and the sciences, agriculture and industry.
In 1934, when the surname law was adopted, the national parliament gave him the name “Atatürk” (Turkish for Father of the Turks). He died on November 10, 1938, at age 57.
The national liberator the builder of modern Turkey and the great leader was dead. But his legacy to his people and to the world endures to this very day.