Ataturk was born in Salonica in 1880 to a family which was Muslim and precariously middle-class. Ataturk’s parents and relatives all used Turkish as their mother tongue. But in looks, Ataturk resembled local Albanians and Slavs. He had fair hair, light skin and soft blue eyes. When he took up Turkish ethnic nationalism, Ataturk claimed that his ancestors had been Turkish nomads. In addition, he asserted that direct descent from Turkish nomads was not an essential ingredient for Turkish ethnicity and nationality.
In Ataturk’s early years, the struggle between conservative and progressive ideas, between traditional Islam and European liberal thinking, marked his life. His mother represented the pious Islamic ideas and his father believed in progression of the Ottoman Empire. Per his mother’s request, he was initially enrolled in a civil preparatory school designed to train the Empire’s future civil servants. However, this did not prove a success as he was constantly getting in fights with other classmates. Thereupon, his maternal grandmother, a matriarch in the family pulled him from school, as she never wanted him to go to a modern school in the first place.
Upon leaving civil preparatory school, Ataturk was determined to enter the military equivalent. Ever since he was little, he had been deeply intrigued by Western culture, particularly Western dress. Ataturk believed his Turkish dress to be boring and representative of the past. Attending the military preparatory school would mean he would be able to wear the smart Western-style uniform of military cadets. These were early indications of Ataturk’s appreciation for Western culture and his awareness that his own was terribly out-of-date. In fact, Ataturk exclaimed that when he first “put on the uniform, a feeling of strength came to me, as if I had become master of my own identity” (Mango). This was an early indicator of Ataturk’s sense of ambition. It is also evident that from his earliest childhood Ataturk hated the external signs of oriental life, and longed to look like a Western officer and gentleman.
Ataturk was a perfectionist and exhibited a great will to succeed in everything he was involved. Evidence of this is embodied in the Ataturk legend of how he became known as Mustafa Kemal. In military preparatory school, he excelled and soon “surpassed the ability of his mathematics teacher in knowledge of the subject” (Mango). Since the teacher’s name was also Mustafa, the teacher believed that Ataturk should be referred to as Mustafa Kemal. The literal meaning of Kemal is ‘perfection’. Even the young Ataturk never doubted himself. Indeed, he proclaimed it, and pointed it out to his schoolmates and relatives. This confidence and pride in himself are prophetic and telling of his future role as leader of the Turkish people.
Following graduation, he was assigned to the Fifth Army in Damascus as a Staff Captain with War College friends, Ali Fuat and Mufit. There, he learned of then subsequently joined a secret revolutionary society entirely made up of Ottoman reformist officers, called Motherland and Liberty. Ataturk had always harbored feelings of regime change, but when he was sent out to his military posts, he encountered all sorts of reformist organizations already in action against the current regime. The Ottoman people, especially the military, realized the sultan’s shortcomings. When a state’s military is in a precarious balance between allegiance and rebellion and if the military leans towards rebellion, the state can begin counting its days left in power. Ataturk was amazed at the myriad of Turkish resistance organizations and immediately began to participate in many of them. In 1907 he joined the Committee of Union and Progress, a society composed of a plethora of ethnic groups with a common goal of toppling the sultanate regime. Just a year after, he joined the Young Turkish Revolution which seized power from Abdulhamit II and restored the constitutional monarchy. This event was pivotal in the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire because it marked its imminent collapse. In both organizations, Ataturk rose to leadership positions and commanded a considerable amount of influence.
1907: Ataturk as Staff Captain.
The event that got Ataturk national exposure was his military success at the Battle of Gallipoli. In 1914, the Ottoman Empire entered World War I aligning itself with the Central Powers. Ataturk was given the task of commanding the Fifth Army at Gallipoli. Mustafa Kemal was able to correctly anticipate Allied landfall and he positioned his army to hold ground until Allied forces were compelled to retreat. The struggle laid the foundations for the Turkish War of Independence as it was viewed as a defining moment for the Turkish people. Ataturk, as a result of his triumph at Gallipoli, experience meteoric rise in fame. To the Turkish people, Ataturk seemed like a viable alternative to the crumbling Ottoman sultanate. Their views were confirmed when the capital city of Constantinople fell under occupation by Allied powers. Ataturk would head the resistance to and subsequent war against the occupiers, sparking the establishment of the Turkish National Movement and Turkish War of Independence.
1915: Ataturk in the trenches of Gallipoli.