One of the most iconic figures of the early 20th century, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is remembered as the leader who emerged from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire to establish Turkey as a sovereign republic. As president, his contributions to the development of a modern, secular Turkey were so influential that even today insulting his memory is a crime punishable by jail time.
Born “Mustafa” on March 12, 1881, Turkey’s most famous son came of age in the old Ottoman Empire, which had spent over 600 years in control of large swaths of the Mediterranean Basin. After attending military school from the age of 12, Ataturk cut his teeth as a soldier in actions against the Italians in Libya from 1911 to 1912, and later helped lead forces that blocked the Allied capture of Istanbul in the famous Gallipoli Campaign during World War I. His first foray into politics came in 1919, when he organized a nationalist revolution to drive the occupying Allied powers out of Turkey. After scoring decisive victories against the Greeks and Armenians, he secured the Treaty of Lausanne in July 1923, which recognized Turkey as an independent nation. Later that year, the national assembly established Turkey as a republic with Ataturk as its first president.
As head of state, Ataturk took a tight hold of Turkey’s government and instituted a series of sweeping reforms that sought to establish a more secular, modern and European-style society. He set up state-owned factories and rail networks, passed laws regarding gender equality and women’s suffrage and introduced a program of Westernization that saw Turkey adopt the Gregorian calendar and the Latin alphabet. Most controversial were his religious reforms, which secularized the government and abolished the centuries-old Islamic Caliphate. He also closed religious schools and courts, ended a ban on alcohol and forbid women workers from wearing headscarves. Ataturk would ultimately serve as Turkey’s president for 15 years. Three years before his death in 1938, he was given the honorific surname “Ataturk,” which means “Father of the Turks.”