Atatürk and carving up ‘the sick man of Europe’

Learn how the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire saw the birth of modern Turkey.

Written by Diana Darke


As you travel eastwards some understanding becomes essential of how modern Turkey came into being. Mustafa Kemal, later surnamed Atatürk (Father of the Turks), was born in Salonika, now Greece, then an Ottoman city, in 1881. He entered the army at the age of 12 and graduated from the War College in İstanbul in 1905. After serving with distinction in Tripoli (Libya) in 1911, the Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913, he led the Turkish forces in 1915 to defend the Gallipoli Peninsula and was largely responsible for repelling the British and forcing their subsequent evacuation. He also distinguished himself on the Russian front and in Palestine, emerging as the only real Turkish hero of the debacle of World War I.

The victorious Allies drew up their arrangements for the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, ‘the Sick Man of Europe’, in the form of the Treaty of Sèvres in August 1920. The provisions of the treaty were very harsh, far harsher than those imposed on Germany. It has been described by historians as ‘the signing of the death warrant of the Ottoman Empire’. The Arab provinces were to be placed under British and French mandates to prepare them for eventual independence. Anatolia’s eastern provinces were to be divided between an autonomous Kurdistan and an independent Armenia. Greece was to have Izmir and its hinterland and Thrace, regions with a heavily Greek population going back to ancient times. Italy would get the southern half of western and central Anatolia, while France took the southeast. The straits were to be neutralised and administered by a permanent Allied Commission in Constantinople, and Constantinople itself would remain in Turkish hands as long as the rights of the minorities were upheld.

The treaty was never implemented, however, for while the Allies were imposing their terms on the sultan and his government in İstanbul, a new Turkish state was rising in the interior of Anatolia based on the total rejection of the treaty. Though the British and French were successful in establishing their mandates over the Arab lands, and the Italians were able to secure at least the Dodecanese for themselves, Kurdish and Armenian hopes were suppressed, and the Greek army, after landing at Izmir in May 1919 and pushing deep into the interior, was routed by forces under the command of Atatürk. The Turkish nationalist movement, which had started among a small class of intellectuals, mushroomed during these struggles into a countrywide uprising bent on creating an Anatolian-based state for the Turks alone.

The campaign against Greek forces, from 1919 to 1922, became known as the War of Independence. Atatürk’s efforts were crowned by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which recognised Turkish sovereignty over approximately its present-day borders. During the remaining 15 years of his life, Atatürk carried out a series of far-reaching reforms which were intended to Westernise Turkey and integrate it into the modern world. His regime was effectively a dictatorship, and a single party, the Republican People’s Party, enforced government policy. Atatürk exiled the sultan, terminated the caliphate, , and in a series of edicts the Ministry of Religious Affairs was abolished, religious orders disbanded, religious property sequestrated and religious instruction forbidden. In 1928 Islam itself was disestablished and the constitution amended to make Turkey a secular state. Atatürk was not opposed to religion itself: his aim was to free the Turks from the clutches of the fanatics. Everyone could be a devout Muslim in his private life, but was not to mix religion with politics. The Arabic alphabet was replaced by a new Turkish one using Latin characters. Atatürk had asked the academics how long it would take to devise a new Latin alphabet for Turkish, and was told six years. He gave them six months. The fez, which he called a ‘Greek headdress’ was forbidden. He also introduced considerable reforms to bring the rights of women closer to those of men. He died in the Dolmabahçe Palace in İstanbul on 10 November 1938. The political parties today, ironically, usually ignore Atatürk’s exhortation to keep religion and politics apart, and at every election still pander to religious traditionalism to obtain the rural vote.

Back to the top