Was Mustafa Kemal a dictator


Prof. Dr. Klaus Kreiser

Klaus Kreiser held the chair for Turkish language, history and culture at the University of Bamberg until 2002. He lives as an author in Berlin. Latest book publications: Ataturk. Eine Biographie, 5th ed. (2014); Istanbul. A historical city guide 3rd edition (2013); History of Istanbul. From antiquity to the present (2010); History of turkey. From Ataturk to the Present (2012).

Loved, respected, hated

To this day Ataturk is the most influential politician in Turkey. His radical and uncompromising reforms brought the country closer to the West and modernized it at an enormous pace. A homogeneous Turkish nation was to be formed in this way. The victims were ethnic minorities and all those who could not cope with the pace of change. There is still no relaxed scientific discourse about the life and work of the founder of the state in Turkey.

Ataturk's speech at a celebratory event in Ankara on October 29, 1933 on the 10th anniversary of the proclamation of the republic. Right in the picture İsmet İnönü. (& copy picture alliance / akg)

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's image remains omnipresent in Turkey today, even if he has long since ceased to have sole representation on the monument pedestals in all small and large cities between Edirne and Kars. But there is still no important office, no public building without the bust or portrait of the founder of the state. His face adorns not only postage stamps and banknotes, but even school reports.
Anıtkabir, Ataturk's pompous mausoleum in Ankara, completed in 1953. (& copy picture alliance / AA)
Ataturk's image represents the state like the national flag with moon and star. He himself is buried on a hill above Ankara, which like no other modern metropolis is connected to the work of a single man.

The gigantic Anıttepe, d. H. "Memorial hill", after its completion (1953) became the most important place of remembrance of the republic.
Chancellor Angela Merkel lays a wreath in the Ataturk mausoleum in Ankara on February 25, 2013. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)
Proposals to open the complex to other Turkish giants were never seriously considered. [1] A refusal of the ritual of laying a wreath by officials or party politicians, and even more so by foreign visitors, was and is perceived as an attack on republican values. In the Internet age, a website offers the opportunity to register in a virtual visitor's booklet and thus show Ataturk his respect. [2]

There is no national holiday that is not connected to an event in Ataturk's career as a soldier and politician. The boulevard in Ankara is named after him, the first bridge over the Bosporus and the gigantic dam in the south-east of the country. These large buildings, like the Istanbul cultural center, the central city library and the University of Erzurum, were named years after Ataturk's death. [3] During his lifetime, his statues were still manageable in terms of number and size.

Soon after the military coup of September 12, 1980, which restricted important fundamental rights, the generals enacted a law [4] to prepare for 1981 as the Ataturk year and - so literally - "the importance of the Turkish revolution in Turkish history and to spread it to all humanity and to bring it back to life ". For the regime under General Kenan Evren, the centenary was a welcome opportunity to present itself as the legitimate heir of the founder of the state. To this day, important state and semi-state institutions are dedicated to the care of his memory. Under the umbrella of the newly created "High Ataturk Institute for Culture, Language and History" (Ataturk Kültür, Dil ve Tarih Yüksek Kurumu) After the coup in 1980, the previously autonomous research institutes for history and language were nationalized and have even had constitutional status since 1983. [5] In particular, the "Center for Ataturk's Research" serves the memory of Ataturk (Ataturk Araştırma Merkezi). It organizes national and international conferences and, in addition to a magazine, publishes numerous monographs. [6]

Funeral procession in Istanbul and Ankara: The photographs from the estate of Dr. Eduard Schaefers show the importance of the founder of the state during his lifetime.

Kemalism: Diverse Perceptions

For decades after Ataturk's demise, Kemalism remained a widely valid reference system for the majority of politicians, the narrow bourgeois middle class, the academic world and the military. Beyond this "Kemalist elite", however, there were and still are a great number of supporters of the founder of the state among less privileged classes from elementary school teachers to industrial workers, from students to tradespeople. In addition to the "Republican People's Party" (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, short: CHP) founded by Ataturk, there are civil society organizations such as the "Association for the Support of a Contemporary Way of Life" (Çağdaş Yaşamı Destekleme Derneği).

Even today, large parts of the Turkish population respect the historic achievement of the founder of the state, above the lowlands of the highly polarized daily politics. This agreement is based not least on the conviction that the fate of numerous people would have taken a different, less favorable, and perhaps catastrophic course without the liberation war of 1919-1922, which Ataturk won on many fronts. [7] The modest level of education, the precarious health conditions, and the economic and technical standstill of the late Ottoman era have stuck in the minds of many families over the generations.

However, the ambiguity of the Ottoman or Turkish terms for the Kemalist revolution (inkılab, devrim) for the often violent changes of the epoch sparked some controversy: Was Ataturk a moderate reformer or a radical subverter? On the other hand, it was precisely this vague terminology that made it easier to identify with the person and work of Ataturk.

Essential components of Ataturk's political legacy are undisputedly the insistence on the independence of the Turkish Republic from foreign powers and the consistent modernization based on the Western model. The Turkish left, however, has always related the principle of "independence" to economic self-sufficiency and freedom of association. Liberal spokesmen saw statism as a temporary necessity on the path to a free economy. Ataturk had expressly turned away from two major isms of the epoch when he declared before the National Assembly that neither Pan-Turkism nor Pan-Islamism [8], in which he saw risky "fantasies", should play a role for the future of Turkey.

His rigorous interventions in the Islamic religion, which culminated in the prohibition of mystical brotherhoods and the Turkicization of the liturgy, were gradually withdrawn after his death. Most noticeable was the readmission of the Arabic call to prayer, which for a few years was only allowed to sound in Turkish. Now it was officially said that he had no more in mind than to liberate Turkey from religious "superstitions", "invented fairy tales" and "vain ideas". In fact, many people found Kemalism in its epoch so threatening that the government denied rumors that they themselves had planned a ban on religious circumcision.

Mourning women chase the train through Istanbul on November 19, 1938. (& copy estate of Dr. Eduard Schaefer)
Ataturk's perception abroad was positive after initial irritations about an Islamic rebel he suspected against the legitimate sultan's government. Despite his skepticism towards his German ally, which had already become clear during the World War, he enjoyed a high reputation in the Weimar Republic and in the Third Reich. This view was based not only on the successful rejection of the partition plan of "Sèvres", with which the Turks succeeded in what the Germans failed to do with the adoption of "Versailles". In addition, he was considered a representative of the "Brotherhood of Arms" of the Great War, who had defended the Dardanelles with Liman von Sanders and who commanded the Palestine front with Franz von Papen as chief of staff. An English author, Harold C. Armstrong, on the other hand, called him a ruthless dictator in a biography published in 1932, thus sparking a diplomatic conflict between London and Ankara. Comparisons of many other European authors with historical (Peter the Great) and living figures (Mussolini), however, were accepted. At least in the Arab West (Algeria, Tunisia) a more favorable image of Mustafa Kemal gradually emerged, while the image of Turkey as a whole in Egypt and the Eastern Arab countries of Ataturk as a sworn enemy of religion remained dominant.

Erdoǧan's Ottoman revisionism

In 2002, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, in short: AKP) emerged as the undisputed winner of the parliamentary elections. In the following twelve years she was able to expand her leading position at the municipal level. The AKP started out as a conservative party whose representatives saw no contradiction between an Islamic lifestyle and modern capitalist economic practices. The "Kemalism" of the state founding party CHP was rejected not only because of its secular, but also because of its state economic inclinations. "[9] The exaggeration of the Ottoman past dominates the historical image of its leaders.

It was not until the end of the 20th century that Turkish journalism - the university representatives followed even later - critically dealt with existing taboos about Ataturk's lifestyle, his attitude towards religion, the Kurdish minority, and his interventions in linguistics and history. Ataturk himself is usually respected or, out of fearful caution, spared. A multitude of apocryphal maxims such as "Communism must be exterminated wherever it is encountered" still serves to reconcile the founder of the state with ultra-right movements. Ataturk's semi-educated and radical advisers are held liable for excesses in certain cultural measures in the so-called "one-party system" (the CHP). Ataturk's energetic purification of Turkish from Arabic and Persian words and formations subsided after 1935. Ataturk himself had lost interest in the continuous generation of neologisms ("The child has reached a dead end," he said in his last years). From these remarks, opponents of purification call into question the entire language reform.

Ataturk - in everyday life in Turkey today

The national religious apologists around the AKP instead emphasize the undeniable contribution of the common soldiers in the defense of the Dardanelles against the Allied landing forces. Victims of radical, anti-religious "Jacobinism" of the twenties to early forties are honored without mentioning Ataturk at the head of the system. When dealing with the fighting of the army against Kurdish rebels in Dersim province (1935), Prime Minister Erdoǧan named names of politicians and army leaders as guilty of massacres - to the exclusion of Ataturk. The conversion of Hagia Sophia from a mosque to a museum in the same year was recently blamed on the then Ministry of Education (2014), Ataturk's signature under the cabinet decision, a former president of the Turkish History Society claimed to be a fake.

Rapid dismantling of revolutionary achievements and protests

"Confessing" Ataturkists of our day see themselves as an enlightened minority today. Their protest is directed against a visible Islamization of public space. In their eyes, religion is increasingly being used politically to control deviating forms of life. When the new generation of protesters take to the streets after the Gezi riots in early summer 2013, they don't necessarily unfold Ataturk portraits, but you can recognize men and women who have Mustafa Kemal's profile tattooed on their forearms or inscribed on their shaved skulls as a sign of their identity to have.

The celebrations for the centenary of the Republic of Turkey in 2023 are approaching, without rulers and opposition members having entered into a discussion about how to shape this anniversary. No one can therefore yet say what role Ataturk and his legacy will play in this context.

It is just as uncertain how Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was elected President of the Republic, will drive the further dismantling of Kemalism. It seems to be certain, however, that the important results of Ataturk's effectiveness will not be affected: in particular the civil code based on the European model and the latinization of writing will endure in Turkey.


  • Mango, Andrew: Ataturk. The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey, London 1999 et al.
  • Kreiser, Klaus: Ataturk. Eine Biographie, Munich 2008 (revised paperback edition 2014).
  • Kreiser, Klaus: History of Turkey. From Ataturk to the Present, Munich 2012.
  • M. Hanioǧlu, Şükrü: Ataturk. An intellectuell biography, Princeton 2011.