The Three Faces of Ataturk : Throughline


A warning before we get started – this episode contains descriptions of violence.



Imagine yourself atop a hill in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, gazing out at a vast landscape of green trees and red roofs. Below you, lined with flowers, is a paved, beige walkway called the Lion Road. As you make your way down it, the smell of junipers and roses surrounds you, and a row of lion statues greets you. Two towers loom alongside the road. To the left…

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: Istiklal Kulesi.

ABDELFATAH: …Independence Tower. To the right…

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: Hurriyet Kulesi.

ABDELFATAH: …Freedom Tower. And inscribed on their walls are quotes that leap through time.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Mustafa Kemal Ataturk) Life means fighting. It means conflict.

We are the nation that desires life and independence.

There’s no such principle as begging for mercy and compassion…

The Turkish nation has not lived without independence. It cannot and will not. Independence or death.

ARABLOUEI: As you approach the end of Lion Road, a plaza decorated with hundreds of colorful Turkish rugs gives way to the final stop – a massive mausoleum, reminiscent of the temples of ancient Rome.

ABDELFATAH: Inside, you find the sarcophagus of the man who spoke those inscribed words.

ARABLOUEI: The man whose spirit animates the hills and valleys of this nation.

ABDELFATAH: The man who ended a centuries-old empire and created the Republic of Turkey, forging a roadmap that would guide leaders around the world in the 20th century and beyond.

ARABLOUEI: His name?

ABDELFATAH: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Turkish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Turkish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Through interpreter) Ataturk means Turkey, and Turkey means Ataturk.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: He speaks in our hearts, burning like the sun. Words that will stand on the path of history.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through interpreter) When I hear his voice, my eyes fill up with tears.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: Eyes flash with 20 million glances.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Turkey wants to be powerful. It wants to revive its national pride.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Speaking Turkish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: All the hopes of a nation flowing through the veins of the nation like blood.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Our essence is Ataturk, and no one can change our essence.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: Like a steel wall breaking apart the wind, it will break through the gap of time.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing in Turkish).

ABDELFATAH: It’s been said that if the Earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital. Turkey sits at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, a location that’s geographically strategic and culturally rich. And Ataturk, who became Turkey’s first president exactly 100 years ago in 1923, is its inescapable figurehead.

SONER CAGAPTAY: I think Ataturk is similar to not just Washington, but Washington and Lincoln put together.

ARABLOUEI: This is Soner Cagaptay.

CAGAPTAY: I’m the director of Turkish Research Program and the Bayer Family Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. I’m the author of a number of books, most recently, “A Sultan In Autumn: Erdogan Faces Turkey’s Uncontainable Forces.”

ARABLOUEI: Ataturk, the surname Mustafa Kemal was taking towards the end of his life, literally translates to father of the Turks. He cast himself as someone who would lead the nation to a higher stage of civilization by building a secular republic.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan – now, he wants to be the father of a new Turkish identity.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Unlike Ataturk, Erdogan is putting Islam first.

ARABLOUEI: President Erdogan, who’s been in power for nearly 20 years now, also wants to shape Turkey in his own image. He wants to revive the religious identity of a place that for so long was the epicenter of a great Muslim empire – the Ottoman Empire. And instead of facing solely west towards Europe and the U.S. as Ataturk did, he sought relationships with autocratic regimes like Putin’s Russia or Xi Jinping’s China.

ABDELFATAH: And yet, even President Erdogan can’t escape the magnetic pull of Ataturk. He has publicly paid homage to Ataturk’s shrine atop that hill in Ankara.

CAGAPTAY: I think Erdogan, too, loves Ataturk because he was raised in secularist Turkey. But I think the question is not that he loves Ataturk, it is which Ataturk he loves.

ABDELFATAH: Which Ataturk he loves.


ABDELFATAH: As with any founding leader – those so-called great men of history – people project their hopes, fears and anxieties of the present onto them.

CAGAPTAY: It’s like the Rorschach test.

ABDELFATAH: An amorphous blot that transforms into what you want it to be.

CAGAPTAY: Is it a picture of Ataturk, the liberator, in an Ottoman army uniform, servant of the Caliph, is it a picture of Ataturk, the founder of the republic, dressed like a “Downton Abbey” politician who eliminated monarchy, ended the Ottoman Empire, or is it a picture of Ataturk, the reformer, hanging out at the beach, Ataturk teaching people how to write in the new Latin alphabet, Ataturk attending a conference populated by women, given his strong commitment to gender equality?

ARABLOUEI: The liberator, the founder, the reformer. Each of these identities is based both in reality and fiction and each has cracks in the paint.

ABDELFATAH: Those cracks tell a fuller story of who Ataturk was, what it takes to create a nation in one man’s image, and what it costs.


ABDELFATAH: I’m Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I’m Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: Coming up – decrypting the three pictures of Ataturk.


DARCY CASTRO: Hi, this is Darcy Castro (ph) from Marietta, Ga., and you’re listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Speaking Turkish). Part one – the liberator.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Isaac F. Marcosson) We were in the real Anatolia. This mellifluous name rivalled in beauty of sound only by Mesopotamia means the place where the sun rises. It had long shone on people and events bound up in the narrative of all human and spiritual progress, for we now skirted what might be called the rim of the cradle of mankind. Across these plains had stalked the stately and immortal figures of biblical days. Here, the armies of Alexander had camped and the famous Gordian Knot was cut. Here, too, passed the mailed crusaders on the road to Jerusalem, and amid the green hills that rose to the left and the right, the civilization of the Near East was born.


ABDELFATAH: American journalist Isaac F. Marcosson penned these words in 1923 while journeying from Istanbul to Ankara. Thousands of miles from home, Marcosson was in Turkey on a mission to get an exclusive interview with Mustafa Kemal, the man who would soon become Turkey’s first president.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Isaac F. Marcosson) Friday the 13th came and with it, the long-awaited interview with Kemal. He lives in a kiosk, as the Turks call a villa…

ABDELFATAH: They met at Kemal’s home, perched on a hill in the countryside not far from where he would be buried as Ataturk years later. As Marcosson waited for the interview to begin, he admired the decorative swords that were hung on the wall alongside inscriptions from the Quran and a life-sized portrait of Kemal’s mother. Finally, after some time, he was brought in to where Kemal was meeting with the Turkish cabinet. They greeted each other in French.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, through interpreter) Perhaps we had better go into the next room for our talk and leave the cabinet to its deliberations.

ABDELFATAH: From thereon, though, Kemal spoke only in Turkish.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Isaac F. Marcosson) Although the ghazi knows both French and German, he prefers to talk Turkish through an interpreter.

ABDELFATAH: Once seated, there was only one last thing needed before the interview could begin.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Isaac F. Marcosson) A butler, no less well-groomed than his master, brought the inevitable thick Turkish coffee and cigarettes.

ABDELFATAH: Now with strong coffee and cigarettes in hand, the interview with Turkey’s new leader commenced.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Mustafa Kemal Ataturk) All my life, I have had inspiration in the lives and deeds of Washington and Lincoln. Between the original 13 states and the new Turkey is a curious kinship. Your early Americans threw off the British yoke. Turkey has thrown off the old yoke of empire with all the graft and corruption that it carried. And what was worse, the selfish meddling of other nations.

ARABLOUEI: Marcosson was a skilled interviewer known for being keenly observant, never taking notes and putting his subjects, such as Woodrow Wilson or Sun Yat-sen, at ease. Kemal, for his part, knew this interview was an opportunity to mark his place in the world and convey his vision for Turkey.

RYAN GINGERAS: And it’s very clear that in this interview, his intention was not simply to give the wider public a sense of who he is, where he came from or just kind of the – kind of trivial aspects of his background. He, from the very early stages of his political career, used himself as a kind of allegory, in that he was very mindful of developing and presenting a persona that embodied principles, values and aspirations that were important to him.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Mustafa Kemal Ataturk) America struggled through to independence and prosperity. We are now in the midst of travail which is witnessing the birth of a nation.

GINGERAS: My name is Ryan Gingeras. I am a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

ARABLOUEI: Ryan is also the author of several books on the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Mustafa Kemal. And this interview has always captured his attention.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Mustafa Kemal Ataturk) For many years, imperialism dominated Europe. But imperialism is doomed.

ARABLOUEI: And that’s because in this interview, the world was introduced to Kemal, a man his people knew as the liberator, who amidst the ashes of a dying Ottoman Empire believed he was destined to create a new nation capable of rivaling the powers of Europe.

ABDELFATAH: And here’s how that story goes.


ABDELFATAH: In 1881, a baby was born into a world of chaos when the tides of power were shifting. His name was Mustafa Kemal.

GINGERAS: I think the first thing that has to be said is that the world that he was born into doesn’t exist anymore.

CAGAPTAY: He was born in the Ottoman port city of Thessaloniki, which is now in Greece, which at the time was known as Salonika.

ABDELFATAH: This is Soner Cagaptay again.

CAGAPTAY: It was a port city, the gateway to the Balkans, but a support city with large European origin communities and of course exposed to trends and movements coming from Europe.

GINGERAS: He grew up in a world in which being a Muslim was the primary basis through which he identified with both state and society. And now, what I mean by that is that the vast majority of the people that he associated with in school, and even outside of it, were Muslim. And so his childhood, he characterizes first and foremost through an anecdote in which, when he was young, his mother made him attend a religious school, by virtue of the fact that his mother herself was quite devout. And that, instead, what he wanted and what his father wanted was for him to go to a more progressive school, in fact, a school that was run by a prominent Jewish educator.

ABDELFATAH: Every detail Kemal shared about his life had a greater purpose.

GINGERAS: It’s very clear that this one scrap that we have that gives us some kind of insight into his childhood was not meant solely to inform, but rather to indicate his own personal preferences.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Isaac F. Marcosson) Like Napoleon, he believed that he was a man of destiny, and his subsequent achievements have confirmed that early belief.


GINGERAS: From his teens forward, it’s clear he also sees state service as the primary way in which he is going to make his way through life.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Isaac F. Marcosson) Kemal was destined for the army, and at the proper age, entered the military school at Monastir. Once in the army, he impressed his colleagues by a real love of soldiering. Then, as now, he was a nationalist.

ARABLOUEI: For Mustafa Kemal and his followers, nothing confirmed his greatness more than his mettle at the bloody battle of Gallipoli.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Unofficial reports are that a decisive action at the Dardanelles has begun.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Reports from the Dardanelles say the Turkish troops have completely driven the French and British from Sedd-el-Bahr and that Gallipoli Peninsula is now clear of the enemy.

ARABLOUEI: In the spring of 1915, World War I was raging. Mustafa Kemal, a soldier at heart, was fighting for the Ottoman Empire, who had aligned itself with Germany and the Central Powers. Their enemies were the Allied powers – Russia, Britain and France – the side the U.S. would eventually join.

GINGERAS: In late April, the Allies land troops on the beaches of the Gallipoli Peninsula, a region which is generally referred to in Turkish as Canakkale. And the Allies are in good shape.

ARABLOUEI: It seemed like all the cards were in the Allies’ favor, but then…

GINGERAS: It’s at this moment, in the very early stages of this landing, that Mustafa Kemal enters into the battle. He brings up his regiment and quite famously orders his troops to die.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, speaking Turkish).

GINGERAS: This moment is remembered thereafter as the great turning point in the battle of Gallipoli.


ABDELFATAH: Mustafa Kemal’s victory was unprecedented.

CAGAPTAY: It wasn’t easy for Ataturk to defeat those armies, and defeating the French and the British in 1920s is like defeating the Americans or the Chinese today. And I have to give him credit because he – I think he was a genius in the military realm.

ABDELFATAH: Mustafa Kemal had stood up to some of the world’s great powers and held his ground. He was a war hero at home, but also around the world, even to the people he defeated.

GINGERAS: He becomes something of an international personality of note after the war because veterans of the Gallipoli campaign from Australia and Great Britain identify him and remember him for his heroism. And it’s really, again – as somewhat ironic as it sounds, it’s because of the ways in which Westerners come to remember Gallipoli that he attains this kind of stature as a great leader, great warrior, war hero, what have you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Mustafa Kemal Ataturk) The Turk is both dignified and proud. He is also capable and talented. Such a nation would prefer to perish rather than subject itself to the life of a slave. Therefore, independence or death.

ABDELFATAH: The stage was set for Mustafa Kemal to rise to power. And in 1923, just as he was giving his interview to Marcosson, the final treaty with the Allied Powers was being ironed out down the hall. The Ottoman Empire was no more. In its place would be a new nation, Turkey, with Kemal as its new president.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Isaac Marcosson) Whatever fate holds out for him, he has already written himself large in the history of his time.

ARABLOUEI: Mustafa Kemal presented himself as a rupture with a past, a complete departure from everything that had come before. And with the rise of a new Turkish republic. He wanted the world to believe that the Ottoman Empire had vanished.

CAGAPTAY: Almost like in the old days when you had to reset a computer, you did control-alt-delete. I think Ataturk did the Turkish version of control-alt-delete. He basically, like, hard booted the Ottoman Empire in 1923. He’s like, I’m just going to delete the old software. It’s not working. I’m going to bring a new software, put it into the computer and start a country from scratch.

ARABLOUEI: That’s the story he told. But the full story was much more complicated.

ABDELFATAH: And all the messy, nuanced parts he left out, the things that had helped pave his path to power, were still there on the hard drive.

LERNA EKMEKCIOGLU: Whenever we think about our childhoods, we are omitting things. We are adding things as we grow up. The past and the future illuminate each other reciprocally.

ABDELFATAH: Coming up – we rotate the portrait of Mustafa Kemal to see another face, the man behind the myth and the bloody underbelly of building a brand new nation.

SEPUSHKA CHAKRABUTI: Hello, my name is Sepushka Chakrabuti (ph) I’m calling from Austin, Texas, and you are listening to THROUGHLINE, NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Speaking Turkish). Part 2 – the founder.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Mustafa Kemal Ataturk) My idea of nationalism is that of a people of kindred birth, religion and temperament. For hundreds of years, the Turkish Empire was a conglomerate human mass in which Turks formed the minority. We had other so-called minorities, and they have been the source of most of our troubles – that and the old idea of conquest.

ARABLOUEI: When Mustafa Kemal sat down with journalist Isaac Marcosson to give his postmortem of the Ottoman Empire, he said the source of most of the empire’s troubles was, quote, “so-called minorities.”

EKMEKCIOGLU: I am from Turkey. I was born and raised there. I lived there until the age of 22. Turkey’s mine to keep, but it is a complicated relationship.

ARABLOUEI: This is Lerna Ekmekcioglu.

EKMEKCIOGLU: I am an Armenian from Turkey, and I am a survivor of descendants of the Armenian genocide.

ARABLOUEI: Lerna is an associate professor of history at MIT and author of the book “Recovering Armenia: The Limits Of Belonging In Post-Genocide Turkey.”

ABDELFATAH: Growing up in Turkey as a so-called minority, she heard stories about the Armenian genocide and how her grandparents survived it in hushed whispers.

EKMEKCIOGLU: We couldn’t speak about what had happened publicly.

ABDELFATAH: It was illegal. The Armenian genocide was an ethnic cleansing campaign that took place right around the time Mustafa Kemal was making a name for himself. It left as many as 1.2 million Armenians dead and countless more displaced. And the forces that led to that tragedy and its subsequent cover-up were the same forces that propelled Mustafa Kemal into power and shaped his views on minorities, a part of the story he conveniently leaves out of the interview with Marcosson, an unflattering crack in the picture of him as the founder.

ARABLOUEI: Now, to understand those forces, we have to take a closer look at the empire he grew up in, the Ottoman Empire.


CAGAPTAY: The Ottoman Empire was a great power – hundreds of years, ruled territories over three continents.

EKMEKCIOGLU: It’s huge in its biggest – from Vienna to the Balkans to the Holy Land in the east.

CAGAPTAY: I think about 50 member states of the U.N. at one time were controlled by the Ottomans.


SAFIYE AYLA: (Singing in Turkish).

ARABLOUEI: The Ottoman Empire was founded in 1299 and, by the 1400s, had grown to be one of the world’s most powerful. It was a Muslim empire with a Caliph at its center – sort of like the Islamic world’s pope. But many different ethnic and religious groups lived for centuries alongside one another, creating a sort of shared cultural heritage, including iconic folk songs like the one you’re hearing called “Katibim.”


AYLA: (Singing in Turkish).

CAGAPTAY: No such entity existed in this part of the world, in Europe. Think of the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain, religious wars in Europe between Catholics and Protestants, persecution of Jews in Russia and across the continent in general. So when compared to its contemporaries in the 16th century, it’s a progressive place. They were tolerant of other faiths, and tolerant doesn’t mean equal.

ARABLOUEI: For example, non-Muslims were taxed more heavily, but tolerant meant people could live in relative peace, practicing their faith of choice.


AYLA: (Singing in Turkish).

EKMEKCIOGLU: Minority is a modern construct.

ABDELFATAH: Lerna says all these different groups were seen simply as part of the tapestry of the empire until the Ottomans began to lose their grip on power.

CAGAPTAY: It started with the defeat in Vienna in the late 17th century.

ABDELFATAH: In the summer of 1683, the Ottoman army attempted to lay siege to the city of Vienna in Austria. A victory could have changed the course of European history. And they actually almost succeeded, but in the end, they were driven out. This battle marked the beginning of the end for the empire.

CAGAPTAY: It suffered a really slow and painful decline.

ABDELFATAH: Just as European powers like the British, French and Russians were growing in strength. And by the early 1800s…

EKMEKCIOGLU: Some of its internal parts don’t want to stay with it anymore.

ABDELFATAH: And that jeopardized the empire’s stability.

ARABLOUEI: The most vocal group within the Empire that wanted out were the Greeks.

EKMEKCIOGLU: Greeks rebel not in the name of their ethnic nationality but in the name of their Greek Christianity because this is how the Greeks have been categorized under the Ottoman rule because in the Ottoman Empire, you are your religion.

ARABLOUEI: And with the banner of Christianity guiding their rebellion, other Christian European powers came to their aid.

EKMEKCIOGLU: Democracy was born in Greece. Philosophy, like, the civilizational root of everything that we aspire to be can go back to ancient Greece. And then therefore, let’s make a cause out of them.

ARABLOUEI: Eventually, in 1832, the Greek nationalists managed to break off and form their own kingdom.

ABDELFATAH: This, too, was a threat to the empire. The Ottoman government was worried that, with its power waning, other minorities within the empire would further tear it apart, so they extended more equality to other minorities, including the Armenians, and they’ve rebranded themselves.

CAGAPTAY: The Ottomans decided that the only way they could catch up with the Europeans, who were then global rising powers, was to become like a European state.

ABDELFATAH: They reformed their military, drafted a new constitution, built a more secular education system and expanded rights for women and minorities.

CAGAPTAY: So by the time Ataturk was born in the 1880s, the Ottomans had been westernizing for roughly about a century.

ABDELFATAH: But despite its attempts at modernizing and westernizing, the reality was the empire was still crumbling fast. They were forced to declare bankruptcy. They continued to lose more and more of their land. And desperate to wrangle control, the government decided to discard its constitution and embrace an iron-fist approach, cracking down on dissent of any kind.

GINGERAS: The Ottoman Empire in the 1880s, 1890s, the decades of Ataturk’s youth, these were dark times.


ARABLOUEI: A mood of discontent was spreading throughout the empire, which gave rise to a new movement determined to reform the empire. They became known as the Young Turks. In 1908, the Young Turks staged a revolt, and when they succeeded, they restored the constitution and signaled better days ahead for the empire, inspiring other youth political movements around the world.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: Vive la patrie, vive la nation, viva la liberte.

ARABLOUEI: Mustafa Kemal joined the movement.

GINGERAS: But here’s the great irony of Mustafa Kemal and his generation.

ARABLOUEI: They had come up in secular Ottoman schools and served in its military, so they weren’t trying to break with the past, they were mostly trying to save the empire from collapse.

GINGERAS: In some ways, it is a movement dedicated to saving the state from itself.

ARABLOUEI: But before long, their progressive idealism would be put to the test.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Singing in Turkish).

ABDELFATAH: We’re back in 1914. World War I has just broken out, and the Young Turk government decides to throw their hat into the ring.


JOHN J PERSHING: Three thousand miles from home, an American army is fighting for you. Everything…

ABDELFATAH: Usually when we talk about World War I from an American perspective, we don’t even consider the role of the Ottoman Empire, who, remember, joined on the side of Germany. But while Mustafa Kemal was off defending the empire and succeeding, things were looking very different in the capital, where the Young Turk government grew more nervous that the neighboring Christian Russian Empire might try to create mayhem within Ottoman lands by funneling support to Armenians living there, just as they’d done with the Greeks a century earlier.

EKMEKCIOGLU: The biggest group that is left in the empire that is overwhelmingly Christian is the Armenians.

ABDELFATAH: Armenians had been living in a part of the Ottoman Empire called Anatolia long before the empire existed, and some Armenians believed it was time they carve out a nation for themselves there. The Young Turk government was not about to let those ideas grow.

EKMEKCIOGLU: So they decide to eliminate the threat of Armenians before it becomes a threat.


LEVON GIRIDLIAN: It was Friday, and we were expecting that there’s going to be a massacre.

EKMEKCIOGLU: It involves three processes – outright massacre, kidnapping, and the third one is the forcible Islamization of Armenians.


DIROUHI HAIGAS: All the church bells were ringing. We didn’t know what it is. Church was over. Why the bells?

EKMEKCIOGLU: My dad told me his grandmother had seen during the genocide how her pregnant mother was bayoneted in front of her eyes.


HAIGAS: They bang on the door, and next thing we know, that door was opened.

AURORA MARDIGANIAN: My two aunt was killed right before my eyes.

EKMEKCIOGLU: But from my mom’s side they would not talk about it.


HARRY KURKJIAN: I heard all Armenians hollering Allah, Allah, (speaking Turkish). They were asking God, where are you, God? Why are you punishing so much this way? Why don’t you save us, dear God?

EKMEKCIOGLU: From both sides, they really lost many people. Many, many people. Like, only three, four people survived.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As Woodrow Wilson) The day of conquest and aggrandizement is gone by. So is also the day of secret covenants entered into in the interest of particular governments, and likely at some unlooked-for moment to upset the peace of the world.

ARABLOUEI: In 1918, as World War I came to an end with the Ottomans on the losing side, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson proposed a 14-point plan to establish world peace.

GINGERAS: One thing that defines this period of time in Woodrow Wilson’s mind is that empires are often the prisons of nationalities, of minorities. As a way of preventing future conflict, Woodrow Wilson advocates for the right of national minorities to determine their future and to present their cases at the end of the war for the creation of new states.

ARABLOUEI: And the Ottoman Empire, which had been around for 600 years at that point, became a target of Western powers looking to usher in this new era of nation-states. The term genocide was actually first used to describe what the Ottomans had done to the Armenians. They demanded the Ottomans own up to their war crimes and suspend their empire.

GINGERAS: The irony is that this is a set of demands that are made with respect to the central powers, not to the British Empire, not to the French Empire, let alone even to the United States, which had its own colonies.

ARABLOUEI: To this day, the Turkish government contests the use of the word genocide. They argue that this was a political uprising during a chaotic period when disease and famine were also rampant, and that all sides perpetrated violence.

ABDELFATAH: OK, you might be wondering, where does Mustafa Kemal fit into all of this? Remember, he was a part of the Young Turk movement, the same people who had led the genocide against the Armenians. But he had been stationed far away, fighting at the Battle of Gallipoli, and was only transferred east later on. So when the hammer came down from Western powers looking to hold the Young Turks in government responsible for their war crimes, they didn’t see Mustafa Kemal as having blood on his hands. On the contrary, he was cast as a hero, even in the foreign press.

CAGAPTAY: And I think when he said, I’m going to liberate Turkey, people did not say, oh, who are you to do this? The people lined up behind him and said, oh, yeah, this guy can do it because he had already established himself as a great general.

ABDELFATAH: And over the next few years, he continued to build up his military reputation, leading a successful war against the Greeks and British to keep them from encroaching on what remained of the Ottoman Empire. And even though these military campaigns led to further displacement and large-scale murder of Armenians, continuing the legacy of genocide that the Young Turk government had enacted, the narrative about Mustafa Kemal as a hero prevailed.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Mustafa Kemal Ataturk) That old idea of force, conquest and expansion is dead in Turkey forever. This is why we want a Turkey for the Turks based on the ideal of self-determination, which was so well expressed by Woodrow Wilson.


ARABLOUEI: In 1923, Mustafa Kemal’s minister of foreign affairs met with world leaders to sign the Lausanne treaty, which officially granted independence to what was left of the Ottoman Empire under the banner of a new nation called Turkey.

EKMEKCIOGLU: It is the birth certificate of Turkey, this Lausanne treaty.

ARABLOUEI: The issue of war crimes had dissipated, and a war-weary Europe was eager to finally turn the page – a clean slate for Kemal’s new nation.

EKMEKCIOGLU: So Turkey is accepted to Europe, having eliminated its own people. So maybe he wasn’t the perpetrator himself, but he supported the perpetrators.

ABDELFATAH: The Armenian genocide suddenly became a footnote in history, and the voices of people who suffered through it…


ABDELFATAH: …Were silenced amid the grand trumpets of independence. On October 29, 1923, the Republic of Turkey was formed with Mustafa Kemal as its leader. And one of his first orders of business…

EKMEKCIOGLU: Mustafa Kemal gets rid of the institution of caliphate. So people’s leader, at least symbolic leader, is symbolically decapitated.

ABDELFATAH: He, like, kills the pope.


ARABLOUEI: Coming up – Mustafa Kemal transforms into Ataturk, the father of the Turks.

DOLORES WATSON: Hi there. This is Dolores Watson (ph) calling from Cleveland, Ohio, and you’re listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Speaking Turkish). Part three – the reformer.


MUSTAFA KEMAL ATATURK: (Through interpreter) We shall raise our national culture above the contemporary level of civilization. Thus, we should judge the measure of time not according to the lax mentality of past centuries, but in terms of the concepts of speed and movement of our century. Compared to the past, we shall work harder. We shall perform greater tasks in a shorter time.

ABDELFATAH: Time was on Mustafa Kemal’s mind when he came to power. He believed the Ottoman Empire had wasted too much of it, and he was determined to untether his new nation of Turkey from the anchor of its past.

CAGAPTAY: His belief was that the Ottomans had lost so much time. I need to fast-forward the reform.

ABDELFATAH: And he believed the first step to doing that was to literally fast-forward time.

CAGAPTAY: So one night, Turkey citizens go to bed. It’s 13-something. They wake up. It’s 1926. Someone has just forwarded time for them by 600 years.


ABDELFATAH: Up to this point, Turkey, like the rest of the Muslim world, had used what’s known as the Hijri calendar to track time, which begins the year the Prophet Muhammad and his followers made the famous pilgrimage from Mecca to Medina to start a new life there. The Hijri calendar is around 600 years behind the European Gregorian calendar, which sets Year 1 as the birth of Jesus.

CAGAPTAY: This is known as his calendar reform.


ARABLOUEI: It was part of Kemal’s master plan to make Turkey into a full-on European state. Though he was a product of both Ottoman schooling and the Young Turk movement, he didn’t think either had taken their reforms far enough.

CAGAPTAY: And he said, I think what we need to do is to drop the old system and to just become completely European.

ARABLOUEI: To him, that meant a complete and total abandonment of the empire’s Islamic identity. He abolished the caliph, abandoned the Islamic calendar, and then…

EKMEKCIOGLU: Islam was taken out of the state’s constitution as the state religion.

ARABLOUEI: That meant no more explicit references to Islam in government or in social codes.

CAGAPTAY: To this day, I would say one of the greatest beneficiaries of Ataturk’s reforms in Turkey are women.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Mustafa Kemal Ataturk) It is supposed that in Turkey, women pass their lives in inactivity and in idleness. That is a calumny. The women work side by side with the men in the fields and participate in the national work generally. It is only in large towns that Turkish women are sequestered by their husbands. This arises from the fact that our women veil and cloister themselves more than their religion orders. Tradition has gone too far in this respect.

GINGERAS: In the spring of 1923, he embarks on this rather sweeping tour of Turkey. His wife comes in tow and plays a really prominent role in standing beside him and accompanying him and even speaking at times that really captures the attention of the press, especially the Western press. She is seen as very Western, very modern. She is a feminist. She is an advocate for the right for women to vote not just in Turkey but everywhere.

EKMEKCIOGLU: Divorce on equal terms. Polygamy was outlawed. Non-Muslim men cannot marry Muslim women. From ’26 on in Turkey, you can.

ABDELFATAH: And he revised the dress code for men, mandating that they wear brim hats instead of the fez, that red hat with a tassel that you’ve probably seen in an Indiana Jones movie, because Mustafa Kemal viewed the fez…

GINGERAS: As an artifact of the Ottoman past, and as something that seems to reflect what he feels is a kind of backwardness in Ottoman society.

ABDELFATAH: It was known as the hat law.

GINGERAS: The hat law is a kind of declaration of war upon religious conservatism and upon the clergy in particular, who tend to favor the fez.

ARABLOUEI: The next thing he went after was language.

CAGAPTAY: He decided to change Turkey’s alphabet. He said, look, we can’t be a country of Europe if we are writing Turkish in the Arabic script. We have to switch to a Latin-based script. And again, it’s this vision that there’s only one path of progress. And to be European, Turkey has to become completely European, including looking European in the way it writes.

ARABLOUEI: So overnight, he forces newspapers, book publishers and even libraries to switch to a totally new alphabet.

CAGAPTAY: And in one generation, people won’t be able to read letters written by their grandparents or their parents.

ABDELFATAH: He didn’t believe in gradual reform, in moderation.

CAGAPTAY: And I think perhaps that’s why the chasm is so severe.

ABDELFATAH: The reforms were swift, they were dramatic, and they left little room for dissent.


ATATURK: (Through interpreter) The Turkish nation is democratic by nature. I have no doubt that the American nation, which has gone so far in this ideal, is Turkey’s friend in her aim.

GINGERAS: This transition into this new era cannot be really divorced from the fact that it is singularly identified with the consolidation of political control and, ultimately, the formation of a one-party state under his rule.

CAGAPTAY: Because he was respected as a liberator but also because he had the military behind him to act as an undemocratic check and balance on government.

EKMEKCIOGLU: He killed people who were around him, hanged them. There are tribunals. Any kind of opposition to him – he took it as an existential threat.

ABDELFATAH: Mustafa Kemal viewed the world in black and white. You either had power, or you didn’t. You were either fully Turkish, or you weren’t. And what that meant was that there had to be a certain homogeneity, a certain conformity that everyone within this new nation opted into.

GINGERAS: They fetishized conformity because they saw diversity fundamentally as chaos at the very best – at worst, the existence of profound differences within society as the basis from which insurrection and rebellion can manifest themselves.

CAGAPTAY: So nation-states are not always great for ethnic and religious diversity. Empires, I think, do a better job of accommodating that. I’m not praising empires. I’m just saying in terms of accepting diversity, nation-states have a terrible record. And in this regard, I think Turkey is no exception.

GINGERAS: Mustafa Kemal possessed the benefit of presiding over a state that had lost a considerable amount of its diversity.

ARABLOUEI: But while the country had become more homogeneous…

GINGERAS: Mustafa Kemal understood that there were still deep cultural and social divisions within the country as a whole.

ARABLOUEI: And he understood the power of narratives in reining in those divisions. He needed to control the story, to tell a version of history that would support his power and his vision for this new nation he was building. He established a Turkish Historical Society to oversee the writing of an official state history, and in that story, the Armenian Genocide was erased. Decades later, it would become illegal to talk about it at all.

EKMEKCIOGLU: From the Armenians’ perspective, the whole world forgot about their case.


ABDELFATAH: But the complicated thing here for Lerna is that, in a lot of ways, this hyper-conformity and secularization of the country was actually a good thing for Armenians like her family still living in Turkey at the time.

EKMEKCIOGLU: So Armenians have reason to believe that, OK, maybe they are going through discriminations. And they are going through discriminations. But this is a better system for them.

ABDELFATAH: They no longer stood out as long as they were willing to fit into the mold of what being a Turk was under Kamal’s new Turkey, which not everyone was willing to do.

CAGAPTAY: Not everyone was happy under Ataturk. You know, people who wanted to be conservative and wear religion on their sleeve felt that this was not their country. And, of course, if they just tried to rise up, they were taken to courts and jailed and punished. The second group, I would say, are Kurds who did not fit into Ataturk’s vision that everyone who lived in Turkey was Turkish.

ARABLOUEI: During his nearly two decades as president, Mustafa Kemal would wage several bloody campaigns against Kurdish nationalists in the country. And ethnic Kurds as a whole were persecuted, their populations dispersed and their language forbidden. Some would even describe the last of these campaigns as another genocide. And ethnic Kurds, who make up 10 to 20% of Turkey’s population, continue to face discrimination, detention and violence. Today, there’s still unrest, including an armed Kurdish faction.


ATATURK: (Speaking Turkish).

ABDELFATAH: Mustafa Kemal’s presidency was plagued by health problems, and in 1933, perhaps knowing that he wasn’t long for the world, he delivers a speech to mark the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Republic.


ATATURK: (Through interpreter) Turkish nation, in every decade which elapses into eternity, I wholeheartedly wish that you celebrate this national holiday with ever greater honor, happiness, peace and prosperity.

ABDELFATAH: It was his swan song, the passing of the baton to future generations.


ATATURK: (Through interpreter) How happy is the one who says, I am Turk.

CAGAPTAY: He’s realizing he’s leaving behind a legacy, and he wants the youth to protect it.

ABDELFATAH: After the speech, Mustafa Kemal cemented that legacy even more. He passed a law mandating that every citizen adopt a Turkish last name, and he officially changed his own surname to Ataturk, father of the Turks.

ARABLOUEI: He died just a few years later, in 1938.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: The name of Ghazi Mustafa Kemal will forever be inscribed indelibly upon the roles of history.

CAGAPTAY: Ataturk’s legacy is so deeply imprinted in Turkey because its reforms were so radical.

ARABLOUEI: And for decades, leader after leader in Turkey followed in his footsteps until the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, came on the scene in the early 2000s.

CAGAPTAY: Erdogan, you know, comes from this conservative family that wanted to embrace Islam, and that family felt second class in Ataturk’s secularist Turkey. He wants to wear religion on his sleeves.

ARABLOUEI: But while he rejects Ataturk’s vision of a secular Turkey, Soner says he actually shares a lot in common with him when it comes to his approach to power.

CAGAPTAY: I call Erdogan anti-Ataturk Ataturk. I think Erdogan also wants to shape Turkey in his own image. While Ataturk shaped Turkey in his image as secular, European, west-facing, Erdogan wants to shape Turkey in his own image as conservative, Middle Eastern, politically Islamist.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: (Singing in German).

ABDELFATAH: And Ataturk’s legacy traveled way beyond Turkey. During the 1930s and ’40s, as nations around the world grappled with forces of fascism, of national identity, of how to deal with minorities, many leaders looked to Ataturk as a shining example of what could be.

ARABLOUEI: On the one hand, colonized people throughout the world were in awe of him as the liberator.

CAGAPTAY: You know, from Latin America to Arab countries to South Asia, Ataturk was seen as inspirational – that this can be done – that you can stand up to Europeans and liberate your country.

EKMEKCIOGLU: All these people see a decolonizing hero in him.

ARABLOUEI: On the other hand, some admired him as the founder and reformer.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: From across the way, Hitler appeared at his window, and another milestone is marked in Germany’s political history.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: (Singing in German).

ABDELFATAH: When Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933…

GINGERAS: He declares Ataturk to be the greatest man of the century.

EKMEKCIOGLU: He managed through oppression, through manipulation.

ABDELFATAH: Before the Holocaust, Hitler reportedly said in a speech…

EKMEKCIOGLU: He said, who, after all, remembers the Armenians? So it is a recipe.

ABDELFATAH: A recipe for conformity at any cost – all in the name of building a nation. And that recipe has been used again and again.

ARABLOUEI: Even now, 100 years on, questioning Ataturk…

GINGERAS: Or casting him in a negative light, or what could be perceived as a negative light, is often construed as an attack on the country itself.


ABDELFATAH: How do you see Mustafa Kemal’s legacy and vision playing out in the 21st century? I feel like there is a parallel in terms of this kind of flocking to strongman rulers in terms of kind of really asserting a certain, like, image of the nation that we see happening all over the world today.


EKMEKCIOGLU: I do see from Trump on, but maybe even a little bit earlier, tendencies towards authoritarianism.


EKMEKCIOGLU: There’s a lot of unresolved baggage from the past that people, instead of usually talking about them, coming to terms with them – they are either justifying them retrospectively or trying not to talk about them. If we don’t do anything to prevent this trend, we will have another big world war. This is what I see.


ABDELFATAH: That’s it for this week’s show. I’m Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I’m Ramtin Arablouei. And you’ve been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me…

ARABLOUEI: And me and…










ABDELFATAH: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl, and it was mixed by Josh Newell. Music was composed by Ramtin and his band, Drop Electric, which includes…

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ARABLOUEI: Thank you to Larry Kaplow, Peter Kenyon, Amir Marshi, Johannes Doerge, Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong and Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks also to Amra Pasic, Seyma Bayram, Phil Harrell, Lawrence Wu, Devin Katayama, Chau Tu, Sasha Solovyeva, Alaa El Koussaimi, and Taylor Haney for their voice-over work.

ARABLOUEI: And as always, if you have an idea or like something you heard on the show, please write us at [email protected].

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.

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