Turkey and Kemalism

Mustafa Kemal Time Magazine Cover March 24 1923

Time Magazine Cover, March 24, 1923, Featuring Mustafa Kemal

The recent failed coup in Turkey was not the first time the military has attempted to intervene in the state. In fact, there is a long history of tensions between the Turkish military and government rooted in the history of Turkish democracy.

It is crucial to note that Turkey’s formation immediately followed the end of the First World War, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and a series of nationalist movements within Turkey and other parts of the world. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, often considered the father of modern Turkey, was an Ottoman military leader who fought in the First World War, then led a war for independence against the Allied occupation of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) and later a war against Turkey’s Greek population. His founding ideology, known as Kemalism, can be seen as a response to the postwar period.

Mustafa Kemal wanted to create a modern nation-state modeled in part after western European nations and remove as many remnants of the old Empire as possible. In order to achieve this development, Kemal pushed for rapid industrialization, democratization, and secularization, all through the lens of Turkish nationalism and self-determination. From 1923 to 1938, Kemal was Turkey’s president for life, essentially a dictator who suppressed opposition parties, Islamists, Kurdish groups, and others. Nevertheless, urban Turkish nationalists saw improved women’s rights, economic growth, and a strengthened sense of nationhood. After Kemal’s death in 1938, another general named Ismet Inonu ruled Turkey until 1950. Inonu ruled with increasingly relaxed authority, culminating in Turkey’s first open parliamentary election in 1950 with successful opposition parties.

During this period, Kemal and Inonu patronized an urban, secular elite with close ties to the military, who benefited the most from Turkish democracy. This elite had authority over the shape of Turkish nationalism for much of the country’s history, and attempted to govern who fit into Turkish nationhood.

Kemal pushed for an ethnic homogenization of Turkey, starting with the forced deportation of about one million Greeks from the country in 1923, and later with the regular alienation of Turkey’s Kurdish population. Some Kurdish nationalists engaged Turkey in armed combat, though Turkey’s response has targeted entire Kurdish communities and continues to violate Kurdish rights.

The country began to move slowly away from Kemalism after World War Two, to the indignation of the military. After 1950, the Turkish military intervened multiple times in response to economic downturns, civil unrest, or the presence of Islamist parties. The first military coup was in 1960, the second in 1971, and the third in 1980, with revisions to the Turkish Constitution. In 1997, the military intervened again to ban Islamic political parties and interest groups, and to this day the military continues to persecute Kurdish civilians and rebels, attempting to sustain a Turkish national identity that is increasingly in question.

While the most recent coup differs in some ways, it stems from a longstanding military tradition of maintaining the status quo as it sees fit, at the cost of civilian governance.At the heart of the conflict is who should be included in Turkish nationhood, and it seems that despite tensions between Turks and Kurds, secularists and Islamists, those in favor of the current ruling conservative Islamist party and those opposed to it, the military’s imposed influence is widely considered a threat to Turkey’s identity. Kemalist ideology has not necessarily declined, but the militaristic side of Turkish nationalism is, at the very least, falling rapidly out of favor.


Lapidus, Ira. A History of Islamic Societies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Sharp, Alan. The Versailles Settlement. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Storey, William Kelleher. The First World War. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

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