When many thought Turkey was coming to an end
It was a time when many people thought Turkey was coming to an end. The “sick man of Europe” was in bed and many thought he could not return again. Parliament was becoming obsolete, the army was crippled, many parts of the country - or what was left of it - were under invasion of foreign armies. Perhaps worst of all, the Ottoman dynasty in power was collaborating with the invaders to keep its own crown safe.
It was 99 years ago today, on May 19, 1919, that the young major general Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) set out for the Black Sea port of Samsun after a three-day journey from Istanbul. The authorities thought he was going there to suppress and disarm Turkish resistance groups in the Black Sea region against the Russian, Georgian and Armenian armies and also Pontic Greek armed groups. But he and his friends had other plans.
Chief among those plans was an attempt to organize resistance against invading armies, violating the will of Sultan Vahdettin. It was a rebellious move. The Sultan issued an arrest and death order against his former chief of cabinet and his comrades. But instead of arresting Mustafa Kemal, General Kazım (Karabekir), the commander of the East Army, cut links with Istanbul and joined forces with Mustafa Kemal. Meanwhile, the latter was busy organizing congresses in the eastern towns of Erzurum and Sivas to unite civilian resistance groups under a single umbrella.
What the invaders and collaborating palace could not calculate was the resilience of people, despite all odds, gathering around the national resistance movement. Almost a month after the Sultan closed parliament in Istanbul upon British pressure, another parliament was established in Ankara on April 23, 1920, with the participation of a group of deputies, top bureaucrats and military officers from Istanbul. It was called the Grand People’s Assembly.
The first result was an agreement with Moscow in December 1920 that secured the eastern front, enabling the shifting of forces to the south and west of Anatolia. The Soviet revolution’s non-aggressive foreign policy at the time was useful for Kemalists, and as national resistance armies started to liberate invaded towns one by one the international atmosphere started to change. An agreement with France was signed in 1921, followed by the retreat of the Italian armies, which secured the southern fronts and shores. The last units of invading armies, the Greek armies heavily supported by the British, were ousted from the Western port of İzmir on Sept. 9, 1922.
The authority of the Ankara government over the Ottoman dynasty was recognized at the peace conference in Lausanne on July 24, 1923. Istanbul was taken under control by Turkish national armies from British occupying forces on Oct. 6, 1923, and later in the same month, on Oct. 29, 1923, Mustafa Kemal announced that the new regime would be a republic with its capital in Ankara.
Although its borders had shrunken, Turkey managed to survive through a war of independence by changing its regime, capital and economic system. Throughout, Turks learned never to exhaust their hopes, no matter how desperate the situation is and no matter that others may think the game is approaching its end. They learned that there will always be a way out.
That is why Atatürk adopted this day as his own birthday, and also why he gifted this day to the youth.