On April 25, 1915, when British, French, and Australian and New Zealand troops landed on the strategic Gallipoli Peninsula, their objective was to knock out Ottoman defenses and make way for Allied navies to steam up the Dardanelles strait toward Istanbul. It was a risky and costly endeavor that culminated in their total retreat eight months later. For Gallipoli’s defenders, who lost 86,692 men, the battle was an important victory in defense of the Ottoman Empire. Paradoxically, it also became a touchstone of the nationalism that was so important to the establishment of the Republic of Turkey less than a decade later. Likewise, celebrations planned for the battle’s centenary reflect the tension between the valorization of the Ottoman era and the hallowed memory of Mustafa Kemal—Ataturk—modern Turkey’s founder. In many ways, the memory of Gallipoli is still shaping, and is being shaped by, the country’s political trajectory.

When the Allied force landed, Kemal, then a lieutenant colonel, was being held in a reserve unit five miles from the front. He was quickly deployed on horseback with the 57th Regiment to the steep hills overlooking Ariburnu Point and the famous Anzac Cove. There he encountered retreating Turkish forces—whom, in his own telling, he implored to carry on with their fight to the death, ordering those soldiers who had run out of ammunition to fix their bayonets. Kemal managed to hold on for the next 24 hours under heavy Allied pressure, enduring significant losses until reinforcements arrived to shore up Ottoman defenses. For his bravery at Ariburnu, Kemal earned a medal of honor that led to other command positions during the Gallipoli campaign.

Aerial view of a Turkish town on the Dardanelles taken by a French aircrew during the Battle of Gallipoli, 1915.
Aerial view of a Turkish town on the Dardanelles taken by a French aircrew during the Battle of Gallipoli, 1915.

It was Kemal’s exploits in the defense of Gallipoli that would later form the basis of his mystique as the new Turkish leader. When the Great War was over, his competence, courage, supreme self-confidence, and uncompromising nationalism gave him great stature, which he used to conjure up an entirely new nation and state. At the same time, Kemal led a successful fight against the armies of Greece, France, and Italy, which sought to carve up Anatolia after World War I. Out of a multiethnic empire spanning the Balkans to North Africa and Mesopotamia, Kemal declared a Turkish homeland from Erdine in the west to Van in the east (which was also home to a large number of Kurds and the remnants of once thriving Greek and Armenian communities). Central to his ethno-nationalist project was the establishment of a constitutional republic and the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate. Kemal was intent on constructing a modern society in which a new Turkish man—secular, Western in outlook, and industrious—was central. The republic’s guiding principles, which are known as “the six arrows of Kemalism” (republicanism, populism, secularism, reformism, statism, and nationalism), were intended to “raise [Turkey] to the highest standard of civilization.”

With Ataturk’s death in 1938, supporters of Kemalism did not lose their zeal. If anything, his ideas lost their nuance as the country’s political elites used Kemalism and perceived deviations from it to attack and undermine political opponents. Turkey has enjoyed multiparty elections since 1950, and although this has led to a dizzying array of coalition governments, it has never produced a democracy. The very fact that the republic was built on “Turkishness” required the country’s leaders to suppress any manifestations of Kurdish identity. And because of Turkey’s particularly aggressive version of secularism, in which the government regulates religious practice, expressions of religious identity represented threats to the Kemalist political system.

Mustafa Kemal at the trenches of Gallipoli, 1915.
Mustafa Kemal at the trenches of Gallipoli, 1915.

It was this system—Ataturk’s legacy—that the Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym, AKP) has sought to overturn ever since it came to power in 2002. Coming from Turkey’s Islamist movement, the AKP’s commitment to Kemalism was suspect from the start. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other party leaders have often paid lip service to Ataturk’s leadership and dutifully placed elaborate wreaths at Ataturk’s mausoleum on Republic Day and the anniversary of Mustafa Kemal’s death.Yet the AKP’s ambivalence is obvious to all. Instead of celebrating Kemalist nationalism like any good Turkish leader, Erdogan venerates the Ottoman era. What for Ataturk and his followers was a time of corruption, violence, and obscurantism is to Erdogan and his constituents six centuries of prestige and glory. Thus, the AKP has overseen Turkey’s reorientation along several important political dimensions in the last decade.   

The 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign will pass with great reverence for the ability of Ottoman forces to outlast the British, French, and Allied invaders, but there is deep ambivalence about what the victory means.

Beyond the affinities for Turkey’s Ottoman legacy, the AKP has sought to destroy the bastions of Kemalism that have traditionally dominated the republican era. These include large family-run holding companies, the professoriate, parts of the press (any criticism of the AKP from any corner of the media is likely to be met with government retaliation), and, importantly, the military command. In the abstract, there is nothing wrong with breaking the hold of oligarchs, officers, and their supporters in the interests of a democratic political system. This is precisely how Erdogan and his associates justified their behavior in the past. But after more than a decade in power, it is clear they are less interested in building a democracy than in replacing the Kemalist order with one that reflects their own values and ideals, forged in opposition to Ataturk’s reforms.

On foreign policy, the AKP made a commitment to EU membership early on in its tenure but clearly believes that Turkey’s future lies in leadership of the Middle East and the broader Muslim world. Kemalists themselves have a complicated relationship with the West. Even as they celebrate the Ottoman victory over Western imperial forces at Gallipoli and foster profound mistrust of Europe and the United States, they desperately desire to be accepted into the club. The AKP, which did more than any other party to advance that goal, nevertheless rejects the idea that the West is the apotheosis of civilization. It is not just that European Union membership has become passé in the decade since the AKP came to power or that it has become accepted wisdom that the United States has been prosecuting a war on Islam for the past 12 years. More profoundly, the party’s theoreticians regard Western institutions as inherently alien to Muslim society, which under the AKP is Turkey’s most salient feature.

A man takes a picture near a cemetery for Turkish soldiers before ceremonies marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Cana
A man takes a picture near a cemetery for Turkish soldiers before ceremonies marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Canakkale, part of the Gallipoli campaign, March 17, 2015.
Osman Orsal / Reuters

Nothing would better represent a departure from the ideals of modern Turkey than a shift away from secularism. Erdogan and the AKP signaled they would not take this step, even as they have reintroduced religion into public life. Islamic law is not likely coming to Turkey, but the AKP has overseen an Islamization of Turkey’s political and social institutions. This is a process in which Islamic legal codes, norms, and principles are either incorporated into existing laws or supplant them. By grounding certain institutions in Islamic tenets, the AKP has created an environment in which religion plays a greater role in society overall, including in areas that have not been directly Islamized. This is part of a political project in which the AKP has encouraged Turks to explore their Muslim identities freely.

The 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign will pass with great reverence for the ability of Ottoman forces to outlast the British, French, and Allied invaders, but there is deep ambivalence about what the victory means. Does Gallipoli represent the start of something new, or is it a link to historical greatness? It is an easy answer, actually. In deeply polarized Turkey, to those who have looked upon the AKP era with horror, Gallipoli is a moment to genuflect to Ataturkand all that he achieved in the battle’s aftermath. Yet like the Ottoman senior commanders who resented the young lieutenant colonel’s outspokenness and battlefield acuity, Turkey’s current leaders will downplay Ataturk’s achievements at Gallipoli and celebrate Ottoman greatness.

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  • STEVEN A. COOK is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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