Episode 51 – Mustafa Kamel Atatürk versus Emiliano Zapata

Today, we head on over to the Rebels, Rogues and Scholars bracket where we will review the lives of two men, one who created a new country out of an old, decaying and decrepit shell of the Ottoman Empire, the country of Turkey, Mustafa Kamel Atatürk. The second man, was a leader of rebel forces in southern Mexico during his country’s revolution, something we heard a bit about during episode 45, Emiliano Zapata.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

Ali Rıza oğlu Mustafa, known to history as Mustafa Kamel Atatürk, was born on May 18, 1881, in Koca Kasım Pasha neighborhood in Salonica, present-day Thessaloniki, Greece. At the time, it was under the control of the decaying Ottoman Empire. According to Andrew Mango, the author of the definitive biography of Atatürk, his family was Albanian Muslim, Turkish-speaking and precariously middle-class. 

Growing up, his mother wanted him to go to religious school, but his father thought it better to go to a secular one instead. Kemal took the entrance exam for the Salonica Military School much to his parent’s shock in 1893. In 1896, he enrolled in the Monastir Military High School followed in 1899, he enrolled at the Ottoman Military Academy in Constantinople graduating in 1902. Kemal later graduated from the Ottoman Military College in Constantinople in 1905.

The Ottoman Empire at the time of Mustafa Kemal was in a two-century state of decline. Provinces were leaving the country with Muslim refugees fleeing their homes. The Crimean War, fought between 1853-56, saw two hundred thousand Crimean Tatars leave their ancestral lands to move into Ottoman territories. The disastrous Caucasian War fought from 1817 until 1864 between the Turks and the Russians, part of a century’s long series of conflicts, 500,000 to 700,000 Circassians fled from their homes in the Caucuses further straining the already overstretched Ottoman Empire. 

Attempts were made to try to Europeanize, the government, this failed because of resistance from the conservative Muslims that Islam should control the country, not secular individuals. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 lost the Ottoman’s most of their European territories, Bulgaria was established as an independent principality inside the Empire; Romania achieved full independence; as did Serbia and Montenegro. In 1878, Austria-Hungary unilaterally occupied the Ottoman provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Novi Pazar. It was into this morass that Mustafa Kemal walked into.

Interestingly, while researching his life, I discovered another problem within the Ottoman Empire, and that was who served in the military. It turns out that only Muslims could serve, leaving the rather sizeable Christian population alone. Because of their many losses in continuing wars in the 19th century, Muslim male lives were lost, further weakening their grip on lands with large Christian populations. 

The way that the Ottoman ruler, Abdul hamid II, handled things caused even more strife. Mass killings like the slaughter of Bulgarian villagers in 1876, not to mention the genocide committed against the Armenians which occurred between 1915 and 1924, costing the lives of an estimated 1.5 million people. The Empire was bankrupt both financially and morally. Something had to give.

With the onset of World War I and the Ottoman’s siding with the Germans and Austria-Hungary, the end was at hand. Mustafa Kemal would be one of the shining lights in the conflict. He had led his men to many successful battles before the war in other conflicts. Kemal was given the task of organizing and commanding the 19th Division attached to the Fifth Army during the Battle of Gallipoli. This battle was a decisive victory over invading British forces and the spark that would lead to the Turkish War of Independence. 

It is here that we begin to see the rebellious side of Mustafa Kemal. Parts of the Ottoman Empire were under occupation by the allied forces who won World War I. This enraged Kemal and his fellow Turkish officers so much that they joined a clandestine society named Vatan or The Fatherland. The group had little influence until Mustafa arrived in Damascus, Syria took over the organization and renamed it Vatan ve Hurriyet Fatherland and Freedom. 

On June 22, 1919, the now formidable group of senior army officers issued the Amasya Circular which was the first written document to begin the Turkish War of Independence.

The following is the best interpretation from Turkish that I could find online – 

1.The unity and the independence of the nation is at great risk.

2.The government of the Istanbul can’t deal with the responsibility they take, the situation made our nation look like gone.

3.Independence of the nation can be saved only by determination and faith of it.

4.To reach the nations purposes and to defend the people’s rights, we must have a national committee free of restraint and inspection.

5.We will be having congress in the Sivas which is the safest place in any case.

6.For this purpose by the community of Müdafaa-i Hukuk and Redd-i İlhak, three people from every province will be selected as representative.

7. In any case, the representatives must not use their real identities on the road, and this circular must be kept as a national secret.

8.For the east side cities at July 10th there will be a congress at Erzurum. Until that date if the other representatives can reach Sivas the ones in east cities will move to Sivas.

The Circular was passed around Anatolia after Greek forces landed in Smyrna in Western Anatolia. Around 300-400 Turkish soldiers and civilians were killed or wounded in the initial confrontation, which led to considerable resentment by the occupied population. The British Navy had control of the southern part of the region bordered by the Mediterranean Sea. The Greeks and the Italians had ground troops in the area, traditional enemies of the Ottoman’s and Turks.

Mustafa Kemal resigned from the Ottoman Army on July 8, 1919, and had a warrant put out for his arrest put out almost immediately. The warrant was quickly upgraded to a death sentence shortly after that. There was no turning back.

On September 4, 1919, Mustafa put together an assembly to deal with the occupying troops and to oppose the foreign armies in their territory. Atatürk was appointed as the head of the executive committee of the Congress. 

Before we go any further, I need to define the name Atatürk. This was not his given name, and in actuality, the Turkish Parliament granted him the surname Atatürk in 1934, which means “Father of the Turks.” This is why I haven’t used this name until now. 

At first, he led his men in battle against the forces of the sultan, a puppet of the allies in 1919. It was followed in January of 1920 with Battle of Marash against the French Armenian Legion which ended with a Turkish victory. Unfortunately, 15-20,000 Armenians, who had just fled the genocide against their people in the preceding years, were killed in the conflict. This would end any Armenian presence in this part of Turkey. 

Next up were the fight against the Greeks, fierce enemies over the millennium. Battle of Sakarya was fought from August 23rd to September 13th of 1921 and ended with the defeat of the Greeks. The war against them would continue on through 1922 with the culmination being Battle of Dumlupınar, fought between August 26-30. It would end the war and lead to the Treaty of Lausanne, which was finalized on July 23, 1923. A little more than three months later, October 29th, the Republic of Turkey was proclaimed, and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk would be its first President. 

Atatürk would continue in the position until his death on November 10, 1938. Since this is a Rebels, Rogues and Scholars battle, I won’t go into any detail about his presidency, but I will add that he could have easily been inserted into the Leaders bracket because of his incredible work at transforming Turkey into a modern country under his time as its head of state. The sheer breadth of the reforms that he put into place was mind-blowing. Turkey gave the right for women to vote earlier than many other countries starting in 1930 and full rights in 1934. His reign was not met without opposition, but he is still considered the Father of Turkey.

Now it is time to move on to our other revolutionary from the other side of the world, Emiliano Zapata Salazar. Born on August 8, 1879, in the town of Anenecuilco, in the state of Morelos to Gabriel Zapata and Cleofas Jertrudiz Salazar, of mixed Spanish and native Nahua ancestry. They were what would be thought of as a middle-class family.

Emiliano Zapata
Emiliano Zapata

As Womack puts it in his biography of Zapata, “Emiliano’s father, Gabriel, a quiet, popular, hard-working man with a slight stutter,an his mother Cleofas, were by all accounts plain folk, but they passed on to their son the rare, plain qualities of unambitious courage and dogged, abiding integrity that glint through the family history.”

As I talked about in episode 45 when we introduced Pancho Villa, Mexico was in a state of turmoil under the leadership of Porfirio Diaz. The owners of the haciendas were taking more and more of the land away from the smallholders of property, which in turn lowered their standard of living. The people of Anencuilco were notorious for protesting these changes and were continually in trouble for it.

It is 1909, and Porfirio Diaz had been in power for over 30 years with a brief interregnum of four years in between. The plight of the Mexican people was getting worse by the day, and the villagers of Anencuilco were getting more and more irritated. The town was had a hierarchical system with the town elders being the ones whom everyone turned to during a crisis. The problem now was that these elders were just that, elderly. They needed someone to turn to who was not only young but could be trusted not to abuse any power handed to them by the townsfolk.

Jose Merino was the most respected man in Anencuilco and was the person who defended the town in courts, in Mexico City and with the hacienda owners and managers. He was also tired of the job and at the advanced age of 70, admitted it was too much to handle. A vote to install a new person to lead the town was called for. 

Womack on his biography of Zapata puts the nomination process and vote this way, “The nominations were in. Modesto Gonzalez had been first. Then Bartolo Parral had proposed Emiliano Zapata, and Zapata had in turn proposed Parral. A vote was called, and Zapata won easily.

It could not have been a surprise, Zapata was young, having just turned thirty a month before, but the men voting knew him, and they knew his family; and they judged that if they wanted a young man to lead them, they would find no one else with a truer sense of what it meant to be responsible for their village.”

Zapata was more than just a leader; he was an innately smart person. While his education was limited, he was far more intelligent than the years of schooling would have predicted. To show how he handled the events leading up to the Mexican Revolution, we return to Womack’s biography of Zapata.

“Recently he had helped to organize the local campaign of an opposition candidate for governor; and though his party had suffered a disastrous defeat – voters intimidated, votes not counted, leaders arrested and deported to labor camps in Yucatan – he had met opposition politicians from all over the state and established connections with them.”

This does not seem like the type of person who would be a feared revolutionary fighter, but indeed Zapata would be that man. When Porfirio Diaz won reelection in 1910 under highly suspicious circumstances and likely rigged, the people had had enough. The loser, Francisco I. Madero, called for a revolt under the Plan of San Luis Potosí. 

The first military action Zapata undertook was the capture of the Hacienda of Chinameca. Zapata’s army then won the Battle Cuautla May 19, 1911, after a six-day fight. This was the battle that made it clear that Diaz could no longer stay in power. Other revolutionaries such as Pancho Villa, and Pascual Orozco fighting at the same time as Zapata, Madero overthrew Díaz in May 1911 at the Battle of Ciudad Juárez. Diaz fled to Paris, France and Madero won the subsequent election.

Zapata saw the Plan of San Luis Potosí as a potential idea to help his people regain the lands stolen from them during the Diaz regime. Still, he had his doubts about Madero as he was a large landowner and likely would renege on his promises. As we saw earlier, Zapata was the kind of person to negotiate first and only fight if necessary. 

Things began to go south between Zapata and Madero in 1911 as the Mexican President decided to appoint a pro-landowner man, to the governorship of Morales. It is here that Zapata published the Plan de Ayala. It called for the return of vast amounts of land to the people, lands that Emiliano claimed were stolen during the Presidency of Diaz. It was a socialist/anarchist manifesto which at the time, was considered dangerously radical. Their slogan was, “Reforma, Libertad, Ley y Justicia” – Reform, Freedom, Law, and Justice.” Troops from the many revolutionaries began to coordinate attacks against the Maderistas in the south and north. 

Zapata consistently defeated the generals Madero sent against him. Emiliano began to feel like he could win this civil war within the revolution. Things were not to turn out quite the way he planned.

Unfortunately, Madero and his vice president Pino Suárez were forced to resign in February 1913 and were assassinated shortly after that. The man who took over was the conservative and even more landowner friendly, General Victoriano Huerta. Huerta would find himself in another multi-front fight with the Constitutionalist’s led by Venustiano Carranza and the more revolutionary armies of Pancho Villa to the north and Emiliano Zapata to the south. Another leader that now jumps into the picture is Alvaro Obregón. We saw in episode 45, that he would eventually become victorious and would lead the Mexican people after the end of the revolution in 1920.

The matter at hand was to get rid of the hated Huerta. As you know, it is tough to fight a two-sided war, just ask Adolph Hitler, fighting a four-sided war, well, that is darn near impossible. This is what Huerta faced, and by mid-1914, he was defeated and out of the picture.

With Huerta gone, Zapata, Villa and the rest of the revolutionaries thought that things would get better for themselves and their people. It was not to be. A new civil war within the revolution would commence. On one side we had the Constitutionalists led by Carranza and on the other hand, was the split forces of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata.

The reason for the split wasn’t much about ideas, although the two had their differences, it was basically due to geography. Villa was based near the US and Mexican border while Zapata’s strength lay in the south. Problem was gaining access to weapons. Luckily for Zapata, he allied himself with former Maderistas Pascual Orozco and Emiliano Vázquez Gómez. Orozco was from Chihuahua in the north and could get the rifles and other supplies they needed to fight on. 

While the fighting went on, commanders within the Zapatistas would vie for power, no one seemingly trusting each other. This would weaken their forces allowing for the Mexican government to split them up. This was to prove Emiliano’s eventual downfall. 

The wealthy landowner Venustiano Carranza emerged as the winner of the newest civil war in 1915, defeating both former Constitutionalist Pancho Villa and thereby forcing Emiliano Zapata back to guerrilla warfare. Zapata worked hard to gather anti-Carrancist forces, but the men were by now, in 1918, weary. Another huge blow came in the way of the pandemic sweeping the world, the Spanish flu. 

The flu hit the stronghold of Zapata, Morelos, particularly hard. It has been estimated that one-quarter of the population of the region died. Added to that was the end of World War I which Zapata believed would allow the United States to enter the war on the side of the Mexican government. Things kept looking worse and worse.

In 1919, Col. Jesús Guajardo, with the Mexican army, feigned a switch to the Zapatistas, but it was all a ruse. He sent up a meeting with Emiliano at the Hacienda de San Juan, in Chinameca, Ayala. It was an ambush with Zapata being killed in a hail of bullets. It was the bloody end of his attempt to bring reform and aid to his people. 

If you want to know more about the Mexican revolution, I highly recommend you heading on over to the Revolutions podcast by Mike Duncan. He does a much more in-depth review of people like Zapata than I did. He is one of the deans of history podcasts if you didn’t already know.

Now on to the scorer’s table to see who moves on to the second round.

For fifteen points, we give this out for the length of time they were rebels, rogues, or scholars. Atatürk begins his time as a rebel in 1918 after the conclusion of World War I and ends it with his ascendancy to the presidency of Turkey in 1923 for a total of five years. Zapata began with his becoming the elected leader of the people of Anencuilco in 1919 and ended with his assassination in 1919 for a total of ten years. Fifteen points for the Mexican rebel and 8 for his Turkish rival.

Next up is how they affected the rest of the world in their time. This one is a hands-down victory for Atatürk. His victories against foreign occupiers of his country and his subsequent revitalizing the Turkish peoples and the new country he created had significant ramifications on the world. Zapata, on the other hand, was much more provincial in his influence. Twenty points for Atatürk and five for Zapata.

Next up is the twenty-five points for their lasting effect on world history. Another major win for the Turkish president. We see his imprint on the world to this day with Turkey being a major player in the difficult and dangerous issues of the region it occupies near Syria and the entire middle east. Zapata is a man with more of a legendary influence than a real one. For these reasons, Atatürk gets twenty-five, and Zapata receives ten. 

The last, and biggest point award, the forty points for how they affected their country for the better is another one that falls into the Turk’s column. Atatürk helped to create a new and modern nation, one that continues to this day, although not quite in the mold that he began. Still, it exists and thrives. Zapata fought against the powerful landowners of Mexico to help make the more impoverished peoples lives better, but his influence pales in comparison to that of Atatürk’s. For these reasons, I give the forty points to Mustafa Kamel Atatürk and 25 points to Emiliano Zapata.

The final score and the person who moves on to the next round is Atatürk with 92 points and Zapata with 55. Mustafa Kamel will face off in the next round against, the winner of the battle between the Greek philosopher Plato and the Russian mystic, Grigori Rasputin. 

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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