Today marks the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish republic, which emerged out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire as a sovereign, independent nation thanks in large part to the leadership of one man: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Nine decades ago, too, a new American newsweekly had started shaking up New York’s media scene. TIME’s fourth-ever issue placed “Mustapha Kemal Pasha” — he had yet to win his sobriquet “Ataturk,” or “father of the Turks” — on its March 24 cover, hailing him as the “Emancipator of Turkey” who had “lifted the people out of the slough of servile submission to alien authority, brought them to a realization of their inherent qualities and to an independence of thought and action.”
From being an officer in the Ottoman army, Ataturk went on to marshal Turkish forces in the political mess that followed the empire’s collapse at the end of World War I and preserve it from the predations of Western European empires. Here’s what TIME wrote in 1923, as Turkey moved toward becoming a new republic:
Kemal is pure Turk… and has proved to the whole world that he is the core of Modern Turkey. He is a fine type of professional soldier, who has earned his laurels by sticking to his calling. Professor Arnold J. Toynbee, in his admirably written book, The Western Question in Greece and Turkey, says of him: “He proved by a personal demonstration that a Turk can be his own master in Anatolia without having to wait for a better world, and under his inspiration the National Movement sprang to life.” Without doubt Mustapha Kemal Pasha is one of the great figures in contemporary history. He stands now against the unseen forces of Western civilization, determined to hold what Turkey has won.
But as Turkey’s first President, Ataturk went on to refashion a land that was once part of a sprawling, multi-ethnic empire along the lines of modern Western nation-states. Ataturk’s militarist and secularist brand of nationalism would define Turkey — for good and for ill — for decades to come. No single 20th century statesman meant as much to his nation as he did; he remains, as TIME wrote 90 years ago, very much at the “core” of the Turkish story.