Ghosts of Nationalisms Past

Turkey’s politics is beset by selective memory and a paradoxical sense of victimhood and superiority that has allowed its leaders and usurpers to position themselves as guardians of an embattled realm

Ghosts of Nationalisms Past
Turkey commemorates, the fourth anniversary of a coup attempt which was followed by a series of purges in the public sector / 2020 / Adem Altan / AFP via Getty Images

In the smallest hours, before soft light fingered its way through the alleys of Istanbul, a furious clutter of tank tracks and hurried boots broke the morning quiet. Swiftly up staircases and elevators went the vanguards of soldiers, into the apartments and drawing rooms and offices of MPs, judges, mayors, party functionaries. They knocked at the door. Get up. Come with us. We’re taking over.

As if following Lenin’s rules for capturing state power to the letter, guards seized the post office, the radio station, the railway terminus. In Istanbul it was all over in 20 minutes. Ankara saw fitful gunfights by dissenting units, but they could not stop armed officers locking down the Grand National Assembly, or heaving open the door of a mansion, grabbing at President Celâl Bayar as he tried to turn an old service revolver on himself. Adnan Menderes, the prime minister, managed to find some loyal men and a few jeeps, making a spirited run from Eskişehir. By noon he was captured. Just over a year later, he was hanged.

May 27, 1960, looks like a moment of severance in Turkey, one of those times when history is shunted off its rails into darker sidings. The Democrat Party had ruled for a decade, victors of the first fair and open vote ever held in the country. Driven by Menderes, its louche and suave leader, they appealed to the rural poor and the lower half of a nascent middle class with a motley mix of patronage, outright bribes, and vast infrastructure projects. To his supporters, Menderes was light to the shade of old one-party rule. “Menderes, Tamer of Turkey’s Rivers,” they called him.

What appeared to take place on that May morning, when a fraught democracy succumbed to direct rule by the colonels, was a catalytic push that began a dizzying pattern of coup d’etats, overthrows, and interventions that would, as if by clockwork, blight the land at least once every decade.

Yet Turkish history is filled with such moments that give the illusion of a break with the past and the miraculous creation, by blood and powder, of a new order. Indeed, it is difficult to find any other country more displaced from its own ancestry than this Republic, stranded in time and compelled to look at a wavering image on the horizon, to accept a false vision as the true state of things.

But a horizon is never fixed. It expands forward and backward. A mirage is never real. There has never been a Year Zero. What is truly extraordinary is not the regularity of this supposed splintering. No, it is the persistence and perseverance of a class of people who can trace their authority back from 1960 to 1908, and from there right up to 2016 and our own fractured moment. They carry with them a particular state of mind, a particular anxiety that makes the hope of a freer, brighter present seem impossible.

On the morning of the coup in 1960, the respected writer and ex-exile Refik Halid Karay crumpled to the floor of his home, struck by a massive heart attack. It was as if the sight of troops on the streets of his beloved Istanbul had felled him. The shock was too much to bear.

He would survive for another five years after that, and he is remembered today as a prolific scribbler of sentimental historical novels. But to a startling degree, Refik Halid’s life closely matches and is intertwined with the fractious formation of the Republic. His career turns a mirror — a cracked mirror, to be sure — against an official version of Turkish history in which so many things cannot be said; cannot be allowed to be said. It is annoyingly familiar, this isolated version, drilled into generations of children with the force of a schoolmaster’s cane and distributed in the West by the mountainous platitudes of Bernard Lewis and his progenies. It still bears repeating:

Once among the great titans of the world, the Ottoman Empire lay supine before Britain, France, and the United States at the end of the First World War. An imperial partition was prescribed: Anatolia, the Levant, Mesopotamia, and the Caucasus were to be splintered and handed over to various peoples and powers. Rising from the crags and outcrops of Sivas and Erzerum to challenge such a settlement was Mustafa Kemal. His ultimate victory, the rescue performed by his nationalist movement, created the Republic of Turkey in 1923. After that came a furious sprint into modernization and Westernization. Turkey took its place among the hall of liberal, democratic nations. And, of course, as the current Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stated blandly in 2019, “We are proud of our history because our history has never had any genocides. And no colonialism exists in our history.”

As the central figure in Berkeley professor Christine Philliou’s excellent new book, “Turkey: A Past Against History,” Refik Halid’s experience gives the lie to such orthodoxy. However much his opinions and motivations may have morphed over the years, one strong passion remained — his opposition to a singular institution of amazing persistence, dominated by a clutch of men and their admirers who found their start as lowly junior officers moldering in their Balkan barracks at the beginning of the 20th century and who would mold the future for another 50 years: the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP).

Born to a family of middle-class bureaucrats in 1888, Refik Halid came of age with the Constitutional Revolution of 1908, when a diffuse and disparate coalition of genteel liberals, Armenian socialists, and the CUP forced the hated Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II to reinstate a parliamentary order abrogated for almost 30 years.

Immediately identifying himself with the liberal wing of the revolution, Refik Halid shared in the exultant joy of those days. It did not last. Almost immediately the settlement shattered. Early 1909 saw an attempted counterrevolution that had to be suppressed with bayonets and armored cars; the Albanians revolted from Ottoman rule in 1910; Italy invaded Libya the year after; the bloody Balkan Wars (I & II) saw Ottoman authority in Europe finally destroyed.

Under enormous pressure as the Empire fell apart before their eyes, the CUP, helmed by the bullish visage of Mehmed Talât, came to obsess with frightening fervor of a single question: How can we save the state? Initially reluctant to take power directly, they were plagued by paranoiac dreams of fracture, collapse, and decay. In response, the CUP developed a powerful siege mentality — a constant sense of existential threat that justified the worst kinds of violence. To salvage the country from imminent defeat, they used clubs and guns to steal the parliamentary election of 1912, and in 1913, they executed the war minister, finally taking power directly.

It was for these reasons that Refik Halid came to despise the CUP, and as a leading satirist writing under the name “Kirpi” (the Porcupine), he was to become one of its earliest targets. Banished to internal exile in Anatolia with a group of oppositionists, he would spend most of the First World War amid the spoil and cinder of the Armenian genocide — itself a maniacal outgrowth of the CUP’s fearful suspicions. In response to the question, how can we save the state? Talât answered: annihilation.

Four years on, Refik Halid returned to an Istanbul prostrate before the victorious Allies. At least there was a liberal government, but it functioned only to administer the occupied territory of a totally deracinated Empire. He joined that government, serving as director of the Post and Telegraph Service. And it was from this post that Refik Halid directly intervened, in June 1919, to prevent Kemal circulating a memo calling all Turks to mobilize against the occupation. He could see quite clearly what Kemal’s new nationalist movement really was and could give the lie to the official version of Turkish history: that they emerged spontaneously, that his insurgency was something authentically new, untainted by the crimes of the war years.

As much he tried to deny it, what Kemal inherited was, in essence, the entirety of the CUP shorn of its Central Committee (soon to be cathartically liquidated by Armenian assassins as nemesis for the genocide). Even the guns and cash needed to shock the nationalist insurgency into action in mid-1919 had been arranged by Talât’s enforcers as part of a Gladio-like stay-behind plan. The great majority of the movement’s leading men were identical to those who had staffed the CUP’s government. Eighty percent of the state bureaucracy continued into the Republic; nine out of every 10 army officers still served; hundreds of party bosses, provincial governors, and police chiefs remained in their jobs.

So deeply was the CUP bound to the transformation from Empire to Republic that it is impossible to imagine a Turkish nation or any kind of Turkish identity without them. “Who and what constituted the nation absent the CUP?” Philliou asks, “For all of the CUP’s atrocities, it was a challenge to reimagine the Empire without the force that had taken over the state and started to shape a notion of Turkish identity.” In short, in order for Menderes to fashion himself as a slick, sophisticated “man of the people,” a people had to be created in the first place. Without the sickly and frantic fervor of CUP ideologue Ziya Gökalp’s imaginings of the Turks as Übermensch, there would be no mythical “nation” to appeal to.

Then again, this is one of the few instances in this history that really can be considered a proper break with the past. Having wiped out the Armenians, the Assyrians, almost all the Ottoman Greeks, and then setting its sights on the Kurds, this really would be “Turkey for the Turks” and them alone. After 1923, homogeneity, sameness, consistency, and obedience were qualities strictly enforced — a kind of ethnic chauvinism that repudiated the weak pluralism of the Ottoman state.

Soon after the “breech birth” of the Republic, İsmet İnönü — Kemal’s right-hand man, later president, and then benefactor of the 1960 coup — declared that in the future of the nation, it was “not only necessary to eradicate centuries-old traditions, beliefs, and customs, but to efface the memory as well.

In a sense, this was precisely what happened. The Kemalist project of “modernization” wiped away the monarchy, established religion, the old merchant class, regional authority, even any diversity in culture or ritual. As Philliou meticulously demonstrates, “only by insisting officially on total rupture between the Ottoman and Republican Turkish states could the hesitations, about-faces, and imperfect pedigrees of the new nationalists be effaced. And only with total rupture could the myriad and possibly incriminating habits, associations, and values of Unionism be expunged from the record. Only with the insistence of total rupture could the resemblances in political culture, affiliation, and habits be submerged.”

What remained, buried underneath all this repression and change, was the fundamental power of the state and the siege mentality inherited from the CUP. Despite winning the War of Independence and expelling the occupiers, its leaders were still beset by fever dreams of crisis, disintegration, implosion. Everything was thought to be fragile. The Republic thus had to become more than just a nation: a fetish guarded with extreme paternalism by a self-appointed noble few.

“In the absence of an official history in these early years,” Philliou writes, “keeping alive the memory of past conflict and opposition exacerbated the legitimacy crisis of the new regime.” For this reason, for his open opposition to the Kemalists, Refik Halid had to be exiled again, this time to French Syria, not only as a “traitor to the nation” but because, as his contemporary İsmail Müştak hinted, “he might show the faces behind the masks if he divulged some realities thought to have been buried.”

Strength. Force. Domination. These were necessary to stave off any threat — real or imagined. The pattern of extreme violence in response to any challenge would continue into this “new” age. In 1925, in response to a Kurdish nationalist/Islamist rebellion in southern Anatolia, Kemal imposed the notorious “Independence Tribunals” and the repressive Law on the Maintenance of Order. A year later, a new criminal code was imported wholesale from fascist Italy.

Even after the Kemalists had been explicitly voted out in 1950, the siege mentality lingered because the Democrat Party was (again) not a break from the past but an outgrowth of the Republican People’s Party. Menderes’ victory “did not signal the entrance of an entirely new elite,” Philliou insists. “The new trappings of freedom and democracy were built on the quasi-fascist foundations of the republic and the RPP. … The institutional foundations of political authority had not been fundamentally altered.” It was not a leap for those who considered themselves guardians of the Kemalist legacy to intervene if they thought the nation to be at risk; it was a duty.

And intervene they did. “A Coup in Turkey: A Tale of Democracy, Despotism and Vengeance in a Divided Land” by the British journalist and travel writer Jeremy Seal takes up the narrative. Part first-person investigation, part reconstruction, Seal’s book narrows in on the formative years of the Republic, the rise of Menderes and the Democrat Party, all culminating in the 1960 coup d’etat.

A frequent traveler to Anatolia, clearly adoring of it, Seal at times has a lovely turn of phrase that can make “A Coup in Turkey” a velvety read. Visiting a house in some pastoral village, he finds family photographs “scrolled up like cinnamon sticks”; in Ankara and Istanbul’s urban sprawl he notes the “crumbling and blistered apartment blocks” wearing the “livery beiges, buffs and greens of the correctional institute”; he acutely describes Menderes’ playboy philandering as “a desperate attempt to plug the perforated hull of his foundering self.”

Whatever stylistic skill he employs, prowling underneath adept metaphors and refined grammar are leviathans of willful untruth. Put bluntly, Seal is about as useful a historian as a chronic amnesiac. Every fib, folk tale, and omission that strands the nation in time can be found here, guilelessly repeated.

Seal can write nostalgically about Menderes’ childhood in Izmir, for example, without noting the city’s near-total destruction at the culmination of the War of Independence — a live controversy even now. Seal shoves aside the incredibly fractious and totalizing nature of the “nation-building” process; Kemal, we are told, received “universal devotion” in his “challenge … to remake the country utterly and without hindrance.”

Then there is perhaps the worst error: a real stain on any book that tries to relate any part of Turkish history. The First World War, Seal tells us, “reduced the Ottoman Empire to a smoke-wreathed ruin. In Anatolia demobilized troops returned to find their fields abandoned and their families starving.” He also might have added that those soldiers discovered an almost complete absence of anything resembling an Armenian community: all those neighborhoods, all those villages, ground to ash.

If a historian cannot bother to explain even the formative structures of Turkish politics — especially those created amid the hell of the genocide — then any explanation for what happened to Menderes will never make sense.

In reality, the beginning of the end for Menderes’ government came with a perfect simulacrum of internal and external threat. During the 1955 Cyprus Crisis, a lynch mob poured through Greek neighborhoods in Istanbul: looting, raping, killing. As Seal describes, the pogromists yelled “Cyprus is Turkish” and carried portraits of Kemal, “as if to permit the great man an elevated view of the vengeance they had visited.” Never mind that Bayar had clout in this area: He had proven himself early in his career by organizing the CUP’s forced deportation of Greeks from the Aegean coast during the winter of 1913-1914. In the aggrieved Kemalist mind, he was threatening the Republic with disorder and possible fracture.

By 1960, there were brawls in parliament, a rising student movement, and vast crackdowns on opposition and dissent. When the coup finally came, it was led by officers calling themselves — resonantly — the Committee of National Unity. And as they later debated whether to send Menderes to the gallows, “officers were in the habit of descending, conspicuously armed, upon the National Assembly, where the Committee had taken to meeting, to prowl the corridors” — exactly as the CUP used to do during parliamentary votes after 1908.

The pattern continued. The 1971 and 1980 interventions were carried out to better smash the emerging Kurdish movement, labor militancy, and the spree of Armenian shootings of Turkish diplomats. And it is not by chance that the 1997 “Memorandum” — the so-called postmodern coup — came not long after the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) used suicide bombing for the first time in the summer of 1996.

Everything was primed, in other words, for elements within the military to attempt another overthrow in July 2016. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had already shifted the state from a parliamentary system to a presidential one, and a ramshackle coalition of students, secular women, class-conscious workers, and furious Kurds were coalescing in the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) to challenge their treasured “stability.” Worse still for the colonels, the Kurdish autonomous cantons of Rojava were established in 2014, right on the Turkish border.

That July night is still cloaked in mystery and conspiratorial intrigue. What should be quite clear is that the mechanism that had once protected the power of the military and the intelligence services was turned against itself by the Justice and Development Party. The visceral purges and repression that followed were supposed to be the thing that happened after a successful coup, not after the failure of one. Finally, Erdoğan and his party inherited the role that had once been the preserve of the men in bunkers and directorates. Clothed in the aura of honor, they gave up the delusion of democracy to guard against anything that might threaten the sacred state. Finally, they fulfilled the only authentic political tradition that has ever existed in Turkish history.

When the entire political class of a nation is so consumed by a furtively distrustful mindset, there is never a correct time to trouble the state with a demand for greater rights or greater equality. Vengeance will always follow. Faced with such a titanic challenge, anyone who wants to change things has to make a calculation: to venture further into radicalism and militancy? Or to give up the fight altogether?

Refik Halid eventually chose to give up. After 15 years in exile, he coolly abandoned his opposition to the CUP and the Kemalists, bowdlerized much of his published work, and declared his obeisance to the Republic in 1938. His career after that was mostly a string of apolitical, pulpy paperbacks. He gave up his status as a muhalif: a dissenter, an oppositionist.

Throughout “A Past Against History,” Philliou evokes the concept of muhalafet to examine the liberal wing of Ottoman and Turkish politics from 1908 to 1965. It is clearly meant to evoke the plight of journalists and writers in Turkey today; Refik Halid can stand in for a Can Dündar or an Ahmet Altan, or any number of imprisoned nonconformists.

Muhalafet is a slippery term, though, malleable and effervescent, meaning anything from “internal dissent” to “partisan opposition.” Philliou writes, “Today, the word carries a charged valence, of the principled heroism — often doomed to tragedy — of someone from a position of privilege, that is, within the Turkish elite, who speaks truth to power.” Yet if there is anything that can be gleaned from human struggles for liberation, it is that “speaking truth to power” has never worked. So long as it remains a principle and not a practice, so long as “speaking truth” remains in the realm of the imaginary, it will always be defeated. Power, in the form of a mass of organized people all heaving in one direction, must be wielded, not just spoken about.

The CUP knew this, even in its earliest days. As a modern political formation, they identified that any kind of future project to reform the Ottoman Empire required mobilizing its people. While the liberals — Refik Halid among them — contented themselves with noble complaints and appeals to reason, the CUP built an efficient machine of party organizers and local bosses. Even before the First World War, it could boast of 850,000 members in 360 regional branches. Kemal understood this basic point, too. The nation would succumb to its partitioners unless its people — newly homogenized — could be hauled up from their postwar despair and pointed in the direction of a clearly defined enemy.

The siege mentality may be the defining feature of Turkish politics, but, in fact, the struggle for democracy there is much the same as anywhere else in the world because it confronts what afflicts so many. Alienation. Disillusionment. The abandoning of the foundational idea that the world can be remade by collective action — or even that one person lives in a shared reality with another. Nevertheless, a liberal or even a socialist opposition will be doomed if it rests on a purely aesthetic model of politics. Morals and theories alone won’t save you. “Cease quoting laws,” the Roman general Pompey once said, “to men with swords.”

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