Writing Turkish History After 15 July

Image: Adnan Menderes addresses the Yassıada Trbunal. Source: haberler.com 

I’ve been hesitant to write or say very much about the failed coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016, and its aftermath. So much of my worry and concern in the past week and a half has been with friends and colleagues who are there and living and working in the face of an increasingly unsettled future. Between a compulsion to check Twitter for updates on the situation, and reading the literal deluge of analysis in the past week, it has been nearly impossible to work on my dissertation. That work must continue, and soon, but increasingly over the past week I’ve been asking myself, how?

I know the title of this post checks a fairly explosive statement — Theodor Adorno’s famous phrase “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz” — but I mean it in a slightly more banal sense. Writing history is always plagued by the problems and the politics of the present. Even if we historians do our utmost to check our personal biases, leave no stone unturned in the archive, and commit to the most fact-laden analytical path we can, our ways of researching and writing are ultimately conditioned by our personal situations and the politically inclined structure of state archives. Turkish history is no exception here.

Many have wondered when, if ever, we’ll know what really happened on the night of July 15th. The only real answer to that question is that we’ll know when it is politically convenient for us to know. What I mean by this is that we won’t have full view of the state’s archives, their internal view on the situation, the finer details of the coup attempt and the efforts to counter it until some future Turkish government decides to open the archives on this question, if that ever comes to pass. Even then, much will have been lost in the ether — so much of the coordination of the coup and counter-coup effort seems to have taken place digitally, a much more ephemeral record of events that might not be properly archived by the time the state’s archives are opened — but suffice it to say, no answer to the biggest questions raised by these events given by the numerous, very intelligent, analysts in the past week can be considered more than an educated guess. In this respect, we have only begun to understand what occurred during Turkey’s first coup — which ousted Prime Minister Adnan Menderes’ government in 1960 — quite recently, as it was only under AKP rule that files in the Prime Ministry’s Republican Archives concerning the Yassıada Trials (the tribunal which tried Menderes and Democrat Party leadership) have been opened. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of course, has often styled himself after Menderes and there are strong parallels to be drawn between the two figures’ politics. Thus it’s no big surprise that it is only now that we’ve got a chance to look at them. This is what I mean about political convenience and knowing things about coups.


(A page from the files seized during the Yassıada Trials housed in the Prime Ministry’s Republican Archives in Ankara. This document, found amongst a set of folders marked “documents taken from rooms” [odalarından alınan evrak] concerns accusations of suspicion and insults against the Democrat Party made by Ahmet Emin Yalman.)

But I actually want to set the very sticky politics of the most recent coup attempt aside for a moment in order to reflect on the ways in which the writing of Turkish history has often been written through the prism of the kinds of transformational historical events like the one through which the country currently seems to be passing. Like I wrote in an earlier post, Ahmet Emin Yalman couldn’t help but write his history of the Ottoman Press through the lens of the 1908 Constitutional Revolution, and his eerie optimism about Turkish democracy in the wake of the Balkan wars and before the conflagration of World War I is an exemplary lesson in the nature of historical contingency. The first “official” history of the War of Turkish Independence is in many respects Ataturk’s famous six-day speech (“Nutuk”), and it certainly doubles as an attempt to settle scores with his political opponents and signify the ways in which his republican experiment was a break with the Ottoman past. Much of the renewed attention to and contestation over the Ottoman and pre-Ottoman Turkish past in the 1930s occurred in the fallout of the failed Liberal Republican Party experiment of 1930 and the Menemen Incident, and in reaction to the formulation of state-driven ideological projects like the Turkish History Thesis and the Sun Language Theory. These contestations were further intensified in the environment of World War II when many historians and intellectuals were coopted to various degrees by the embassies of the war’s belligerents. The outcome of these conflicts between historians and intellectuals in the 1930s and 1940s was significant, as it helped cement the basic narratives that would fill history textbooks in Turkey for decades afterward.

The election of Adnan Menderes’ Democrat Party in 1950 was, and has been, celebrated as a remarkable and transformational step in Turkey’s long march towards democracy. Most historians and political scientists of the time saw the election as the culmination of the Kemalist experiment, proof that a ‘tutelary democracy’ could in fact be successfully put into place in the modern world. It acted as the prism through which the first generation of Anglo-American historians (this goes for Turks working in Anglo-American universities too) began to write the works which represent the foundational texts of modern Turkish historiography. Bernard Lewis, Niyazi Berkes, Kemal Karpat, Stanford Shaw, and others came of age in the field by experiencing the crucible of the Second World War, observing a Turkey that nimbly managed to remain neutral, and emerge as a more democratic country, and a reliable western ally in the Cold War to boot. Most of those texts were written after 1960’s “Gentle Coup,” but they largely saw that event as a mere speed bump on the road to establishing a more durable liberal democracy. They saw the 1960 coup this way because they had seen these “speed bumps” before — most recently in the four years of multiparty wrangling that had preceded the Democrat Party’s election in 1950.

Writing on the eve of the coup in 1959, Kemal Karpat — then housed at New York University — wrote in his book Turkey’s Politics: The Transition to the Multiparty System, “probably at no time in the history of Turkey, except in 1908-1911, has there been such intense political activity and debate as in 1946-1950.” Perhaps none of these writers knew this as well as Karpat did — during that period he was a student at Istanbul University’s Law School, which was a hotbed of political activity. I had the privilege of spending a few hours with Professor Karpat last year in Istanbul to talk about this period, and while I won’t share my full notes here, even seventy years later the sense of fear and suspicion that pervaded his memory of that time was palpable. He told me how so many of his fellow students were suspected of being spies for the CHP, reporting on students like himself who supported the new opposition party, who might be perceived as disloyal to the regime, or worse, communist sympathizers. He remembered participating in the infamous riot that destroyed the printing house of the leftist daily Tan in December 1945, just days after it was announced that Celal Bayar and Adnan Menderes would form a new party, but leaving when he saw the utter rage and violence that anti-communist rhetoric had stoked in many members of the crowd.

And yet, despite having first hand experience of this tumult, as well as observing the authoritarian spiral of the final years of Menderes and without the benefit of observing the coup, Karpat would conclude that the study of the early multiparty period, “however frank and objective, constitutes on the whole a compliment to the political maturity of the Turkish people and to their successful efforts toward modernization and democracy.” This is the common refrain among this generation of Turkish historians. Niyazi Berkes, himself a staunch leftist and a frequent contributor to Tan who experienced his fair share of political venom, wrote in his study of The Development of Secularism in Turkey (1964) that the DP’s election passed “the laboratory check-tests of democracy.” Bernard Lewis, whose classic work The Emergence of Modern Turkey (1961) has served as so many historians’ introduction to the field, saw many difficulties in the multiparty transition but ultimately concluded that there was ample hope for democratization based on, “the personal quality that has been shown by so many Turks of different allegiances and from different walks of life — a quality of calm self-reliance, of responsibility, and above all, civic courage.” The strongest any expression of doubt about the prospects of Turkish democracy in the American academy perhaps came from the political scientist Frederick Frey, who had the benefit of a little more distance, and wrote in his 1965 book Turkey’s Political Elite that, “Turkey has floundered badly in the process of transferring power back again the second time,” but followed by saying, “…if Turkey, with her many advantages of able leadership, discipline, and capacity for self-sacrifice, could not work out these problems, what other emerging nation can do so?”

If anything, this rosy optimism about Turkey’s adventure in multiparty democracy is a lesson in the captivating sway that modernization theory and developmentalist ideology held over so many writers of this period, much in the same way the liberal moment of the early years of the second constitutional period did over Yalman. It is indeed hard to blame them for thinking this way, since the progression of the Kemalist single party state seemed to fulfill so many of the wildest conjectures that these theories offered. Doubly so for these writers whose relationship with, and investment in Turkey during this time was deeply personal, even for the foreigners. It has only been recently, with the benefit of several decades of slowly opening archives, the end of the Cold War’s ideological conjectures, relative political and economic stability in Turkey, and the blossoming of writing on this period both in the Euro-American world and, more importantly, in Turkey itself, that we have come to fully understand, and correct, the deficiencies of these early works. Largely, those deficiencies might be characterized as the study of everyone who was left on the outside looking in of the Kemalist project. Religious and ethnic minorities, women, political and ideological opposition, the poor, the provinces, indeed vast swathes of what made up Turkish society are blurred over in these works in favor of privileging the Kemalist narrative of progress towards secularism and democracy.

The work of making up these deficiencies has been long and slow, but the flowering of histories of the single party era that highlight such ignored subjects as the fate of Armenians in the wake of the establishment of the republic, or the often violent imposition of the Kemalist cultural policies in the provinces, or studies  that take a closer look at social underclasses, women, children, and other disadvantaged groups. I can’t help but feel that a big part of why these histories were ignored for so long was because of the prismatic effect the events of 1950 and 1960 had on the historians who first took up this task, and returning to our present moment, it seems fair, at least to me, to offer a word of warning about viewing both the recent and farther flung history through the lens of the current convulsions in Turkey and the regime’s attempt to bury Kemalism once and for all. Personally, I wrote this piece to motivate myself to get back to writing more about the people left out of the Kemalist project, and to remind myself to be on the lookout for who might be left out of the new undertaking of the AKP. Now back to work.


One comment

  1. Tia O'Brien · July 26, 2016

    On the money, Jim. The rosy assessments contributed to the distorted belief that somehow brutal coups were furthering democracy and decades of misleading statements by Westerners that Turkey is a democracy–even as in recent years Erdoğan seized increasing power. Today’s pendulum is swinging back again toward a Menderes-style one-man rule and single party control.


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