A Coup in Turkey – An Airport in his Name.

When Izmır’s new airport opened in 1987, it bore the name of one of the Turkish port city’s most famous sons, though many preferred less publishable names for Adnan Menderes, who had led the country from 1950 to 1960.  Chief among these were military officers who had hoped the airport might be named 9 September, the day in 1922 when Turkish forces recaptured the city from the invading Greeks, rather than after the man an army clique had deposed, humiliated and then hanged in 1961.  The airport name not only served to rebuke the army, whose officers traditionally considered themselves above civil censure, but also confirmed the posthumous rehabilitation of Turkey’s first democratically elected prime minister – the national traitor, as the army liked to insist, recast as the young country’s original democrat.   This remaking of Menderes has especially gathered pace in recent years, with President Erdoğan publicly citing Menderes as his political inspiration.

With even today one side despising, and the other revering, the memory of the man, it is clear that the Menderes story goes to the heart of an ideological feud that may not quite define Turkey but certainly preoccupies it.  Putting aside the personal hostility and contempt, however, there was another reason why many queried Izmır’s choice of name: what possible sense, they wondered, was there in naming an airport after a man who famously suffered a fatal air crash – from which he himself barely escaped with his life?

It turns out, remarkably, that plenty of other airports have bought into what we might describe as the Sam ‘N Ella’s Chicken Restaurant approach to brand-naming.  Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport is named after a man who crashed into the Andaman Sea in 1935 while Bucharest’s Aurel Vlaicu Airport honours a Romanian inventor-aviator lost over the Carpathians in 1913.  Then there’s Roland Garros (Reunion), who plummeted into the Ardennes in 1918, Antoine de St Exupery (Lille), whose aircraft famously disappeared over the Mediterranean in 1944, and Portuguese Prime Minister Francisco de Sa Carneiro whose name was given to Porto’s airport after he crashed on his way there in 1980.

But back to the crash which Menderes survived, and which took place near Gatwick, England on 17 February 1959.  It’s with this crash, some fifteen months before the army intervention which overthrew him, that I chose to begin A Coup in Turkey and for good reason: Menderes’s very survival among the death of so many colleagues may be said to have spurred his downfall.

In his decade in power Menderes did much to transform Turkey with an ambitious and often hectic programme of aid-funded rural development including surfaced roads, piped water supply, hydro-electric dams, factories and port facilities.  He also adopted an actively pro-western foreign policy, which saw Turkey join NATO, commit troops in Korea and engage in attempts to settle the Cyprus question – the Gatwick crash occurred as Menderes’s delegation was flying to London to sign an agreement on the island’s independence.

But Menderes was also a cynical populist who from the outset sealed his pact with ordinary Turks by courting their traditional, even reactionary, instincts, not least in terms of their religious and social piety.  He began the process, then, of reversing the transformative radical secularism which since the fall of the Ottomans in 1922 and under the leadership of national founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had characterised Turkey.  This change of direction, which many secularists considered inexcusable, was increasingly noticeable by 1959 when, with the economy in a tailspin, Menderes made desperate attempts to bolster his popularity by identifying ever more overtly with Islam.   It was unsurprising, then, that Menderes’s supporters should have hailed his survival at Gatwick, where he walked from the wreckage with no more than bruised ribs, as miraculous – as the consequence, in fact, of nothing less than divine intervention. On their leader’s return they gathered in vast numbers to greet him at Ankara’s railway station, sacrificing sheep, goats, bullocks, even camels in his honour; the gore is said to have been spectacular.  Posters celebrated his escape with the caption – ‘Allah Has Spared You For a Grateful Nation’.

Allah Has Preserved You for a Grateful Nation

Was this the moment, I wondered, when Menderes’s enemies in the army resolved that the time was nigh to prove that Adnan Bey, as his adoring supporters knew him, was no more immortal than the rest of them?

A Coup in Turkey:  A Tale of Democracy, Despotism and Vengeance in a Divided Land by Jeremy Seal.  Published by Chatto & Windus, 4 February 2021.