A Coup in Turkey: A Tale of Democracy, Despotism and Vengeance in a Divided Land

Just as 2020 saw the 60th anniversary of Turkey’s first coup on 27th May 1960, so 2021 will see the 60th anniversary of the subsequent execution of the deposed prime minister, Adnan Menderes, whom the military hanged on 17th September 1961.  2021 also sees the publication on 4th February of my A Coup in Turkey, a dramatic account of extraordinary events little known outside Turkey but which strike me as key to a deeper appreciation of the ideological divisions which blight this often troubled country.

This is a book that has preoccupied me since my encounter in a Turkish village some eight years ago with Mehmet, an old man in threadbare socks who over glasses of tea professed a passionate devotion to Menderes, a figure I barely recognised back then – along with an indifference to the national founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, that at the time struck me as akin to blasphemy.

It was then I thought I might tell the story of the country’s first democratically elected prime minister, the charismatic but doomed Menderes, who after coming to power in 1950 did much to transform Turkey over his decade his office.  Even today Menderes’s enemies brand him as a national traitor, a shameless populist who courted Islamic reaction and undermined the great Atatürk’s radical westernising programme, while his supporters see him as Turkey’s original democrat and champion of righteous conservatism.

Chief among those supporters is President Erdoğan himself who may be said to take Menderes as his political example, even inspiration; the two men share uncanny similarities not only in their sure-footed populist appeal to conservative constituencies and their contempt for what each has characterized as the godless establishment, but also in their hypersensitivity to criticism.  Just as both made their names as champions of democracy, so they duly proved autocrats whose instincts were to suppress dissent, dispense with a free press, subvert the independence of the judiciary and maintain popularity by combining apparent piety with the provision of a great many jobs, mainly in construction; just as Menderes transformed the countryside by building dams, and running piped water and surfaced roads to the villages, so Erdoğan presides over huge infrastructure projects such as airports and bridges.  In so doing, both have racked up ruinous national deficits, with an especially large figure in the column marked ‘repair and construction of mosques’.

Indeed, in the devotional photograph which Mehmet showed me, Menderes is seen in a pose that would have outraged the reforming Atatürk (a man whose own iconography insistently presents him, even now, in western tails and topper, in suit and tie) but thrilled his devout followers: admiring a mosque – or the architect’s model of one – with ministerial colleagues.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be blogging about other aspects of Adnan Menderes’s remarkable and resonant story – starting, as does A Coup in Turkey, with the air crash at Gatwick in 1959 which miraculously spared Menderes even as it set him on the road to disaster.

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