“A coup in Turkey” by Jeremy Seal: Repeating history

Since the decaying Ottoman Empire’s collapse after the First World War, Turkey has been dominated by autocratic, ambitious leaders with differing visions apart from a common penchant for grand infrastructure projects, from Kemal Atatürk’s creation of a new capital in Ankara, to Erdoğan’s airports, high-speed railways, and Çamlıca Mosque, the largest in Turkey, complete with art gallery, library, and a conference hall.

Travel writer Jeremy Seal has drawn on a deep knowledge and love of the country to focus on the long-forgotten decade of the 1950s in which the rise and fall of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes – Adnan Bey – reveals a good deal about the tensions which have led Turkey from Atatürk’s dream of a modern, progressive secular republic to the current reality of Erdoğan’s nominal democracy with revived support for Islam, probably reflecting the wishes of the majority, but which has also suppressed free speech and slipped into corruption.

A charismatic, successful cotton farmer, Menderes risked helping to found a new Democrat Party in the aftermath of the Second World War. Attacking an authoritarian Republican Party which had been Atatürk’s legacy, he asserted, “governments that do their work well have no reason to fear freedom of the press”. Gaining power as Prime Minister, Menderes prioritised improving the lives of villagers subjected to secular education when what they really needed was clean water, electricity and more productive farms. Although he was loved for “restoring to right-thinking religious folk the things they wanted, like mosques”, to paraphrase Erdoğan, who has followed his example, perhaps from the same desire to increase political support, the practical reforms unfortunately misfired. Imported steel ploughs led to soil erosion, and unrealistic price guarantees for wheat crops bankrupted the Treasury.

Menderes compounded his errors: relying on popular support to the detriment of Turkey’s “influencers”, academics, journalists and military leaders; arguably wasting money on vanity projects such as mosques; laying himself open to charges of immorality through his many affairs in Istanbul, neglecting his loyal wife. Under pressure, he sadly went the way of too many other politicians in becoming authoritarian. The last straw was the granting of special powers to seize the property and order the imprisonment of those who resisted the work of a commission set up to investigate the “destructive and illegal” activities of the rival Republican Party.

Although Atatürk had theoretically banned the army from involvement in politics, it conducted the 1960 coup in which Menderes and many other Democrats were imprisoned on an island prior to a prolonged trial of questionable legality, leading to his rushed execution in a bungled “compromise” in which most of the other death sentences were commuted in the face of international condemnation. Before imprisonment broke his health, Menderes insisted that he had been democratically elected, and was supported by the “National Will”. Certainly, he retained widespread support, although some must have been turned against him by the distortion of facts, such as the creation of “false martyrs” – claimed to have been massacred” during protests against his regime , but in fact killed by “failures of the army’s own safety practices”.

The author contrasts this with the failed coup of 2016 in which the “National Will” of public pressure in the streets helped to foil the attempted military takeover of the news media.

This novel has been widely praised and contains interesting information which should be better known. So why was I disappointed? Frequent digressions and anecdotes are no doubt intended to flesh out an appreciation of Turkish society, but combined with the continual dodging back and forth in time, they create a disjointed, even confusing effect. Imagined conversations at dramatic points prove stilted and jarring. In his evident sympathy for Menderes, Jeremy Seal may have let him off too lightly. For instance, did he really “secretly stoke a demonstration in Istanbul in favour of Turkish claims on Cyprus, to the point of instructing local police and military units “not to intervene” and was he “behind the Salonica bomb” explosion? I would have liked less on the Gatwick air crash he survived, and the grim details of his last days, and more analytical overview of the fascinating period which brought Turkey from Atatürk to the present situation.

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