There is something deeply disturbing about the direction in which Recip Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party are taking Turkey. Writing in this newspaper last week, John Lyons compared the sweeping purges to McCarthyism in the United States, in the 1950s. That was altogether the wrong analogy. The scale and arbitrariness of what is happening are, rather, akin to Hitler’s state of emergency after the Reichstag fire in 1933, or Stalin’s reaction to the assassination of Sergei Kirov in 1934, than to the United States in the 1950s. There is also an analogy with the Islamist revolution in Iran in 1979-81.
In the wake of a coup attempt whose source remains mysterious and which fizzled within hours, Erdogan’s regime began arresting or dismissing from their posts tens and tens of thousands of people: military officers, soldiers, police, school teachers, academics, judges and civil servants. The scale and speed of the reaction have been breathtaking and cannot possibly be based on evidence of complicity in the failed coup. They can only be based on lists long prepared of those deemed to be politically and ideologically opposed to the Erdogan regime. Such opposition is not a crime and by no means indicates treason or conspiracy.
The rhetoric of the Erdogan regime has, also, been startling. The call to reintroduce the death penalty is chilling. The insistence, without the provision of any credible evidence, that the coup was a conspiracy orchestrated by exiled Sufi cleric Fethullah Gulen in the United States, the arrogation by the regime under the 30 day state of emergency to take extra-legal steps to ‘cleanse’ the state apparatus and armed forces of perceived enemies are all worrying indications that the Erdogan’s agenda is not the restoration of democracy, but the installation of an Islamist dictatorship. This is where the analogy with Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini arises.
The Reichstag fire of 27 February 1933 was exploited by Hitler to declare a state of emergency in Germany and basically abolish the rule of law. The clearest account is by Ian Kershaw in the first volume of his magisterial biography of Hitler (1998). As he points out, the fire was not itself a Nazi conspiracy, but came as a surprise. Goebbels, when informed of it, thought the report was a bad joke. Hitler thought it was the signal for a Communist uprising. Wild allegations to this effect were quickly made, but no credible evidence was ever produced. Bear that in mind when reading of allegations against the Gulenists.
Hitler, driven by vengeful phobias rather than evidence, declared to his closest colleagues: ‘This is a God-given signal…If this fire is, as I believe, the work of the Communists, then we must crush out this murderous pest with an iron fist!’ Erdogan himself, whether or not he was consciously mimicking Hitler, declared almost at once that the coup attempt was a ‘God-given’ chance to crush the opposition. He is proceeding to attempt exactly that. If he does, as he has threatened, reintroduce the death penalty, we should note very closely who is put to death. Given that Erdogan has been on the record as declaring that democracy is just a train you use to get to your destination, then you get off it, what we are seeing looks distinctly like disembarkation.
Stalin did something similar in 1934-35, in a prelude to the Great Terror of 1936-38, in which, according to the KGB’s own records, some 750,000 people were executed and the GULAG crammed with others. In Stalin’s case, it was not the Communists who were the target, of course, but a wide range of political oppositionists in Leningrad and around the country, who were labelled ‘White Guard elements’ and ‘counter-revolutionaries’. He then used the same pretext to arrest many of his opponents from within even the Bolshevik opposition. Again, the analogy is striking.
Perhaps the best account of the Kirov murder and its consequences is by Oleg Khlevniuk, in his 2015 biography of Stalin, based on unprecedented access to Soviet archives. What he makes clear is that, contrary to various conspiracy theories that have been around for decades, Stalin did not arrange the murder of Kirov, but he did exploit it to accuse his political rivals (and former allies) Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev of having planned it. They were convicted, but based on ‘blatantly fabricated’ evidence. As things stand, there are disturbing signs that this is the game Erdogan is playing.
He has become a serious problem and it could soon get much worse. Spurned by the EU, he has in effect declared ‘there is a world elsewhere’ and has taken his stand under the banner of radical Islam. He has become a Putin-like figure and his Turkey is now a highly unreliable member of NATO, a looming danger to its small European and Mediterranean neighbours (think Cyprus to begin with) and a further case of the implosion of order in the Middle East. Whatever our perceptions or sympathies with regard to Turkey’s domestic affairs, these geopolitical concerns must be thought through both quickly and very realistically, lest things unravel in a very serious way indeed.
In May last year, Erdogan gave a public speech to a huge crowd in Istanbul, on the 562nd anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. He lionized not just that conquest – which no-one in the West should celebrate – but the Muslim conquests as a whole, beginning with the first raids and small wars by Muhammed. The crowd roared its approval and a chant went up, ‘Here is the army! Here is the commander!’ Make no mistake, Erdogan has a strong base of support in Turkey – as Hitler did in Germany. Neither his reasonableness nor his intentions can be trusted. His Turkey has become a problem for Europe for the first time since the murderous wholesale expulsion of Turkey’s Greeks, in the 1920s. A great deal now depends on how that problem is handled, diplomatically and strategically.