A populist Turkish leader instrumentalises religion, grows increasingly intolerant and faces an insurrection from his own armed forces. The story dates back to the 1950s, the era of Turkey’s first freely elected prime minister Adnan Menderes, but the parallels with today — and the current leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan — are clear.
Menderes, who ruled Turkey from 1950 to 1960, is not well-known outside the country. But to President Erdogan and his supporters, he is an idol. Speaking last year on the island where Menderes was hanged after a military coup, Erdogan described him as a “hero”.
A Coup in Turkey is a compelling account of Menderes’ rise and fall, part biography, part travelogue by life-long Turkey devotee Jeremy Seal, author of two previous books on the country.
Menderes was once a member of the Republican People’s party (CHP), established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s revered founding father. The ruling party “had shown little interest in raising Turkey’s villagers out of their historic poverty,” Seal writes. Menderes, a former cotton farmer expelled from the CHP after agitating for radical reforms, cast himself as a man of the people. His newly formed Democrat party was rewarded with a landslide victory in the country’s first democratic elections, held in 1950.
The prime minister embarked on a flurry of infrastructure projects, building roads, providing piped water to rural areas and expanding bus services. He overturned limits on Islam imposed by Ataturk, a staunch secularist, building mosques and reopening religious schools. Voters in the countryside, in particular, worshipped him as “the man who had taken their feet out of rawhide sandals . . . and put them in shoes”.
Yet as the country faced mounting economic woes, the insecure Menderes grew increasingly intolerant. In 1955, a terrible pogrom erupted against Istanbul’s Greek Orthodox community, seemingly after a protest stoked by the government “got completely out of hand”. A draconian press law adopted the following year led to the arrest of a newspaper boy for crying out a headline.
Discontent among students, intellectuals and the military came to a head in May 1960 when troops seized control. After a farcical trial, the former prime minister — along with two of his ministers — was sent to the gallows.
Seal has an eye for a good story. He gives prominence to tales of Menderes’s near-death experience in a Gatwick plane crash and his raucous welcome at Ankara train station by supporters who brought sheep to slaughter at his feet.
At times the book feels over-reliant on a small number of foreign historical sources, drawing heavily on archives of The Times newspaper and the UK Foreign Office.
But it also features engaging interviews with characters from the Menderes era, including a young military officer, now an old man, who photographed the former leader at his most vulnerable as he guarded his prison cell.
The book’s greatest strength is as a testament to the deep seam of authoritarianism that runs through Turkey’s history, a reminder that Erdogan is a symptom as well as a cause of the country’s current problems.
Seal argues that the 1960 putsch set a “disastrous” precedent. It was the first of four successful coups and several other failed attempts, including a bloody July 2016 effort to topple Erdogan himself.
The Turkish president is borrowing directly from his political idol when he invokes, on a daily basis, the “milli irade” — the will of the people — to justify his harsh treatment of those who oppose him. Discussing Menderes’s use of the term, Seal cites the British ambassador at the time, who lamented that many in Turkey “found it more or less normal that the political power won at the polls should be used to deny to others the exercise of democratic rights”. The remark is more than 60 years old, but could just as easily have been made today.
A Coup in Turkey: A Tale of Democracy, Despotism & Vengeance in a Divided Land, by Jeremy Seal, Chatto & Windus, RRP£16.99, 352 pages
Laura Pitel is the FT’s Turkey correspondent
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