I walk down Istiklal Street and see a huge advertisement in a book shop window. ‘Historical lies of the Republic’. I step back and look again. A book critical of the truths of the Turkish state through the decades? And it’s advertised that prominently? Then I see the sales slogan accompanying the book: ‘Documented answers to the lies of the enemies of Atatürk and the Republic’. Ah, of course, things fall in place again. One of the state truths is confirmed here very clearly: the Turkish republic and Atatürk don’t have critics, for example, or neighbours or groups with different views; no, they have ‘enemies’. I think that’s one of the most dangerous state truths.
Ironically, I bumped into this advertisement on 6 September. In 1955, on 6 and 7 September, the ‘Istanbul Pogrom’ took place, an event usually referred in Turkey to with the understatement ‘the Events of 6 and 7 September’. Nine hours of orchestrated riots against Greeks and their properties in Istanbul. The events were triggered by the rumour, deliberately fed into the media, that the house in which Atatürk was born in Thesaloniki, in present-day Greece, had been bombed. Which wasn’t true. The story behind it was the dispute over Cyprus, inhabited by Turks and Greeks, in those days still under British rule. The riots were orchestrated by nationalist Turkish groups, supported by media and the state – the rioters even had been brought to the city before it all started. The pogrom is the reason that there are less than 5000 Greeks in Istanbul left today – they didn’t die, they fled the country.
Fighting for survival
Anger against Greeks was not too hard to incite. The Greeks were among those Turkey fought against in its war of independence. The Greeks were the enemy at the time. Like the Armenians were in the decade before that, during the First World War: the Ottomans fought the Russians, who were Christians like the Armenians, and since Armenians tended to side with Russia because it gave them a chance to get their own country, they were considered ‘traitors’.
The thing is, in those days around the First World War and the foundation of the Republic, it was total chaos in this region. Very bloody battles were fought, on all sides thousands and thousands of people died, and the whole region was in an amazing transition. Countries and regimes were fighting for survival, and it’s not strange that in such times you refer to others as ‘enemies’ or ‘traitors’, ‘allies’ or ‘friends’. But after that, you have to change your vocabulary. You have to consider the outcome of all that bloodshed and find a way to live together again.
That process didn’t take place in Turkey. Or at least not to a great enough extent. The concepts of enemies and traitors are kept alive. Not concealed, but very openly. Atatürk addressed the youth of Turkey in his famous Nutuk, ‘Speech’, to the parliament in 1927, in which he spoke about the foundations of the republic. He tells the youth of Turkey: ‘In the future, too, there will be ill-will, both in the country itself and abroad, which will try to tear this treasure from you.’ The treasure being the national independence and the Turkish republic. Further on, there is talk of traitors and enemies, and noble Turkish blood. You can read the ‘address to the youth’ here.
Carved in stone
Atatürk considered it the first duty of the youth to protect and defend Turkey’s independence. Again, remember this was almost a hundred years ago. Atatürk was, following the ideal of ‘nation states’ of the time, building a new country from scratch, and he did an amazing job. But in time Nutuk became a sort of bible, Atatürk the prophet and his words a gospel. It’s still taught to Turkish children every day, the ‘Address to the youth’ can be read everywhere were children come together, and it is, for example, the reason why most Turkish men have no problem whatsoever in doing their time in the army. But what’s the usual fate of sacred books, prophets and gospels? They become carved in stone. Unchangeable. They don’t adapt to the times. The same goes for the old concepts of enemies and traitors. They are kept alive, even though (a few) Greeks and Armenians still live in Turkey, and Greece and Armenia are now neighbouring countries Turkey has to somehow maintain or build relations with.
Today, some Turkish papers have huge headlines about ‘the shame of 1955’. Black and white pictures of 1955 are published, articles written in the past tense. But I wondered when I saw the book in the shopping window: could something like this really not happen again? People could see through fabricated lies more easily with modern means of communication and the ultra-fast speed that news travels with, but wouldn’t it still be very easy to once again incite hatred against alleged enemies? Hatred that is deeply rooted and still very much near the surface?