Turkey has a long history of coups, but a failed attempt on the life of President Kemal Atatürk in 1926 had a lasting impact on the country. Stefan Ihrig reveals how one foreign journalist recorded the reprisals that followed with admiration – which soon turned to fear.
Is this going to be Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Reichstag fire? Are Stalinist purges coming Turkey’s way? These were just some of the historical parallels drawn in the immediate aftermath of the failed coup d’état staged against President Erdoğan in July 2016. But Turkey does not need to look so far. The country has its own rich history of failed and successful coup attempts, ranging from that of 1913 by the Young Turk ‘Committee of Union of Progress’, in which the Minister of War was assassinated in his own offices, to the 1997 military memorandum (sometimes called the ‘postmodern coup’) against the Islamist government. The attempt that offers the most interesting perspective on last year’s developments, however, is all but forgotten: the failed assassination attempt on the president and founder of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk), in the western city of İzmir in the summer of 1926.
The parallels are uncanny. In both cases the president escaped with his life by sheer luck: Atatürk’s trip to İzmir was delayed; Erdoğan’s plane was not shot down as planned. Both took place against a backdrop of violence in the country’s south-east: in 1925 a Kurdish revolt had shaken the republic and had resulted in wide-ranging emergency decrees; in 2016 the south-east again saw large-scale conflict and violence. In both cases there were widespread allegations of underground networks plotting against the government: in 1926 it was an alleged Young Turk network, in 2016 it is the Gülen movement, both of which had played important roles in the rise of those in government at the time. Furthermore, there are similarities between Atatürk’s radical reforms in the 1920s and today’s reforms, which have pushed back various aspects of the Kemalist (Atatürk’s) legacy. In 1926 the death penalty was still available to judges; in 2016 there were calls for its reinstatement for the plotters. Finally – and largely forgotten today – just as the past year has seen a heightened persecution of the domestic press and foreign journalists expelled from Turkey, so, too, was there a silencing of the domestic press and the opposition in 1926. The foreign press was and is perceived as a nuisance. At least one foreign journalist, Hans Tröbst, a German based near İzmir, was expelled in 1926 as well.
Tröbst offers an interesting perspective on the events of the summer of 1926. When he arrived in Turkey in 1923 to work as a correspondent, he was already an outspoken fan of Mustafa Kemal and of what the revolutionary Turkish nationalists had achieved. One reason for this was his special, intimate relationship with them. He had been the only foreigner serving with the Kemalists in the Turkish War of Independence (1919-23). Many foreigners and especially Germans had served in the Ottoman armies during the First World War and before, but in this war there was only one that we know of. Upon his return to Germany, Tröbst took up the pen at the behest of the German war hero and nationalist Erich Ludendorff, writing an account of ‘Mustafa Kemal and His Achievements’ in the Nazi-aligned paper Heimatland in the summer of 1923. He advocated ‘Turkish measures’ for a desperate Germany (to overcome the Versailles settlement imposed on it after the Great War). This was the beginning of his career as a journalist.
Because of his support for Hitler’s failed Munich putsch the same year, Tröbst fled Germany and returned to Turkey to work as a freelance journalist. Times were hard and, when the assassination plot against Mustafa Kemal was uncovered, Tröbst rejoiced. As a journalist who spoke Turkish and lived near İzmir, it seemed like a lifeline. However, with his cavalier approach to coups d’état, especially when carried out by well-meaning nationalists, Tröbst soon took issue with how Kemal handled the assassination attempt.
In his initial article on the uncovered plot, Tröbst expressed his relief that the infamous special tribunal, the Independence Court for the Protection of the Republic, had been called to İzmir. It would now surely hand out swift justice: ‘Once again the republic has been saved from sudden collapse.’ Had the assassination succeeded, Tröbst claimed, the country would have descended into civil war. Perhaps his perception of imminent crisis was based on the widespread discontent fuelled by Atatürk’s radical reforms and the economic crisis that had struck the country. Perhaps it was also the fact that one of the plotters was a noted critic of Atatürk, who had written the following sentence on the provisional parliament’s noticeboard in 1921: ‘A nation creates its own idol and then worships it.’
Once the trial had begun, however, Tröbst’s opinion changed abruptly. His article on the İzmir trial itself centred on the general mood of disbelief: not so much at the assassination attempt itself, but rather at how it was being dealt with by the regime. In order to describe the atmosphere of the trial, Tröbst chose to focus on the large Turkish flag behind the tables of the judges and on how the crescent was, for some reason, half covered. Now, he quipped, only the hammer was missing to round off the atmosphere. This reference to the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union would have hit home with his nationalist readers in 1926, though the great Stalinist show trials only took place a decade later. In the turbulent 1920s, nobody could yet know what the Kemalist republic was going to be, especially after the opposition party had been outlawed and Turkey had become a one-party state. The fact that the new Turkey had come into being with Soviet support did not help either. In the privacy of his diary Tröbst went further: ‘In my opinion, they wanted to use a fabricated assassination [attempt] in order to silence the whole opposition. Among the arrested is Refet Pasha whom I know well and many others. Fishy, very fishy.’ Tröbst was ‘revolted by the whole thing’.
His final article on the İzmir trial was titled ‘Fifteen Gallows – The Blood Court of İzmir’. It was an atmospheric piece that focused on the actual gallows that had been erected right in the centre of İzmir. In line with his gentlemanly view of coups d’état, Tröbst had expected that the conspirators would merely receive prison sentences. And now the corpses of the plotters were, Tröbst claimed, dangling almost directly over the coffee tables of the cafés lining the street. He was outraged at the death sentences. After all, he wrote, they had engaged only in the ‘thought’ of an attempt, not the deed itself.
But ‘İzmir had only closed the first act of the drama’, as Tröbst wrote, reporting what came next. A few weeks later a second trial was staged in Ankara, larger than the previous one in both the number of those accused and in relation to its scope. This was the real clean-up trial. It scapegoated the remainder of the Young Turks (the group of Turkish revolutionaries who rebelled against Sultan Abdul Hamod II in 1908, compelling him to restore a constitutional government) not only for plotting to overthrow the government, but for past corruption and mismanagement. The Young Turks were blamed for everything that had gone wrong over the last decade, all of which had begun, or so the trial suggested, with Turkey’s entry into the First World War on the side of Germany. This was now, Tröbst titled, ‘The End of the Young Turks’. Very much in line with later historiography, he wrote that the remnants of the Committee of Union and Progress were perceived to be the most pressing and urgent threat to the new republic by the leading Kemalists. In Tröbst’s words: ‘Struggle over power in its most brutal form – this is the basic thought on which the Ankara trials are based.’ Tröbst explained that the government pursued two goals with these trials: one was to ‘render harmless the political enemy’, the other was to ‘stabilise its own shaky position [and] to find a lightning rod for the stormy mood in the country’.
It is sometimes claimed that Atatürk had wanted to pardon some of the most prominent of his former allies who stood trial at Ankara, but declined to do so for fear of validating conspiracy theories voiced in the international press, which suggested that the assassination attempt had been staged in order to create an opportunity to ‘clean house’. Tröbst had pushed the topic of the purges onto newspaper pages with his articles like no other German journalist, but he had confined his opinion that the assassination attempt had been fabricated mainly to his diary. Nevertheless, his articles betrayed the fact that he had been converted from admirer to critic. As it dawned on him that the assassination attempt would be used for far-reaching purges, Tröbst wrote in his diary: ‘Poor Turkey! How is this [all] going to end? Perhaps at one point I will be among your victims. Who knows? Premonition?’
Tröbst was expelled from Turkey a few weeks after the Ankara trial. He only found out why in the last few minutes of his time there, as he was about to board a ship to Greece. The Turkish official who escorted him claimed that he was being kicked out of the country for his ‘Fifteen Gallows’ article. The German embassy’s investigation in the matter confirmed this.
After arriving in Athens, Tröbst pondered on his expulsion and the trials in his diary entries. He recalled sitting with a Turkish newspaper editor in a cafe on İzmir’s main street on the day of the executions. Across from their table the corpse of the former Minister of Education hung from the gallows. This editor had told him in a quiet voice: ‘You know, when the verdict was made public I had written a critical article which was already set for print. What a blessing that I took it out again and destroyed it. A protest against the executions would have meant getting arrested myself.’ Yet, this unnamed editor added, it would also be prudent not to lean too much to the other side now. Were new revolutionary purges to come from the other side in the next few years, everything written and published now would be used as evidence. Tröbst then added in his own words that this is exactly what had happened during the Ankara trial, when the prosecutor had used articles from large circulation newspapers such as Tanin as evidence against the alleged plotters. Even when articles at the time had been merely sensible, legitimate criticism, they were used as evidence of the writers’ ‘attacks on the republic’.
Tröbst continued as a correspondent. After sojourns in various southern European countries, he established himself in China, where he died in 1939. Atatürk went on to further consolidate his republic and his rule. The year after the trials, in 1927, he delivered a 36-hour speech, the Nutuk. This impressive feat has since become a milestone text, a true foundation stone of the Turkish republic. It was a justification of the purges of the previous year, but turned into much more. With it, he rewrote the history of the young republic and formulated many of the key tenets of Turkish republican historiography. Everybody in Turkey today knows the Nutuk.
The years from 1925 to 1927 were something like a second coming of the Turkish republic, after its initial founding during the Turkish War of Independence. Things changed afterwards, also for the better, as the political scientist Dankwart Rustow commented:
Not only was Kemal restrained in his use of violence, but the violent interlude ended after a few years. His one-party regime was tempered after about 1927 by full respect for parliament-
ary and legal procedures. Having suppressed the opposition and executed a few of his more serious rivals, he could afford to be more lenient and broad-minded. No longer could a deputy with impunity shoot his colleague dead in the very lobby of the Assembly, as happened in 1923. No longer could a score of Assembly members, regardless of their parliamentary immunity, be summarily tried and sentenced as in 1926.
Andrew Mango, one of the leading biographers of Atatürk, gave his chapter on 1926 the telling title, ‘Measured Terror’. It is too early to say whether Erdoğan’s post-coup ‘house cleaning’ in today’s Turkey will merely involve ‘measured terror’ or much more. Will it perhaps even usher in another re-founding of the Turkish republic? In one of his first pieces on the İzmir trial, Tröbst had quoted, with scepticism, what would later become one of Atatürk’s most famous dicta. Perhaps some, if not many, in Turkey today would share Tröbst’s critical sentiment when they think of that famous sentence: ‘My body will become dust one day, but the Turkish republic and her principles will live forever!’
Stefan Ihrig is a professor in history at the University of Haifa. He is the author of Justifying Genocide: Germany and the Armenians from Bismarck to Hitler (Harvard University Press, 2016) and Atatürk in the Nazi Imagination (Harvard University Press, 2014).