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Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Kenan Evren's Bitter Harvest: Legacies of a Coup that Changed Turkey and Europe

Turkish Jandarma arrest Left wing activists in an Istanbul suburb - 13 September 1980

In the final hours of 11 September 1980 diplomats in the West German consulate in Istanbul began to notice an unusually high level of military activity. With information of troop movements trickling in their colleagues at the embassy in Ankara tried to phone their usual contacts within Turkey's biggest political parties only to get no answer. By midnight the West German diplomats manning the phones decided that a scenario they had dismissed only a few weeks previously was now unfolding. In the first minutes of 12 September 1980 the chargé d'affaires at the German embassy in Ankara cabled a one sentence message to Bonn confirming that the Turkish military had deposed the elected government led by Süleyman Demirel and had seized power in a swift coup d'etat.

Over the next few days thousands of Turkish citizens the military considered to be a threat to the state were detained with brutal force. Along with members of radical Left movements, military units also arrested many extreme Right wing nationalists and Islamists who the generals believe were a threat to the Republican social order established by Kemal Atatürk. Frustrated with the weakness of Liberal and Conservative factions that Süleyman Demirel had struggled to keep united, intelligence agents also arrested many other politicians and prominent intellectuals to give the General Staff under the leadership of General Kenan Evren the space to reshape the political system to its liking.
The third Turkish military intervention in less than twenty years, the 1980 coup would dramatically alter the course of a Republican order that had endured since the early 1920s. The full scale assault by the state against the Turkish Left marginalised movements that in the previous decades had mobilised a large support base in the cities. The militarisation of relations between the Kurdish community and the Turkish state fuelled a cycle of escalation that played into the hands of an insurgency led by the PKK, a movement governed along authoritarian Democratic Centralist lines. Violent Right wing gangs loyal to the ultra-nationalist MHP were suppressed to limit their ability to defy the intelligence services.  
Crucially for Turkey's long term political trajectory, though activists loyal to Islamist movements such as the National Salvation Party and the Gülen network came under state pressure their social infrastructure survived the period of military rule intact. Encouraged by military support for an ideological model that came to be known as the Turkish-Islamic synthesis, Islamist networks consolidated their position in working class neighbourhoods across Turkey. In subsequent years these networks would fill social spaces once dominated by the Left to mount a systematic challenge to the Kemalist military establishment.

While the shattering impact the 1980 coup had on Turkish society has been relentlessly debated, there is a strong case for seeing it as a pivotal moment in wider European history as well. By the late 1970s it was increasingly clear that millions of Turkish migrants initially employed in West Germany and the Netherlands on temporary guest worker visas were settling permanently in the member states of the European Economic Community (EEC). Despite attempts by West German governments to encourage Turkish citizens to return to Turkey, the size of the Turkish and Kurdish diasporas in Europe expanded rapidly as former guest workers brought their family members over to the cities in which they had found a livelihood. To understand the response of these diasporas to developments such as the recent Turkish constitutional referendum in April 2016, it is essential to look at how the political seeds sown by Kenan Evren with the 1980 coup still shape the politics of Turkish and Kurdish communities today.  

General Kenan Evren at the first press conference after the coup

As a NATO member and potential applicant for membership of the EEC, Turkey's own internal crisis had already become a cause of major concern for the United States and West Germany. Though there are some indications that senior figures in the Turkish military consulted with West German and US intelligence officials over initiatives to restore order, Turkish officers had kept the timing and extent of their actions largely to themselves. Caught off guard, many US and West German officials displayed mixed feelings about the actions of the Turkish military in the weeks after the coup. At the highest levels of government in Washington and Bonn there was relief that the possibility of a takeover of major cities by the radical Left had been suppressed through ruthless military action. Yet in West Germany, where Social Democrats were the dominant partner in the governing coalition, state repression that quickly moved beyond radical movements to suppress the Turkish moderate Left and Liberal elite caused considerable controversy. 
With reports emerging of human rights abuses by the Turkish army, the West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt struggled to sustain parliamentary support for the extensive military and financial aid the West German state continued to provide to Turkey. In several West European states such concerns led to moves to limit cooperation with Turkey until democracy was restored. Yet the key position Turkey held in the NATO's effort to contain Soviet power meant that most NATO governments avoided taking firmer action. By the time a semblance of constitutional government was restored in 1982 such measures had largely been dropped by Turkey's NATO partners, who were willing to turn a blind eye to the Turkish military's continuing interference in the country's political life as well as its increasingly brutal war against Kurdish insurgents.

While the initial impact of the coup remained limited outside Turkey, its long term social consequences would have a profound impact on the Turkish and Kurdish diasporas. In the immediate aftermath, each of the four main milieus targeted by the military would shift considerable resources to their networks in West Germany. Under enormous pressure the Left, radical Turkish nationalists close to the MHP, Islamist groups and Kurdish nationalist networks discovered immigrant communities in Europe as a safe haven from which to organise against the state imposed interpretation of Kemalism that dominated public life in 1980s Turkey. Even with the gradual loosening of social life after 1982 the traumas of the coup provided an incentive for Turkish and Kurdish movements to organise an extensive political infrastructure in diaspora communities.

Of these four milieus the radical Left initially had the most extensive social networks to build on within the Turkish diaspora. The sudden expansion of Turkish guest worker migration to Western Europe after the Bonn-Ankara labour agreement of 1961 took place during a period in which Turkey itself was experiencing a vast process of migration from the countryside to the cities. Shaped by a surge in industrialisation and expansion of new Gecekondu slums, this mass movement of people within Turkey as well as from Turkey to West European states took place in a context of sharpening class divisions. In a fraught environment recovering from military intervention in 1961, trade union militancy and mobilisation efforts by activists from radical Left groups such as Devrimci Sol or TKP-ML fostered a significant base for Marxist movements in expanding working class neighbourhoods. It was from these same communities that much of the initial cohort of Turkish workers was recruited by West German businesses in the early 1960s.

Even in the early phase of the guest worker programme Turkish workers immersed in trade union militancy and other forms of radical Left mobilisation set up social clubs affiliated to Marxist, Maoist, Trotskyite or Leninist movements that were battling for influence in the Turkish cities they had left. By the early 1970s such activists took a leading role in wildcat strikes over bad pay and conditions for guest workers that caused as much panic among West German trade unions as among factory managers. On a broader scale, many Turkish migrants that had experienced trade unions in Turkey established an extensive set of guest worker associations that by the early 1970s had federated into a wider organisation operating on a national scale in West Germany. 

ATIF poster condemning cooperation between West Germany and Turkey - 1983
ATIF is a guest worker association clost to the TKP/ML, a Communist Party with Maoist leanings

While the Turkish Left had a head start, groups associated with the radical nationalist MHP also moved to find recruits in the diaspora. By the late 1970s Turkish trade unionists close to the West German SPD uncovered evidence of collusion between factory managers, local Turkish diplomats and MHP activists to elect Turkish nationalists to worker representation boards. But there were also strong indications that Turkish immigrants who had grown up in highly nationalist milieus in their regions of origin sought out representatives of the MHP in order to counteract the influence of Left wing rivals who they believed were seizing control of workplaces and neighbourhoods.

By 1980 many West German cities contained community associations and meeting places controlled by representatives of the MHP. With a such a strong infrastructure MHP supporters in West Germany were regularly visited by the movement's leader, Alparslan Türkeş, who promoted his political network as a first line of defence against Communist infiltration in meetings with senior West German politicians such as Franz Josef Strauss. As violent confrontations between radical Turkish Leftists and the MHP's Grey Wolf street militia spilled over into the diaspora, the ideological turmoil engulfing Turkey itself in the run up to the 1980 coup became a security problem for the West German state.

With radical Left and Right wing networks attracting so much attention from the West German media, the emergence of Islamist organisations in immigrant communities was often seen as less problematic by local authorities in cities such as West Berlin or Hanover. While Grey Wolf thugs and Devrimci Sol foot soldiers fought each other in street brawls, Islamist groups such as Milli Görüs linked to Necmettin Erbakan's National Salvation Party (a forerunner of Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP), established a network of backstreet mosques and educational projects. By the early 1980s local Islamic associations linked to Milli Görüs were insistently lobbying schools for the right to teach Koran classes to Turkish pupils, efforts that were rejected by officials in Länder ministries of education. As younger Turkish Islamists came into contact with extremist networks in Arab diaspora mosques more radical factions within this milieu also began to gain the attention of West German security services. 

Though the role of devout Islamic organisations unsettled the SPD in particular, in the run up to the 1980 coup CDU/CSU politicians were willing to accept the notion that faith-based associations could act as a bulwark against Communists and other Left wing radicals within the Turkish diaspora. Odd as it may seem in our own contemporary environment shaped by security concerns over revolutionary Islamism, for West German politicians and intelligence agents in the late 1970s the expansion of Islamist networks was not seen as a significant problem. Only with the waning of the Cold War a decade later would attention shift to Islamist networks that were now entrenched among a significant minority within the Turkish diaspora.

In contrast to other milieus emerging among immigrants from the Turkish Republic, Kurdish networks in West Germany were still in a state of flux in the late 1970s. This partly reflected the evolution of Kurdish nationalist activism in Turkey, which had not yet exploded into the full-blown insurgency that was to consume most of the country's Southeastern provinces after the 1980 coup. Yet in the less restrictive legal environments of the Netherlands, Sweden and West Germany Kurdish organisations could celebrate forms of cultural and linguistic identity that could not be expressed openly in Turkey itself. The opportunities such European social spaces provided for activism banned in Turkey meant that control of diaspora political life became fiercely contested between nationalist organisations seeking to dominate a revival of Kurdish identity that was fiercely opposed by the Turkish military. 

Clashes between the more moderate KOMKAR and the PKK were already causing serious rifts between Kurdish migrants in the late 1970s. While KOMKAR advocated a gradualist approach towards Kurdish autonomy, the PKK's focus on revolutionary confrontation with the Turkish state began to gain traction among younger members of the Kurdish diaspora. By 1980 the PKK had a strategy in place that explicitly linked the social difficulties faced by members of the Kurdish diaspora in Europe with the violence facing Kurdish communities in Turkey. By ruthlessly suppressing competitors and successfully promoting this narrative of shared struggle between Kurds in the diaspora and Kurds in the Turkish Republic, the PKK created foundations for a formidable power base that West German governments would struggle to keep under control.

Yet until 1980 the Turkish and Kurdish diasporas remained a peripheral issue for most political movements in Turkey. Activists in the diaspora may have seen their political battles as central to a wider effort, but the leadership of the main movements remained focused on the escalating struggle to attain political hegemony in Turkey. Visits by leaders such as Alparslan Türkeş focused on fundraising to pay for campaigns in Turkey and using influence over diaspora as leverage to gain the support of West German politicians with a similar ideological outlook. 

This dynamic between diaspora communities and their regions of origin was transformed by the 1980 coup. The Turkish military's reordering of Turkish society through imprisonment and repression against those it declared to be the enemies of the state shattered the social order that had existed in Turkey since the fall of Adnan Menderes's government to the army coup of 1961. As a result Turkish and Kurdish diasporas shifted from being a peripheral factor in Turkey's political life to one of its central battlegrounds. The shock of the coup further politicised Turkish and Kurdish communities in West Germany in ways that would leave deep social cleavages shaping the response of rival milieus to moments of crisis in the following decades. In particular, there were two crucial dynamics that drew these diasporas into political conflicts that continued to wrack Turkey long after 12 September 1980. The first was the exile of many activists from Turkey to the safe haven diasporas provided. The second was a surge in interest in diaspora communities by Turkish security services concerned that they could provide a springboard from which attempts to foment revolt in Turkey. 

The influx of activists looking for a base after the 1980 coup helped the Turkish Left to entrench itself in West German cities in a way that helped define diaspora society. The initial impact of this shift of personnel and resources into the diaspora was most visible with movements that were belonged to the Turkish Left. With their fundraising apparatus in Turkey wiped out by state repression, radical Marxist-Leninist or Maoist groups such as the TKP-ML and the DHKP-C needed donations from supporters within immigrant communities in West Germany to avoid becoming completely dependent on external state sponsors. This competition for the loyalty and funds of diaspora supporters led to clashes between rival radical Left groups that escalate from street brawls to assassination attempts. 

Devrimci Sol funeral march for an activist killed by a rival Leftist movement - Berlin-Kreuzberg 1993
Bolshevik Partizan pamphlet condemning PKK attacks on its activists - Berlin 1991

Such vicious infighting between rival Leftist groups also  opened up greater space for MHP activists that were coming under the same pressures. Public rows and even street fights for control of Left wing migrant associations often put off less ideologically driven Turkish-Germans searching for help from organisations willing to protect their interests. Hit by splits over the clash between loyalty to specific concepts of Turkish nationalism and a wider sense of transnational Islamic identity, divisions within Islamist organisations in West Germany also hampered their ability to recruit and retain members. This provided opportunities for better organised MHP and Grey Wolf affiliates to expand their support base in Germany. 

As political divisions within Turkish communities deepened, developments in the Kurdish diaspora took a different turn. The dynamics in the diaspora shifted radically as the PKK came to dominate Kurdish politics in Turkey by taking advantage of radicalisation fuelled by the Turkish Army's brutal attempts to suppress the growing insurgency in Southeastern Anatolia. As in Turkey itself, PKK activists in West Germany used ruthless tactics not only against supporters of the Turkish state but also against rival movements within the Kurdish diaspora. Such organisations as KOMKAR or groups affiliated to various Iraqi or Iranian Kurdish movements experienced intimidation and even assassination at the hands of operatives working to cement the PKK's hegemony over the politics and culture of the Kurdish diaspora.

By the late 1980s the PKK and a whole array of front organisations disguised as cultural clubs or welfare groups dominated the political life of Kurdish communities across Europe. Activists that would have faced repression in Turkey could operate relatively freely in European cities despite attempts by West German and Turkish security services to contain their influence. This enabled the PKK to develop fundraising opportunities, from voluntary donations to protection rackets imposed on more reluctant Kurdish businesses, that enabled it to maintain a degree of autonomy from external state sponsors. Most importantly to the PKK's long term strategy, its ability to dominate Kurdish communities enabled it to present itself to influential West German political milieus around the SPD, the alternative Left and the Green Party as the sole representative of the collective will of the Kurdish people. Much to the frustration of Kurdish activists hostile to the PKK, by 1990 the PKK had built a formidable lobbying network among sympathetic Germans in the radical and Centre Left to promote its agenda within a post-reunification Germany whose influence on the global stage was growing.

German-language edition of the PKK Manifesto - 1991

With the turmoil in Turkey having such clear knock on effects on the diaspora in the 1970s, there are indications that the Turkish military had anticipated a degree of radicalisation in the diaspora before it seized power on 12 September. Senior officials in the foreign and interior ministries had already discussed greater efforts by the Turkish state to intervene in Turkish and Kurdish communities in Europe with counterparts on the German federal and regional levels. Struggling to manage conflict within immigrant communities, politicians and security officials on the West German side were very open to an expanded role of Turkish state institutions in West Germany that offered to stabilise and discipline unruly migrants. 

Mirroring the military's strategy in Turkey, a mix of repressive measures as well as active intervention in the institutional structures of the diaspora was designed to increase the Turkish state's control over diaspora life. By 1981 West German regional security officials began to complain about increasingly brazen intimidation of diaspora Kurds and diaspora Turks by the MIT (Turkey's primary intelligence agency) and its various allies and proxies among extreme Turkish nationalists and organised crime. Such covert repression was supplemented with open intimidation of dissidents within diaspora communities in the Bonn embassy as well as the Turkish consulates located in every regional capital. Blacklisted immigrants would suddenly find they could not renew passports or gain much-needed documents from the Turkish state. These measures could often cause whole families considerable trouble with West German authorities, who demanded confirmation of Turkish citizenship and other consular documentation before providing social services.

Along with such punitive measures, Turkish state institutions tried to develop more positive incentives to ensure the loyalty of the Kurdish and Turkish diasporas in Europe. Three months after the coup Kenan Evren addressed the diaspora directly in a speech justifying military intervention and defending his government's record broadcast on ZDF, one of the two main West German television channels. After 1981, the military regime heavily expanded funding and support for mosques in West Germany coordinated by Diyanet, the state institution in Turkey that regulated Islamic religious life. Turkish diplomats provided financial support for charitable organisations connected to Diyanet mosques in European cities and heavily lobbied regional West German politicians to treat these organisations as the primary intermediaries with the Turkish and Kurdish diaspora. 

By the late 1980s Ankara managed to consolidate influence over diaspora communities by providing imams and language teachers that were trained and certified by the Turkish state. Promoting a state-backed blend of traditional nationalism and Islamic conservatism based on the so-called Turkish-Islamic synthesis, Diyanet mosques and West German school programmes using Turkish Education Ministry textbooks backed a worldview that emphasised the Turkish language and Sunni Islam as defining elements of Turkish identity. Despite these pressures Left wing, nationalist and Islamist alternatives to Diyanet continued to sustain considerable networks of their own in Germany. Yet this consolidation of Turkish state power within the diaspora provided every government in Ankara after 1982 with a source of leverage it could use to put pressure on West European states.

Culture festival organised by an MHP-affiliated community association - Hamburg 2016

Attempts by the Evren regime to rein in the influence of the PKK over the Kurdish diaspora met with less success. The MIT's use of ultra-nationalist proxies to intimidate activists fighting for Kurdish rights proved deeply counter-productive. Waves of street violence between Turkish nationalists and Kurdish activists drove many members of the Kurdish diaspora initially sceptical of the PKK into its network of cultural associations and self-defence organisations. Each campaign by the Turkish state to break the influence of Kurdish nationalist thought over the diaspora only helped to consolidate the PKK's grip further over Kurdish communities in Western Europe. This open struggle, in which West German police and security services at times colluded with the MIT, also mobilised support of a broad spectrum of the German Left for various PKK front organisations that claimed to represent the Kurdish diaspora as a whole.

By the early 1990s these PKK front organisations were organising massive rallies in stadiums with thousands of participants bussed in from across Germany. Despite an official ban of the PKK and affiliated groups by the Kohl government in 1993, this network was too deeply entrenched in the Kurdish diaspora to be dislodged by a more confrontational approach. The success the PKK had in mobilising large swathes of the Kurdish community against the German government caused such disruption in German cities that by the early 2000s local police and politicians turned a blind eye to the open activity of ostensibly banned PKK networks. Deeply frustrated by the resilience of the PKK within the Kurdish diaspora, Turkish governments never abandoned efforts to limit its influence. This dynamic has continued to fuel a cycle of confrontation between Kurdish and Turkish activists in German cities that has flared up again in response to current battles between the AKP government in Ankara and PKK groups expanding their power across Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

The rapid expansion of Turkish and Kurdish communities across Western Europe over the course of the 1970s meant developments in Turkey that in previous decades had remained largely a foreign policy problem for West European states began to have a disruptive impact on their domestic politics as well. With Ankara taking an interventionist approach, West German authorities had to find a balance between assuaging a strategic NATO partner and ensuring that Turkish state institutions or security services did not fuel further conflict in diaspora communities. These acute political tensions fed into the wider social challenge of managing and integrating immigrants from across Southern Europe and the Middle East at a time when many in the West German political establishment still struggled to accept that immigrants were there to stay.

The social dynamics that took shape in the aftermath of the 1980 coup shaped the Turkish and Kurdish diasporas in ways that are still recognisable today. Though the military formally handed power to civilian governments, it continued to exert influence over parties and state institutions. In the diaspora a militarised blend of Kemalist nationalism and Islamic conservatism shaped the ideological outlook of Diyanet imams, textbooks used in community schooling or the television programming on satellite channels that were common in many immigrant households. This extensive network based on Diyanet structures provided the Islamist-nationalist AKP party a platform with which to consolidate its influence over conservative diaspora milieus after it took power in 2002. Though still a significant presence, the MHP and other radical nationalist groups lost members to organisations linked with the AKP as its access to state patronage grew. With senior leaders (including then Prime Minister Erdogan) regularly staging rallies in Germany to retain the loyalty of diaspora milieus, the Turkish state structures that Kenan Evren's government had put in place to promote support for the military became co-opted by AKP networks pursuing a rather different ideological agenda. 

Rally organised by an AKP affiliate - Mainz 2011

Having secured its position of dominance within the Kurdish diaspora, by the late 1990s the PKK used front organisations to work with the German Centre-Left and Left on a local level to exert influence over the political life of several German cities. In the process, what was once a network of violent activists in permanent conflict with the German state has become a slick lobbying operation using every legal means at its disposal to promote the goals of its parent organisation in German media and politics. Within the Turkish diaspora a large swathe of the generation of Left wing activists that fled Turkey in 1980 went on to build close partnerships with German movements and organisations that shared their ideological outlook. Over time the emergence of movements such as Antifa Genclik provided a platform through which Left wing Turkish-Germans could make the first steps towards taking an active part in German local politics.

As a result, the influence of the 1970s Turkish Left is in some ways stronger in German cities than it is in Turkey. Such increased integration into German political life, particularly among the second generation of Left wing Turkish-Germans, led to a decreasing level of engagement with the day to day controversies wracking Turkey in the 2000s. This marked a central paradox of diaspora politics, that as supporters of the Turkish Left merged into German milieus the centre of gravity of diaspora politics in Germany shifted to the advantage of culturally conservative milieus less willing to support the full integration of their members into German society.

Logo of the Antifa Genclik movement - 1994

In West Germany and other West European states the impact of the 1980 coup was therefore felt in the many cities and regions whose political life had become deeply intertwined with the fate of the Turkish Republic after decades of Turkish and Kurdish immigration. Though they initially assumed this disruption would peter out once the Evren regime consolidated its grip on power, over the following decades West German officials and politicians were regularly confronted with cycles of protest and violence in Turkish and Kurdish communities triggered by continuing instability in Turkey. From 1980 onwards developments such as the wars against the PKK, sectarian conflict between Alevis and Sunnis, military crackdowns on the Left as well as Islamists or Erdogan's attempt to entrench his power after the Gezi protests of 2013 all had an immediate impact on German society through Kurdish and Turkish diaspora communities.

The legacies of the 1980 coup in Turkey, Germany and the rest of Europe present something of a paradox. The massive social changes Turkey is experiencing are not a purely foreign policy matter that can be handled at a distance. By entrenching interconnections between the domestic politics of Turkey and Germany the 1980 coup ensured that the stability of the Turkish Republic has become a matter of fundamental strategic importance to the member states of the European Union. With political conflict and economic disruption in Turkey having immediate knock-on effects on Germany and other EU states, European Union governments have considerable incentives to continue providing financial and military aid to Turkey.

Such a dynamic could have a positive effect. The lasting impact of the 1980 coup on German as well as the Turkish society belies the notion that events in Turkey are not part of European history. The legacies of the Ottoman era as well as the presence of ethnic Turkish communities across Southeast Europe are strong enough evidence of how much Turkey is part of a shared European cultural and political space. The emergence of extensive transnational Turkish and Kurdish diasporas has reinforced the pivotal role events in modern Turkey can play in the politics of the European Union and its member states. In strengthening these longstanding ties between Turkey and other European societies, diaspora communities could help provide the basis for intensifying Turkey's role in the European integration process.

Yet it is the very sensitivity in Germany to every shift and twitch of Turkish politics that is currently fuelling a rapid deterioration in relations between Berlin and Ankara. As activists and voters, large parts of the Turkish community hostile to President Erdogan can put German politicians under pressure to oppose the authoritarian trajectory of an AKP-dominated state. At the same time, Kurdish-Germans supportive of the PKK's agenda take part in open mass demonstrations and fundraising activities that infuriate the Turkish government. Those significant parts of the Turkish diaspora still loyal to President Erdogan are regularly mobilised to intimidate opponents and aggressively pressure the German state by such AKP affiliates as the Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD). In response, German governments concerned over the loyalty of Turkish-Germans have worked much harder to create incentives for them to integrate into German society.

In such a volatile context, attempts to work together strategically over such issues as managing Syrian migration or counter-terror operations are severely affected by shifts in Turkish or German domestic politics. With the imprisonment of German journalists and activists after the 15 July 2016 coup, the accelerating deterioration in relations between Berlin and Ankara resulting from the intertwined nature of both societies risks leading to a breakdown of cooperation. This core paradox of relations between Turkey and Germany, that the diaspora that has fostered such deep links can also become a source of such deep conflict, is the bitter harvest of decisions made by Kenan Evren and his generals on a cold September day thirty-seven years ago.


  1. Very interesting post, appreciate the insight into the complexity of Turkish-German relations.

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