On a February evening in 1959 an airplane plummeted through fog and crashed into woodland close to Gatwick airport. Aboard was Turkey’s first democratically elected prime minister, Adnan Menderes. To the amazement of a local couple who rushed to the scene, he walked out of the wreckage barely scratched.
For the ecstatic crowds who greeted him back in Ankara, his miracle escape was a sign of divine approval for his attempts to bring Islam back into the daily lives of Turks who had been forced to secularize by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the republic. Yet two and a half years later Menderes would be hanged on a prison island, the first in a line of modern Turkey’s leaders to be toppled by its coup-happy generals.
Menderes was so scorned by Turkey’s secularists that his name was erased from public life for decades, although for religious Turks his death was a tragedy and his popularity never waned. More recently President Erdogan, the target of a coup attempt in 2016, has restored Menderes’s honor and often plays on the enduring affection for him by claiming that he is continuing his legacy.
Menderes was hanged on a prison island, the first in a line of modern Turkey’s leaders to be toppled by its coup-happy generals.
Yet as Jeremy Seal, a travel writer with a long-held fascination for Turkey, reveals in his enlightening book A Coup in Turkey, Menderes’s story defies the simple political messages that are projected onto it.
Menderes was prime minister from 1950 to 1960. During that decade new mosques mushroomed across the country and there were pogroms against the Greek, Armenian and Jewish communities. In one terrible night 71 churches and more than 4,000 stores and 2,000 homes were looted or destroyed.
However, that is not the complete picture. Turkey also joined Nato, and Hollywood stars attended the opening of a huge, ultra-modern Hilton overlooking the Bosphorus. Menderes was, Seal says, “a prodigiously gifted man, stalked since his traumatic childhood by impulses, enthusiasms, infatuations, obsessions and especially insecurities” that would eventually prove his undoing.
Ali Adnan Menderes was born in 1899, the son of a rich landowner from the Aegean province of Aydin. His parents and siblings died of tuberculosis and he was brought up by relatives in the nearby city of Izmir. In 1931 he was elected to the Turkish parliament as a member of its only party, Ataturk’s Republican People’s Party (CHP).
By the end of the Second World War, Menderes sensed that global upheavals might give Turkey a chance at true democracy. Although Menderes’s calls for reform led to his expulsion from the CHP, President Ismet Inonu, Ataturk’s successor, saw democratization as the best bulwark against the encroachment of Soviet communism. He established a multiparty system in 1946 and Menderes co-founded the Democrat Party. In 1950 it won a landslide and Menderes became prime minister.
While the CHP, a party of urban sophisticates, viewed itself as the spearhead of Ataturk’s secularizing vision, working “for the people, in spite of the people” according to its party slogan, Menderes made his pitch directly to the country’s rural, religious poor, the vast majority of the population.
Menderes was so scorned by Turkey’s secularists that his name was erased from public life for decades, although for religious Turks his death was a tragedy and his popularity never waned.
His most popular move was to re-establish the Arabic call to prayer, 18 years after Ataturk had decreed it must be performed in Turkish, to the horror of the devout. Nonetheless, in his early years in power Menderes displayed an instinct for knowing how to pander to the mosque-goers “without unduly alienating those who would rather cheer for Miss Turkey”, as Seal puts it. In the 1954 elections he increased the Democratic Party’s majority, taking 503 of the parliament’s 541 seats.
That thumping victory was not entirely down to his talents; Menderes was also the beneficiary of good fortune and cynical maneuvering. Excellent weather during his first years in power led to bumper harvests, and he further enriched the agricultural class by guaranteeing state grain purchases at inflated prices.
Menderes grew used to praise and a fawning press, and when those fortunes began to change, so too did Menderes. Immediately after his triumphant second victory droughts and mismanagement turned Turkey into an economic basket case, even as Menderes forged ahead with expensive infrastructure projects. Increasingly bad-tempered, he started to purge and jail his critics.
In 1957 he called ill-advised early elections in which the CHP, led by Inonu, won huge gains, prompting Menderes to dig in further. After all his early promise as a reformer, “it seemed that democracy disagreed with [Menderes]”, Seal writes. “Unless, that is, he could find a way of disagreeing with democracy’s definition.”
Menderes was, Seal says, “a prodigiously gifted man, stalked since his traumatic childhood by impulses, enthusiasms, infatuations, obsessions and especially insecurities” that would eventually prove his undoing.
Here is Menderes’s true parallel with Erdogan, which Seal subtly reveals, piece by piece, by flitting forward to scenes from 2016, just months before the military revolt against Erdogan, as the author traveled around Turkey searching out Menderes’s legacy. Seal widens his scope, sweeping from the Ottoman era to the present, to show the grandiosity, paranoia and self-delusion to which almost every Turkish leader eventually succumbs. He does that with an elegant and often humorous touch, despite the tale’s grim denouement.
By early 1960 it was clear that Menderes’s government was taking steps to outlaw the CHP. Against the background of student protests in the universities and increasingly combative statements from Inonu, in the early hours of May 27, 1960 the army seized control of the country. In September 1961 Menderes and three of his compatriots were sentenced to death for high treason, embezzlement of state funds and violating the constitution. He was executed two days later. Today Turkey’s castrated media refers to it as the country’s “darkest day”. Many opponents of the present government would agree, even as they despair at Erdogan’s mirror trajectory.
Seal reveals Menderes’s true parallel with Erdogan by flitting forward to scenes from 2016, just months before the military revolt against Erdogan.
History happens quickly in Turkey — Erdogan’s slide into authoritarianism has been as dizzyingly fast as Menderes’s downfall — but the truth tends to take far longer to unfold. It will be years if not decades before historians and journalists can fully examine the coup attempt of 2016, thanks to Erdogan’s squashing of free speech and proclivity to tar anyone who challenges him as a coup plotter.
Yet understanding the present always starts with coming to terms with the past. Given that Menderes’s overthrow set the tone in Turkey, which then endured a coup every decade until the turn of the millennium, there have been surprisingly few books written about him. Seal’s work is an excellent addition to any Turkey bookshelf, offering a beautifully wrought epitaph that Menderes’s contradictory life, and the continuing aftershocks of his death, has long deserved.