The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The execution of a former Turkish leader that still haunts Erdogan

The mausoleum of former Turkish prime minister Adnan Menderes in Istanbul’s Topkapi cemetery. (Ishaan Tharoor/The Washington Post)

In the shadow of medieval ramparts along the north of the old city lie the graves of three hanged men. The tomb at the center belongs to Adnan Menderes, a former Turkish prime minister who was ousted by a military junta in 1960 and executed a year later, along with his foreign and finance ministers. They now rest next to him.

Turkey’s modern history is punctuated by great drama and upheaval. The country has endured waves of political turmoil and unrest, a decades-long Kurdish separatist insurgency, the growing threat of Islamist terrorism and multiple coup attempts, including the failed insurrection July 15 that led to hundreds of deaths and prompted an unprecedented government purge of state institutions.

But in the minds of some Turks, the military’s removal and unjust sentencing of Menderes — the republic’s first leader elected in free elections — represent a kind of original sin, a tragedy that prefigured the turbulent course of events to come.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in power for nearly a decade and a half, has in recent years invoked the memory of Menderes as part of his own political legacy.

A young Erdogan reportedly watched his father, a humble mariner from the Black Sea region, weep when Menderes was sentenced to death. He has said that the "sadness" of the moment turned him toward politics.

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A tiny, flat isle off Istanbul’s coast — once the site of exile for unruly Byzantine princes — where the junta imprisoned, tortured and tried Menderes and senior figures in his government, has been renamed Democracy and Freedom Island under Erdogan’s watch. A hotel and tourist complex is under construction.

"We are realizing Menderes's dream," Erdogan said while on the campaign trail in 2014. "They may have executed him, but he is not forgotten. He is in our hearts."

Strong support for Erdogan

In the wake of the defeated coup attempt, Menderes’s fate has particular resonance. The public’s muted acquiescence to the 1960 coup and the sham trial that followed is a “dark blot” on the Turkish conscience, said Halil Berktay, professor of history at Sabanci University in Istanbul.

Contrast that with what seemed to happen this month as mutinous soldiers blockaded bridges in Istanbul and launched attacks on government buildings in Ankara. Countless Turks took to the streets in support of the elected government; opposition politicians, despite their differences, all backed Erdogan and the ruling party. In Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, nightly rallies still extol the government and the will of the people.

“In any democracy, citizens are bound to disagree,” wrote Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for Erdogan, in a recent column. “But our nation’s response to the July 15 assault proved that democracy, freedom and the rule of law are nonnegotiable in Turkey.”

The coup attempt was the bloodiest in the long history of military interventions in Turkish politics, with soldiers opening fire on civilian protesters and bombing the parliament. Its defeat stoked nationalist sentiment and proved emotional for Erdogan’s conservative base, a constituency not dissimilar from those who once supported Menderes.

“The grandchildren of the people who cried for Menderes went out on the streets, used social media and organized against the coup,” said Mustafa Akyol, a liberal Turkish columnist.

Like Erdogan, Menderes was a center-right nationalist with tremendous popular support. In a climate of almost draconian state secularism, he pushed for liberalizing economic reforms and tried to create more space for Muslim practices. Under Menderes, mosques in Turkey were allowed to issue the call to prayer in its original Arabic for the first time.

The Turkish republic was founded and led by Westernized elites in the country’s cosmopolitan coastal cities who had little to do with the more devout Sunni Muslim communities in the Anatolian hinterland. Menderes, although a rich, well-educated landowner himself, came to power with the votes of this largely neglected, poorer, religious base.

His election victory in 1950 “was the first breakthrough, the first attempt to conquer the center of Turkish politics from the periphery,” Berktay said.

Erdogan sees himself walking in Menderes’s path and invokes this history to show that his own Islamist-tinged rhetoric “has roots and is part of an older political tradition,” said Etyen Mahcupyan, a journalist and former adviser to Erdogan’s government.

Erdogan also repeatedly claims to be vying against the same forces that led to Menderes’s demise — the machinations of the once staunchly secular military and the schemes of the “deep state,” the distinctly Turkish notion of antidemocratic cabals installed in the state bureaucracy.

U.N. expresses ‘deep concerns’

Turkish authorities say the coup attempt was carried out by a conspiracy tied to the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States but presides over a complex global network of schools, businesses and charities.

In his early years in power, Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and Gulenist-linked officials in the state bureaucracy teamed up to sideline rival elements, including the secularist top brass. But in recent years, the two camps have been in open war with each other.

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Erdogan has likened Gulenist efforts to implicate him and his allies in controversial corruption cases to the “kangaroo courts” that were set up for Menderes.

“His narrative is Menderes was toppled by nefarious conspiratorial powers against the nation, by these putschists who want to defy the majority of the people,” said Akyol, the columnist. “The Gulenists are just the new element in the same old tradition of Turkish coup plotters.”

In the wake of the coup attempt, which the government claims was led by Gulenist military officers, “it’s a more valid historical analogy,” Akyol said.

Since the coup was quashed, tens of thousands of military officers, judges, police officers, teachers and other civil servants allegedly linked to the Gulen movement have been arrested, detained or otherwise purged from state institutions.

Arrest warrants have been issued for dozens of journalists with alleged links to the Gulenists. More than 100 media outlets are being shuttered because of alleged Gulenist ties.

The scale of the crackdown has alarmed rights groups and international observers.

In a phone call to Turkey's foreign minister on Wednesday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed "deep concerns" about the nature of the purge and urged Ankara to "adhere to its human rights obligations."

Here, too, there are echoes of the past.

“The parallel is actually more appropriate than Erdogan might like to admit,” said Nicholas Danforth, Turkey scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington and an expert on U.S.-Turkey ties during the Cold War.

In the last years of his rule, Menderes became increasingly autocratic, brutalizing and intimidating toward the opposition while arresting critical journalists and closing newspapers.

His government “created the environment for a military takeover virtually with their own hands,” said Berktay, of Sabanci University, insisting that that in no way justified the coup.

Similar currents that surrounded Menderes’s downfall — the volatile polarization of Turkish politics, the restlessness of a military that sees itself as the true guardian of the state, the tension between Muslim conservatives and secularists — have again come to the surface.

“Though the real blame lies with the leaders of the 1960 coup, Menderes also squandered a unique opportunity to help consolidate Turkish democracy,” Danforth said. “In his effort to avoid Menderes’s fate, Erdogan may well do the same.”

Read more:

A family caught on both sides of Turkey’s failed coup

Turkish lawyers report abuse of coup detainees

Turkish mayor calls for a ‘graveyard for traitors’ behind failed coup

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world