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12.09.2005

Past as present

Dogu ERGIL


Humankind makes history. So, it is responsible for what has taken place in the past. These thoughts occupied my mind on the days when we sadly commemorated the destructive events that transpired in Istanbul exactly 50 years ago that is alluded to as the "Sept. 6-7 events." What happened on those days half a century ago is of utmost importance for Turks to face their history and understand the ideological fabric of their political culture. There is enough data on hand to interpret the true nature of those events and sufficient liberties to discuss them.

An evening paper called Express, published in Istanbul, made two consecutive prints on Sept. 5, 1955, denouncing the sinister attack on the house where M.K. Atatürk was born in his hometown of Salonika, Greece. A newly created group called "Cyprus is Turkish" invited everyone to retaliate against the Greeks who wanted to annex the island and had not refrained from defiling Turkey's hero's sacred homestead.

Over the next two days and nights mobs raided the homes and workplaces of non-Muslim minorities in Istanbul and Izmir, leaving behind 16 dead and dozens of wounded citizens of Greek origin, 73 devastated Greek Orthodox churches and damaging one synagogue, eight chapels and two monasteries. Some 5,538 properties were sacked, burnt and destroyed, of which 3,584 belonged to Greek citizens of Turkey. Unfortunately, between 50-200 women (varying according to who has reported it) of the same extraction were physically violated. In Izmir, the Greek Consulate and the Greek pavilion at the Izmir International Fair were set on fire by arsonists; 14 homes and five shops were destroyed and ransacked. Some graves of Greek citizens were destroyed as well. The excuse was ready, "They started it and we paid them back."

It took a few years to learn the truth concerning who had perpetrated a mock attempt to bomb Atatürk's home in Salonika. It was a Turkish student (Mr. Oktay Engin) who later served in the intelligence community and ended his official career as the governor of Nevşehir.

The whole thing was a fabricated provocation to prove that there was public support behind the government of the day (headed by Mr. Adnan Menderes, who was later hanged by a military-backed tribunal) whose Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr. Fatin Rüştü Zorlu was negotiating with Greece and Britain for a fair settlement on Cyprus in the post-British era. What went so wrong and got out of control where excited street demonstrations could serve the purpose of the government?

Two-and-a-half factors misled popular reaction.

1) What we call now the "deep state," or covert organizations that see themselves as guardians of the country and protector of the nation, intervened and changed the course of events. One general (four-star Gen. Sabri Yirmibeşoğlu) admitted in an interview with Tempo magazine (24th edition, June 9-11, 1991) that "the events were the product of ‘special forces' and were an example of magnificent organization." Indeed, the raging horde was not an ad hoc crowd that was spontaneously provoked. They were organized, equipped with thousands of clubs, axes, national flags and posters of Atatürk and were waiting for the news of the bombing to come out. They were also supplied with lists of names and addresses of non-Muslim minorities. Police just watched the devastation for two long days and did not help the victims, except a few personal exceptions.

2) The phenomenon was one of the concrete examples of a series of actions of the undeclared policy of weeding out non-Muslims and non-ethnic Turks from the nation and transferring capital from the minorities to the national (ethnically Turkish) bourgeoisie. The process had started during the last decade of the Ottoman Empire led by the Young Turks (or the government of the semi-clandestine organization of Union and Progress) and went on during the republican years, to be repeated in Thrace (European Turkey) by intimidating the Jews in 1934, creating and exacting an exorbitant income tax, called the Varlık Vergisi (Wealth Tax), from all non-Muslim minorities of the nation in 1942 and finally an orchestrated operation that squeezed away 12,000 Greek inhabitants from Istanbul. The combined result of these intimidations and deterrent policies has been departure of initially hundreds and later tens of thousands of non-Muslim citizens from the country.

2 ½) The 1950s were the last years when the last traces of Ottoman social and cultural heritage of Turkey had disappeared or were erased. The republican regime had chosen to legitimize itself as unique and matchless by denying its Ottoman past in all vestiges of life and built its educational system on this rift. What had remained of Turkey's multi-cultural social fabric was destroyed in the 1950s both by discouraging non-Muslim minorities to remain in the country and by massive migration from the countryside into towns, most of all into Istanbul. By 1955, new districts composed of ex-peasants had emerged like Taşlıtarla, Kağıthane and Alibeyköy. The rural inhabitants of these and other new districts were quite unfamiliar with the cosmopolitan atmosphere of urban life and had never experienced a lifestyle enriched by non-Muslim urban groups. They were hungry for power, respect and wealth. Provoked into doing something "good" for their nation, proving their worth as destroyers of "subversive elements" and enriching themselves through booty was a perfect combination to Turkify the nation. In other parts of the world such a deed may be called ethnic cleansing but such a term is unknown in our part of the world so no one is blamed for the act.

We Turks chose not to remember those unsavory days and suppress the assiduous nature of the political philosophy behind similar events. We did not dare to admit to ourselves that we have lost the multi-cultural richness of our society. We did not want to admit that the protection of the lives, properties and honor of the Ottoman peoples that we were a part of was the nobles oblige of the republic that we are also so proud of. We never admit that appropriation of the properties and wealth of the non-Muslim minorities has not made us any richer; on the contrary, their banishment depleted the entrepreneurial power of the nation and dwarfed economic development. Denial of pluralism and multi-culturalism has left us devoid of the culture of reconciliation and tolerance to differences. We are not more stable and peaceful within now that the non-Muslims are only a miniscule part of the national population. We are ready to hate anyone who may dare to say that our recent history may not be a good compass to show the way in the future that is in the making.

Ashamed of what he has read and seen, the military prosecutor at the time has saved the photos and documents of the Sept. 6-7 events to be shown to future generations as a mistake not to be repeated. He gave them to the Turkish Historical Association and demanded that they only be published 25 years after his death. That day has come and in sad commemoration of the events, the Turkish Historical Association has organized an exhibition of photos of those two fateful days.

The exhibition opened its doors to the public on the same day of the events. But what do we see? A bunch of thugs calling themselves "nationalists' raided the exhibition hall and destroyed some of the photos. It seems the scions of the original perpetrators are still alive and kicking. Or is it more than that? Is it an understanding that we have to get rid of if we do not want to be ashamed of similar deeds?

History is not a lot from which we can choose the best; it is a load we have to carry in whole whether we like it or not, for we have accumulated it.