Turkey’s Erdogan takes cue from Hitler, Stalin and Khomeini

There is something deeply disturbing about the direction in which Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party are taking Turkey. Writing in this newspaper last week, John Lyons compared the sweeping purges to McCarthyism in the US in the 1950s. That was altogether the wrong analogy.

The scale and arbitrariness of what is happening are, rather, akin to Adolf Hitler’s state of emer­gency after the Reichstag fire in 1933, or Joseph Stalin’s reaction to the assassination of Sergei Kirov in 1934, than to the US in the 50s. There is also an analogy with Iran’s 1979-81 Islamic revolution.

In the wake of a coup attempt whose source remains mysterious and that fizzled within hours, Erdogan’s regime began arresting or dismissing from their posts tens of thousands of people: military officers, soldiers, police, schoolteachers, academics, judges and civil servants. The scale and speed of the reaction have been breathtaking and cannot possibly be based on evidence of complicity in the failed coup. They can be based only on lists long prepared of those deemed to be politically and ideologically opposed to the Erdogan regime. Such opposition is not a crime and by no means indicates treason or conspiracy.

The rhetoric of the Erdogan ­regime is startling. The call to re­introduce the death penalty is chilling. The insistence, without the provision of any credible evidence, that the coup was a conspiracy orchestrated by exiled, US-based Sufi cleric Fethullah Gulen and the declaration by the regime under the three-month state of emergency to take extra-legal steps to “cleanse” the state apparatus and armed forces of perceived enemies are all worrying indications that Erdogan’s agenda is not the restoration of democracy but the installation of an Islamist dictatorship. This is where the analogy with Iran under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini arises.

The Reichstag fire of February 27, 1933, was exploited by Hitler to declare a state of emergency in Germany and basically abolish the rule of law. The clearest account is by Ian Kershaw in the first volume of his magisterial biography Hitler (1998). As he points out, the fire was not itself a Nazi conspiracy but came as a surprise. Joseph Goebbels, when informed of it, thought the report was a bad joke. Hitler thought it was the signal for a communist uprising. Wild allegations to this effect were quickly made, but no credible evidence was ever produced. Bear that in mind when reading of allegations against the Gulenists.

Hitler, driven by vengeful phobias rather than evidence, declared to his closest colleagues: “This is a God-given signal … If this fire is, as I believe, the work of the communists, then we must crush out this murderous pest with an iron fist!” Erdogan, whether or not he was consciously mimicking Hitler, declared almost at once that the coup attempt was a “God-given” chance to crush the opposition.

He is proceeding to attempt exactly that. If he does, as he has threatened, reintroduce the death penalty, we should note very closely who is put to death.

Given that Erdogan has been on the record as declaring that democracy is just a train you use to get to your destination, then you get off it, what we are seeing looks distinctly like disembarkation.

Stalin did something similar in 1934-35, in a prelude to the Great Terror of 1936-38, in which, according to the KGB’s records, about 750,000 people were executed and the Gulag crammed with others.

In Stalin’s case, the target was a wide range of political oppositionists in Leningrad and around the country, who were ­labelled “White Guard elements” and “counter-revolutionaries”. He then used the same pretext to arrest many of his opponents from within even the Bolshevik party. Again, the analogy is striking.

Perhaps the best account of the Kirov murder and its consequences is in Oleg Khlevniuk’s Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator, published last year and based on unprecedented access to Soviet archives. What he makes clear is that, contrary to various conspiracy theories that have survived for decades, Stalin did not arrange Kirov’s murder but he did exploit it to accuse his political rivals (and former allies) Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev of planning it. They were convicted based on “blatantly fabri­cated” evidence. As things stand, there are disturbing signs that this is the game Erdogan is playing.

He has become a serious problem and it could soon get much worse. Spurned by the EU, he has in effect declared “there is a world elsewhere” and has taken his stand under the banner of radical Islam.

He has become a Putin-like figure and his Turkey is now a highly unreliable member of NATO, a looming danger to its small European and Mediterranean neighbours (think Cyprus. for starters) and a further case of the implosion of order in the Middle East. Whatever our perceptions or sympathies with regard to Turkey’s domestic affairs, these geopolitical concerns must be thought through quickly and realistically lest things unravel in a serious way indeed.

In May last year, Erdogan gave a public speech to a huge crowd in Istanbul, on the 562nd anniver­sary of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. He lionised not just that conquest — which no one in the West should celebrate — but Muslim conquests as a whole, beginning with the first raids and small wars by Mohammed. The crowd roared its approval: “Here is the army! Here is the commander!”

Erdogan has a strong base of support in Turkey, as Hitler did in Germany. Neither his reasonableness nor his intentions can be trusted. His Turkey has become a problem for Europe for the first time since the murderous wholesale expulsion of Turkey’s Greeks, in the 20s. Much now depends on how that problem is handled, diplomatically and strategically.

Paul Monk is the author of Opinions and Reflections: A Free Mind at Work 1990-2015.

This article has first appeared at The Australian

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