Downton Abbey, Military Coups and the New Turkey

Have you noticed that the ages people tend to consider milestones in a human life-span don’t actually change much at all? You turn 30 – oh no! you think. That’s the end of my youthful irresponsibility. As of today I have to become a mature adult. But in fact you don’t feel any different from the day before when you were 29 years and 364 days. You hit the big 4-oh – and it’s not as bad as you’d feared. What changed? Very little.

The fear really kicks in when you get to 34 or 45. Then you are obliged to face the reality that the next milestone is . . . and that is scary.

‘Downton Abbey’ has become quite a big thing in our household for the last year or so – that teddibly teddibly English drama series dealing with life in the rigid socio-economic strata of a Yorkshire stately home a century or so ago. Lord Grantham is a blue-blooded aristocrat whose main purpose in life is preserving his inherited title, property and lifestyle for succeeding generations. If he has a philosophy it can probably be summarised as ‘God’s in His heaven, the laird’s in his castle, Mrs Patmore’s in the kitchen – all’s right with the world.’

My daughter's marrying an Irish chauffeur?

My daughter’s marrying an Irish chauffeur?

The 20th century had dawned some years previously. 1 January 1900 had come and gone with little to disturb the great chain of being. The venerable Victoria had sat 63 glorious years on the imperial throne before handing over to her sagaciously bearded, solid-looking son Edward (born in 1841). Motorcars had appeared on the scene, but in as yet manageable numbers, retaining the height, cabinetwork and brass trappings of horse-powered carriages; and had yet to impact on equestrian culture.

The real shock was yet to come – and it came with the Great War; the conflagration later to be known as World War I. It wasn’t so much the appalling toll of death and injury. What really ushered in the new century was the social upheaval brought about by the flood of new technology, and the demolition of social barriers between men and women, and social classes.

By Downton’s fifth season, Lord Grantham is starting to lose his way in a labyrinth of previously unthinkable societal changes. His eldest daughter is a youthful widow; his middle daughter has a child out of wedlock . The youngest married the chauffeur before dying and leaving the family with their child as an unbreakable link. Downton Abbey itself is taken over for the war years as a hospital for wounded servicemen. Once idle rich women experience the personal fulfilment of meaningful work and service to others. Young men of all classes fight side-by-side, seeing friends and enemies of all classes burst open to reveal blood, bones and organs equally horrific and disgusting. Many of them come to question whether the war had truly been fought for freedom, or for less noble economic motives. By the time a radio is accepted into the big house and Lady Cora flirts with a male guest, it has become clear that the old world has passed. Whatever was may have been right – but it no longer is.

The Dowager Lady Grantham sums up the whole business in one of her inimitable observations: ‘All this endless thinking – it’s very overrated. I blame the war. Before 1914 nobody thought about anything at all.’

Well, I know I haven’t really said anything new here. It’s no discovery of mine that the First World War marked, for better or worse, the true beginning of the 20th century. As I write this, however, seated at my desk in Istanbul on Tuesday 19 May 2015 I am enjoying a day off work thanks to Atatürk, founder of the Republic of Turkey. On this day, 96 years ago, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, as he was then, disembarked from a ship in the Black Sea city of Samsun. Sultan Mehmet VI was still sitting, albeit precariously, on the throne of the Ottoman Empire. He had charged the young general with overseeing the disbanding of the imperial army, as required by the Treaty of Sevres.

Out with the old - in with the new

Out with the old – in with the new

The pasha didn’t do it. Instead he set about organising a nationalist movement which, four years later, had driven the invading Greek Army out of Anatolia, persuaded the occupying British forces to quit Istanbul, abolished the 600-year Ottoman Empire and supervised the foundation of the modern republic. But what was the nature of that new entity? Its population was less than 14 million. Ten years of virtually uninterrupted war had decimated the young male demographic. 76% of the people lived in rural areas. There was virtually no manufacturing or heavy industry, or mechanised agriculture. Another result of the wars was that Christian citizens, who had filled important sectors in the Ottoman economy, had left, replaced by dispossessed, impoverished refugee Muslims from Greek lands.

It would be a mistake to equate the terms ‘republic’ and ‘democracy’. Turkey held its first truly democratic election in 1950. Three-and-a-half coups d’état [1] between 1960 and 1997 replaced elected governments with military regimes. After the coup of 1980, 650,000 citizens were detained under martial law, 50 were executed and 171 died under torture, not counting the 299 who died in prison from undetermined causes. Newspapers were closed for 300 days, 30,000 civil servants were removed from their jobs; some 30,000 people fled the country and 14,000 had their citizenship revoked.

The architect of that bloody period in Turkey’s history was Chief of General Staff, Kenan Evren, who died two weeks ago at the age of 97. There was much debate over the question of a state funeral for a man who had held the position of President and Head of State for nine years – given that he had recently been convicted for his crimes, demoted to private and sentenced to life imprisonment[2]. He did get an official funeral in the end, but none of the main political parties sent representatives; and Deputy Prime Minister, Bülent Arınç was quoted as saying, ‘May God bless everyone who deserves blessing’ – possibly implying that Private Evren’s status with the Almighty was open to doubt.

In America's view, at least. The good old days in Turkey!

In America’s view, at least. The good old days in Turkey!

When I first came to Turkey, the 1980 coup was still relatively fresh in some people’s minds. My teacher colleagues assured me that it had been a necessary intervention to end a period of internecine political violence; that the army had a sacred duty to uphold the Turkish Republic – and there are some in the country who still, overtly or covertly, hold to that position.

More recently, however, some of the assumptions that seemed to be accepted as akin to gospel truths in the 1990s have been overturned, or have just quietly disappeared. As a result of two lengthy and wide-ranging court cases, the role of the military in Turkey seems to have drawn back from active participation in the political process, to a more conventional one of protector against threats from outside. Women choosing, for whatever reason, to cover their hair with a scarf, are permitted to study at universities or work in public and private sector jobs. The existence of two large ethnic or religious minorities, Kurds and Alevis, has been acknowledged and steps taken to allow them to participate fully in the life of the nation. Related to this process, the very name of the republic has become a matter of debate: the ‘Turkish Republic’ implying a homogeneous ethnicity – the ‘Republic of Turkey’ having more inclusive connotations.

Nevertheless, there are those who, for reasons of their own, refuse to accept that these changes are necessary, and persist in accusing the government of working against democracy. The leader of the CHP political opposition recently suggested that there was little to distinguish the present government from the military regime of the 80s. Well, political rhetoric often tends to exaggeration, but even Mr Kılıçdaroğlu must be aware that, had he made such criticism of Kenan Evren and his henchmen back then, at the very least he would have found himself missing a few fingernails, or nursing seriously battered feet.

Go ahead - google it!

Go ahead – google it!

That was a different world, before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Turkey was on the frontline of NATO’s Cold War and left wing political activists were considered an unacceptable threat to its security. The existence of the stay-behind Gladio organisation and its covert operations in countries throughout Europe is now so well-documented as to be irrefutable. It was employed by successive United States governments to ensure the continuation of ‘friendly’ regimes in countries as diverse as Iran, Chile, Turkey and Nicaragua.

Covertly orchestrated regime-changes are known to have taken place from the 50s through to the 80s – and who’s to say they are not still happening. If Gladio agents could foment street violence in the 1970s to justify military intervention, who’s to say they, or their post-modern equivalents wouldn’t do it again? The enemy may have changed from communists to Muslims – but if the methods work . . . The US government and the European Union are tying themselves in contortions of sophistry to avoid applying the label of military coup to the ousting (and now threatened execution) of democratically elected Muhammed Morsi in Egypt. The US’s Arab friends in Saudi Arabia and the United Emirates are performing surrogate roles in Syria and Yemen. You might think we are in the early stages of World War III – except as far as I am aware, no one has actually declared war on anyone.

Maybe that’s another sign that the world has changed.


[1] That of 1997 is often referred to as the ‘post-modern’ coup, avoiding the use of tanks, torture and other bloodshed

[2] The sentence is currently under appeal


4 thoughts on “Downton Abbey, Military Coups and the New Turkey

  1. Hello Alan

    I was in Alanya during th 1980 coup, it was Friday I remenber; this I what I wrote abouit it all at the time:

    “I went to Turkey in the late seventies to work for a couple of years on a contract. In those days Turkey was going through social-economic crises and an amount of anarchy was rife. People were being shot in the cafes and the streets (sometimes old scores were being settled), and many differing factions were scrambling for power

    It was in this scenario then that I was working as a Professional Chartered Engineer. In fact daily life became so bad since electricity and water supplies were regularly cut, and petrol was scarce and rationed. However the army again took a hand and they took power under General Kenan Evren in an overnight coup and formed a Government, introducing martial law and curfews and separating the warring factions.”

    I lived a further two years under military rule before my contract finished and I returned home to UK.

    All I can say is, as a non-political, that I thought K. Evran’s ‘doings’ made a big improvement to daily life for Turkey and the Turks as it was a complete mess at the time. Maybe he was the right man at the right time and did the the right things. In reality Turkey has come on in leaps and bounds ever since.

    John Guise – New Zealand

    • That must have been a really interesting experience, John. Thanks for sharing it. We are fortunate in NZ not having had to go through those kind of times. Geographical isolation has advantages and disadvantages, huh!

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