Erdoğan’s moves since the Turkish coup have been compared to Germany of 1933. Have we been too quick to label, and missed the point?
Since last week’s article, the Turkish government’s response to the Turkish coup has moved apace. Details remain sketchy, yet so far this has entailed the compilation of a proscribed list of journalists, from which more than 70 arrests had been made by last Sunday. Internet access to international news agencies and the licences of two-dozen local radio stations have been revoked. All university deans have had their contracts cancelled and 21,000 private-school teachers have lost their professional accreditations. Sinan Ciddi, Director of the Washington-based Institute of Turkish Studies, reports that the academic cancellations bring the total number of state employees dismissed since Friday July 15 to around 60,000. This includes members of the judiciary, police and military. And many of those dismissed appear to have been summarily detained. As the government considers reintroducing the death penalty, President Erdoğan’s promise of “revenge” against those implicated in the coup attempt appears to be spreading beyond its elite military leaders. The Times Of Israel reports that recommenced Turkish air strikes against Kurdish paramilitaries in Northern Iraq have killed over twenty. In the last days, the European Convention on Human Rights has been suspended and a state of emergency declared.
For followers of political history and those who view liberal-democratic constitutionalism as more than just a numerical method for deciding which potential leaders’ decisions become law, these are ominous moves. Already, Western media outlets have begun to make comparisons to Germany circa 1933. Deciding whether such comparisons are well-founded or not will be the task of the historians of some future time. Yet, as Lewis & Clark Law School’s associate professor of law, Ozan Varol, notes: some important points can be established now.
The event that triggered the Nazis’ suppression of Germany’s “Weimar Republic” (the German Republic of 1919-1933 – Ed), as well as its constitutional parliament and secular courts, was the burning of the Reichstag on February 27, 1933. Seeking the means to mobilise the vigorous young Sturmabteilung (SA) paramilitaries (which had become the Nazi Party’s membership base during its post-WWI construction), the recently-elected minority government’s chancellor, Adolf Hitler, blamed Germany’s Communist Party.
Within a short period, Carl Schmitt, noted conservative legal scholar and an author of the Weimar Constitution, provided a legal opinion on Article 48 that allowed Hitler to approach President Hindenburg requesting permission to “legally suppress” Weimar Germany’s parliamentary constitution. Schmitt’s doctoral student, Ernst Forsthoff (later the author of the 1960 Cypriot Constitution), wrote the now notorious Enabling Act of 1933.
As celebrated historian of the Nazi regime William L Shirer records in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, the Nazis’ suppression of their political opponents was swift. “Documents Proving the Communists’ Conspiracy” were promised and, though never published, the Prussian State government publicly swore that such documents existed. Although swiftly-called elections on March 5, 1933 (only six days after the fire) did not deliver a Nazi majority government, the Enabling Act powers ensured they’d be the last elections Germans knew whilst Hitler lived. Conjecture about who was responsible for the Reichstag fire abounds since, but the weight of opinion and some documentation suggests the Nazis put the SA up to the arson, and used it as a pretext for establishing Hitler’s dictatorship. Although Forsthoff successfully denazified after the war, Schmitt’s reputation never recovered. Meeting him many years later, influential Realpolitik scholar and founder of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, Hans J Morgenthau, declared Schmitt “the most evil man alive”. In academia, politics and polite conversation, Schmitt has (virtually) been persona non grata ever since, and his work largely ignored as anything other than a weapon with which to taint political opponents.
The explicitness is only the solidification of a situation that has been implied since 9/11, similar to how Hitler’s elevation in 1933 completed the rule-of-law’s subordination to leader’s will…Erdoğan’s subordination merely mirrors that of a post-Cold War world. As Owen Jones said after the Chilcot Report’s release, “It was all so predictable, and predicted.”
This leads to some major problems, especially when contemporary political writers begin to compare and contrast the recent events in Turkey with those of 1933.
Especially the question of whether President Erdoğan may have incited, or turned a blind eye to a foreseeable and constitutionally enfranchised military putsch attempt, in order to “burn his own Reichstag” and complete a long-desired reconstitution of the Turkish state.
It is no secret that President Erdoğan admitted, during 1996’s interview as Mayor of Istanbul, that his party viewed “democracy not so much an aim as an instrument” on the way to establishing an “order of happiness” (“saadet nizami”). The phrase is assumed to be a clear reference to the Prophet Mohammed’s time, which is frequently referred to as an “age of happiness” (“asr-i Saadet”) by Islamic scholars.
Clear too is that Erdoğan did not have the required vote share to make that sort of change to Turkey’s expressly secular constitution, and likely wouldn’t achieve it without some sort of existential political crisis to draw the electorate together centripetally through state of emergency articles 120-122 of the Constitution. Apparent too is that his AKP (Justice and Development Party) is using the situation, and the “extraordinary powers” drawn from state-of-emergency provisions, to its advantage, to make sweeping changes including the elimination of political enemies, and the possibility that Turkey will have to weaken its territorial foothold and claim to Cyprus.
That Erdoğan’s party had identified their political enemies beforehand and are working from pre-prepared lists is also no surprise, given the alacrity with which loyal security forces have moved to purge government employees and incarcerate large numbers. Furthermore, Erdoğan’s declaration that the coup attempt providing these opportunities “is a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army,” has an ignominious similarity to Hitler’s frequent thanking of “Divine Providence” for his personal safety and the successes of the Nazi project. Lastly, it is also manifest that Turkey will be irrevocably changed and that Ataturk’s constitutional secularism, the preservation of which was the declared reason for the coup attempt, was the attempt’s first casualty.
Yet it appears highly unlikely that Erdoğan or his AKP engineered a situation that would enable him to do so. Indeed, though familiar in the most forbidding way, many of these similarities look entirely incidental. In a global era of slight policy differences yet highly acrimonious politics, that a contemporary political leader has clear ideas about who their political enemies are and who they would want eliminated first (given the opportunity) is entirely unsurprising. That sort of bitter preparedness seems understandable and modern, as unfortunate as that is. The leaders of the coup attempt may have been some of the worst planners in history, but that too appears more like contemporary Western politics than the result of byzantine scheming on the government’s behalf.
Also on The Big Smoke
- History repeating: The bitter, familiar lessons of the Turkish Coup
- The carrot and the stick: Learning from the mistakes of history
Far from being in the grip of an economic malaise brought on by punitive international sanctions as Weimar was, the AKP’s economic leadership had, until very recently, been internationally acclaimed. Lacking the oil and gas reserves of its neighbours, Turkey attracted over 36 million tourists in 2012; recent declines have more to do with clashes with ISIS on its Anatolian border than mismanagement or legal insecurities. Although urged not to exceed the rule-of-law when pursuing coup plotters by increasingly fearful US and European regimes, Turkey remains a NATO member, and a key ally for Western forces fighting ISIS. Unlike Germany, whose socialist President Friedrich Ebert (in office 1919-1925) had used Article 48 to rule by decree and counter the weakness of elected regimes from the Weimar’s beginnings, Erdoğan has been able to craft democratic mandates throughout his political career. He also recently mended political relationships with Israel, damaged by the 2010 attempt to direct an “aid flotilla” to Gaza, and with Russia, damaged more recently when Turkish forces shot down an SU-24 during Russian raids on ISIS positions on the Syrian/Turkish border. Turkey needs Western allies, as much as Russia and the West need it to contain the region’s radical Islamists, and the flow of refugees fleeing. So wilfully threatening these relationships, and the loss of tourism revenue, is an imprudence the previously wily Erdoğan knows he cannot afford.
Perhaps, in a much changed and less secure world, the last word must go to Schmitt, who infamously argued “All law is ‘situational law’. The sovereign produces and guarantees the situation in its totality.” His jurisprudence on the legality of states of emergency and “exceptional law” will always be linked with the Nazi regime, but it is largely the unfamiliarity of his work that allows us to forget that his first writings and motives were aimed at preventing the Weimar’s slide into dictatorship, and preserving a liberal rule-of-law. Turkey is not currently alone in its institution of sweeping state of emergency powers.
On Europe’s western border, in response to the Nice attack, France has just renewed the constitutional state of emergency provisions invoked after Bataclan. This means, in a very explicit sense, that the legal rights of some 146 million citizens on either side Europe are no longer what they were a short time ago. Freedom of movement, employment and expression are now rights that only exist through the sufferance of sovereign power in the particular situation.
The point this article finishes with is: the explicitness of current state of emergency liberal rights suspensions in Turkey and France is only the solidification of a situation that has been implied since 9/11. This is very similar to how Hitler’s elevation in 1933 completed the rule-of-law’s subordination to leader’s will in a process started by President Ebert fifteen years earlier. Largely though, generally ignorant of Schmitt, the US executive and Blair government began using Schmitt’s friend/enemy distinction and the rhetoric of existential crisis, to define the nature of the political threat Western liberal-democracies faced, and to undertake a series of illiberal, legally dubious, politically unpalatable and, ultimately, inefficacious containment methods including “regime changes” across North Africa and the Middle East. Viewed this way, Erdoğan’s subordination of law and centralisation of power in Turkey merely mirrors that of a post-Cold War world that naively believed all significant political questions had “been settled” in favour of liberal-democracy. As Owen Jones said after the Chilcot Report’s release, “It was all so predictable, and predicted.” The term “emergency” has been normalised by a historically illiterate political elite and compliant press.
When Bush famously uttered: “I listen to all voices…and I read the front page, and I know the speculation, but I’m the decider and I decide what is best,” he unknowingly cited Schmitt’s: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception” formula for identifying sovereignty, and reconstituted our understanding of the rule-of-law.
Erdoğan is consciously responding to that reconstitution.