On the morning of May 27, 1960, the Turkish people awoke to a military coup d’etat that had already taken place at 3 a.m. The military coup, which was carried out by junior officers against their own High Command, at that time, was the last of its kind to take place on Turkish lands and appeared as if it was being carried out in the tradition of the Young Turks during the era of the Ottoman Empire.
Col. Alpaslan Türkeş announced on the radio that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) had taken over the administration of the country "to prevent fratricide" and to "extricate the parties from the irreconcilable situation into which they had fallen."
The declaration emphasized that the coup was nonpartisan in nature; however, the move commenced a "witch hunt" against the Democratic Party (DP) leaders, members and supporters around the country since the DP had defeated the Republican People's Party (CHP), which ruled the Turkish republic as a single party for 27 years, in the first free and fair elections in 1950.
The junta, which called itself the National Unity Committee (MBK), declared in its first communique, stating: “Concerning the lives of the former honorable heads of state and government who were put under security, we are faithful to our promise that we gave in the presence of the Turkish nation. There is nothing to worry about.”
Over the course of the 11-month period of drawn-out trials, described by the German Embassy as a “monster process,” more than anything the new regime was essentially taking the old one to a court it had established itself.
Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and President Celal Bayar, along with other 592 defendants, 395 of which were former deputies of the DP, was arrested and imprisoned on the island of Yassıada, one of the Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara. The officials were placed in the ruins of 11th-century prison cells where Byzantine political prisoners were left to rot.
The island's sports hall, which had been used by the Turkish navy for military education since the foundation of the republic, was converted into a venue for cases to be handled by a military court, of which the judges were appointed by the MBK.
In the end, 31 defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment and 418 to lesser terms, while 15 were sentenced to death. The MBK was the authority that made the final decision about executions. Eleven of the 15 on trial were sentenced by a majority vote, and the MBK commuted their sentences.
Even the pressure of the foreign governments could not stop the MBK from issuing the four other death sentences for Bayar, Menderes, Foreign Minister Fatih Rüştü Zorlu and Finance Minister Hasan Polatkan, which were approved unanimously.
Bayar’s death sentence was commuted because of his advanced age, but Menderes, Zorlu and Polatkan were executed by hanging on Sept. 16 and 17, 1961, opening a deep wound in the hearts of Turkish people, which still hurts.
Meanwhile, the members of one of the two factions within the MBK, of which the de-facto leader was Türkeş, were opposed to the other faction’s cooperation with the CHP and loyalty to former President Ismet Inönü, the “permanent member” of the party, and were expelled from the committee after a power struggle in the months following the coup.
On Nov. 13, the latter carried out a coup in the junta and purged those 14 members. The removal of “the Fourteens” (as they came to be called), who were first arrested and then sent as diplomats to Turkish embassies abroad, paved the way for the executions of some of the very "Fourteens," and who issued these verdicts remains unkown.
The “Fourteens,” most of whom argued that they tried to stop the executions while they were outside the country, later confessed that they were involved in the coup to prevent the handover of the governance of the country directly to the CHP.
Their plan was to continue the military regime.
Many criminal cases and corruption charges – some of which were really bizarre, such as the accusation that Menderes killed his illegitimate baby or that Bayar sold a dog he had received as a gift to use the money to construct fountains in an Izmir district for public use – obviously aimed to tarnish the reputations of DP members led by Menderes. Menderes had received a medal of honor for his service in the War of Independence, and Bayar, who was a close friend of the founder of the modern Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and was chosen by the latter as the fourth prime minister of Turkey after Inönü resigned in 1937, a year before Atatürk died.
But they were also charged with abrogating the 1924 Constitution. Ironically, a new constitution was drawn up to replace the previous one and a referendum was held even before the horrific trials came to a close.
It is now accepted that the May 27, 1960 coup was the result of at least five years of planning on the part of the conspirators, a number of radical colonels, majors and captains in their early 40s, aided by CHP deputies, pro-CHP academics and journalists in order to further the conditions to justify the coup.
Particularly after 1955, the tension in the country gradually increased. However, the DP formed an "Inquiry Commission" within Parliament on May 18, 1960, in order to investigate the CHP and the press with the army. The move was greeted by an enormous reaction from opposition parties, the press and universities, who argued the commission was against the law despite it being constitutional.
Of course, there were other factors that lead to the military takeover such as Turkey's geopolitics and the situation in the region at the time. But the demonstrations, which started in the universities in Istanbul and Ankara and turned into violent events, laid the groundwork of the military coup.
As a matter of fact, we can say that 1960 was a turning point for the political crises and military coups to come as it demonstrated the politics and ideology of the Turkish youth, and therefore Turkish students could be directly influenced.
In the process of preparing the stage for a military coup, in the next decades, university students played a crucial role in various street demonstrations. While they thought they were leaders, the youth were used as pawns.
More than that, university professors such as professor Hüseyin Nail Kubalı, who fueled students' tempers with his newspaper articles and preaching at conferences criticizing the DP, played a role in laying the foundation for future coups.
Unfortunately, using their students, they were actually looking out for their benefits as well.
In late March, Inönü visited Istanbul, where he met with Istanbul University professors, including Kubalı and Istanbul University Rector professor Sıddık Sami Onar.
Giving a press conference, Inönü promised to remove the current laws regarding the press and universities, which meant more autonomy for the academics, as well as higher salaries.
Ali Fuat Başgil, a prominent professor among the purged 147 academics who were dismissed by the MBK after the coup, in his book “The May 27 Revolution and its Reasons,” describes his colleague Kubalı, saying: “He loved to create polemics, and would persistently break the University Ordinance that prohibited professors from commenting on political controversies. Menderes government had to take him away from his duty for a while. They reinstated him but his grudge never died.”
After all the violence and ouster of the DP, on the very first day of the military coup, five law professors from the Istanbul University, led by Onar, who said “The revolution of May 27 was achieved with the cooperation of the Turkish military and Istanbul University” as then CHP deputy (later prime minister) Bülent Ecevit wrote later on his column, were summoned to Ankara and given the task of drawing up a new constitution.
According to Başgil, Onar provoked the students at Istanbul University, fueling further tension during the protests over the “Inquiry Commission.”
On the second day of protests at Istanbul University, which erupted on April 27, 1960, Onar tried to prevent police from entering the campus. He was slapped by a police officer who accused him of provoking the students.
The rector was dragged into a police vehicle and taken away from the scene in order to stop him from further instigating the events. But Onar, dressed as if he was seriously wounded, returned to the university.
He asked students to leave the campus but encouraged them to gather again in Beyazıt Square, where the two-day protests resulted in the killing of a student, Turan Emeksiz, and two others who were severely injured during the clashes between the students and the police.
If you are wondering why the police allowed him to return to the university, it was probably because the police believed he could convince the students to leave.
In his memoir, Başgil says that Onar returned to the university on purpose to show his injuries, which in turn would provoke the students.
“When his injury was dressed, he returned to the university. ... I saw him from afar, his face was bandaged. (In his absence) the students were calmed down and on the brink of dispersing. I found his choice of showing up in front of the students with bandages faulty. The rector told students that everything was all right and they needed to silently leave. I cannot say the rector’s actions were deliberate, but it was obvious that he was oblivious to the psychology of the young people gathered in crowds. Indeed, the youth dispersed only to meet in Beyazıt. The second incident that was worse than the first occurred there. ... What is done, is done. Yet, I am sure that if the rector did not act as he did, these events would not have occurred. This was a mistake.”
Emeksiz became a symbol of the coup and was known as "a freedom martyr" to present the events of May 27 as a revolution for freedom. He was later buried in the Anıtkabir mausoleum, where Atatürk rests.
Traumatized by the killing of a student, the ill treatment of several others and the beating of a rector, the public was shocked, but it was too late to understand what happened until the coup.
Right after May 27, professors from Istanbul University published a report immediately trying to justify the coup, stating, “(The DP government) allowed the use of lethal force that resulted in the death and injury of the students.”
Only one student, Emeksiz, had died; however, they presented it as if there had been multiple killings, while the MBK was arguing that the ousted government had massacred countless youths and hidden their bodies.
None of these allegations were true but the pro-coup and pro-CHP press, which played its crucial role before the coup, spread these horrific stories.
Along with the professors from Istanbul University lead by Onar, who was quick to go to Ankara in the wake of the coup, others from Ankara University formed the so-called Onar Commission to prepare the new constitution.
But tragically, they were the ones who advised the MBK to put the DP leaders and members on a trial, saying that the latter could later bring them to court due to the fact that they orchestrated a coup.
Onar led the professors, who pushed the MBK to approve the executions, showing that the grudge against the DP, fueled by the CHP and exacerbated by the junta, was also fed by some academics.
Tragically, the May 27 coup was justified on the grounds of defending the constitution. The day was and declared “Freedom and Constitution Day” by the CHP government in 1963 and paved the way for future coup attempts, three of which were successful.
In 1971 and 1980, the military took advantage of the argument that the government is weak and inefficient, showcasing the universities as sources of anarchy and chaos to justify their intervention.
Thanks to the professors’ coup sympathies, the universities are still not free from chaos in Turkey, and not free at all.
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