The Lost Generation

The resurgence of Islam in Turkey began as a counter-reaction to the leftist student activism of 1968; one of the key activists among the right-wing students of the time is now the country's president. Zafer Senocak takes a look back

Grave of the revolutionary Mahir Cayan who died in 1972 (private copyright)
Popular hero of 1968: Mahir Cayan, one of the leaders of the Turkish students' movement in the 1960s, was murdered by a special military unit in 1972

​​He was referred to simply as 'Hodja'. I saw him for the first time at the Turkish table in the Munich University canteen. He was a gaunt man, with dark eyes and a few days' worth of stubble, surrounded by attentive, patient listeners. He was too old even for a professional student. He spoke slowly, and so quietly that one had to concentrate to hear him in the noisy canteen.

As far as I could tell, he was speaking about the emergence of socialism in Afghanistan. I had already moved on from my Communist phase and could no longer get excited about that sort of thing, even if was propounded with the fervour of a whirling dervish. It was the first time I had seen some of the people standing around. Had he brought them with him? A fellow student whispered to me that he had been close to Mahir Çayan.

Mahir Çayan? Wasn't he that Turkish student leader who had been shot by the army? Çayan was more than that. He was the head of the Turkish student movement. A well-read, quick-witted young man with a head full of ideals: how to construct a more just system in Turkey, how to break the hold of the oligarchy and establish a people's democracy – these were questions that preoccupied not only him but an entire generation that paid more dearly for these seditious thoughts than like-minded people elsewhere. The people didn't want a people's democracy.

In 1971 there was a military coup. The students were imprisoned, tortured, broken. Three of them were executed.

Left-wing and right-wing students

1968. My father is the publisher of a conservative political periodical in Istanbul. He is staunchly anti-Communist. The mood is heated. His office is in the Old City, directly opposite the right-wing-dominated student union. The big mosques aren't far away and it's also just a short walk to the university. Turkey has them too: right-wing students. The current Turkish president, Abdullah Gül, is one of their leaders. The streets are piled high with sandbags. The police look like Martians in their armour.

Student riots in Ankara in 1969 (photo: dpa)
The students used a range of protest forms against the Turkish government: boycotts, occupying state buildings, and street battles were effective means of resistance against the state

​​Every day there are demonstrations in the streets. The leftist students like to march in front of the right-wing student union. Will they manage to occupy the building? Stones are thrown, window panes shatter. My father's office is in an old building with a large room with a bay window. I am seven years old, and for hours on end I sit there at the window, filled with suspense, watching events unfold.

NATO member Turkey and Communist students. Tensions were high. Turkey was a poor, under-developed country. The differences between rich and poor were overwhelming. The 'simple' people in the country had been told for generations that poverty and wealth were God-given. The answer was to resign yourself to your destiny.

But Turkey too had begun to undergo industrialisation. The population was moving to the cities in search of work. For the leftist students, the conditions were decidedly revolutionary. It was de rigeur to read Marx and Lenin. Mao was also popular. Marcuse was insignificant. The Turkish '68 was guided by vulgar Marxism.

Relations were strained and the climate harsh. Since the elections of 1965 Communists, members of the Workers' Party, had sat in parliament. They didn't refer to themselves as such. Communism was forbidden. Communist thinking was punishable by a minimum of five years' imprisonment.

Turkey, however, was also practising democracy. The 1961 constitution was based on that of West Germany. A strict separation of powers, a constitutional court. But the situation in Turkey was more reminiscent of South American countries than of West Germany.

Turkey as part of a superpower deal

Communist Turkey was an illusion. In the Cold War there could be no shift of allegiance without triggering an international crisis. The world was rigidly divided into camps. The Russians were allowed to march on Prague, and in exchange Turkey would remain part of the West. It was a superpower deal made over the heads of the people. Turkey was a cornerstone of NATO, a bulwark against Communism.

Industry was still far too underdeveloped. Conservative traditions and values dominated the countryside. Turkish farmers were not waiting to be liberated. They ran to the gendarmes when the 'anarchists' (as they call leftist student cadres) appeared. The anarchists were godless and engaged in free love, or so one heard. They had no morals, no decency; they trampled all over the holy Koran. The state should make short shrift of them.

It was not difficult for the regime to suppress the student revolt after the military coup in 1971. Resistance was quickly broken. There was a state of emergency across the country. The courts were controlled by the military. The elected government was deposed. The military appointed an emergency government.

Turkish armee units on the territory of the university in Ankara (photo: picture-alliance/ dpa)
After the kidnapping of four US military men by left-wing extremists, running battles broke out on the university campus between soldiers and armed students on 5 March 1971

​​However, the atmosphere of violence continued into the 1970s and within a few years it had brought the country to the brink of civil war. Leftist and right-wing students were at war with each another. Every day there were dead and injured. The events of the 1970s in Turkey remain unresolved to this day. They served as a pretext for the next military coup in 1980.

This coup was the most severe Turkey had experienced. It turned the whole country upside down. Turkey was being got into shape for globalisation. Above all, it was important that labour remained cheap. Turkey was to be integrated into the global market. Foreign capital needed to flow into the country.

The traces of the military's authoritarian rule are still felt today: an undemocratic constitution, and an atmosphere in which the very notion of politics has become taboo. All this has, right up till now, prevented Turkey from undergoing a comprehensive, lasting democratisation.

A new beginning – and a new backlash

The coup drove many Turkish intellectuals and student leaders abroad, into exile. After they returned, mostly in the 1980s, they were the ones who shaped Turkish culture. Many publishing houses were founded in the 1970s by the generation of '68.

Production was no longer limited to political literature; international literature was translated, and, above all, so-called progressive authors from around the world were discovered. South American literature, for example; authors like Fuentes and Marquez became popular.

After the military coup of 1980 books were also banned. There were book burnings. Nazim Hikmets' poetry disappeared again from the shelves of bookstores. Many left-leaning poets were no longer allowed to publish. Quite a few came to Germany, where many Turks were already living.

Zafer Senocak in Sarajevo in 2005 (photo: DW)
The Turkish-German writer and intellectual Zafer Senocak studied German literature, politics and philosophy in Munich. Now at home in Berlin, he has been publishing poems, essays and short stories in German since 1979

​​They didn't all just sit in university canteens, like 'Hodja', always willing to answer all of our questions about the conditions back then, not without a certain tinge of pride in his soft voice. Many of the people who were politically active in those days got involved in cultural associations, published periodicals, established small libraries, held seminars. A rivalry arose between the mosque associations and the small cultural centres of the Left.

I did some of my first readings at these centres; my poetry was classified as too working class. I wrote in German. Most of those attending didn't understand German. I noticed how alien these people had become to me, how alien and distant Turkey was. But my translations of Turkish folk poetry met with acknowledgement. The Turkish folk poets of past centuries were seen as progressive. They had resisted the rule of the Sultan and opposed the conservative Muslim theologians.

The decade of German asylum

In the 1980s Germany became a centre for Turkish Communists. Prisons in Turkey were overflowing with them and their sympathizers; more than a few of them ended up on the gallows. In Germany, however, even the Evangelical Student Association looked after the persecuted. No one was interested in their political leanings. It was enough just to be persecuted by the Turkish state.This was the decade of German asylum. The Germans' naiveté was convenient for the Turks, who were not prepared critically to evaluate their own past.

Was the Turkish revolt of 1968 an emancipation movement at all? Or, to put it differently, was it not controlled by self-appointed 'leaders' with a macho manner who had long since lost touch with reality?

Without question, Turkey was a repressive state. But the opponents of that state – often splintered, in a sectarian manner, into countless revolutionary cells – thought and behaved no less oppressively. They brooked no contradiction; even differing interpretations of the Marxist world view didn't lead to open discussion, but more often to dogged ideological battles.

The revolutionaries' world view did not call into question gender relations, or the relationship with violence. This is probably the greatest difference between the German and the Turkish '68ers. The latter preferred to assemble brigades rather than communes. Joie de vivre and humour eluded them. Private life was not revolutionised. It simply did not exist. A revolutionary who wanted to be taken seriously did not fall in love.

In Turkey, no 'march through the institutions'

The Turkish student movement did not give rise to the 'Greens', but rather to many narcissistic leftist sects that surpassed each other in their insignificance. It was not the groups in this movement that were worthy of respect, but the many individuals who, with their dedication and a certain personal discipline, as well as the courage to think critically, rose above the masses.

These individuals saw to it that the legacy of the Turkish revolt has today not entirely been forgotten. The question of how a society can be changed, how living conditions for people can be improved: in Germany this reconciling of the central questions of the left with a democratic society is referred to as 'the march through the institutions'. However, in Turkey there was no such march. Only the military was marching.

In the meantime, the battle between the leftists and the Mosque Association in Germany had been lost. Many of the people who were culturally active during the 1980s had withdrawn from public life. They were politically disillusioned, perhaps broken. Some of them started up restaurants and (that at least!) concerned themselves with their personal well-being above all else. They were no longer role models for the young. The mosques, conversely, had organised themselves well and attracted many young people.

The situation in Turkey was the mirror image of the situation in Germany. After the military had eradicated the leftist movement, undermined labour unions, and forbidden political activity in high schools, a network of religious groups spread across the country. Many of them were illegal, but not as loud and rebellious as the leftists. Mystical orders and Muslim self-awareness groups, self-titled gurus of the Islamic way of life, increasingly became token cultural representatives. Independent thinkers were isolated and marginalised.

Turkey was reminding itself of its Muslim identity. The only opposing force worth mentioning was the tendency towards the world of consumerism, the day-to-day culture of globalisation.

Lack of critical self-reflection

The silence of the generation of '68 on this development was remarkable. Vulgar Marxist explanatory models were no help any more. Attacking this 'reactionary' development seemed futile. The collapse of totalitarian socialism had left a great deal of bitterness, but had not led to any appreciable critical self-reflection.

But in the '80s, as we democratic-minded Turks fought in Germany and Turkey against the Turkish state, people like 'Hodja' were still authorities, a living (surviving) example of resistance, the hope of better times. 'Hodja' spoke French well, but not a word of German. He didn't want to learn German. He wanted to return to Turkey and once again take up the fight against the oligarchy. He could summon only a tired smile for German comrades who were striving for recognition in parliament and political influence.

For him, parliamentary democracy was only an example of the spoiled 'bourgeoisie'. This bourgeoisie that in Germany masqueraded as democracy was showing its true face in Turkey. Weren't Germany and Turkey allies, after all?

Yet how did he explain the fact that Germany had offered him asylum? Questions like these were ignored. Revolutionaries like to repress questions like these; they disrupt their world view. The revolution tolerates no grey areas; it requires clarity. But that is roughly comparable to attempting to lighten a dark winter photograph by overexposing it. The result is always a failure.

Ideologues have always repelled me. I always saw in them the enemies of poetry. For poetry thrives on shades of grey, on the voices between the lines, on nuances of colour. Idealists, however, always need sharply-focussed pictures, bright colours, the resolution of the secrets of words.

I let 'Hodja' tell his stories, but I never read him one of my poems.

Zafer Senocak

© Goethe Institute / Fikrun wa Fann 2008

Translated from the German by Jennifer Cove

This article was previously published by Fikrun wa Fann, the Goethe-Institut’s cultural magazine promoting the dialogue with the Islamic world.

Born in Ankara in 1961, Zafer Senocak has been living in Germany since 1970, where he has become a leading voice in the German discussions on multiculturalism, national and cultural identity, and a mediator between Turkish and German culture. The widely published poet, essayist, journalist and editor, has won several prestigious literary awards in Germany. His works have been translated into Turkish, English, French, Dutch, and Hebrew.

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