A Study of Collective Memory: September 12

On September 12, 1980, the army seized power in Turkey. This move was the third of its kind in the country’s republican history, after the coups of 1960 and 1971. The Turkish public became aware of the new military intervention by this statement that Chief of General Staff Kenan Evren  read on state radio and television: The Turkish armed forces were forced to take over the state administration with the aim of safeguarding the unity of the country and the nation and the rights and freedoms of the people, ensuring the security of life and property and the happiness and prosperity of the people, ensuring the prevalence of law and order–in other words, restoring the state authority in an impartial manner.

The outcome of three years of military rule was striking: 650,000 had been arrested; more than 500 death sentences had been issued and 50 executed; 1,683,000 had been blacklisted; and 30,000 had been sent into political exile (TBMM 2012). In addition, nearly 24,000 civil society organizations had been suspended, all political parties dissolved, and major newspapers heavily censored. Nearly 13,400 civil servants were forced to retire. As a result of this violent military rule, an era of “depoliticization” replaced mass political mobilization and street protests that had marked the 1970s in Turkey. Today, the desire to occupy the streets again and to engage in political action is a direct outcome of “reminiscing about the past.”

The 1980 military coup is a milestone in Turkish history. While 30 years have passed since the event, a review of contemporary debates on the subject reveals an urgent need to confront the unspoken past of Turkey through the memories associated with it. Therefore BEKS initiated a research project titled “A Study of Collective Memory: September 12”. This research project, aimed at demonstrating the significance of the military coup of September 12, 1980, for the social memory of Turkey, sought to contribute to a process of reconciliation with a traumatic past. To this purpose, our fieldwork relied on a distinctive methodology. In order to evoke memories of the 1980 coup d’état, we designed a mock newspaper and used it as part of our questionnaire. Entitled Türkiye’nin Sesi (The Voice of Turkey), the paper involved a selection of actual news clips and images published between 1978 and 1981, which we had compiled from mainstream as well as leftist and right-wing media outlets (fig. 2.1). Our aim was to reveal not only the political changes that the military coup had brought about, but to also to trace the social and cultural effects of these transformations on everyday life. Considering the overall goal of the project, the different newspaper and magazine clippings enriched the research significantly.

              On the same account, the decision to not to rely solely rely on political news but to also to include texts about culture, education, and sports in the mock newspaper aided our analyses of daily life and social transformation during and after the coup d’état. However, as the purpose of the newspaper was not to inform but rather to evoke memories, we used only the main headlines and did not include the actual full-length articles but used a classical layout text (lorem ipsum) to fill up the newspaper pages. The interviewees’ response to the newspaper was overwhelmingly positive and significantly aided the “flow” of the interviews.

              Altogether, we conducted 150 semi-structured interviews2 with participants whom we had randomly selected from various cities and regions in Turkey, representing different age and gender groups as well as various class and ethnic backgrounds. During fieldwork, we also took into account political affiliations, interviewing people across the political spectrum, including those who openly identified as leftist, as Grey Wolves (nationalists on the extreme right), and as Islamists from the pre-1980 period, but also those whom we understood to be “gatekeepers.” Our group of interlocutors involved members of three generations, that is, those who in 1980 were between the ages of 6 and 56 as well as those who were born after the coup, or the 1998 and 2008 generations.