Sometimes, a political leader in a democratic country, has a great opportunity to jail his critics, get rid of his political opposition, and become a legal dictator. Erdogan is doing it this year in Turkey. Hitler did it in Germany in 1933.
Erdogan is not a Hitler, and Turkey is not Germany. But much can be learned about the dangers of counter-coup repression of critics and opponents from the past.
On February 27th 1933 the Reichstag building where Germany’s parliament sat was destroyed by arson. Hitler said in January 1933 that he would not work with the Reichstag elected in the November 1932 election.
New Reichstag elections were called for March 5th 1933. But Hitler now feared he might get less support in the new election than the previous one.
On February 27th, Hitler and Goebbels were at dinner when they received a phone call that the Reichstag building was on fire. They immediately left for the Reichstag where they met Goering.
All three declared the fire was the work of Communists and Socialists. The Nazi private militia, the SA, was put on alert to maintain order if and when the communist insurrection started.
Rudolf Diels, head of the Prussian Political Police, arrived after Hitler, Goebbels and Goering. Diels claimed that Hitler ordered every communist official “shot where he is found” and that “communist deputies must be hanged this very night”.
The SA did as it was told and rounded up nearly 4,000 people. The Nazis tried to put a legal gloss over what was being done; telling the public that the communists had burned the seat of government in Germany, and the police and the SA were doing all that they could to save the nation from unrest and catastrophe.
However, at the Nuremburg War Trials, General Franz Halder claimed that in 1942 he clearly heard Goering boasting that he was responsible for the fire.
Martin Sommerfeldt, who worked in the Ministry of the Interior in Berlin, believed the arson was carried out by SA men on the orders of Goebbels, to boost the party’s election chances in March 1933. The SS then killed the SA men involved to ensure that no witnesses survived.
The March 5th election went ahead as planned but the Nazis only polled 288 seats, still not a majority, so Hitler decided that the Reichstag should be replaced by himself – all ‘legally’ done via the Enabling Act of March 1933.
That was in the past. Now, in the present in Turkey, with more than 120,000 public workers suspended, and nearly 40,000 people in prison, the aftermath of Turkey’s failed July 15 coup is being felt across every part of society, including its highest-ranked schools.
Things are not nearly as bad as Germany 1933, but they are still bad.
The day after the coup attempt, the rectors of 1,577 universities were forced to resign. An estimated 200,000 students were left in limbo after the closure of 15 universities and 1,043 private schools linked to Imam Fethullah Gulen, who Erdogan and the Turkish government blame for the failed putsch.
More than 6,000 academics at 107 universities have since been fired as well, many accused of links to Imam Gulen’s movement Hizmet, or the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. “These last few months will have an impact on our society that will last for decades to come,” said Ozgur Bozdogan, the head of Egitim-Sen, one of the country’s largest teachers unions.
When primary and secondary students returned to school this year, they spent most of the first day watching videos about the “triumph of democracy” over the few hundred soldiers who participated in the coup, and speeches by Erdogan that equate the large scale civilian counter-coup with historic Ottoman victories going back 1,000 years.
Meanwhile, authorities scrambled to find replacements for the nearly 30,000 teachers at the primary and secondary levels who had been suspended; and another 30,000 who had been fired under emergency rule, accused of having ties to Imam Gulen or the PKK.
The Turkish government has designated both Hizmet, Imam Gulen’s movement, which at one point ran some of the country’s leading private universities and schools, as well as the PKK as terrorist organizations, and said the dismissals of teachers was meant to root out these groups.
Nearly 10,000 of the teachers fired or suspended after July 15 were members of the Egitim-Sen union, which often rallies alongside the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party, or HDP, itself now the target of an investigation for suspected ties to the PKK.
About 1,800 of the left-leaning union’s members are facing criminal or disciplinary investigations into terrorism and other serious crimes.
The investigations are the end result of years of efforts by the Justice and Development Party to control all non government schools, said a teacher who until three weeks ago taught at an elite high school in Istanbul.
In the last two years authorities tried to alter the curriculum to be more conservative, canceling programs such as concerts, plays and even student-run philosophy discussion groups.
Now they just order it, and everyone is afraid to say no.