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President's purges: how the attempted Turkey coup changed Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

President Erdoğan was once feted by European leaders. Now he calls them Nazis. 

On the evening of Friday 15 July 2016, tanks began rolling into Istanbul. The state broadcaster announced a coup was underway.  Turkey’s irascible president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was on a post-Ramadan holiday in the resort of Marmaris. Government ministers in the capital, Ankara, tried to prepare themselves for what they expected to be the last night of their lives. 

Then, at 12.37am, an anchor on CNN Turk News held up a smartphone. The camera zoomed in, to reveal Erdoğan on a Facetime video. His face was blurry, and behind him was a plain, white curtain, but his message was clear. “I urge the Turkish people to convene at public squares and airports,” he told watchers. “I never believed in a power higher than the power of the people.”

Erdoğan made a gamble that the army would not fire on the crowds. For the most part, it worked. Other politicians echoed his statement. Opposition parties condemned the coup, and demonstrators took to the street. Above Istanbul, a plane circled – the president, having escaped the army in Marmaris, was coming home to the city which made his career. 

The democratic moment swiftly faded.  Days later, Erdoğan banned all academics from leaving Turkey. More than 58,000 public sector workers were estimated to be kicked out of jobs, and 1,577 university deans were forced to resign. 

A year on from the coup, Erdoğan has succeeded in giving himself new constitutional powers. Freedom of the press is all but dead. He is increasingly characterised as an authoritarian abroad. Unsurprisingly, he sees himself differently.  “I don’t care if they call me dictator or whatever else,” he told university students in November. “It goes in one ear, out the other. What matters is what my people call me.”

Erdoğan was born in 1954, in Istanbul. Educated at a religious school, and from a working-class background, his early passion for football was eclipsed by politics.  As a religious conservative in a militantly secular state, he saw the limits of Turkey’s liberalism first hand.  In 1997, three years after he was elected mayor of Istanbul, his decision to read out an Ottoman poem comparing believers to soldiers earned him 10 months in prison for inciting religious hatred (in 2016, he sought a prosecution of his own against a German comedian who read out an offensive poem about him). 

Erdoğan, though, was pragmatic as well as radical. Building on his record as an effective mayor, he established the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001 and won the first of many elections the following year. He presided over an economic boom. Fatefully, he struck up an alliance with Fethullah Gülen, the leader of an Islamic social and education movement, who shared his antipathy to the secular elite and the military. With Gülen’s help, Erdoğan took on the “deep state” in a way previous democratic leaders had failed to do. Meanwhile, he was feted by world leaders as an example of a moderate, Islamic, democratic politician. His wife took tea with Laura Bush. Pundits started to talk of “Erdoğanism”. 

The years of Erdoğan the Magnificent could not last. Turkey’s economy wobbled, and in 2013, a year marked by mass protests, Erdoğan accused Gulen of trying to bring down the government. By 2016, the year of the coup, he was increasingly isolated from his traditional Western allies. In March, he told local politicians that phrases like democracy and freedom have “absolutely no value any longer”. 

Western newspapers increasingly caricatured Erdoğan as an Ottoman Vladimir Putin, but his country was also being rocked by forces outside presidential control. The Syrian revolution, welcomed by Erdoğan, had warped into a nightmarish conflict. An estimated 2.7 million Syrians had sought refuge in Turkey. The war, in turn, had exacerbated tensions with Turkey’s Kurds, and fed terrorism. After Erdoğan’s comments about democracy, he continued: “Those who stand on our side in the fight against terrorism are our friend. Those on the opposite side, are our enemy.”

After Erdoğan re-established control in the early hours of 16 July 2016, he quickly blamed the usual fifth column, the Gülenists  (Gülen, exiled in Pennsylvania, US, said his philosophy was “antithetical to armed rebellion”).  But he also attacked the West for failing to support his purges.  “This coup attempt has actors inside Turkey, but its script was written outside,” he told a group of multinationals operating in Turkey in early August

On 29 September, six weeks after the attempted coup, Erdoğan extended Turkey’s state of emergency by a further three months (the state of emergency is still in place, and is due to expire on 19 July 2017). By November,  he was preparing the ground for a further consolidation of power – a referendum on the constitution which would abolish the role of prime minister and give the president more executive powers. 

Meanwhile, civil society was feeling the effects of the coup. After the summer, children returned to schools to find their teachers fired and a new course about Erdoğan’s heroic defence of Turkey on the curriculum. The firing of public sector workers continued - dismissals were announced in the Turkish government’s law newsletter, the Official Gazette. In December, a cafeteria boss was detained after telling police officers he would not serve the president a cup of tea.

Erdoğan’s crackdown might have slipped from the world’s attention, if not for his determination that the world should take note. While in its early years, the AKP prioritised good diplomatic relations, by the spring of 2017 Erdoğan was accusing Germany of “fascist actions”, and the Dutch of being “Nazi remnants”. The backdrop to this dispute was the decision of European authorities to ban rallies designed to win over the three million Turkish voters based overseas

In April, after a campaign criticised by election monitors, Erdoğan won the referendum by a Brexit-style margin– 51 per cent to 49 per cent. Despite his victory, the result was seen as a backlash against the heavy-handed president. Erdoğan responded by blocking Wikipedia

Read more: A year after the failed coup, the purge goes on

One year after unarmed Turks stood in front of tanks in the name of democracy, around 150 journalists are in jail (Erdoğan told the BBC: “No one is jailed because of journalism here.”) But perhaps the best illustration of the Turkish president's new confidence was his trip to visit another outspoken populist in Washington DC, Donald Trump. A group of protestors gathered outside the Turkish embassy. Erdoğan’s bodyguards beat them up. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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The stand against Nazis at Charlottesville has echoes of Cable Street

Opposing Nazis on the streets has a long and noble history.

Edward Woolf – my grandpa Eddie – was a second-generation Jewish immigrant, whose parents arrived in London in the early 20th century after fleeing pogroms in Russia. They settled, like many Jews did, in the warren of streets around Whitechapel in London's East End. He was an athlete – he would later become a champion high-diver, and box for the army – and was soon to become a soldier.

The second time he fought the Nazis, it was as an officer for the Royal Artillery. He blew up his guns on the beach at Dunkirk to prevent them falling into enemy hands; later in the war he fought the forces of Imperial Japan in the jungles of Burma.

But the first time he fought the Nazis was at the Battle of Cable Street.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandfather as the events in Charlottesville, Virginia played out over the weekend. On Friday night, a neo-Nazi demonstration through the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville exploded into chaos as they encountered a counter-march by protesters and anti-fascists. A 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer, was killed and 19 others injured when a car driven by a Nazi ploughed into a group of counter-protesters.

Police, outnumbered by both parties and outgunned by the Nazi marchers, many of whom held semi-automatic weapons, were unable to prevent the violence. A state of emergency was called; the national guard was brought in. In a jaw-dropping statement on Saturday, president Trump blamed the violence on "many sides".

Ever since a video of white nationalist leader Richard Spencer being punched in the face on the streets of Washington, DC went viral in the early days of the Trump administration, America has been engaged in a bout of soul-searching. Is it OK to punch Nazis? Is it OK to be gleeful about the punching of Nazis? After having spent all of 2016 slamming Obama and Clinton for refusing to say “radical Islamic terrorism”, why is Trump – who eventually, begrudgingly condemned the neo-Nazi groups involved in the violence on Monday, a full two days after Heyer's death – so incapable of saying “radical Nazi terrorism”?

It's all given me a strange sense of deja vu. In fact, that's not the right term. We really have seen all of this before.

In 1936, just three years before Hitler's Germany invaded Poland, triggering war with Britain and – eventually – America, it was not uncommon to see Nazis on the march. The Great Depression was at its height, and many working-class whites on both sides of the Atlantic, feeling that their jobs were threatened by immigration, turned to far-right ideologies as a panacea for their economic fears. (Let me know if any of this sounds familiar...)

In the UK, Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists (BUF), known widely as the Blackshirts for their distinctive uniforms, had also been swiftly growing. Mosley was a veteran of the First World War and a rising star politician, albeit something of a maverick. He had served as a Conservative, Labour and independent MP before he founded the Blackshirts in 1932. He was not a proletarian demagogue like Hitler or Mussolini; he was a wax-moustached aristocrat, a fencing champion and the son of a baronet, educated (until his expulsion) at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst.

Mosley was drawn to the far-right after touring continental Europe following a 1931 electoral defeat, and became enamoured with the ideas, and the pageantry, of fascism. His second marriage, to the socialite Diana Mitford, was held at the Berlin home of Joseph Goebbels. Hitler was an honoured guest.

Of course, these groups weren't just a British phenomenon. Hitler's newly-appointed deputy, Rudolf Hess, had called on a man named Heinz Spanknobel to found US-based Nazi groups; Spanknobel formed an organization called the Friends of New Germany, and later another, called the German-American Bund, in Buffalo, NY in March 1936. They ran a summer-camp on Long Island called Camp Siegfried, and as late as 1939 American Nazis held a rally in Madison Square Garden attended by 20,000 people.

Back in the UK, Mosley planned an audacious and inflammatory march through London's East End, a route which would take his blackshirts through the middle of Stepney, Whitechapel, and Bow – areas almost entirely populated by poor Jewish immigrants. For Mosley, who had drawn a crowd of more than 20,000 to an earlier rally in 1934 at Olympia, the East End march was clearly meant as an intimidation play - a gleeful and glorious celebration of the fourth anniversary of his founding of the BUF. But he had made a wild miscalculation.

The morning of 4 October 1936 dawned with a sense of anticipation. Newsreels from the time show an intimidating crowd of 5,000 fascists, with their sinister black low-rent-SS uniforms, turned out to join Mosley on his march. 

But Mosley had severely underestimated the organising capacity of the burgeoning anti-fascist movement that was growing up in opposition to his ideas. A coordinated leafletting campaign had taken place, which, combined with newspaper and newsreel attention, meant that there were few in East London who were unaware of, or unprepared for, the day of the march.

By the time Mosley's men assembled in Shoreditch, a truly vast crowd had assembled across the East End to stop them. Estimates of its size vary wildly from the tens to the hundreds of thousands; according to some sources as many as quarter of a million Jews, Communists, anti-fascists, union members, Catholic dock-workers, local residents, and many more who just came to see what would happen, flocked to the route of the march. Among them, somewhere in the crowd, was my grandfather, linked arm-in-arm with his friends. He was 20 years old. 

The Communist Party was key in organizing the counter-protest, and the rallying-cry for the counter-protesters was borrowed from the Spanish civil war: no parasan, meaning: they shall not pass.

More than 6,000 police officers, many on horseback, were deployed to prevent violence, but, vastly outnumbered, they were unable to clear the makeshift barricades and the people standing arm-in-arm from the street. The march ground to a halt and swiftly dissolved into a riot.

The embattled police tried to redirect Mosley down nearby Cable Street, but the crowd overturned a goods lorry to block their path, and a pitched battle ensued. From the upper windows of the tenement houses along the street, people threw rotten fruit and vegetables, and even emptied the foul contents of their chamber-pots, over the now-trapped blackshirts. As shit rained down, the fascists fought back with sticks, stones, and anything else they could find.

After a series of pitched battles, Mosley was forced to call off the march. At least 150 people had been injured in the brawl.

“I was moved to see bearded Jews and Irish Catholic dockers standing up to stop Mosley,” historian Bill Fishman, who witnessed the battle, said at a 2006 event commemorating its 70th anniversary. “I shall never forget that as long as I live, how working-class people could get together to oppose the evil of fascism.”

Cable Street didn't stop fascism in Britain - the outbreak of war, and the accompanying internment of Mosley and his lieutenants as possible enemy collaborators, did that. But it stopped their momentum, their confidence that power was almost within their grasp. The defeat showed them - showed everyone - that there was an opposition, and more, that the Nazis didn't hold the monopoly on intimidation. They too could be made to feel fear.

The echoes of Cable Street are crystal clear in the events this weekend in Charlottesville. Terms like “alt-right” and “white nationalist” are often chosen by journalists to cover these groups, but let's not mince words: Nazis again marched through the streets this weekend. The police were powerless to stop them. They were powerless to prevent the death of Heather Heyer. And the situation in America seems likely only to get worse. Spencer, who was one of the leaders of the Nazis in Charlottesville, announced that he is planning another march, this time in Texas, next month.

Enough has been written already about the need to stay above the baser instincts of mob violence and revenge. Let the Nazis call for lynching; we're better than that, but if I'm honest I can't summon much bile for the Antifascists who decide that Nazi violence should be met in kind.

Perhaps, in the wake of Charlottesville, the story of Cable Street teaches us that, in troubled times like these, it may be good to fill a chamber-pot or two for when the Nazis march again; or that the time will come when we, like my grandfather did, must stand together with arms linked and tell them: they shall not pass.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.