Violence in Turkey (the 1950s-2000s): Performances, Perpetrators, Victims

Violence in Turkey (the 1950s-2000s): Performances, Perpetrators, Victims

Berna Pekesen, DFG Research Network „Contemporary History of Turkey”, Historisches Institut, Universität Duisburg-Essen
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
26.05.2022 - 28.05.2022
Buesra Ari, Osteuropäische Geschichte, Ruhr-Universität Bochum

Founded in 2020 at the University Duisburg-Essen, the international and interdisciplinary DFG network “Contemporary History of Turkey” aims to close the research gap in the field of contemporary studies on Turkey by promoting interdisciplinary dialogue, presenting research projects, and stimulating networking. The focus of this year´s meeting (the second of the scheduled three workshops) was political violence since the 1950s – both state and non-state violence – as a historical constant in Turkey´s 20th-century history. This period was in fact abundantly marked by violence: Military interventions every ten years since 1960, militant clashes between far-right and far-left reaching civil war-like dimensions in the late 1970s, the state´s war against the Kurds, the armed struggle of the PKK, militant underground struggle, suicide attacks, and death fast campaigns are just a few facets of this complex issue. The workshop brought scholars together to debate these issues and stake out the ground for new research.

In her opening speech, BERNA PEKESEN (Essen), founder and speaker of the DFG network, gave a brief introduction and elaborated on the focal points of the workshop. She pointed out the historiographic amnesia regarding the contemporary history of Turkey, i.e. the period after 1945 (which was the main reason to establish the DFG network), that also implies the field of violence studies. In fact, there are still no scientific studies of either the „civil war“ or the several local pogroms against the Kurdish and Alevi populations in Malatya, Maras, and Çorum in the late 1970s.

The workshop began with the book launch of “Turkish Kaleidoscope: Fractured Lives in a Time of Violence” by social anthropologist JENNY B. WHITE (Stockholm). In this graphic novel, White draws on her own experiences as an eye-witness to the tumultuous 1970s Turkey, when right-left clashes reached civil war-like proportions. It is not a classic novel, however, as oral histories she has collected for years as well as findings from her scholarly work found their way into this unique book. The discussion that followed centered mainly on White`s arguments of factionalism as an inherent phenomenon in Turkish society and politics, rather than on the unusual attempt to put scholarly narratives into a graphic format.

In the first panel, ALP YENEN (Leiden) talked about transgressive politics in the civil war of the 1970s. Drawing on the conflicting legacies of the Armenian Genocide, Yenen demonstrated how the hero-villain and the perpetrator-victim narratives are coupled with one another in competition for the sacralization of dying and killing, and how this constantly complicates historical studies.

AYHAN ISIK (Utrecht) addressed the changing roles of pro-state paramilitary groups in the war between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan´s Worker Party (PKK) since the mid-1980s, namely the Gendarmerie Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism Organization (JITEM), the Village Guards, the Police Special Operation Unit (Özel Tim), and Hisbollah. While these formations initially provided auxiliary services to the state, during the 1990s they became the main actors of the war, on equal footing with the official state security forces. Isik discussed the internal and external reasons for this change by exploring the Turkish state´s “low-intensity conflict” war strategy during the 1990s.

BERNA PEKESEN (Essen) concluded this panel with her presentation on death fast actions in Turkish prisons during the early 2000s that claimed as many as 122 victims, mostly in prisons. After outlining the reasons why self-destruction became the main reservoir of political action in Turkey and providing a cost-benefit analysis of the death fast campaign, she critically addressed some blind spots in the research literature: Among others, she pointed to the state-centeredness of the existing research, which studies asymmetrical power relations one-sidedly between “state and subjects” but neglects horizontal power relations within leftist collectives, which sparked a lively and controversial debate in the general discussion that followed.

Commentator Hamit Bozarslan (Paris) then placed the presentations in a historical context and offered a productive comparative outlook (Arab world) beyond Turkey. He underlined the need for a paradigm shift from structuralist to “super-structural” approaches, ranging from cultural studies to psychological and trauma-related aetiologies. Bozarslan also pointed to the cult of 1960s/1970s revolutionary heroes, who still have a large following today and have not yet been solidly studied by researchers.

In Panel 2 on perpetrators and victims, FUNDA HÜLAGU (Marburg) spoke about gendered state violence against politically active women in Turkey since the 1980s. Drawing on political theory and gender studies, she looked at three case studies (Reha Isvan, Nuriye Gülmen, and an anonymous PKK guerrilla) to demonstrate her case. In the ensuing discussion, her sweeping concept of state violence as a super-structural entity involving both sophisticated forms of subordination (“housewifization”) and subalternization of women, i.e., the exercise of patriarchal power, was controversial.

Gendered experiences of violence in the life narratives of the 1968er and 1978er women were the main topic of LUCIE DRECHSELOVÁ (Paris). Having established that the memory production of the 1968 movement was a male domain, Drechselová addressed the place of experiences of violence and repression in the few surviving memoirs by women. These narratives revolve around violence and repression by the state and the state-sponsored radical right. In terms of mythmaking of male heroes, women's narratives differed little from those of their male comrades concluded Drechselová.

The last speaker on the panel was ZEYNEP BURSA (Paris), who presented her ongoing research project on the trajectories of right-wing extremist youth. Her presentation was devoted to various questions; she dealt with the intellectual origins of the radical right (“Grey Wolves”) in Turkey, the “paramilitarist effect”, i.e. the link with the “counter-guerrilla”, “deep state” and the CIA, as well as the activities of the “Grey Wolves” in Germany and France. Finally yet importantly, she also addressed the gender aspects of the right-wing movement.

In his commentary, Kerem Öktem (Venice) criticized the undifferentiated use of “state violence” as passe-partout to explain such different phenomena as asymmetric warfare as well as interpersonal and gender-based violence in society. By pointing out that left-wing actors have also been involved in violence not only as victims but also as perpetrators, which, however, had hardly been subjected to research, he warned against simplistic generalizations in terms of simple perpetrator-victim dichotomies.

The next panel highlighted comparative and transnational aspects of political violence during the 1960s and 1970s. SEVIL CAKIR-KILINCOGLU (Göttingen) talked about the adoption of political violence in Turkey in the 1970s with a comparative look at Iranian guerrilla organizations during the same period. Based on the findings of her recently completed dissertation on the same topic, she outlined the contexts and emergence of revolutionary movements from the 1968 movement in both countries. She outlined some secondary differences between the Turkish and Iranian radical left but otherwise placed these movements in line with European experiences during the same period.

SIAVUSH RANDJBAR-DAEMI (St. Andrews) also offered a piece of political history, providing a macroscopic look at the broad spectrum and diversity of socialist and communist organizations, groups, currents, and orientations of the anti-Pahlavi-movement, including the Tudeh-Party of Iran, the People´s Fada´i Guerillas and the People´s Mojahedin (M-L). Randjbar-Daemi explored the various revolutionary strategies, factionalism, and especially the Sino-Soviet split. The revolutionaries argued over each other´s analyses of the state, the agrarian question and the working class, mode of production, revolution, reformism, mass politics, as well as over the armed struggle, and the form of socialist transition.

JANIS NALBADIDACIS (Berlin) devoted his presentation to two infamous torture centers during the military dictatorship in Greece (1967–1974) and Argentina (1976–1983), namely the headquarters of the Athens Security Police in Greece and the Escuela de Mécanica de la Armada in Argentina. While critical of the prevailing overemphasis on ideology in explaining political violence, he presented his own approach emphasizing the interactions between groups, situations, and factors, which brought him closer to an analysis of the micro-processes of violence. He illustrated this with the role of guards in prisons.

MONICA GALFRÉ (Florence) concluded the panel with her presentation on the critical reassessment of red and black violence in the 1970s, the so-called years of lead in Italy. Like the other speakers on the panel, Galfré drew attention to 1968, which marked a caesura in the country´s political history that differed from other European countries in its duration, intensity, and rootedness in political violence and terrorism. Unlike the previous speakers on the panel, however, who drew on the concept of social movements, terror and security formed the analytical cornerstones of Galfré’s presentation.

The workshop ended with a commentary by Christian Gerlach (Bern) and a general discussion. Gerlach’s reflections focused on the methodological and conceptual challenges of violence studies in this relevant field. Traditional political history, which has expanded since the cultural turn to include new issues such as discourses, presentations, perceptions, and self-perceptions, failed to explain mass violence historically because the cultural studies perspective could not do justice to the complexity of social phenomena such as violence. He pointed to the complete neglect of social and economic history and quantitative approaches at the workshop, the result of which has been (mainly) the focus of the speakers on metropolitan intra-elite discourses. In the ensuing general discussion, the points raised by Gerlach were discussed controversially. Likewise, the social movement´s approach, which obviously overlaps with political history, as well as the complexities of comparative work and global historical approaches were critically debated. Overall, the workshop provided an original venue to identify the research gaps and methodological pitfalls of the field of violence studies on Turkey and beyond. This stimulating exchange gives reason to look forward to further events of the network.

Conference overview:

Berna Pekesen (Essen): Opening address and introduction

Jenny B. White (Stockholm): Book presentation of “Turkish Kaleidoscope: Fractured Lives in a Time of Violence”

Panel 1: Interactions of Left and Right Violence
Chair: Caner Tekin (Bochum)

Alp Yenen (Leiden): Violence and transgressive politics in the Turkish “Civil War” in the 1970s

Ayhan Isik (Rotterdam): Para-militarization of state violence in Turkey since the 1990s

Berna Pekesen (Essen): Self-destructing violence among the Left: The death fast struggle in Turkish prisons, 2002–2007

Comment: Hamit Bozarslan (Paris)

Panel 2: Perpetrators and Victims
Chair: Léa Delmaire (Paris)

Funda Hülagu (Marburg): State violence against politically active women during the post-1980s

Lucie Drechselová (Paris): Gendered experiences of violence in the life narratives of 68 and 78 generations

Zeynep Bursa (Paris): Political violence as a weapon of activism: An analysis of extreme right-wing youth through trajectories

Comment: Kerem Öktem (Venice)

Panel 3: Comparing Violence
Chair: Kerem Öktem (Venice)

Sevil Cakir-Kilincoglu (Göttingen): Political violence as a repertoire of contention? The adoption of violence by the Left in 1970s Turkey in its regional and global context

Siavush Randjbar-Daemi (St. Andrews): Iranian left before the revolution

Janis Nalbadidacis (Berlin): Challenging dichotomies in research about violence: thick descriptions in comparative perspective

Monica Galfré (Florence): Red and black violence in Italy

Comment: Christian Gerlach (Bern)

General discussion

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