A new political period began in Turkey in the 1960s, as a result of the emerging activities of social movements from nearly every sector of society. Unlike the previous periods, for the first time, segments of society such as workers and youth began to engage in sustained social and political activism, demanding political and economic change and going beyond merely seeking change through elections. The spirit of 1968 that prevailed throughout the world also affected Turkey. University students were quickly politicized around leftist and rightist ideologies and began to mobilize through associations, illegal revolutionary parties, and other groups. At the same time as this left-wing mobilization, ultra-nationalist and religious youth groups were also mobilizing; they began to specialize in the use of violence in so-called “commando camps” protected by right-wing governments.
Deniz Gezmiş, Yusuf Aslan and Hüseyin İnan were among the leading figures in the leftist youth movement. They initiated various collective actions in the late 1960s, such as protests against the arrival of US Army Sixth Fleet in Istanbul and the 1968 boycotts by university students demanding greater participation in university decision-making. In this atmosphere of repression and right-wing mobilization, Gezmiş and his friends aimed to trigger a socialist revolution in Turkey through guerilla warfare, and to do so they formed the People’s Liberation Army of Turkey (THKO). In March 1971, the Turkish Armed Forces issued a memorandum that led to the resignation of the civilian government. This was followed by the establishment of a technocratic government led by the army, which amended the constitution in favor of national security concerns, at the expense of democracy. Gezmiş was arrested in Kayseri while he and Yusuf Aslan were on their way to rural areas to foment guerilla warfare. After a trial, Deniz Gezmiş, Yusuf Aslan and Hüseyin İnan were sentenced to death, and the execution was carried out in May 1971. Through their execution, the state authorities hoped to spread fear and deter people from supporting the left. Deniz Gezmiş’s last words, just before he was executed, were “Long live a wholly independent Turkey. Long live the noble ideology of Marxism-Leninism. Long live the struggle for independence by the Turkish and Kurdish people. Down with imperialism. Long live workers and peasants.”
2010 — 2013
Scope and Purpose
Deniz Gezmiş and his friends were executed on May 6,1971. Commemorating these revolutionaries through collective actions became a tradition for leftists in Turkey. Nevertheless, until recent years, no permanent memorials commemorated the executed youth leaders of the Turkish left. Overall, the shared purpose of these permanent projects is to restore the reputations of these youth leaders, who have been portrayed as no more than terrorists by the Turkish state. The first memorialization effort dedicated to Gezmiş and his friends, called Üç Fidanlar, took place in Nilüfer (Bursa). It was erected by the municipality, which was controlled by the Republican People’s Party (RPP), and inaugurated in 2010 on the anniversary of their execution. The brother of Deniz Gezmiş and representatives of the so-called ’68 generation were present at the opening. The memorial consists of three monuments located around a peace sign, made of flowers and white stones in the ground. The second memorial project dedicated to Deniz Gezmiş was dedicated in March 2011 in Bahçeşehir (İstanbul). A statue of Gezmiş was erected in a park containing an amphitheater, a basketball court, a cultural center, a playground for children and various sports areas. Deniz Gezmiş’s last words are inscribed on his statue. Almost ten thousand people attended the dedication. The chairman of the RPP, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, was also present; he stated that Deniz Gezmiş was not executed because of his deeds, but because of his ideas. The third memorial to Gezmiş and his friends was initiated in Bayraklı (İzmir) by the RPP-led municipality and was unveiled in May 2013. The project is not limited to monuments erected to Deniz Gezmiş, Yusuf Aslan and Hüseyin İnan. The designer of the project planned to create a huge ball of thread that would remain behind the monument, made of threads taken from clothes sent by ordinary people. In this way, many people could contribute to the project, and the idea also refers to people’s support for Gezmiş, Aslan and İnan, which continues even after their death.
The first impact of the projects mentioned above was on relatives and close friends of Gezmiş, Aslan and İnan, in creating a degree of healing. These figures have significant symbolic power in Turkish politics, not only for leftists. Right-wing political actors strongly dislike them and consider these youth leaders to be terrorists. The degree of demonization has been significant. Therefore, the emergence of concrete memorialization efforts, in addition to annual collective action commemorating these youth leaders, have had a positive impact on their relatives and friends. Otherwise, the impact of these projects has remained limited mainly because of their primary purpose, which is the restoration of the youth leaders’ reputations. The way that the RPP municipalities have framed the story of Deniz Gezmiş and his friends has cleansed these revolutionary leaders of their socialist ideology and instead emphasized such themes as anti-imperialism and Turkish independence, which might be considered nationalist and exclusionist when isolated from their original ideology. In other words, the projects do not go beyond recognition of these revolutionary leaders as legitimate actors, and do not confront their execution by a militarist regime.
As a result of these memorialization efforts to commemorate Deniz Gezmiş and his friends, a type of judicial ambiguity came about. Ultranationalists took these projects to court. The court determined that Deniz Gezmiş, Yusuf Aslan and Hüseyin İnan are historical figures involved in no ongoing legal cases, making these projects legal. On the other hand, other cases have been resolved in the opposite way. For example, in Hozat (Tunceli), the municipality wanted to name a street after Deniz Gezmiş. However, local authorities officially stopped the project. The courts then approved that decision, stating that the naming would cause discrimination and separatism. Moreover, activists who have attended commemorative demonstrations and given press statements have been taken to court by prosecutors in various instances. Overall, the main challenge to the memorial efforts for Deniz Gezmiş and his friends seems to be the conflicting attitudes of state authorities on their legality under the laws that forbid praising criminals.