In the twelve days ending on July 2, 1934 Germany saw the "Röhm Putsch," a purge in which the Nazi regime carried out political executions in order to consolidate Hitler's absolute hold on power. Hitler moved against the Sturmabteilung (SA), the Nazis' own paramilitary group; hundreds were killed. The regime did not limit itself to a purge of the SA.
Having already imprisoned social democrats and communists, Hitler used the "Röhm Putsch" to move against conservatives. More killings followed, including Kurt von Schleicher, Hitler's predecessor as Chancellor, and von Schleicher's wife. The Gestapo also murdered several leaders of the disbanded Catholic Center Party.
Just a few years later, the Soviets' own purge would be called Yezhovshchina ("Times of Yezhov"), after Nikolai Yezhov, head of the Soviet secret police. From 1936 until 1953, Yezhovshchina not only meant being expelled from the party; it came to mean almost certain arrest, imprisonment, and often execution.
The purge, in general, was Stalin's effort to eliminate past and potential opposition groups. Hundreds of thousands of victims faced charges of political crimes such as espionage, sabotage, anti-Soviet agitation, and conspiracies to prepare uprisings and coups. Most victims were quickly executed by gunfire or sent to the Gulag labor camps, where many died of starvation, disease, exposure and overwork.
Several decades later, the Turks are luckier: no Gestapo, no executions, no summary killings and no labor camps. But the "Great Turkish Purge" brings tragic misfortunes to millions of Turks who are suspected of having allied with Fethullah Gulen, once President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's best political ally, now his worst enemy and the prime suspect behind the failed coup of July 15. Gulen, in self-exile in the United States since 1999, is an Islamic preacher believed to have millions of loyalists in Turkey and more than 150 other countries, where he runs schools and charity work.
During the month and a half after July 15, the Turkish government aggressively purged more than 100,000 civil servants and military personnel, and arrested tens of thousands, including nearly half of Turkey's active-duty admirals and generals. Anyone can be the target: journalists, academics, teachers, pilots, doctors, businessmen -- even the owner of the small grocery store on the corner, if its owner kept his savings at a bank that the government claims financed Gulen's illegal activities.
Turkish police escort dozens of handcuffed soldiers, who are accused of participating in the failed July 15 coup d'état. (Image source: Reuters video screenshot)
Some of Turkey's biggest companies are also under the spotlight. In August, a court appointed trustees to Boydak Holding, on charges of the multibillion-dollar group's alleged ties with Gulen. The family-based group's 42 companies have interests in furniture, textiles, chemicals, marketing, logistics and energy. The group employs a staff of more than 14,000.
In September, 18 companies operating under Koza-Ipek Holding, worth $10 billion, were brought under the control of a state fund. According to a cabinet minister, the Turkish state has so far seized more than $4 billion worth of assets belonging to suspected Gulenists.
On a single day, September 8, Turkey arrested 27 businessmen and 50 military officers. Two days later, prominent journalist Ahmet Altan and his brother, academic and columnist Professor Mehmet Altan, were detained for questioning. A prosecutor claims that during a recent TV debate, the suspects had given "subliminal messages suggesting a military coup."
During the purge, even the simplest universal legal norms are being systematically ignored. In one instance, the wife of the former editor-in-chief of the daily Cumhuriyet was banned from flying to Germany, and her passport was seized. Dilek Dundar's husband, Can Dundar, is on trial on charges of "revealing state secrets," after he ran front-page stories showing arms shipments from the Turkish government to radical fighters in Syria. In another case, a file photo shows 64-year-old Hatice Yildirim in a wheelchair, with police officers around her. The elderly woman was detained because she is the mother-in-law of one of the coup suspects, Adil Oksuz.
As in Germany and the Soviet Union in the 1930s Turkey's purge is spreading to another group of usual suspects: Kurds. On September 8, Turkey suspended more than 11,000 schoolteachers for suspected links with the militant Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a group that is on the list of terror organizations of Turkey, the U.S. and the EU. The mass suspension came without a court ruling to determine that all of these people were tried on charges of terror and all were found guilty, with their appeals rejected. No, the schoolteachers were not even on trial when they were informed that they had been suspended. Guilty without trial.
On September 11, Turkey's Interior Ministry appointed trustees to 28 local municipalities across the country's predominantly Kurdish southeast, on the grounds that they allegedly provided support to the PKK and Gulen's network. Elected mayors, too, were suspended without a court ruling that proves they have links with terror groups.
There are warnings, mostly going unnoticed by the ruling party, that the Turkish purge violates basic civil liberties. "If you try to run the country with the feelings of revenge and hatred, then you will cause suffering for many innocent people. This is the point we have reached now. A total witch hunt has been launched in many fields," said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Social Democrat party.
According to Thorbjorn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe (which enforces human rights in the European Court of Human Rights), Turkey must produce clear evidence in pursuing participants in a failed coup, and avoid targeting teachers and journalists simply because they worked for firms run by the Muslim cleric Ankara portrays as its mastermind. Otherwise, Jagland said, Turkey may be challenged in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Times after attempted coups are always turbulent. With the excesses of a witch-hunt, Erdogan is now adding millions to an already long list of Turks who deeply dislike him. Meanwhile, Turkey is getting more and more distant from the utopia of becoming a country of peace and order.
Burak Bekdil, based in Ankara, is a Turkish columnist for the Hürriyet Daily and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.