Illustration: A temple with pillars made of newspapers collapses.
A Bastion of Democracy

People who fled Hitler's Germany made a tremendous contribution to building modern Turkey. Today, many representatives of the Turkish intelligentsia are fleeing to Germany, including Can Dündar. What bothers him is that some European capitals seem to prefer a stable regime in Turkey to democratic instability.

On 17 September 1933 Albert Einstein wrote a letter to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He asked ‘His Excellency’ to allow 40 professors and doctors from Germany to continue their scientific and medical work in Turkey. In the elections six months earlier, the Nazis had won almost 45 percent of the votes. They were arresting opposition MPs and began to rule the country by decree.

The universities were one of their first targets. Academics who criticised the Nazis were expelled from universities. Most of them sought refuge outside Germany. The doors of Europe were closed, and America was a long way away. An association was set up to help them.

In his letter to Atatürk, the famous physicist explained that the association had selected forty scientists from a large number of applicants who were prepared to work in Turkey ‘for a year without any remuneration’. He reminded Atatürk that this was an act of high humanity from which Turkey could also benefit.


Conversion of the Ottoman Empire

That was also true. The Republic had been in existence for just ten years, and it needed people who were capable of modernising the institutions that had been inherited from the Ottomans. In early 1932, the government invited Albert Malche from the University of Geneva to write a report on the planned university reforms.

As a result, 42 German academics were appointed when the University of Istanbul was founded. By 1933 this had risen to 300.

For example, it was Eduard Hirsch who wrote the 800-page Turkish legal dictionary and simultaneously laid the groundwork for the establishment of the Freie Universität Berlin. SPD politician Ernst Reuter was a consultant at the Ministry of Finance and taught urban planning in the Political Science faculty at Ankara University. The composer Paul Hindemith founded the State Conservatory in Ankara.

The director of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, Carl Ebert, initially fled to Argentina then moved to Ankara and laid the foundations for the Turkish State Theatre and State Opera. Ernst Praetorius, General Musical Director of the Deutsche Nationaltheater Weimar, went on to conduct the Turkish president’s philharmonic orchestra. Music teacher Eduard Zuckmayer introduced modern music lessons at Turkish schools and adapted German songs for the Turkish language.

The Republic had been in existence for just ten years, and it needed people who were capable of modernising the institutions that had been inherited from the Ottomans.

Clemens Holzmeister, professor of architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and president of the Austrian Werkbund, designed Atatürk’s villa in Cankaya and the parliament building.

The paediatrician Albert Eckstein ran the children's clinic at Numune Hospital Ankara and, together with 31 German doctors, travelled around the villages of Anatolia providing medical services for the children who lived in rural areas.

Thanks to Atatürk's vision, these people, who had fled Hitler's regime of repression, made a tremendous contribution to building the young Republic.

Untroubled by the National Socialist accusation that they were traitors to the Fatherland, they were able to continue exercising their professions and work with other exiles to outline a future for Germany. Their numbers increased steadily to around one thousand. When they returned home after the war, they built a new Germany.

When Ernst Reuter returned home in 1946 he became Mayor of West Berlin and left a lasting impression on Germany’s history. Eduard Hirsch became Vice-Chancellor of the Freie Universität Berlin. Others, like Eduard Zuckmayer, found their last resting place in Turkey.


Academics In The Firing Line


Photo of a hand holding a burning rose.
I raced breathlessly from one place to another, crying: ‘Can’t you see we’re on fire?’, photo: Gaspar Uhas, unsplash

When I came to Berlin, I thought I was experiencing the fate of these people, whom we remember with admiration and gratitude, in reverse. The regime from which they had fled eighty years earlier was now clouding the skies over Turkey.

A party that had won 45 percent of the vote in the elections was arresting opposition MPs and beginning to rule the country by decree. The universities were one of their first targets. Academics who criticised the government were expelled from universities.

Now it was Germany’s turn to open its arms to people who were threatened by this regime. And it was up to us, untroubled by the accusation of being traitors to our country, to continue to work to defeat fascism....

Soon after arriving in Berlin, I set about telling Germany and Europe what was happening in Turkey. In two weeks I visited nine cities in six states. As someone who had seen the fire, touched the fire and burned his skin, I raced breathlessly from one place to another, crying: ‘Can’t you see we’re on fire?’ I tried to shake up everyone I came into contact with.

Transformation of a Secular Country

The only secular and democratic country in the Islamic world, an early member of the Council of Europe, was being turned into a totalitarian regime in front of our very eyes. But the stubbornly ignored ‘other Turkey’ was fighting against death.

Racked by fear that millions of refugees fleeing the burning Middle East would flood into their countries, steal people’s jobs and turn their lives upside down, Europe temporised with tightly sealed gates and lips.

I wanted everyone to realise that they were working for the democratic forces in Turkey, or at least not overshadowing them. Europe’s governments closed their eyes and turned away. Their silence was implicit support for the repression. Can a continent be afraid?

Europe was afraid. Racked by fear that millions of refugees fleeing the burning Middle East would flood into their countries, steal people’s jobs and turn their lives upside down, Europe temporised with tightly sealed gates and lips. The only way out was to give Turkey, which had generously opened its doors to three million refugees, money for their admission and the promise of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens.

But there was another price to be paid: Europe had to close its eyes to any repression on the part of the ‘guard’ who was to guard the gates of the refugee camps. And abstain from any reactions that could upset this guard. Even the smallest complaint would lead the guard to threaten: ‘I’ll open the gates, then you’ll see!’

Europe kept quiet when faced when this threat from Erdoğan. It was this submissive attitude that allowed Erdoğan to gain strength against Europe. And this fearful silence, this indirect consent, meant that we were also imprisoned or exiled.

Europe's attitude has disappointed millions of people who have suffered reprisals for defending European values, democracy, the rule of law, separation of powers, freedom of the press, secularism and gender equality. They have seen how easily the old continent will abandon its principles for the sake of political expediency.


Heads Hung In Shame

When I talked to people about this, they hung their heads in shame and muttered: ‘But you know, the refugee issue is really important.’ But it’s not just about refugees. For half a century, Turkey has been the loyal soldier of the West, guarding NATO’s south-eastern border.

It is a vital market for European investment. And an excellent customer who makes every arms dealer salivate. The massive increase in arms purchases in 2016 alone meant that Turkey moved up from 25th to 8th place in the list of countries buying arms from Germany.


In some of Europe’s capitals and their spheres, a stable, repressive regime in Turkey seems to be preferable to democratic instability. This also means that, in order to defend what are generally regarded as Western values, it may also be necessary to fight against the West. Just as Atatürk did during the National War of Independence in the 1920s.

Fortunately, the West does not consist solely of anxious heads of government, weak leaders and wheeler-dealers. Wherever I went, I also met politicians, non-governmental organisations, professional associations and journalist colleagues who criticised this policy, supported our struggle, and understood that we were not alone.

Photo of a turkish flag hanging behind an european flag.
Turkey is a vital market for European investment, photo: Public Domain, pixabay

Many human rights organisations have been working for us, including the writers’ association PEN International, Reporters without Borders, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) and Amnesty International. Now that European governments had fallen silent as a result of the refugee agreement, it was important for relations with Europe to go beyond the diplomatic and military level. The ‘other Turkey’ had to establish sustainable, personal and local links with European parliaments, municipalities, professional associations, NGOs and the public.

The aim was to promote town-twinning and exchange programmes for teachers and school students. Solidarity was needed among legal and other professional associations, trade unions, women's and youth associations, and journalists. Economic ties at small and medium-sized level had to be strengthened. Joint parliamentary committees had to be set up. Collaborative art projects and festivals were to be supported, films and TV series jointly filmed, books published in both languages.

Fortunately, the West does not consist solely of anxious heads of government, weak leaders and wheeler-dealers.

Relations between Turkey and Europe, which during negotiations had gone off the rails at the highest level, should be boosted from the bottom up. We did not want charity from the West, we were looking for a lasting, healthy, democratic partnership of equals, one that was not based on dependence, exploitation and blackmail.


‘They’re Raiding Cumhuriyet!’

Unlike the governments, ‘opposition Europe’ lent its ear to the voice of opposition Turkey. This interest soon upset Ankara. On 31 October 2016, at five in the morning, the sound of my phone tore me from my slumbers. Calls at this time of the night always mean bad news. It was Hasan Cemal. ‘Hey man, get up, they’re attacking! I sat bolt upright. ‘What kind of attack?’ ‘They’re raiding Cumhuriyet!’

I was in Cologne. It was the morning after a difficult night. I had driven to Cologne to attend a memorial ceremony for an old friend. Tarik Akan, the unforgettable star of Turkish cinema and staunch defender of democracy, had succumbed to his illness a few weeks previously. We had worked together on documentaries, talked, travelled together.

His family and friends were all invited to a memorial ceremony in Cologne. They included some of my close friends, including the lawyer Akin Atalay, the publisher of Cumhuriyet. ‘See you there’, we said on the phone.

I waited a few weeks for an invitation, and when none arrived, I simply drove over. Whatever happens, I’ll see my friends there, I thought. I saw my friends in Cologne, and I also saw how much their lives had changed. And I had one of the most difficult days of all my life as an exile. When you’ve enjoyed a warm atmosphere of friendship, you think your seat will always be kept warm, even with the passage of time – at least you hope so. But it can happen that life causes seats, food, friendships to cool.

Some of my friends gave me a warm hug as usual, some were even more friendly than before, bringing me suitcases full of clothes from home. But in the eyes of others I saw the icy cold of suspicion. I froze. Their behaviour clearly told me how put out they were that I had showed up uninvited. Didn’t they trust me, or were they worried about being seen with me?

Why hadn’t they invited me, despite the fact that they knew I was in Germany? Or what...? I discovered that I was not only being treated like a leper by the government, but also by certain districts in ‘our neighbourhood’. Unprompted, one of the organisers felt obliged to make a statement: ‘We supported you when you were in prison, as you know. But we wanted to keep politics out of this memorial event. Everyone knows about your situation...’ My situation? Then the light went on in my head.


The Wind Changes Direction

The wind had changed direction, and now I was a ‘criminal’, wanted by the state. This was an attribute that could endanger the event, but also the lives of the attendees when they returned to Turkey. Like a contagious disease, fear had also gained a hold. ‘Don't get us wrong, but we were afraid that if you came it would change the direction of the memorial event. We only got the hall at the university because we guaranteed it wouldn't be a political event.’

Every word they said to explain their reasoning just made me feel more disappointed. My late father used to say: ‘It's not the sword that kills the hero, but the cruel word’. I was used to being excluded by my opponents, but I was unprepared for it to happen with friends. Erdoğan’s barbed attacks didn’t hurt me, but now I was being pierced by the thorn of a rose in my hand when I simply wanted to enjoy its scent, a rose that I knew.

Like a contagious disease, fear had also gained a hold.

I tried to hide how hurt I felt. We all went out to dinner that evening. Without asking for permission, I shared a photo on Twitter as a happy memory, with the caption: ‘With friends/At the table of the sun.’

It was only later that I realised I was putting them in a difficult situation. And also that I was no longer ‘the Can of old‘. It was risky to be photographed with me, a risk that could cost them dearly. The regime’s loyal media didn't even wait until morning but denounced them on their websites during the night.

I went to bed burdened by this knowledge. And the next morning I was awoken by the news of the attack. Winston Churchill once said: ‘Democracy means that if the doorbell rings in the early hours, it is likely to be the milkman.’

Whereas we learned in school that if the doorbell rings in the early hours, it’s the police. Sixteen doorbells rang that morning. The chairman of the foundation that publishes Cumhuriyet, the editor-in-chief, columnists and cartoonists, accountants and lawyers – the newspaper’s entire management team were hauled out of their beds and arrested.

We had been expecting this operation for months. Luckily, my wife Dilek was in Izmir. When no-one answered the door, the anti-terrorist unit got the neighbours out of bed and told them to call Dilek. When I spoke to her she was once again calm and courageous: ‘Usually they get a locksmith to open the door and go in, but when I said I'd come right away, they said they would wait. I’m flying there now to let them in.’

The plague was quite literally at our door. I immediately tried to reach my colleagues at the newspaper. The telephones had been cut off. Most of the staff had been taken to the police station. I watched helplessly on the TV screen as my colleagues were led away by police officers.

'Democracy means that if the doorbell rings in the early hours, it is likely to be the milkman.' [Winston Churchill]

Friends arrived who had heard the news that morning. They were all worried, with some fearing that the newspaper would appoint an official receiver, while others panicked about being arrested on their return. Members of parliament asked us in desperation: ‘What should we do?’ My closest friends advised: ‘Don’t write anything for now, hide yourself in a village in the mountains and keep a low profile for a while.’

These words, the atmosphere of defeat, the general sense of desperation, only served to spur me on. I did my best to remain calm. Soon the story was fleshed out: investigations had been initiated and arrests ordered for allegedly ‘supporting and aiding the PKK and FETO17’. Right from the outset, the investigation was kept confidential in order to prevent debate.


A Giant, As Old As The Republic

Cumhuriyet was a giant, as old as the republic whose name it bears. It was established by Atatürk himself and was the oldest, most respected newspaper in Turkey. Its influence was much larger than its readership. It had always defended democracy, secularism, freedom and the ideas of the Enlightenment; and time and again, it had ended up paying dearly.

Six of its writers have been assassinated, with countless others being imprisoned, banned, shot at and censored, yet the newspaper had never been silenced.

Erdoğan had taken over the national media and built his own media empire, and Cumhuriyet was one of the last bastions of resistance. Now, in our absence, they had attacked the fortress and taken our colleagues hostage. It was time for us to fight for their freedom and defend our bastion.

In my column, which was to appear the next day, I wrote: ‘We know why you're going crazy: you’re hoping that if you manage to bring down this newspaper, you will have taken another important turn on the road to the abolition of the republic, whose name is Cumhuriyet. (...) You cannot accept that the republic will not surrender, but on the contrary, many people are standing up for it. You are furious, saying:”‘We are doing everything we can to harass them, but still they don’t give up.” Your culture is the culture of subjugation, so this kind of resistance is foreign to you. It is our duty to make it known to you.’

Around midday, Dilek came racing back to Istanbul from Izmir. Six police officers were still waiting on her doorstep. Loyal friends heard what had happened and immediately rushed to our house, arriving before Dilek. I heard what happened next live on the phone: the unit commander sent his people into my study, saying: ‘You know this is a digital search!’

What he was saying was: ‘Don’t worry about the books, check the computer and phones!’ They worked through my big study, searching in files and drawers, but after three hours they had found nothing of note and simply confiscated my old mobile. After the search I watched on TV how Dilek stood on the doorstep and spoke to the waiting cameras: ‘Can has a lot of books, that’s why it took so long.’


An Arrest Warrant

When asked whether her husband would be returning to Turkey, she responded: ‘A warrant is out for Can’s arrest. Unfortunately he has become a target here. If he returns he will be immediately arrested. I think it’s better if he doesn’t come back.’

Then we were confronted with the following question: ‘Are you coming back?’

Could we stay away now that our newspaper had been raided and our colleagues put behind bars? Should we return home and join them in prison, or should we stay and continue the resistance? The best thing was to see what happened over the next few days and then make a decision with a clear head.

The following day, Cumhuriyet appeared with the headline: ‘We won’t give up’. Hundreds of readers came to the newspaper’s offices and held a vigil in front of the door until the small hours. The head of the largest opposition party also visited the newspaper.

Protests flooded in from all over the world. But the Erdoğan-supporting press were jubilant. The newspaper Takvim reported on the raid with the headline: ‘The operation against the bastion of terrorism was overdue’. Beneath a photo of Martin Schulz, President of the EU Parliament, who said: ‘Turkey has crossed a red line’ the newspaper claimed: ‘Germany is panicking’ Merkel had not even condemned the arrests. Only the Association of German Newspaper Publishers declared that the Chancellor's silence was unacceptable

About the Author
Photo of Can Dündar
Can Dündar
Journalist and author

Can Dündar is the former editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet. He was sentenced to five and a half years in prison for his reporting on the Turkish secret service and narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. Dündar continued his fight for press freedom in exile. He received, among others, the Reporters Without Borders Human Rights Award, the Hermann Kesten Award, the Golden Victoria for Press Freedom, the Lev Kopelev Award and the International Whistleblower Award. In 2017, he was awarded the European Journalist of the Year.

A selection of books:

  • We Are Arrested: A Journalist's Notes from a Turkish Prison. Biteback Publishing, London, 2016