This coming weekend, there will be a very different sort of celebration for May 19, the first of its kind in the republic’s history. The difference will be an important one, insofar as it is one of the general signs of change afoot in Turkey. And this is also the reason that the ongoing arguments over May 19 have become a main topic in politics these days. Power relations within the state in Turkey are changing. And parallel to this change, official holidays are also shifting into different forms.
May 19 was originally dedicated to the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a day set aside as Youth and Sports Day. The date refers to May 19, 1919, when Atatürk arrived in Samsun by boat, leading the army; it is accepted as the official start to the struggle to rescue Turkey from foreign occupation in the wake of World War I. It was in 1938 that May 19 was made an official holiday in Turkey. The official program used for this celebration has been in place since then. There is a surprising source for all of this that lies in the background: the Italy of the 1930s, and the years that Benito Mussolini was in power.
At the start of May 1932, a crowded delegation of intellectuals and politicians from Turkey set out by boat for Italy. This group was very impressed by what it saw in Italy. Mussolini even went as far as to hold special ceremonies to show the Turkish delegation the full success of fascism. During this particular era in Italy, every aspect of life was imbued with fascism. The regimentation of the fascist youth began even in pre-schools. And, in fact, Mussolini’s program for bringing up fascist youth left a very strong impression on the Turkish delegation. The essence of this program was to melt down the concept of the individual within the larger concept of society, and thus bring the spirit of the masses to the youth of the nation.
And thus, the basic format of the May 19 celebrations in Turkey took as its inspiration fascist Italy of 1932. High-school students go through choreographed moves as ordered on large football fields. What is sought with these moves, which are not difficult at all for the students, is complete harmony. It is expected that as these large groups of students go through their choreographed moves all together, they will feel like a small part of the larger mass around them.
The month of May is the final full month of education. And as these May 19 ceremonies have always called for tremendous amounts of practice and preparation, the past years have seen said practice sessions starting all the way back in April, with classes being interrupted, and physical education teachers having to turn all of their energy over to the upcoming ceremonies. Up until now, there had never been any questioning of what the effect of all of this was on education.
The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government made the decision last year to bring these mass shows to an end. A few months ago, the Education Ministry announced that in fact, not only would mass programs not take place on enormous football fields, but that the whole day was to be transformed into a sort of festival for the students. The negative reactions, however, have been huge and are still continuing. The patriotic leftist factions are angry with the decision from the ministry. But the truth is, a fascist implementation that has been in place for the past 73 years is finally coming to a close. And outside of the aforementioned patriotic leftist factions, there have really been no negative reactions.
And so, the decision by the AK Party to bring to an end the classic May 19 celebrations is important proof of the closure of the previously powerful totalitarian hold on the state. With the significant change in the way this holiday is being celebrated this year, Turkey is finally normalizing, and even democratizing.