Thursday was May 19, the anniversary of the beginning of the War of Independence, marked as the day Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk landed in Samsun in 1919, and militarism was at the forefront once again on this day, celebrated in Turkey as Atatürk Commemoration and Youth and Sports Day.
High school students, who had been practicing for days, paraded in perfect order in military formations in stadiums across Turkey and performed athletic routines. Troops also paraded, with generals attending the ceremonies in big cities alongside of politicians. Many writers believe that the images are unworthy of a democratic nation, noting that national days are celebrated in this fashion only in currently or previously communist countries that have not fully democratized such as China, Cuba or Russia. “Why are we still holding fascist-looking ceremonies on May 19?” asked Mümtaz'er Türköne, a columnist for the Zaman daily, in his column on Thursday.
“This must be the definition of dogmatism. Repeating the same thing every year without ever questioning it, without ever reflecting on its real meaning, doing the same thing every year religiously as a pair of oxen plowing the field would. Our May 19 celebrations were taken from the fascist Italy of 1932. Why aren’t we even thinking of changing how we do this?”
He says young people putting on uncomplicated gymnastics performances on fields in stadiums was introduced in 1932, when a delegation led by Prime Minister İsmet İnönü visited Moscow and Rome, where they were impressed by the ways in which Mussolini’s Italy and Stalin’s Russia raised their youth.
Journalist Mehmet Altan says that the military parades on national days are usually associated with dictatorial regimes. Since the regime of Turkey was set up by the military, which sees itself as the protector and custodian of the regime, “There is a constant glorification of the military.” He points to phrases in Turkish, such as “Every Turk is born a soldier,” that to
He also noted that the ways national days have been celebrated haven’t changed, not in the slightest, from the ways they were celebrated in the first decade of the republic. For this to change, Altan said, political parties should make an effort to change the mentality. “The regime is not democratic, but there are no efforts to transform it into a democracy because the military-politics relationship has turned into a field for profit. The General Staff cannot be brought under the supervision of the National Defense Ministry. Those who actually propose this are only doing so in return for political gains.”
Tansel Parlak, from the Young Civilians, a civil society group that promotes de-militarization of politics, said Turkey should start celebrating May 19 in a more civilian manner.
“For this mentality to change, civil society organizations and political parties should speak up. Firstly, people who are delivering speeches in May 19 ceremonies should think of this themselves. Most probably, they attended those ceremonies as young people. Did they ever listen to politicians when they were stuffed into stadiums? Somebody should bravely make this point, although he might become the target of unjust criticism, such as accusations of not wanting to celebrate May 19 or commemorate Atatürk at all. Turkey is one of the world’s biggest economies -- it is negotiating for EU membership. Celebrations done like ours can be seen in North Korea and China. Turkey should make up its mind -- is it going to go on with this mentality, or will it choose to be more democratic?”
On May 19, 1919, Atatürk, who would become modern Turkey’s first president, landed on the main peninsula of Turkey lead the liberation effort. In early 1920, Atatürk convened the first Turkish Grand National Assembly (Parliament) in Ankara and by 1922 all of Anatolia was freed from foreign rule. The independent Republic of Turkey was declared a year later. During the course of his term as president, Atatürk himself proclaimed May 19 “Youth and Sports Day.” In the aftermath of Atatürk’s monumental legacy, the day serves to honor the country’s founder as well.