Today in Cold War history: the Taksim Square massacre (1977)

Taksim Square on a quiet day in 2012 (Wikimedia | FaceMePLS)

Today is, of course, May Day, whose origins go back to pre-Christian European cultures, but for much of the world it’s also International Workers’ Day and, in some countries, Labor Day. Ironically, for a date chosen to commemorate the 1886 Haymarket Affair in Chicago, May 1 is not the official labor holiday in the United States. America celebrates Labor Day, albeit very reluctantly, on the first Monday in September, a date that probably predates Haymarket in its origins but was selected for the federal holiday in part because May 1 is too workery and internationalist and socialist for American politicians to countenance.

But even in countries that don’t formally recognize May 1 as a day for recognizing organized labor and workers’ rights, the day still carries that connotation for some people. And that means demonstrations, rallies, and celebrations. These sorts of things can sometimes turn violent, particularly when governments, backed by super-national military institutions and the spy agencies of global superpowers, deliberately turn them violent. Speaking of which, let’s consider the 1977 May Day rally in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.

The Republic of Turkey hadn’t had any organized May Day/Labor celebration for almost half a century, starting in the 1920s, until, in 1976, Turkey’s Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (Turkish acronym DİSK) held a celebration in Taksim Square. That apparently went off well enough that another celebration was planned for May 1, 1977. But in the lead up to May Day, rumors began to circulate that the Taksim Square rally would turn violent. In particular, DİSK had banned the participation of a Maoist faction, and it was believed they might show up looking to cause trouble. They had reportedly not yet showed up when shots rang out across the square from buildings surrounding it. Turkish police intervened quickly and heavily with riot-control tactics, and between the shooting and the panic caused by the shooting plus the police somewhere around 40 people were killed.

Nobody has ever figured out what happened, and all the people who were charged in the case either had their charges later dropped or were eventually acquitted, but there are theories. The Maoists, who notably had not yet entered the square when the shooting started, could in theory have put snipers in the surrounding buildings. But it seems to defy belief that they could’ve pulled off such a thing and gotten away scot-free, particularly when the prosecutor investigating the affair, Çetin Yetkin, said that there were several snipers who were arrested, yet Turkish police claim they have no records of anything like that (they also seem to have “lost” some extremely germane material, like a bag of explosives supposedly found at the scene and at least one person’s home movie of the incident). Maybe Yetkin lied, or maybe the Turkish police let those snipers go, in which case it’s exceedingly unlikely, to say the least, that they were Maoists. I mean, other than maybe in China, I don’t know of any police forces anywhere who are keen to look the other way when it comes to Maoists committing heinous crimes.

A lot of suspicion since 1977 has fallen on a Turkish paramilitary group called Kontrgerilla (Counter-Guerrilla), which was the Turkish branch of a much larger network of paramilitary organizations established all across Europe under a NATO program called Operation Gladio. You probably already see where this is going.

Operation Gladio grew out of a British World War II institution called the “Auxiliary Units.” These were groups that were trained and given access to arms caches all over Britain, so that in the event of a German invasion of the British Isles they could function as an instant “stay behind” paramilitary resistance force. After the war, Britain and the US (enter the CIA) decided to take this program and expand it to European states at risk of potential Communist takeover and/or Soviet (later Warsaw Pact) invasion. This program spread all over the place, but for example “stay behind” cells were formed, and weapons stashed, in Finland, Greece, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, and, yes, Turkey. Even Spain was involved despite its distance from any direct threat of Soviet invasion. The term for these units was different in every country–the overall program took the name of the Italian version, “gladio” (after the Roman “gladius” sword) in part because the existence of these organizations really came out into the open in 1990 when the Italian government revealed it.

Had Operation Gladio stuck to its limited mission, it might have been fine. But in fact it’s not clear that it did stick to the mission, and there are theories, some more conspiratorial than others, that link these paramilitary units to instances of right-wing terrorism and anti-socialist violence throughout Cold War Europe. At the very least, there are a few cases where it’s known that these arms caches set up for the groups to use in case of invasion were found and looted by criminals, so that’s nice. In Turkey, former prime minister Bülent Ecevit (d. 2006) was the most prominent proponent of the theory that Kontrgerilla was involved in the Taksim massacre, maybe with direct CIA involvement, because the May Day demonstration was too Communist for comfort. Ecevit said he learned of Operation Gladio’s existence in 1974 and told people he believed that Kontrgerilla was involved in the 1977 massacre, but then quickly (and suspiciously) clammed up about the whole thing after apparently being warned to shut up by then-prime minister Süleyman Demirel (d. 2015).

There’s some circumstantial evidence to back up the theory that Kontrgerilla was acting with institutional Turkish and American support. There were reports of Turkish police hanging out with unknown Americans at the Sheraton Hotel in Istanbul (which was closed to the public) on May 1. The deputy head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, Hiram Abas, was supposedly seen hanging around the square that day. Then there are the actions of the police themselves, who seem to have known when the shooting would stop, because that’s when they finally entered the square and turned their riot control hoses on the demonstrators. And the investigation seems to have been botched so badly that it’s easier to believe it was deliberately mishandled than that any national police force could be that incompetent. Obviously there’s nothing conclusive here, nor is there much conclusive evidence about any of Operation Gladio’s suspected involvement in this kind of violence elsewhere. Nobody is ever going to do time for the murder of those 40 or so people in Taksim on May 1, 1977. But there’s still no likelier suspect in this case than Kontrgerilla, whether you believe they had CIA help or not.

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