Youth in Revolt

 2013-05-10 22.21.44

Deniz Gezmiş, “The Turkish Che Guevarra”

When the Turkish police finally moved into Istanbul’s Taksim Square, after a week of protests and occupation, one of their first actions was to cut down the accumulation of posters hanging from the Ataturk Cultural Center. Since protesters had taken control of the square, one group after another had added to the collage of slogans and images. Among the more prominent of these was a picture of a young man’s face with the words “Struggle” His face could be seen elsewhere too: on posters around the square, on t-shirts, and spray painted on buildings. For many Turks, this young man, Deniz Gezmiş, is the face of revolutionary struggle.

Deniz was born in 1947, a “baby boomer” in a country that had remained largely neutral through WWII. Staying on the sidelines, however, had not saved the economy. The war years were lean times and, in the post-war years, Turkish leaders found it necessary to throw in their lot with the United States in order to secure loans and resist very real Soviet threats to the country’s sovereignty. Turkey joined NATO, fought in the Korean War, and accepted financial assistance.

By the late 1960s, this relationship was fraying. The country remained poor, industrialized only in its western coastal regions—and that industrialization had stimulated massive migrations into the cities, resulting in sprawling shantytowns. To many on the left, attempts to deal with these social problems seemed impossible in a political-party system dominated by landlords, bureaucrats, and the army. Anti-American sentiment grew over the course of the decade as many perceived the US to be propping up the existing order. Meanwhile, US soldiers stationed around Turkey spent like kings and the US sixth fleet patrolled Turkey’s Mediterranean borders, preventing Turkish forced from aiding Turks in Cyprus. In fact, when Turkey sought to intervene in 1964, President Johnson responded with a threatening letter to the Turkish prime minister, discouraging him. [1]

 Turkish universities in the 1960s were natural centers for protest. In the first place, students were literate and informed, reading Marxist works at a time when events in Cuba and elsewhere suggested revolution was possible. Moreover, students were grumpy: Turkey had only eight universities to serve a population of around 35 million. Even with highly selective acceptance rates, universities were over-flowing—a single Latin class for 400 students, only 21 dorms for 10,000. And, on top of all these discomforts, fees were higher than stipends could cover. [2] Even before student protests engulfed the continent in 1968, Turkish students had begun protesting and organizing. Initial student radicalism was centered in campus groups called “Idea Clubs,” but by the late 1960s, members of these clubs were dominating university elections and speaking for the student-body as a whole.

Deniz entered Istanbul University Law School in 1966 and began participating in various left-wing protests, including burning a US flag at a Cyprus protest. By 1968, he’d been arrested several times for his activities and, like many students, was growing “disenchanted” with the methods of the more main-stream Turkish Workers Party. [3]

In January of 1968, he founded the Revolutionary Jurists Organization; the following March he and other members were arrested for protesting a speech by the Deputy Prime Minister. In June, a month after the Paris protests had begun, students at Istanbul University resolved to occupy the campus—their initial demands for better living and studying conditions quickly grew into demands for a thoroughgoing “education revolution.” [4]

Throughout the summer new opportunities for action presented themselves: a major strike in early July followed by the arrival of the American Sixth Fleet in Istanbul. The fleet docked in Dolmabahçe, only a short walk from the campuses of Istanbul Technical University (ITÜ). Its presence quickly drew protests; sailors on shore leave were the target of harassment. On July 17th, police raided the ITU dormitories.  In the ensuring fighting, over fifty students and four police were injured, thirty students were arrested, and one student fell (or was, perhaps, pushed) through a window—he died ten days later from the injuries. The day after the raid, students gathered to protest in front of ITÜ. The ITÜ’s student leadership, trying to follow the recommendations of the Turkish Workers Party, counseled fellow students to remain at the university, but Deniz rallied them to march down to confront the fleet. In Dolmabahçe students fought with American sailors, throwing several into the water. [5]

In the days that followed, Deniz and other students organized protests under the slogan “For Peace, War Against American Imperialism,” and—feeling that the Idea Clubs were insufficiently active—started the Revolutionary Student Union (DÖB).  A week after the fleet protests, a memorial service for the dead ITU student turned into a violent confrontation between students and police. In the aftermath of July chaos, police arrested Deniz.

The police were not the only force set against left-wing groups; right-wings groups targeted them as well. Nationalists saw radicals like Deniz as trying to undermine the country through class warfare; Islamists saw radicals as attempting to establish a religiously intolerant communist system. In conservative cities like Konya, left-wing organizations like teacher’s unions, political parties, and newspapers were attacked.

Within two months of being released in September of 1968, Deniz was back to organizing protests: this time against the new US Ambassador to Turkey, Robert Komer who, before his appointment had run the US’s “pacification” program in Vietnam. [6] An advocate of “winning hearts and minds,” Komer advocated that the US reduce its visibility in Turkey, halting fleet visits until after the fall elections, turning over management of NATO facilities, and closing conspicuous dispensaries and movie theatres available only to US troops. These positions did not impress Deniz and his peers. Upon Komer’s arrival in Istanbul, Deniz led a group to the airport to protest. When Komer arrived in the capital, Ankara, he was confronted by even larger protests. When he went to visit Ankara’s Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ), a Turkish school built on the American model with US funding, students burned his car. Komer’s resignation in early January 1969 was celebrated as a victory for the left even though it was largely a result of changing presidential administrations in the US.

Emboldened, student radicals continued their protests against the sixth fleet. On February 16, however, a mass protest heading toward Taksim Square was attacked, first by police and then by groups of armed right-wing militants. Two protesters were killed. The date is remembered by the Turkish left as “Bloody Sunday,” but it was hardly an isolated incident—in fact it was just another step down the increasingly violent path Turkey was to take in the 1970s.

Over the course of 1969, there were more strikes and university occupations. ÖDTÜ was shut for seven months; Istanbul University for four. On the streets outside the campuses, students fought police with sticks and Molotov cocktails. Deniz was on the front lines of such fights, but in late June he decided he must take the next step toward revolution. With classes cancelled, he traveled to Palestinian Liberation Organization training camps in Syria and Jordan to receive guerrilla training.[7] Upon returning to Istanbul in September, he was expelled from university for his actions months earlier (including carrying an unlicensed gun). His expulsion led to a fresh round of deadly university protests. He was again arrested and held for three months.

Deniz and his friends began to hang around the dorms of Yildiz State Engineering and Architecture Academy, a growing hotbed of student protest. In late December, the police raided these dorms, finding guns, rifles, and bullets. Deniz was found with firearms and arrested. [8] He spent the next nine months in prison; first in Istanbul, and later in Bursa where he helped organize a massive prison riot in which several guards were taken hostage. During his time in prison, Turkey was wracked with strikes and violence as the government passed bills limiting union freedoms.

While in prison Deniz, along with several other PLO-trained student radicals from Ankara’s Middle Eastern Technical University (ODTÜ), began developing an organization to carry out Maoist-style guerrilla warfare in the hope of liberating Turkey from American control. Their goal was to attack landlords and radicalize the countryside, forcing conservative elements in the army to attack with the backing of imperialist powers, thus drawing the entire country into a “popular war.” [9] Their organization, the People’s Liberation Army of Turkey (THKO), never achieved anything of this sort.

Late in 1970, the THKO carried out a drive-by shooting in front of the US consulate in Ankara, injuring two Turkish guards. Two weeks later, short on cash, Deniz and other THKO members robbed a bank in Ankara. Within a matter of days, bank workers had identified Deniz as one of the robbers. The sentence for robbery could be as much as twenty years in jail. The robbery sparked a massive manhunt. In Ankara, police raided ODTÜ campus (as much to find left-wing materials as to find Deniz). Although the university’s rector criticized the manner in which the police were conducting their search and argued that ODTÜ was not, “as some have occasionally said, a weapons depot,” he was seen as complicit. [10] His house was bombed the day after the search, causing the university to close. In Istanbul, students protested that the whole case was a “conspiracy” by the political powers-that-be. [11]

In February, the THKO—likely including Deniz—kidnapped an American sergeant. However, when they realized that he was black, they apologized profusely, explaining that “the Americans are exploiting both of us.” [12] They released him within hours. Two weeks later, they struck again, this time kidnapping four (white) soldiers and threatening to kill all four unless they were given $400,000 and their political demands broadcast on the radio. In response, jandarma and commandos raided ODTÜ again—one student died and many were injured in the ensuing clashes. When none of their demands were met, Deniz and his friends released the hostages unharmed on March 5, 1971.

Four days later, with the situation in the country growing evermore unstable and the government seemingly incapable of handling the situation, a group of army officers attempted a coup. Although it failed, the coup prompted the army high command to issue a memo three days later threatening to act if the right-wing government did not step down and cede power to a non-partisan cabinet of technocrats. This cabinet was led by Nihat Erim. Hardly an independent, Erim had for many years been right-hand man to İsmet İnönü, the long-time prime minister and former president of Turkey. Within weeks, and under pressure from the army, his government declared martial law in most major cities and in much of the southeast. It closed the student group Revolutionary Youth, the Kurdish group Eastern Culture Hearths, and the right-wing National Hearths.

On March 16 Deniz and another THKO member were caught on the road between the towns of Sivas and Kayseri. They had stopped in a village to steal a car and been reported. Depending on the whims of the government, Deniz and the other members of the THKO could be sentenced to death for their membership in a “revolutionary organization.”

Remaining members of the THKO, seeing their friends in jail and feeling the increased government pressure, began planning more violent campaigns. They established a training camp in the mountains northeast of Adana from which they intended to attack an American military base in the town of Kürecik. Again, they never achieved their goal. On May 31, while resting in a small town north of their hideout, the group was discovered by police and killed. [13] On the same day, the Turkish police surrounded and killed several members of THKP-C, a rival (and far more effective) organization that had kidnapped and killed the Israeli ambassador several weeks earlier. [14]


In March of 1972, surviving members of the THKP-C, led by student radical Mahir Çayan, kidnapped three NATO officers from a base in the town of Ünye and demanded the release of Deniz and his fellow radicals. Rejecting any compromise, the Turkish parliament voted to execute Deniz and two other THKO members, Yusuf Aslan and Hüseyin İnan.[15]  Several weeks later, the military stormed the THKP-C’s hideout, killing Mahir, his fellow kidnappers, and their hostages.

Despite a last minute attempt by THKO members to secure their release by high-jacking a Bulgaria bound airplane on May 3, Deniz, Yusuf, and Hüseyin were executed on May 6, 1972. [16] Deniz’s last reported words were, “Long live a fully independent Turkey! Long live the high ideals of Marxism and Leninism! Long live the Turkish and Kurdish people’s struggle for independence! Damn imperialism! Long live the workers and the villagers!” [17]

Killing the THKO and THKP-C leadership failed to crush the Turkish left during the 1970s. Unrest continued—in fact grew—during subsequent years. [18] With its parties circumscribed and its unions weakened, the Turkish left lacked legal means to secure its ends. Right-wing groups, doubting the existing order’s ability to maintain national unity (and often with the tacit backing of right-wing politicians) also established paramilitary organizations. Tit-for-tat killing—including the assassination of Nihat Erim in 1980 by vengeful leftists—engulfed the country. Only the military coup of 1980 which crushed both the left and the right (albeit in order to pursue the goals of the right) halted the violence. [19]

As for Deniz himself, he has become a symbol—far less for the content of his actions than for the hopefulness of the times he represented. In the early 1980s, when publishing material about him was a crime, there was an increase in babies named “Deniz.” With the fading of military restrictions over the past two decades, admirers have written biographies and reminiscences [20], composed songs, and produced movies. In many cases—a prime example being the 1998 film Hello Tomorrow—there has been debate over his depiction, which verges on apotheosis.[21] In recent years, there have been attempts by students to establish memorial statues. [22] Meanwhile, students continue to join “Idea Clubs” and discuss radical ideas. Flyers and posters for such groups continue to feature pictures of Deniz, Yusuf, and Hüseyin. On May 6 2012, the fortieth anniversary of their executions, opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu became the first leader of his party to visit their graves. [23]

During the recent protests, pictures of Deniz, Mahir, and İbrahim Kaypakkaya, the founder of the Turkish Communist Party were common sights. Protests carried signs saying THKP-C and spray-painted “DÖB” (Revolutionary Student Union) around the square.

Like other revolutionary icons, over time, the actual memory of events surrounding his life and death has receded and he has come to symbolize less a set of real events than a set of amorphous feelings—passionate belief, anger toward injustice, resistance toward repression, and hope in the face of a broken system. The real Deniz Gezmiş, the 24 year old student protest leader and would-be revolutionary, could hardly have borne the weight of such heavy symbolism. Deniz Gezmiş, the image, on the other hand, seems to be holding up just fine.


[1] Anthony Lewis, “Turks’ New Mood Is Puzzling,” The New York Times, 2/17/69. Accessed 6/11/13.  And James P Brown, “The New Young Turks,” The New York Times, 3/17/69. Accessed 6/11/13.

[2] Nadire Mater, Sokak Güzeldir: ‘68’de Ne Oldu, Istanbul: Metis, 2009, p. 295.

[3] Özgür Mutlu Ulus, The Army and the Radikal Left in Turkey, London: IB Tauris, 2011, p. 108.

[4] Ibid. p, 109.

[5] Aydın Çubukçu, Bizim ’68, Istanbul: Evrensel Basım Yayın, 1998, p. 80.

[6] Robert Komer, “Impact of Pacification on South Vietnam,” Rand Paper.  August 1970. 

[7] Deniz Gezmiş´in Filistin macerası,” Haber7, 5/14/05. Accessed 6/12/13. 

[8] Güngör Gönültaş, “Akademi Kapatıldı,” Milliyet, 12/21/69. Accessed 6/12/13. 

[9] Özgür Mutlu Ulus, The Army and the Radikal Left in Turkey, London: IB Tauris, 2011), p. 126.

[11] “Dinamitler Yine Patladı,” Milliyet, 1/19/71. p. 9.  Accessed 6/12/13. 

[12] “Kaçırlanlar çavusa, ‘Bizi affet, dediler,” Milliyet, p. 1. Accessed 6/12/13. 

[13] Sevtap Özkahraman, Kahramanlarım Sinan-Şirin Cemgil…,” Milliyet, 5/30/12. Accessed 6/13/13. 

[14] See Margaret Krahenbuhl, “Political Kidnappings, 1971-1972,” RAND, July 1977, pp. 16-26. Accessed 6/13/13. The THKO are depicted as small scale operators, short on ideology and organization in comparison to the THKP-C.

[15] Parliamentary and presidential approval was required. The vote was controversial: Not only did many feel that death was an excessive punishment, but also that the trial itself had been conducted in an unconstitutional fashion. (Semra Çelebi, “1971-1972: Last Days of Young Revolutionaries before Execution,” Bianet, 5/6/09. Accessed 6/13/13. ). The main opposition leaders, İsmet İnönü  and Bulent Ecevit, opposed it. The center-right parliamentarians, including Süleyman Demirel, supported it. The Islamist party leader Necmettin Erbakan abstained and the far-right leader Alparslan Türkeş first abstained before finally voting in favor. There seems to be confusion as to the vote because there were two separate votes. In the first on March 10, 1972, the lower house (which has 450 seats) voted 238 for execution and 53 against with159 abstentions; in the second, on April 24, it voted 273 for and 48 against with 118 abstentions. (Oral Çalışlar, Türkeş, Denizler’in idamında oy kullanmadı mı?” Radikal, 5/9/12. Accessed 6/13/13.). The 183 member senate approved the execution 111 to 34 (Cumhuriyet Senatosu Tutanak Dergisı, 5/2/72, p. 390. Accessed 6/13/13.) Nihat Erim and the President Sunay both approved.

[16]span style=”font-family:’Times New Roman’;”> Gökhan Durmuş, Denizlerin idamını iki gün ertelettik,” Evrensel, 5/7/11. Accessed 6/12/13.

[17] Besides being potentially apocryphal, it has been frequently edited to suit prevailing political conditions. (Deniz’in son sözleri,” Sol, 5/6/10. Accessed 6/12/13.)

[18] See Bruce Hoffman and Sabri Sayari, “Urbanization and Insurgency: The Turkish Case, 1976-80.” RAND, 1991. Accessed 6/12/13. 

[19] Though—let’s be clear—“halt the violence” only in certain ways. In order to stabilize the country, the military employed a tremendous amount of coercion. Unions and newspapers were banned, organizations that advocated separatism or division (very slippery concepts) were banned, a new constitution was introduced giving the state the power to severely limit free speech and other rights in the name of national unity. Left-wingers, right-wingers, advocates for labor, gender, intellectual, and ethnic freedoms were met with responses that could hardly be characterized as “non-violent.”

[20] Ex. Turhan Feyizoğlu, Deniz, Bir İsyancının İzleri, Istanbul: Alfa Yayıncılık, 2007

[21] Erhan Öztürk, Hello Tomorrow, Goodbye Yesterday,” Hurriyet Daily News, 11/29/98. Accessed 6/11/13.  and Stephen Kinzer, “Istanbul Journal; Film Confronts a History Few Turks Can Agree On,” The New York Times, 3/9/99. Accessed 6/12/13. Hoşçakal Yarın can be viewed in its entirety HERE. (“Hoşçakal Yarın,” Youtube. Accessed 6/12/13).