Today in European history: the Taksim Square massacre (1977)

If you’re interested in history and foreign affairs, Foreign Exchanges is the newsletter for you! Sign up for free today for regular updates on international news and US foreign policy, delivered straight to your email inbox, or subscribe and unlock the full FX experience:

You probably don’t need me to tell you that today is May Day, since I’m betting your ability to keep track of which day it is exceeds mine. May Day’s origins go back to pre-Christian European cultures, but nowadays 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. The US government commemorates 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. Anyway, I digress.

Even in countries that don’t formally set aside May 1 as a day for recognizing organized labor and workers’ rights, the day still carries that connotation for many people. And that can mean 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.

Taksim Square on a considerably more peaceful day in 2012 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Republic of Turkey hadn’t had an organized May Day/Labor celebration for almost half a century, going back to the 1920s. But then, 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 DİSK planned another celebration for the following year. But in the lead up to May Day 1977, rumors began to circulate that the Taksim Square rally would turn violent. DİSK had blocked a Maoist faction from participating, and it was believed they might show up looking to cause trouble.

Sure enough there was trouble, but that’s where things get complicated. The aforementioned Maoists, who were expected to cause trouble, had not yet shown up when shots rang out across the square from several surrounding buildings. Turkish police intervened, but only once the shooting had stopped, and instead of trying to protect the crowd they instead employed riot-control tactics to violently disperse it. Between the shooting, the panic caused by the shooting, and the police, somewhere around 40 people were killed.

Nobody has ever satisfactorily explained what happened to cause this massacre, 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 again had not yet entered the square when the shooting started, could in theory have put snipers in the surrounding buildings for some reason. But it defies 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 Turkish police arrested several shooters. Turkish police, on the other hand, claim they have no record of arresting any shooters. On top of 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. Peculiar. 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 many police forces who are keen to look the other way when it comes to Maoists committing violent 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 known as “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. In essence it was a “break glass in case of Reds” plan.

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 facing no immediate threat of Soviet invasion, because even a legitimate communist electoral victory was apparently scary enough to justify starting an insurgency. The cells were generally made up of a collection of organized crime figures, ex-fascists (I’m using the prefix “ex” loosely here), elements within the Catholic Church—basically anyone who was predisposed to hate communists. The term for these units was different in every country, but the overall program has come to assume the name of the Italian branch, “gladio” (after the Roman “gladius” sword) because it was the Italian government that revealed the existence of the operation in 1990.

Had Operation Gladio stuck to its limited mission, it might have been fine. But sadly it seems that at least some of these would-be resistance armies did not stick to the mission. 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 the arms caches set up for these 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 assistance—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/threatened by then-prime minister Süleyman Demirel (d. 2015).

There’s some circumstantial evidence to back up the theory that Kontrgerilla was responsible, with institutional Turkish and American support. For one thing, 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 around the square that day.

Then there are the actions of the police themselves, who seem to have known exactly 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, maybe with a CIA helping hand.