Taner Akçam
Jul 09 2018

'Umdenken': Changing the way we think

The German word “umdenken” is generally translated as to “rethink”, but in fact should be read as “changing the way of thinking” or even “reversing the thinking”.

What I suggest is something like that; those who want to change the state of affairs in Turkey, should  “umdenken”. In other words, change the way we think, try to interpret and understand what we are going through in a different way, maybe even in a counter-intuitive way

The analyses of the recent election results vacillate between two distinct poles; on the one side are those suffering from immense loss and despair, while on the other are those who feel the state of affairs is not that bad, and not finished yet.

The discourse revolves around drawing frontlines before it is too late.

The truth is this dichotomy is wrong.

It was about 1982, when the Green Party was holding its congress in Hamburg. Rudolph Bahro was talking; the same Rudolph Bahro who opposed the regime in East Germany and was later sentenced to eight years in prison for his book named “Alternative” and who was exiled to West Germany due to the outcry from the West.

Bahro was one of the founding members of the Greens and his speech was about how to protect the environment/nature that was being damaged and destroyed by capitalist and socialist industrialisation. He was explaining there were two different ways of conducting politics. “The first way,” he said, “is the politics that is shaped when the clock is at a quarter to 12.”

“At that hour, its still not too late, there are still things that could be saved or should be protected. And the proposed policies discuss the steps to be taken to prevent the destruction or the damage before it is too late”.

Those who shape politics according to this rationale think that the clock gets closer to 12 when their suggestions and expectations are not realised. They find themselves in a grave state of pessimism as the situation keeps getting worse. Those who say “we are doomed, this situation cannot be reversed anymore”, butt heads with those who say “all is not lost, there are still things that can be done”.

Pessimists and optimists engage in those political debates, but in fact their basic rationale is the same. The clock is approaching 12 and this course of events needs to come to an end.

“However, there is also a second way of doing politics,” Bahro said. In this, the clock shows a quarter past 12, meaning what you had feared, has presumably already happened. There is nothing to save anymore. There is no more need for urgency and despair, as there is nothing left to save. There is no approaching catastrophe that should be prevented. You have already gone through it.

Now, the question becomes, what do you think should be done under those circumstances.

Bahro suggested that the Green Party shape its politics around the idea that the clock is at a quarter past 12.

This is what I suggest for Turkish politics.

It is a quarter past 12 and there is nothing we can save. Therefore, there is no value in rushing headlong into anything. A second Turkish republic has been founded and this foundation will create its own reality no matter how much we struggle.

I could be even bolder and claim our existing ways of thinking and showing dissent only buttress the second republic and make it stronger.

Then what?

Very simply, “umdenken” in German. We should reconstruct ourselves by questioning the way we think and the way we do politics.

The main question whether there is a chance for the people in Turkey, with their different religions, languages, cultures, beliefs, ethnicities and life styles, to coexist? Is such a future possible?

I have nothing to say to those who say no, this is not possible. This means reconstructing what already exists.

I count myself among those who say yes, there is such a prospect.

And I don’t say those words thinking that there are still things to be saved. I say them with the comfort of knowing it is already a quarter past 12.

My suggestion is to start by stating openly what needs to be said about this situation.

The first of those things that should be said is the need to develop a political perspective that will transcend the existing divisions in politics. Those existing segments - left-right, Kemalist, secular, modernist, Western, religious, Islamist, conservative, nationalist-cosmopolitan - and a political culture that is shaped by ethnic and religious differences - Alevi-Sunni, Turkish-Kurdish, secular-Islamist - that create the roots of those divisions are our reality at the moment.

This Balkanised situation in politics is the reality of both the first and the second republics and you cannot create something beyond those republics by positioning your politics according to those fault lines.

In other words, what I suggest is not a “frontline” that can be found among the existing ones, we need a perspective that would make the existing ones meaningless and transcend them. This is possible.

Secondly, the individuals who come from all these different well-known lines in politics, but who are aware of the shallowness and the insufficiencies of their lines, should manage to come together as individuals without denying their own leftist, rightist, secular, religious, or nationalist pasts in the process. They do not need to deny their past and the lines they came from, or to be vulgar and to destroy, because in each line there are embedded elements and values hat crossover other lines and could form the basis for constructing the future. Let me give justice as an example of one of those values.

Thirdly, individuals coming together should learn to lose their baggage. A simple example is the following; the pro-Kurdish opposition People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which claims to struggle for democracy, is afraid of letting its own members select candidates for parliament. The candidates are decided behind closed doors and with the approval of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) headquarters in northern Iraq.

You can build a tutelage regime with that baggage, but not a democratic republic. I am not discussing the attacks or injustices against the HDP here. For me, personally voting for HDP was the right thing to do in the June 24 elections. What I am saying is something beyond that.

Don’t forget, it is a quarter past 12. It is time to say loud out what should be done.

There are many examples of similar “baggage”; for example, the ties to violence of each political line.

Those three factors I listed above are only suggestions for problems appearing on the surface. What should really be done is to change the whole ground on which we do politics.

The ground presented to us at the moment as politics, on which we are divided as rightist, leftist, conservative, modernist, Islamist, Alevi, nationalist, internationalist, is just plain wrong. You cannot create proper functioning politics by standing on these fault lines, because that ground is built upon lies and denials.

Within this constructed artificial-fictitious reality, society only deludes itself and more importantly we are all aware of this delusion.

What should be done is simple in its plainness: to state openly what needs to be said.

You may argue that we cannot become a majority with such an approach.

Yes, exactly!

Do you have the courage to say what should be said for the sake of losing instead of winning? Because it is a quarter past 12.

What should be done at a quarter past 12 is simple; the groups and circles I listed should come to terms with themselves and their pasts in an honest way. There is no more road left for us to walk by glorifying ourselves and our pasts.

And honestly the founders of the first and second republic were and are the ones who were best in glorifying themselves and their pasts.

I’m issuing a shout out to all of us, to face the history of our society and the realities of each group in an honest and frank fashion. We can achieve nothing by our schizophrenic identities built on fragmented realities, which present “official” opinions on the surface, while “real” opinions remain buried deep.

The basis of politics should shift, at the risk of losing and by knowing how to lose. We all have to change the ground of politics in Turkey, independent of our opinions and groups we are affiliated with. That ground on which we do politics, which also defines who we are, should be reconstructed.

What does subsidence of the ground mean in politics? What will the new reality of political life of the Turkish nation look like if things changed at the grassroots level?

I will discuss this in my next article, but I can state right now that taking responsibility will lie at the heart of it.

Are you ready to act in accordance with the notion of responsibility without blaming others and insisting that it was others who were mistaken, by giving up defining yourselves as the real victim and the innocent and others as the perpetuator and the real culprit.

Don’t forget, it is a quarter past 12 and this society cannot build its future without confronting its own history and the artificial realities it created.


* I want to explain something, though it is not related to our discussion. I cannot remember the exact year, it should be 1982 or 1983, Rudolph Bahro was among the German intellectuals who came to Ankara and chained themselves in Kızılay’s Guven Park, in order to protest the atrocities of the September 12 regime. They were quickly sent out of the country rather then being detained, so as to prevent further frictions with Europe. Because of that, I stand in awe of his memory.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.