As elsewhere around the world, Turkey also entered a new era in the 1960s due to the changes and activism that increased significantly and involved nearly all segments of society. Unlike previous eras, Turkey's working class and youth undertook political activism—which would then become a permanent fixture in the country—and began to make economic and political demands. The protests of 1968 reverberated on a global scale, echoing through Turkey as well. University students in particular quickly became politicized and started to establish student clubs, associations, revolutionary parties, and illegal organizations all based on leftist ideologies. Turkish nationalist and religious youth movements also began to rise in parallel to the increase in socialist youth movements in the country. Under protection of Turkey's right-wing governments of the time, members of right-wing youth organizations began to receive training in political violence at sites known as Commando Camps. The establishment of the Workers' Party of Turkey (TİP) and election of its representatives to parliament primarily allowed socialists to organize within the party. Differing approaches to politics later gave birth to different organizations. Deniz Gezmiş, Yusuf Aslan, and Hüseyin İnan were important leaders of the socialist revolutionary youth movement, which was one of the most significant components of the wider leftist movement. They played leading roles in the anti-American and anti-imperialist protests, dubbed “6th Fleet Get Out,” which took place in Istanbul, and in the campus sit-ins of 1968 that were done to ensure students had a greater say in the decision-making processes at their universities.
In 19969, Deniz Gezmiş traveled to a guerrilla camp in Palestine of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) in order to fight alongside its members. He was caught upon his return to Turkey in December of the same year. After his release from prison in 1970, he eluded soldiers sent to detain him for military service. At a time when pressure on the socialist youth movement increased and the violence against the left by the right-wing movement was greatly on the rise, Deniz Gezmiş and his comrades established the People's Liberation Army of Turkey (THKO) in order to carry out the revolution by waging a guerrilla war. The organization robbed the Türkiye İş Bank branch in Emek, on January 11, 1971. Members of the group then kidnapped four US military personnel in Balgat, Ankara, on March 4, 1971, and issued a statement demanding $400,000 in ransom and the "release of all revolutionaries." Security forces surrounded Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ)—used as the THKO headquarters—on March 5, in search of Deniz Gezmiş and the kidnapped US soldiers. Clashes erupted between students and the security forces, resulting in the deaths of three people, including one Turkish soldier. Twenty-six people were also injured. The university was then shut indefinitely following the clashes and the US soldiers were released on March 9.
Yusuf Aslan entered ODTÜ in 1966 and joined the ODTÜ Socialist Ideas Club (SFK). On January 6, 1969, he participated in the arson on the ODTÜ campus of the car of then US ambassador to Ankara, Robert Komer, who had been the head of the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) during the Vietnam War and had previously been held responsible for the deaths of thousands of Vietnamese in the war. Yusuf Aslan then accompanied his comrades to Palestine later in 1969.
Hüseyin İnan enrolled in ODTÜ's Department of Administrative Sciences in 1966. He joined the SFK and its affiliated Revolutionary Youth Federation of Turkey (Dev-Genç) as well as the TİP. He participated in rural protests such as land occupations. In 1968, İnan attempted to develop the idea of rural, guerilla fighting by forming a core group of a small, secret organization, an idea that had found increasing clarity in the disagreements that arose in debates in the TİP and later in the National Democratic Revolution. Together with the group that formed the core of the THKO, İnan traveled on October 14, 1969 through Syria to a Fatah guerilla camp of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Jordan. After receiving guerilla training there, he participated in a number of actions and raids on police stations in Israel for a time.
The Turkish Armed Forces issued a memorandum to the government in March of 1971, forcing it to resign. The junta then replaced the civilian government with one of technocrats. In line with its national security strategy, the new technocratic government began to narrow the scope of constitutional democratic rights and implemented a policy of sever repression of the leftist movement. Deniz Gezmiş and his comraders set out for Nurhak and Malatya three days after the March 12 Memorandum was issued to conduct guerrilla activities in the countryside. One of Gezmiş's comrades, Sinan Cemgil, was killed while fighting in Nurhak. Gezmiş and Aslan were then captured in Şarkışla, Sivas. Hüseyin İnan, Mehmet Nakiboğlu, and another THKO militant were captured on March 23, 1971, in Pınarbaşı, Kayseri. Gezmiş and his comrades were tried at the Ankara Martial Law Command Court No. 1 under the chairmanship of Brigadier General Ali Elverdi and the prosecutor's office of Baki Tuğ. They were sentenced to death on October 9, 1979, pursuant to paragraph 1 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) on the grounds they had violated Article 146 of the TCK, which concerns crimes regarding the overthrow of the constitutional order and parliament. The Turkish Grand National Assembly approved the death sentences with a margin of 273 votes in favor to 48 against.
Gezmiş, İnan, and Aslan were executed by hanging on May 6, 1972. The Turkish state's main purpose for executing these men was to create a climate of fear within the leftist movement and strike a debilitating blow against the socialist movement. Deniz Gezmiş's final words before he was hanged were: "Long live fully independent Turkey! Long live Marxism-Leninism! Long live the brotherhood of the Turkish and Kurdish peoples! Long live the workers and peasants! Down with imperialism!"
The commemoration of these revolutionaries on the anniversaries of their deaths soon became a tradition for Turkey's leftist movement. Until recently, however, there had been no work to solidify their memory more widely. The first work of remembrance for Gezmiş and his comrades was the Three Saplings Monument in Nilüfer, Bursa. The CHP-run municipality inaugurated the monument in 2010 on the anniversary of the deaths of Gezmiş, İnan, and Aslan. Friends of Gezmiş's from the generation of '68 who had fought alongside him also attended the ceremony. The monument itself is of three human forms cut out from metal steles standing around a peace sign, its lines filled with white stone and empty space filled with flowers.
Another work of remembrance for Deniz Gezmiş is a park named for him in Ataşehir, Istanbul, that opened in March of 2011. The park contains a statue of Gezmiş, basketball court, cultural center, playground, and children's sports facilities. A plaque laid in front of the statue is inscribed with Gezmiş's final words. Around 10,000 people attended the grand opening held prior to the local elections held that year. At the ceremony, CHP Chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said that Deniz Gezmiş had been hanged for his thoughts, not for his actions.
The third project in commemoration of Gezmiş opened in May of 2013 in the CHP-run municipality of Bayraklı in Izmir. Unlike the others, this work added another component to the statues of Deniz Gezmiş, Yusuf Aslan, and Hüseyin İnan. Sculptor Ekin Erman designed the monument to include a large ball of yarn made from scraps of clothing people would send, thus giving people the opportunity to contribute to the project and show their support for Gezmiş and his comrades.
The fourth project in commemoration of Gezmiş and his companions is Üç Fidan (Three Saplings) Park, which is home to statues of Deniz Gezmiş, Yusuf Aslan and Hüseyin İnan, and opened in Gaziemir, Izmir, on May 6, 2018, on the 46th anniversary of the executions of the three men. The park sirs on 2.5 acres and in addition to the statues, contains walking paths, green spaces, playgrounds, and sports areas.
One of the prime effects this project has had is to provide healing for the families and friends of Gezmiş, Aslan, and İnan. These three men are not only significant in Turkey's leftist politics but also for the country's right-wing politics, as conservatives and nationalists have demonized the men for years. Along with the annual commemoration marches, these projects of remembrance have had a positive impact on the families of these three young men executed by the state. These types of commemorations realized by CHP-run municipalities employed the themes of anti-imperialism, nationalism, and independence through the use of the revolutionary elements of Gezmiş and his comrades’ ideology. The attempt to shoehorn Deniz Gezmiş into Kemalist ideology and reimagine his memory on exclusionary and nationalist grounds being fully appropriate in terms of the basic principles of projects of remembrance is a topic that remains to be discussed. That is to say, these project in essence see the revolutionary youth leaders as legitimate actors, yet fail to confront the militarist state regime that condemned them to death.
In addition to having become a popular figure as one of the important leaders of the leftist movement in Turkey and the projects of remembrance in his name, much written and visual content has been produced on Deniz Gezmiş. Much of the writing was done by those who fought the struggle with him. Documentaries have been made about him, and his life has been the subject of television series and even movies. The most well-known of these is the series Hatırla Sevgili (Remember, Darling). His name has also been a popular choice for decades among leftist democratic couples when naming their children. And perhaps this is the greatest way remembrance of the generation of '68 has been passed down through the generations.
These works of remembrance for Deniz Gezmiş and his comrades created quite the legal dust up of their own, including criminal complaints and lawsuits. In one instance, the court ruled that these remembrance projects were legitimate since Gezmiş, Asalan, and İnan were not the subjects of any ongoing investigations. Other cases, however, ruled against similar efforts for remembrance. For example, the local court ruled against Hozat—a municipality in Dersim—when it attempted to change the name of a street to Deniz Gezmiş Avenue. The court said the name could not be used on the grounds that it would create divisiveness and factionalism. The Kars Criminal Court of Peace sentenced former MP Mahmut Alınak to 50 days in prison for submitting a request to the Municipality of Kars to have streets named for Musa Anter, Deniz Gezmiş, Vedat Aydın, Kemal Akbulut, and Oruç Korkmaz. After the ruling, Alınak brought his case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), which ruled in his favor and ordered the Turkish state to pay him 3,200 euros for infringing his freedoms of thought and expression. In a similar example, on the 38th anniversary of his execution, the Citizens' Initiative in Bodrum petitioned the municipality to name the street next to Nazım Hikmet Street after Deniz Gezmiş. In response, Mayor Mehmet Kocadan said, "We respect every opinion and I will refer the petition to the relevant commission as soon as I receive it. I see no harm in naming the street after Deniz Gezmiş." Despite this, nothing has come of it. The name of the park the CHP-run Municipality of Ataşhir built in 2011 was changed to Earthquake Park in 2020. Jurisdiction of the park was transferred from the municipality of Ataşehir to the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality and was re-inaugurated under its new name. Other than these issues, many investigations were launched against people who participated in the commemoration marches and who gave press statements on the May 6 Deniz Gezmiş Memorial.