Vicken Cheterian

When Erdogan points his finger to Germany’s Nazi past

 Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan once again made a “Nazi” quote; he said that “Turks in Europe” should defy “grandchildren of Nazims”. He also attacked the Pope and the European Union in his campaign speeches, saying that the EU is a “Crusader  Alliance”, adding: ““All the leaders of the EU countries went to the Vatican and listened to the pope submissively. Do you now understand why they have not been taking Turkey into the EU for 54 years? The situation is quite loud and clear, it is a Crusader Alliance. April 16 will also be the day to evaluate this.”[1] To defy Nazi grandchildren in Europe, and Crusaders in Turkey, the Turkish President has a solution: vote for super-presidential rights on April 16.

This is not the first time the Turkish President quotes Nazis. A month earlier the Turkish president had accused Germany of “Nazi like practices” for having forbidden his administration to organize pro-referendum rallies on German soil. The Turkish leader also launched anti-Western attacks on regular basis, accusing European leaders not to be true democrats. In the same speech he said:  “We, as Turkey, call on Europe to respect human rights and democracy.” And added: “If Europe continues this way, no European in any part of the world cam walk safely on the streets.”[2]

It is difficult to understand the continuous attacks of the Turkish leader against the Europeans and the West in general. Turkey itself has some problems with democracy: one of its political parties, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) has a majority of its leaders, parliamentarians, and mayors in prison. Another party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) complains that it cannot campaign for the upcoming referendum. Turkey’s best and brightest university professors are losing their jobs, if not thrown to prison, because they had dared to sign a petition asking for… peace in their own country. Turkey is the winner if one counts the number of journalists thrown to prison: in 2016 Turkey had 81 imprisoned journalists, the top of the global chart, while China came second with 38, and it has been years Turkey is the top winner in this sad competition.[3] So, how come Turkey teaches democracy to others?

The Nazi quote poses other problems. Germany does have a heavy past, with the mass crimes committed under the Nazi regime, and it is not easy to cope with such a heritage. Yet, Germany faced its own past with courage: the German state recognizes its responsibility in Genocide, and tried to compensate the victims. Not that German acts can wash away the crime, those killed cannot be revived, the wounds on the European continent are still there today. But Germany through its recognition of its past crime has opted for peace, and normalized its relations with its neighbours.

Turkey also has a heavy, dark past. During the First World War entire populations of what is now Turkey, disappeared. Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians made part of Asia Minor, but they are not there today. For a century Turkey silenced this crime, and continued to victimize the survivors and their descendants. When Erdogan came to power in 2002 there were signs of revising these policies. On April 23, 2014, then Prime Minister of Turkey, Erdogan sent a letter expressing his “condolences” to the grandchildren of the Armenian victims of the First World War.[4] Now, this was the first time that a Turkish leader of such a high rank had recognized that the Armenians were also victims. That is, 99 years after the Armenian Genocide Erdogan was putting the victims and the victimizers on the same level. If this were only a first step towards more opening, it would have been a late, yet important step. But for the centennial of the Armenian Genocide, on April 24, 2015, the Turkish state organized a big event to commemorate the battle of Dardanelles (Canakkale). Turkey did celebrate this WWI battle but in the month of March and not April, and had moved it to the same day as the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide only as a way to close down the debate. Do representatives of the Turkish state have lessons to give to Germany?

The ambiguity goes further than that. Turkey was a close ally of Germany during World War I, when the entire Ottoman forces were under German military command. Less is known about Turkish-Nazi contacts. On June 18, 1941, Ankara and Berlin signed a “Non Aggression Pact”. Four days later Nazi armies invaded the Soviet Union, during which Turkey kept important military concentration on its Caucasus borders, taking much needed Soviet military resources from the warfronts with Nazi armies. 

So, how come the Turkish leader accuse Germany of “Nazi behaviour” when it did not face its own history of mass extermination?

It is known that Erdogan is very careful towards opinion polls. In case he repeats attacks on the West and Europeans, he knows that his public rating among the Turkish population increases. So, as Turkey is part of NATO alliance, as German warplanes use the airbase in incirlik, he wins political support by attacking Germany. This is not new: the Kemalists before him, the Ittihadists (Young Turks) and Abdul Hamid II in the 19th century, all did the same: while being in military alliance with one European power or another they took anti-Western postures for internal consumption.  

Yet, this attacks on the “West” comes with a price. Few have paid attention what would happen to the 1.4 million people living in Germany who equally have Turkish citizenship? In the context of al-Qaeda and Da’esh terrorist attacks in Europe, that has already excited European extreme-right and nationalist forces against Muslim and immigrant communities, does it help European-Turks to polarize the situation even further? 

The Nazi quote of the Turkish leader does not end here. In January 2016, asked by a journalist whether a presidential system was compatible with a unitary state, he said: “There are already examples in the world. You can see it when you look at Hitler’s Germany.”[5] Here, Germany with its Nazi history is not a topic of anti-European attack, but an inspiration for centralized, strong presidential rule. Hitler’s Germany becomes an inspiration, not a liability.