Atatürk in the Nazi imagination

Atatürk in the Nazi imagination

William Armstrong -
Atatürk in the Nazi imagination ‘Atatürk in the Nazi Imagination’ by Stefan Ihrig (Harvard University Press, 311 pages, $30)

HDN It isn’t easy to find much original to say about Nazi Germany, but this new title on the Nazis’ view of Turkey and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk has recently caused quite a stir. Harvard historian Stefan Ihrig’s deeply researched book explores the extraordinary, hitherto little-known hold that the Turkish war of liberation and the Kemalist nation-building project had on the minds of Nazi ideologues. Postwar Germany’ fixation with Turkey “bordered on the obsessive,” Ihrig writes, with events in Anatolia striking a chord with far-right newspapers and official propaganda, as well as among figures like Goebbels and Hitler. For many, events in Turkey were “a nationalist dream come true, or rather something like hypernationalist pornography.”

Military ties between the Ottoman and German empires went back to long before their ill-fated alliance in the First World War. The nationalist German “obsession,” however, really began with news of Turkey’s post-war resistance, which seemed to contrast so sharply with the Weimer Republic’s genuflection to the demands of the victorious Entente powers. Mustafa Kemal’s refusal to accept the division imposed by the post-WWI Treaty of Sevres fired the militaristic imagination of German nationalists, who felt humiliated by the uncontested Treaty of Versailles. As the official Nazi paper, the Völkischer Beobachter, put it in 1921, “Today the Turks are the most youthful nation. The German nation will one day have no other choice but to resort to Turkish methods as well.” When the success of the Turkish resistance was assured two years later, weekly Heimatland observed that “The fate of Turkey shows extraordinarily many similarities to our own; through Turkey we can learn how we should have done it. If we want to be free, then we will have no choice but to follow the Turkish example in one way or another.” Ihrig describes the Turkish case as a revisionist-nationalist dream come true, “even a fetishized version of it, because it had been achieved by the sword, in the field, with major battles, and many epic twists.” Nationalist Germans asked themselves the question: If Sevres can be revised, why can’t Versailles? 

One of the most important aspects of events in Turkey for the Nazis was the “völkisch purity” of the New Turkey and the “cleansing” of the new state of “parasitical” minorities. The obvious example was the population exchange of Greeks and Turks in 1923, but a darker case was, of course, the fate of the Ottoman Armenians in 1915-16. Exploring the echoes between the Armenians and the Jews is beyond the scope of Ihrig’s book, but he does comment on the similarities in the ideological “justifications” – both German and Turkish nationalists saw minority groups as “bloodsuckers” that had “stabbed the nation in the back.” Hitler himself often referred to the Armenians, in one article declaring the “wretched Armenian” to be “swine, corrupt, sordid, without conscience, like beggars, submissive, even doglike.” At the same time, the Kemalists contrasted the multiethnic, cosmopolitan Istanbul unfavorably with Ankara, the “pure” new capital in the Anatolian heartland; similarly, the Nazis contrasted the decadent Berlin with the völkisch Bavarian city Munich.

The Turkish experience also confirmed the “Führer” ideal for Nazi propagandists. The example of Atatürk and the Turkish Republic apparently showed that one nation united under a Führer offered a path to greatness. According to “Goebbels’ teacher” Freidrich Hussong, Atatürk offered “proof that history was made by great men. Neither ‘the masses’ nor democracy offered a way to greatness, only a Führer.” Hitler described the “Turkish Führer” as his “shining star” in the “dark 1920s,” and a bust of the Turkish leader was one of his most cherished possessions. Although Hitler’s own words on Atatürk were not plentiful, they were always admiring; in 1938 he even observed that “Atatürk was a teacher; Mussolini was his first and I his second student.”

Some pro-government voices have been getting very excited about Ihrig’s book, saying it proves the fascist tendencies in elements of the Turkish Republic's founding ideology. That may not be entirely wrong, but it misses the point: The book is fundamentally about German perception, not Turkish reality. Ihrig repeatedly emphasizes that the Nazi vision of Atatürk and Kemalist Turkey was highly selective and unresponsive to actual developments in the country, with the Nazis simply accentuating whatever they wanted to see. Kemalism may well have contained elements that foreshadowed fascism, but the Nazi fascination with Atatürk and Turkey does not in itself prove that Kemalism was fascist. “It only illustrates,” Ihrig suggests, “how selective and predetermined the Nazi vision of Turkey was and … how ambiguous the Kemalist project still was, that it could ‘accommodate’ such perceptions.”

While a more casual reader may find the sheer meticulousness of Ihrig’s research heavy going, it is full of interesting details. Providing both a new perspective on Nazi Germany and shining fresh light on the early Turkish Republic, overall the book is a fascinating read.