The Hero of Hitler’s dreams

A groundbreaking new study situates the Turkish revolution of the 1920s amidst Nazi political thought


Originally published in The Jerusalem Post Magazine

On October 30, two long rows of Nazi Party members marched to the Tiergarten in Berlin. Ernst Rohm, the commander of the Brown Shirts, was among them, as was the Berlin police commander. The men stood at attention from 11 a.m. to midnight. At some point during the day, the Nazi dignitaries and police officials paid their respects to the Turkish ambassador, whose embassy abutted the Tiergarten. It was the 10th anniversary of the Turkish Republic, and the Nazi Party wanted to give the country a special honor, just as it was on the verge of taking over Germany.

The Mausaleum of Ataturk (Seth J. Frantzman)

The Mausaleum of Ataturk (Seth J. Frantzman)

Why these leading Nazis were present is the subject of a new study, Atatürk in the Nazi Imagination, by Stefan Ihrig, a Polonsky fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.

“For the Nazis, Turkey was not the old East, but a standard bearer for the modern nationalist and totalitarian politics that they wished to bring to Germany,” argues Ihrig in his introduction. Yet the author notes that up until now no study has examined this strange affinity that Hitler had for the Turks. The Nazi relationship with them involved a multiplicity of illusions and false readings of modern Turkey. There were misconceptions, the author says, about the role of Islam in Turkey and the nature of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who died in 1938.

The Turkish-German relationship predated Nazism by more than 50 years. “There was a specific German tradition of caring about the Orient and the Ottoman Empire, an Orientpolitik even, and a deep entanglement with the Ottoman Empire up until 1919,” Ihrig writes. German engineers built a railroad from Berlin to Baghdad through the empire. German military advisers modified the Ottoman army and served in its officer corps. During World War I, the Germans and Ottomans were allies.

But what fascinated the nationalist press in Germany in the 1920s, and thus influenced the nascent Nazi movement, was that Turkey was resisting the allies who had defeated Germany. In the aftermath of the Great War, the allies imposed stiff penalties on Germany. For nationalists, it was too much to bear – to be a humiliated, defeated nation. The same had been done to the Ottoman Empire, dismembered and carved up into colonies and mandates. The allies occupied Istanbul, and minorities such as Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians and Kurds dreamed of establishing states on the ruins of the empire.

Then, in 1919 and 1920, Turkey underwent a revolution as the young military officer Atatürk emerged to lead a rebellion that swept the “foreigners” out of Turkey and rejuvenated the country. In the German right-wing press, from which this book includes many fascinating illustrations, Turkey was shown emerging from the grave to frighten the British away. “The Turks were the only nation that, despite all the weaknesses, despite the decades of warfare, found the strength and the idealism not to bend unconditionally to the destructive will of the Entente,” editorialized the Deutsche Tageszeitung in 1921. Other articles asked, “What do the Turks teach us?” Papers noted that “if Mustafa Kemal and his people sat in Berlin right now, they would have a different answer [to the French and British].”

This is all fascinating, and the author marshals his sources and evidence well. He clearly proves that the German Right lionized the Turks. But did the Nazi Party? The book says “it is safe to assume that leading Nazis had read [leading articles on Turkey].”

Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 was influenced by a desire to establish a “German Kemal Pasha,” argues the author.

But inferences and assumptions can be dangerous. Where is the evidence in the Nazi Party material, diaries or writings of Hitler himself? Ihrig states that “the only Turkey mentioned in Mein Kampf was the ‘Old Turkey,’ the Ottoman Empire which for Hitler was similar to the other ‘ancient state,’ the Habsburg Empire.”

There is no doubt that once the Nazis came to power, they cultivated the Turks as an ally. At a performance of Wagner, the Turkish ambassador received a prominent seat. The Nazi Party office on “racial policy” claimed that the “Turks are Aryans,” in order to differentiate them from “lesser races” in the party policy of hate, the author writes. Later, he cites the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter as noting the “value the Fuhrer assigns to the continued friendly relations between the young Reich and the young Turkey.” Germany and Turkey enjoyed close economic and political relations through the middle of World War II.

It is widely thought that one model for the Holocaust was the Armenian genocide that the Ottomans carried out during World War I. “Throughout the 1920s Hitler was to use the Armenians frequently in his speeches as an example of a ‘lesser race,’” the author writes. For instance, he says, Hitler compared the Armenian and Greek role in the Ottoman Empire to that of the Jews, saying, “They have become Jews themselves.”

This is an important and easily accessible book. It breaks new ground and certainly sheds light on an important issue in Germany between the wars. There is no doubt that Turkey was a model for the nationalists in Germany and that the Nazis made many efforts to cultivate the Turks as allies. Whether Atatürk necessarily served as a direct model for Nazism is not clear.

Book information:

Atatürk in the Nazi Imagination

By Stefan Ihrig

Belknap Press

305 pages; $29.95

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