Imagining the “Other”

By Kaya GençNovember 15, 2015

Atatürk in the Nazi Imagination by Stefan Ihrig

IN 1933, TURKISH NOVELIST Peyami Safa wrote an article in the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet voicing outrage about a German book, scheduled to be published that year in Turkish translation, on the magnificence and beauty of life under the Third Reich. Safa wondered how Nazism could be glorified in such a cheerful way in a book published inside Turkey’s borders. He asked, rhetorically, if Nazi leaders would ever allow a similarly cheerful book supportive of the young republic in Turkey to be published in Berlin. A few days later, a letter to the editor about Safa’s piece was received in the offices of Cumhuriyet. It was written by Adolf Hitler.

Hitler had transmitted his answers via the German chargé d’affaires in Istanbul to the paper. He answered that among the books and press articles published in Germany in the last couple of years on Turkey one could find quite a few appreciating and praising the völkisch achievements of Turkey. Especially the various German publications surrounding the tenth anniversary of the Republic were proof of that and were in fact representative of the Nazi view on the subject. And when asked whether he would approve of books full of praise for Turkey, his answer would be a resounding “yes”!

This episode, narrated by Stefan Ihrig in his startling Atatürk in the Nazi Imagination (Harvard University Press), is shocking to read, as Hitler’s reply to his article must have been for Safa. Hitler’s “resounding yes” displays but a small slice of the image of New Turkey produced by the Nazi propaganda machine. Beginning in 1919, in the aftermath of the World War I, until 1945, when Turkey declared war on Germany, the Nazi propagandists instrumentalized and distorted Turkey for the political purposes of the Third Reich. A steely image of New Turkey, that of a racist and proto-fascist country, was meticulously manufactured in the offices of numerous Nazi publications, including the leading fascist newspaper Völkischer Beobachter, the flagship of German anti-Semitism Neue Preussische Zeitung (Kreuzzeitung), the radical nationalist and anti-Semitic Der Reichswart, and the weekly ultra-nationalist Heimatland, among many others.

The German public had been watching the events in Ottoman territories closely in the preceding decades. The alliance between the Germans and the Turks had begun long before 1914, the year in which they joined World War I alongside Bulgaria and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Germans had worked actively on different levels of the Ottoman army from late 19th century, endowed with the task of its modernization according to the principles of Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz — who had advocated a strong alliance of two nations’ militaries in his treatise “Volk in Waffen.” When Liman von Sanders Pasha started transforming the Ottoman Imperial Military Academy, he did so around Goltz’s ideas, making sure leading Ottoman soldiers read Goltz’s treatise during their training.

In The Young Turks and the Boycott Movement (I.B. Tauris), Doğan Çetinkaya sketches an uncanny episode exemplifying the extent of the Germanic influence on the Ottoman army during the World War I. At the time, the Ottoman Empire was led by the Committee of Union and Progress, leading members of which were much influenced by German nationalist theorists advocating a centralized economy that stood in opposition to the liberal doctrine of the Manchester School, favored by previous Ottoman officials. It was partly thanks to the ideas of nationalist German writers that leading Committee of Union and Progress members had categorized certain sectors of the empire under the heading “internal enemies.” The German influence on Ottoman officers was not merely intellectual: when German officers advised them to immediately get rid of Anatolia’s Greek population, their advice was taken very seriously indeed and was swiftly implemented. Çetinkaya describes how the Greek expulsion and violence against non-Muslims began in wartime Anatolia:

Non-Muslims and foreign consuls laid the blame for the movement and the concurrent violent acts with the CUP and its members. However, they were not certain in their assertions. The report of the British consul Matthews — who had traveled with the international commission to the villages, towns and cities of western Anatolia for 20 days — referred to the suggestions of German officers who found the presence of Greeks on the coast of Asia Minor dangerous and advised their expulsion. Matthews claimed that this advice removed the last hesitations of the government.

By 1919 the dynamic between the nationalists of the two countries changed. Now it was German nationalists who were looking up to the Turks. World War I was won by Allied powers (the French Republic, the British Empire, the Russian Empire, Belgium, Serbia, Greece, Montenegro, Japan, Romania, and, after 1915, Italy); months after their triumph saw the beginning of an unprecedented struggle for national liberation in Anatolia.

In 1919, the Ottoman Empire was in a terrible shape: Allied police patrolled its streets, and different imperial nations planned to divide the imperial territories to create their own states. “There were plans to set up an independent Armenia, to give huge parts of western Anatolia to Greece, and perhaps even to form a second Greek or a Greco-Armenian Pontic state on the shores of the Black Sea,” Ihrig explains. “There was intensive lobbying activity in the United States to rid Europe of the Turks forever and expel them altogether, including from Constantinople.” Had Allied powers got what they wanted, the Turks would be wiped out from Istanbul and Anatolia.

But things didn’t go quite as planned. During a severe four-year-long fight between 1919 and 1923, Turkish officers managed to mobilize great numbers of people; they defeated not only the Greek army but also all the Allied powers combined. With the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, they secured their homeland.

For the peoples of Turkey this was excellent news. For the Nazis, the news had a different function. The narrative arc of Turkey’s anti-imperialist liberation movement produced among them a feeling Ihrig memorably characterizes as “hypernationalist pornography.” For Nazi propagandists, Turkey’s liberation was, more than anything else, a story that included vital elements of their own agenda: the militarization of the masses, the defeating of Allied powers, and the expulsion of “internal enemies” could be twinned with developments in Germany, had they managed to put the necessary spin on their reporting. The Nazi press immediately set to using those stories for their own purposes. In 1919, the Kreuzzeitung published 194 items on Turkey; the figure rose to an incredible 858 in 1922, near the end of the Turkish War of Independence, with Turkish subjects a never changing item on front pages of Nazi papers.

From the repression of Kurdish people’s ethnic identity to the outlawing of the country’s long-established traditions, the authoritarian nature of the single-party era of the new Turkish republic is well documented; but what Ihrig shows here is that the Nazi vision of New Turkey reveals more about the Nazis than the actual developments in Turkey: the New Turkey was not a fascist country but was represented as one. “This vision was highly selective and accentuated only what the authors and the Third Reich wanted to see,” he writes. “It was also extremely settled and rigid, and by 1933 it had turned to stone. Neither Turkish ‘reality’ since 1919 nor any developments in contemporary Turkey were to change this petrified simulacrum of Turkey.”


The “petrified simulacrum” of Turkey in the Third Reich was produced by a number of Nazi writers. One (Hanns Froembgen) described the country as “the most modern state of the twentieth century”; Turkey was represented as a modern, authoritarian Republic that was, at the same time, revolutionary. In the eyes of Dagobert von Mikusch, Turkey, in its contemporary form, was:

not a simple copy of Europe or what Europe would look like with the adoption of numerous occidental institutions. … Her spirit is, through a reconnection to the oldest traditions of the nation, purely Turkish; the shape of the new state, however, how its founder has created it, refers to the coming time of the twentieth century, beyond the old Europe.

In Nazi ideology, Turks, like the Aryans, were considered to be among the superior races of Europe. Meanwhile, Nazis saw Armenians of the Ottoman Empire as belonging to the lesser races, quite like the Jews in Germany.

Developments, like the Turkish-Soviet treaty for Friendship and Neutrality of 1925, unsettled the Nazi picture of an anti-communist Turkey. The producers of the New Turkey discourse in Germany failed to justify the affinity between the Bolsheviks and Turkey’s ruling elites. When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk gave an interview to the left-wing British newspaper Daily Herald, Nazis were surprised to see the Turkish leader describe himself as a socialist, choosing to ignore Atatürk’s comments completely in their reports. “The new Turkish idea wants to govern through a system that is not that far from socialism,” Atatürk had told the Daily Herald. “I do not want to say that we are communists. We are not, because we are nationalists. Me personally, I am a socialist as far as this does not conflict with my nationalism.”

A greater shock would come later, in 1938, when the subject of their New Turkey image openly rebelled against his representation in the pages of the German paper Hamburger Tageblatt. “He who thinks more about himself than about the welfare of his country and his nation is only a second-class human being,” Atatürk wrote in the piece entitled “Führer and Nation.” He emphasized how the führer had to be circumspect and underlined his mission to further peace in the world. “Here the author had deviated from Nazi ideas about the Führer principle and foreign politics,” Ihrig notes. “Strangely enough, the author was now also way off track about himself, or rather about how the Nazis viewed and portrayed him.” It was as if the subject of a painting were objecting to the artist, saying that he was not the man he was portrayed to be.


The Nazi propaganda machine’s twinning of Germany’s and Turkey’s stories had a clear purpose. Since 1918, German ultra-nationalists had viewed their old-school Berlin parliamentarians who followed diplomatic protocol in their dealings with Allied powers as their number one enemy and called them “fulfillment politicians.” The Dresdner Neueste Nachrichten sarcastically drew a parallel between fulfillment politicians’ lack of nationalism and the representatives of the new spirit arising in Turkey. “In this uncultured country, there still exists national spirit,” the paper wrote in praise of Turkey before adopting an ironic tone:

With their well-known laziness and indolence the Turks have still not managed to ascend to such a sublime position as our government, thank God. They are so backward, our former allies, that they still believe in the right of self-determination of peoples and are even trying to turn this belief into reality.

Nazis hated the cosmopolitan nature of the Ottoman Empire. They strongly despised the central role Islam played in the former empire’s machinations. They represented Istanbul as the source of all the problems Turks had faced in the past. In Nazi eyes, Istanbul was associated with the Old Turkey, Islam, the Sultanate, minorities, and a heinous multiculturalism. It was, in their perspective, the “archetypical multiethnic metropolis, which was never a Turkish city at all and which continued to be a focus of anti-Ankara, and thus un-völkisch, politics, even after 1923.” Ihrig quotes Froembgen, who describes “the hoarse, excited yelling of the haggling Armenians, Levantines, Greeks and Jews” in the city.

For Nazis, the expulsion of Armenians, Levantines, Greeks, and Jews from the imperial capital of the degenerate Ottomans was a very positive move, one that would provide a roadmap for Germany’s future. They didn’t fail to point out how their capital Berlin, like Istanbul, had become a “center of effeminacy,” a place where Jews and leftists were allowed to lead degenerate lifestyles. Berlin, like Istanbul, was a city dominated by the submissive, weak, unmanly culture Nazis had continually associated with parliamentary politics. In contrast, the appearance of the Nazi party in Munich, at the heart of Bavaria, was portrayed as the beginning of Germany’s own liberation from the Allied powers.

Nazis were happy to see Turkey’s changing relationship with Islam, which they associated with the backwardness of the empire, and advocated for its total elimination. Islam, the Sultanate, the Persian-Arabic culture, and anything associated with the Ottoman Empire was categorized by Nazis as “foreign to the Turkish nation”:

Islam was portrayed not only as a “foreign-born” and transnational religion but also as the main problem of the Old Turkey. Islam was “the great retarder,” which all texts on the New Turkey, albeit in differing phrasing, from academic texts to articles in the Völkischer Beobachter. Islam, this great retarder, was responsible for the Old Turkey having been stuck “partly in the Middle Ages, untouched by the developments and the progress of times.” Religion and “the church” had become “a farce” and had kept the Turks in a “lower state of the spirit.” “Like a nightmare it made any development of youthful life in the Ottoman Empire impossible.”


Ihrig presents some of the more disturbing episodes about the alliance between Turkish and German nationalists in his chapter on the post-Atatürk, World War II era. He shows how, after Atatürk’s death, Turkish sympathizers of the Nazi ideology started voicing their beliefs more freely. He reminds the reader that during World War II, Turkey had supplied more than half of Germany’s chromite supply (chromite was crucial for the production of stainless steel). He points to how, between 1941 and 1943, under the reign of İnönü and single-party rule, fascist clubs were freely opened in the country, sometimes supported by the government. He writes about “the outlawing of a major Turkish newspaper, the Vatan, in 1942 because it had printed a picture of Charlie Chaplin as ‘the great dictator’” and lists visits by Turkish delegations to the Third Reich “including military delegations in 1941, 1942, and 1943 — such as a delegation of Turkish intelligence officers and police chiefs to Berlin and the concentration camp Sachsenhausen, the latter per request of the Turks.” He quotes a new study by Hatice Bayraktar about how, during 1940s, “Turkish journalists and caricaturists literally interned with the violently anti-Semitic Der Stürmer and imported back with them to Turkey the Stürmer’s style of anti-Semitism.” Turkey’s official political position during World War II was neutral and the country provided refuge for a large number of Jews from Germany. But these happened while supporters of the Nazi ideology tried to become more influential in the upper echelons of power.

High military officers such as the Turkish chief of staff, Fevzi Çakmak, as well as the generals Hüseyin Erkilet and Ali Fuat Erdem seem to have also been involved in […] German-Turkish talks. The latter two, after returning from an almost three-week long tour of Germany and the Eastern front in late 1941, tried to convince the Turkish president İnönü and other high-ranking Turks that the war was as good as won and that now was the time for Turkey to participate in the German victory. İnönü was hesitant; others were more easily convinced. The Turkish military elite, including the General Staff, seemed to have been especially pro-German […].

İnönü soon changed his mind and Turkey severed diplomatic relations with Germany in August 1944. The same month, the Soviet Army cut contact between Turkey and the Axis powers. In February 1945, Turkey declared war on Germany. Even after the declaration of war, Nazis continued to believe in their image of fascist Turkey, arguing that Turks would soon correct their mistake and join their struggle. “If Third Reich authors were to write a comparative history of fascism, they would have included Turkey as ‘one of them,’ and in fact, as discussed in this book, they regularly did,” Ihrig writes toward the end of his study. “However, this does not mean that Kemalism was in fact fascist.” Nevertheless, the Nazi discourse on Turkish issues, like the role of Islam as the “great retarder” of Turkish society, would later be used in Turkey by Islamophobic political movements that repeated what was, by its nature, the official Nazi discourse on the role of Islam in Turkey. It was as if the discourse had surpassed its subject; representation of the “other” became more real than the other’s own reality.

In its analysis of this fascinating relationship with a subject and its representation by fascists, Ihrig’s book moves away from historiography and gathers a Sartrean, phenomenological perspective: it turns into an excavation process on the Nazi subject and the way he viewed, and imagined, “the other.” “Our national, societal, and personal views and discourses about the ‘Other’ are much more about us than about any actual ‘Other,’” Ihrig muses. “They are dependent on time and place, on fears, expectations, plans, and dreams. We must always be wary of alleged traditions and continuities. More often than not they are constructed and imagined rather than real.” This should serve as a reminder of the political and self-interested nature of writing about the Other.


Kaya Genç, the Istanbul correspondent of the Los Angeles Review of Books, is writing a history of Turkish literature for Harvard University Press. His book on “Angry Young Turkey” will be published by I.B. Tauris.

LARB Contributor

Kaya Genç is the author of three books from Bloomsbury Publishing: The Lion and the Nightingale (2019), Under the Shadow (2016), and An Istanbul Anthology (2015). He has contributed to the world’s leading journals and newspapers, including two front page stories in The New York Times, cover stories in The New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, and The Times Literary Supplement, and essays and articles in The New Yorker, The Nation, The Paris Review, The Guardian, The Financial Times, The New Statesman, The New Republic, Time, Newsweek, and the London Review of Books. The Atlantic picked Kaya’s writings for the magazine’s “best works of journalism in 2014” list. A critic for Artforum and Art in America, and a contributing editor at Index on Censorship, Kaya gave lectures at venues including the Royal Anthropological Institute, and appeared live on flagship programs including the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC and BBC’s Start the Week. He has been a speaker at Edinburgh, Jaipur, and Ways with Words book festivals, and holds a PhD in English literature. Kaya is the Istanbul correspondent of the Los Angeles Review of Books.


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