Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Hitler’s Infatuation with Atatürk Revisited

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By Halil Karaveli (vol. 8, no. 1 of the Turkey Analyst)

Atatürk was Hitler’s “shining star in the darkness.” The Third Reich instituted a veritable cult of Atatürk. The Nazi admiration provides a lens for a fresh look at Kemalism. In spite of its pretentions to stand for “enlightenment”, Kemalism has failed to midwife a democratic evolution. The question is whether this has anything to do with the aspects of Kemalism that the Nazis admired.

BACKGROUND:  The belief that the achievements of Kemal Atatürk inspired “the cause of the East,” that his success encouraged others in the Middle East, Asia and Africa to resist Western imperialism and to embark on the path to secularist modernization has been a central tenet of the Kemalist discourse. In fact, there is little, if any substance to the claims that Atatürk ever had such outsized world historical significance.

Turkey’s “father” did serve as an inspiration for his contemporary, the autocratic modernizer Reza Shah of Persia. Habib Bourgiba, Tunisia’s first president took some inspiration from him. Tracing the lineages of the secular Baath dictators Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein back to Kemalism, as some have done, is much more questionable. In any case, Kemalism may have mattered more for the course of history in the Middle East as a provocation rather than as an inspiration.

Atatürk’s secularist radicalism, and especially his abolishment of the caliphate in 1924, played a not insignificant role in whipping up an Islamic reaction against Western influences in places like British held India and Egypt; it was partly in reaction to what had happened in Kemalist Turkey that Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928.

No corresponding attention has been paid to Atatürk’s possible impact on European history. The pull that European Fascism and Nazism exerted on the Kemalist regime during the 1930’s has only to some extent been explored, and then with the assumption that there were no influences going in the other direction. New research turns this reading of history on its head.

Stefan Ihrig, Polonsky Fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, has undertaken a “journey into a historiographic void.” What he has unearthed moves Atatürk into European history. The recently published Atatürk in the Nazi Imagination (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press), chronicles how the German National Socialists developed an infatuation with Mustafa Kemal early on, from the moment when he rebelled against the Ottoman sultan and against the peace treaty that had been imposed on the Ottoman state after the First World War.

Atatürk’s revolution fascinated the German nationalists and far right in the early Weimar years like no other international topic. Newspapers repeatedly called for the application of “Turkish lessons” to Germany. The National Socialists “were strongly motivated by the Turkish War of Independence in their endeavors to “liberate” Germany,” writes Ihrig. In his defense speech in 1924, when Hitler stood trial for his failed putsch in Munich the year before, he legitimized his action by referring to Mustafa Kemal’s assumption of power in Ankara in 1920; Hitler stated that Mustafa Kemal had carried out the most perfect of the two revolutions, the other being Mussolini’s in 1922.

IMPLICATIONS: The Nazis “grew up” with Kemalism, as Ihrig puts it, and their infatuation with Atatürk never abated, on the contrary. The Third Reich instituted a veritable cult of Atatürk. In no other country were as many books on “The Turkish Führer”-- as he was most often simply referred to as – published as in interwar Germany. Ihrig concludes that probably only Fascist Italy can compete with the overwhelming coverage and ideological importance of the New Turkey for Nazi Germany. The Nazis genuinely believed that Kemalist Turkey was “one of us.” As they saw it, “the victorious success of the Turkish project in itself was proof of the viability of both the Führer principle and the one party state concept.”

In 1938, Hitler stated that “Atatürk was the first to show that it is possible to mobilize and regenerate the resources that a country has lost. In this respect Atatürk was a teacher; Mussolini was his first and I his second student.” In 1933, the main Nazi daily Völkischer Beobachter reported that Hitler had affirmed that “the successful struggle for liberation that the Ghazi (Atatürk) led in order to create Turkey had given him the confidence that the National Socialist movement would be successful as well. In this respect the movement of Turkey had been a shining star for him.” Joseph Goebbels recorded in his diary that Atatürk’s death “would be an irreplaceable loss.”

Atatürk’s Turkey was celebrated as the first non-communist one party state. In 1931, Mussolini agreed with the judgment that “among all the postwar dictatorships“, Mustafa Kemal’s regime was the “most successful one.” In 1942 Hitler, discussing the future of Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu, pointed out that he had to follow the example of Atatürk lest he would be lost; “Atatürk has secured his power through his People’s Party. It is similar in Italy.” What is also telling is that in this quote, Hitler, as he always did, mentioned Atatürk first, and then Mussolini. Ihrig’s book establishes that in the minds of the Nazis and the Italian Fascists, the three new systems – National Socialism, Italian Fascism and Kemalism – “were engaged in an ongoing dialogue throughout their existence.”

Leading representatives of the Kemalist regime, notably party secretary Recep Peker, did indeed engage in such a dialogue with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Peker visited Berlin and Rome and expressed open admiration for Fascism and Nazism. However, there is nothing that suggests that Atatürk personally held Hitler and Mussolini in high regard, on the contrary.

The way Turkey was perceived by the Nazis offers new insights into the Nazis’ worldview and their self-image. Ihrig can show that Hitler admired Atatürk also for his resolve in his fight against “the church.” In 1942, Hitler remarked that “How fast Kemal Atatürk dealt with the priests is one of the most amazing chapters of history!” In this regard, Turkey was superior to Italy as role model. Hitler exhorted Italy, together with Franco’s Spain, to break the power of the Catholic Church, thus to follow the Turkish example in dealing with the priests, “the cancer of politics,” as Hitler called them.

In contrast, Ihrig does not dwell much on what Hitler’s infatuation with Atatürk says about his New Turkey, as the Nazis called it; he holds that the Nazis saw what they wanted to see, and that the “ambiguity” of Kemalism allowed it to “accommodate” such perceptions. However, what does become clear is that the Nazis had a clear-eyed appreciation of the key to Atatürk’s success.

Ihrig emphasizes that the question of race – specifically the question of national minorities and their “cleansing”- was central to the Nazi vision of Atatürk’s success. “Part and parcel of this völkisch success story was always the “cleansing” of the new state of any minorities, of anything foreign. The “fact” that the New Turkey was a real and pure völkisch state, because no more Greeks or Armenians were left in Anatolia, was stressed time and again, in hundreds of articles, texts and speeches. The “pure national” existence of the New Turkey was crucial for everything that had happened in Anatolia in the 1920’s and 1930’s.”

Ihrig notes that the source (and veracity) of Hitler’s alleged exclamation, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” remains disputed; but even so, “for the Nazis the murder of the Ottoman Armenians was one of the main foundations of this vibrant new völkisch state.”

Ihrig speculates that the extermination of the Armenians “must have exerted” a “paramount influence” on the Nazis. Thomas Weber of the University of Aberdeen ventures that Atatürk in the Nazi Imagination “will change how we think about German and European history as well as the Holocaust.” In a similar vein, the Nazi admiration provides a lens for a fresh look at Kemalism.

In spite of its pretentions to stand for “enlightenment”, Kemalism has failed to midwife a democratic evolution; the question is whether this has anything to do with the aspects of Kemalism that the Nazis admired.

CONCLUSIONS: There is obviously no simple answer to why democracy has continued to elude Turkey. But the failure may have been genetically inscribed at the “foundation” that the Nazis identified and celebrated. This “foundation” – the “cleansing” of Anatolia’s Christians -- did not in fact secure the “pure national” existence that Kemalists and Nazis alike celebrated, as the resistance of the Kurds to the Kemalist project has demonstrated. But it did amount to the obliteration of civil society. It ensured the lasting omnipotence of the state, the full control of the state over society, another aspect of the New Turkey that the Nazis also admired.

The Christians constituted most of the bourgeoisie; their removal meant that the class dynamics that normally would have resulted in ushering in liberalization were distorted. Indeed, the policies of ethnic cleansing that the regime of the Committee of Union and Progress undertook during the final years of the Ottoman state were precisely motivated by the determination of the Muslim Turkish state elite to ensure that society remained subservient to the state as had always been the case in the Ottoman realm. The increasing clout of the rising bourgeoisie inspired fear; the state elite realized that it would have inevitably checked the power of the state bureaucracy, paving for the development of civil society, and to a liberal political evolution.

The foundation of the lasting power of the Turkish state was laid with the ethnic cleansing of Anatolia. The Kemalist regime distributed the properties of the exterminated, authentic bourgeoisie, and created a new, artificial bourgeoisie that owed its existence to the state. This genesis established an asymmetrical state-bourgeoisie relationship that has endured; the bourgeoisie has remained beholden and subservient to the state. Like the Kemalists before them, the Islamists in power today have created their own class of businessmen that depend on the state and who serve as the main class basis of the regime. With its bourgeois democratic revolution seemingly forever postponed, Turkey remains a statist “success story.”

Halil M. Karaveli is Senior Fellow and Editor of the Turkey Analyst, at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center. 

(Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons)

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.

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