How the Turkish Revolution Inspired the Nazis
by Mitchell Abidor
Reviewed in this essay: Atatürk in the Nazi Imagination, by Stefan Ihrig. The Belknap Press of Harvard Univerity Press, 2014, 320 pages.
THE 20TH CENTURY was one of revolutions in all corners of the world, revolutions that promised much and, in the end, delivered little. What is left of the Russian Revolution but a leadership cult and repression? And of the Chinese Revolution but a voiceless and super-exploited working class? And of the Cuban Revolution but old American cars and deprivation? And of the Algerian Revolution but unemployment, Islamism, and mass emigration? In the early years of last century, a young French individualist anarchist named Le Rétif wrote tellingly of the snares of the “revolutionary illusion.” His writings looked so wrong when revolutions indeed occurred and achieved power, but turned out to be prescient in the long term.
There was one revolution, though, that did succeed in radically and forever changing a country: the Kemalist revolution in Turkey, led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The expectation in Marxist-led revolutions is that if the ownership of the means of production change, everything else that is founded on this will change. Atatürk set out not to change, or not primarily to change, the economic foundation of his country, but aimed his sights directly at modernizing and overturning daily life.
What other revolutionary can make the claims that Mustafa Kemal, the Ghazi (Hero) can make: He abolished the old, Ottoman alphabet; purged the Turkish language of foreign words; banned the fez; introduced Western attire as the standard; changed the calendar; changed the system of telling time; changed the music listened to; and abolished the caliphate and instituted strict separation of religion and state. In short, he changed Turkey absolutely, totally, and completely. And all this was done by force of Atatürk’s will. It was Atatürk as leader — as the Germans would phrase it, the Führer — who was responsible for it all.
It is Stefan Ihrig’s contention, in his fascinating Atatürk and the Nazi Imagination, that it was Atatürk who in many ways molded and inspired the Nazi enterprise. This contention might, on the surface, seem outlandish, since Kemalism is a progressive idea and Turkey a relatively minor player when compared to Germany, but it was perhaps yet another element in Hitler’s perverse genius to latch on to the glory of Turkey’s renovation to give context to and justify his own. Whether it was a real Turkey or Atatürk or not is almost irrelevant; it is the Nazi “imagination” that is examined here.
GERMAN TURKOPHILIA pre-dated Hitler. Though Turks are despised by today’s German right, Ihriq observes that Turkey served as a paradigm for the German right and far right in the aftermath of World War I. The right viewed the politicians who submitted to the terms of the Versailles Treaty as base and abject; Mustafa Kemal, however, in equally defeated Turkey, refused to accept the terms inflicted on Turkey by post-war treaties. From his base in Anatolia, he fought and expelled the Greeks (to a large extent through population exchange), and defeated their British and French supporters, who wanted to impose a truncated country on the Turks. For the post-war center-right and right, and shortly thereafter for Hitler and the Nazis, Atatürk showed that treaties are only binding if they’re accepted, that they can be ignored and a new reality imposed.
This reality was, in German terms, völkisch. Turkey, in their eyes, was not the degenerate, European city of Constantinople, but rather the real Turkey, the peasant Turkey of Anatolia, of Ankara, where Mustafa Kemal would establish his capital. For the Nazis, the Kemalist trope of Ankara vs. Constantinople, of the conquest by the real country of the artificial one, was to be transposed to Berlin vs. Munich, with the Nazis in Munich to be the equivalent of the Kemalists and seize corrupt Berlin. The Kemalist revolution was Turkish and national above all, and so could serve as an example to nationalists in Germany.
For Hitler, before there was a Mussolini, there was Atatürk. Unlike the Italian fascist, who obtained power legally, Atatürk acted in the War of Liberation because he felt it was right and thus his right. No example could better serve the revanchard Germans. As Ihrig convincingly demonstrates: “The official discourse in the Third Reich lionized Atatürk as the model Führer.”
The Nazi love of Atatürk was almost boundless. Ihrig tells of how official Nazi artists were commissioned to do busts of Atatürk that were given to Hitler, which he considered his “cherished possession.” The German Führer, from his first days on the scene, spoke of Atatürk as his exemplar, a “shining star.” In his 1924 defense speech, Hitler said that there had been two successful revolutions to be emulated, Ataturk’s getting primacy over Mussolini’s, and in 1938, he described Atatürk as "a great teacher whose first student had been Mussolini and the second Hitler himself.” Ihrig finds echoes of the Ghazi in Hitler’s last days: “Hitler said that if the Germans lost this war, then they deserved to perish. [This] closely echoed the dictum attributed to Atatürk by the Nazi publications: ‘It is better of a great people dies than to vegetate without honor.’” Ihrig, who mined the German press in great depth, presents perhaps the most surprising, even shocking, sign of German admiration for the Turkish leader: When Atatürk died on November 10, 1938, it was front-page news, with articles and essays given pride of place in the Nazi press. November 10, 1938, the day after Kristallnacht! Despite the massive campaign against the Jews, Hitler still deemed it important that Atatürk be memorialized, bumping the pogrom from the front page of many newspapers.
Admiration of Atatürk and the new Turkey was so great that Turkish ambassadors were given privileged treatment in the diplomatic corps, even sitting in the seat directly next to Hitler’s box at the Bayreuth Wagner festival. SA honor guards feted Kemalist dignitaries, and when the Turkish ambassador died in an automobile accident in Germany, his coffin was accompanied to the train station by uniformed SA men.
Not the least of Turkey’s attractions was another, darker element of its völkisch nature, one directly tied to Nazi policy. I’m referring, of course, to the Armenian genocide (which occurred exactly a hundred years ago this year) and the expulsion of the Anatolian Greeks after the War of Liberation. The first event preceded Atatürk’s rise, but Kemalist Turkey never (to this day) accepted any responsibility and fiercely denied the genocidal nature of what was done to the Armenians. They weren’t killed simply because they were Armenians, but because they were stabbing Turkey in the back — just like the Dolchstoss, the stab-in-the-back mythology directed by the German right at the Jews.
Before the Nazi party achieved any significant following, the Turks had, first with the Armenians, then with the Greeks, seen the need to "racially purify their nation. “One precondition for Atatürk’s success," Ihriq writes, "as defined by Nazi and Third Reich texts had been ‘the destruction of the Armenians.’” One Nazi biographer of Atatürk went so far as to say that the attacks on the Armenians had not been persecution but rather the “neutralization of life-threatening foreign bodies,” and a 1925 book in praise of New Turkey “had already celebrated the ‘gigantic sweep of the broom’ that ‘hurled the Greek element into the sea.’” Yet another Nazi writer wrote, “Only thorough the annihilation of the Greek and the Armenian tribes was the creation of a Turkish national state and the formation of an unflawed Turkish body of society within one state possible.” The genocidal plans of the Nazis thus found their justification in Anatolia.
THERE IS A SMALL CRITICISM to be made of Ihrig’s book. Although he is clear that there was nothing fascistic or Nazi-ike about Atatürk or Kemalism, other than making passing mention of Atatürk’s lack of interest in Nazi gifts and praise, and the Turks’ feeling that some of the Nazi coverage was excessive, Ihrig never reports on any Turkish reaction to the hagiographies written and published by the Nazis and to the cooptation for alien purposes of the Kemalist enterprise. Turkey’s more than ambiguous activities during World War II — when they both declared war on Germany (on February 23, 1945) and provided the Nazis with needed materials — all occurred after Atatürk’s death and cannot be laid at his door. (Parenthetically, the official Nazi paper the Völkischer Beobachter called Turkey’s declaration ‘“treason against itself” and “claimed to be the keeper of the only and true ‘Atatürkism.’”)
However radical Nazism was, it viewed itself as the fulfilment of Germany’s history and destiny. Atatürk, on the other hand, constituted a break with Turkey’s past, however nationalistic he and his revolution were. It has often been pointed out that by eliminating the Ottoman alphabet, Atatürk not only changed the way people write but made the Ottoman past itself inaccessible. Turkey was not simply renewed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, it was as if it became a new country in 1923. And this was its attraction to the Nazis. Ihrig says that “through the Turkish case one finds the Nazis advocating modernity and modernization for their own sake. The twinning with Turkey also conveyed a strong sense of a ‘new beginning.” But for the Nazis, it was a beginning within continuity. Kemalism was far more radical than that.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to our magazine and website, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his forthcoming translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His Anarchists Never Surrender, an anthology of anarchist writings by Victor Serge, is now available from PM Press.