Of all the 20th century strong men of Europe, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk [MKA] is the only remaining one whose authority and charisma is still a culturally, politically and even legally, unquestionable component of the public discourse in his country. Yet his influence on Hitler and 20th century fascism has gone unexamined. That will change with Stefan Ihrig’s chilling book, Atatürk in the Nazi Imagination. His research into more than two decades of mainstream, right-wing and Nazi publications in Germany following World War I demonstrates how the founder of Modern Turkey was actually a muse and a role model for the Nazis and Hitler.

“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Hitler is claimed (but not confirmed) to have said. Ihrig shows the Nazis’ fascination with ethnic cleansing of minorities that enabled a new homogenized nation but they are even more interested in MKA’s triumph of populist non-democracy. He delineates different discursive phases during which the German far right, Nazis themselves and finally Hitler and the Nazi cadres expressively inspired and employed the Turkish model and leadership. “For the Nazis,” in the aftermath of the World War I states Ihrig “Turkey was not the old East, but standard bearer for the modern nationalist and totalitarian politics that they wished to bring to Germany.” (p.7)

This is not a book about MKA or Turkey; it is how this new republic, that emerged out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire and its leader were construed as inspirational narratives to mobilize and justify Nazi politics of leadership, masses and “action.” Long before Hitler was a national figure the “Turkish Führer” had captivated the imagery of the German right that was trying to recover from what they perceived to be the harsh conditions of the treaties that ended the World War I. Later Hitler himself canonizes MKA as “a star in the darkness” and the Nazi policy makers and the propaganda machine was deeply invested in praising Turkey’s “success” story on at least two counts; actively resisting the Entente countries and swiftly eliminating the opposition and the minorities.

According to Ihrig, the emergence of Turkey as a modern republic from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, which was on the losing side of the Great War together with Germany, was central to the post-war discourse of the German right, especially after Enver Pasha, former Minister of War, and a staunch German ally ceased to continue as a colorful story. “In the eyes of a desperate and desolate Germany” Turkish nationalists’ ability to resist the dismemberment of the heartland of the empire, ability to secure a homeland, and revise a post-war peace treaty imposed on them by the victors was “a nationalist dream come true, or rather, something like a hypernationalist pornography.” (p.11) Nazis grew up in this post-war fixation with the New Turkey and its leader.

Atatürk with Ottoman military officers during the Battle of Gallipoli, Canakkale, 1915 © Unknown| virtualistanbul.com
Atatürk with Ottoman military officers during the Battle of Gallipoli, Canakkale, 1915 © Unknown| virtualistanbul.com

The central theme of this fixation was the aftermath of the Great War, and MKA as a narrative fulfilled a function in the Nazi imagery. Long before Hitler was crowned as one, the German right was referring to MKA as “the Turkish Führer.” This Führer’s fight against disarmament by the Entente, his achievement in creating a national unity, his triumph in purification of the population and swift solutions to minority problems became a parallel story to explain the rise and success of Nazis under a strong leadership. Obviously, Nazis had used several Führer figures, “from Fredrick the Great, obviously also Mussolini, all the way to Roosevelt,” to support and justify their Führer state. However, Ihrig observes and documents that “because Atatürk’s story was already crowned with a happy ending […] it was qualitatively superior to the others” (p.170) and received quantitatively larger coverage in many hagiographic Nazi texts. They built their ideas of strong one-man leadership, pure nation and anti-democracy ideas through the political person of MKA. His story was used to prepare the public for the German Führer, Hitler himself. According to the Nazis, MKA constructed a country without compromise and with clarity and effective consequences. Their core ideology that war makes a nation was personified in MKA who was “the soldier who went to war as an Ottoman and came back as a Turk.” (p.161) Exposing the “Turkish Führer in the limelight” as such, they were actually expressing where they were coming from and the ideological blocks of where they wanted to go.

Following 1919-1923 German media hype around the Turkish resistance and revision of the post-War peace treaties, the Turkish miracle was discussed again and again as the proof that it is the strong men that make history and not the masses. For example, one of the main teachers and an idol of Goebbels, F. Hussong, who viewed democracy as a “delirium of masses” in 1922 praised MK as “the man who transformed a helpless and unstable, disoriented and faltering mass into a unified nation; a will rises and creates ascent from doom; a Führer rises and shows the way… where once one saw only abyss and doom.” (cited p. 58) According to Hussong, those who had a vision of “demos” had a “frog’s perspective of history,” whereas MKA’s “victory [was] not the result of circumstances, the circumstances [were] the effects of his victory” (cited p.59) Ihrig shows that during that period, MKA imagery in German public opinion was frequent and ubiquitous, calling for potential “German Mustafas.” For example, an article in Vossische Zeitung debating “Mussolini and Kemal” as untested role models and criticizes their “childish radicalism” in 1922, identified a German “political player who embraced the Turkish model, i.e. Hitler.” In their “learning from Turkey”, many Nazi writers, including Erich Ludendorff, Hitler’s comrade during the Munich Putsch, proposed Hitler as a “German Mustafa” who “were to attempt to translate Turkish example by action.” (p.67) By 1924, the Ankara Government was praised (by no other than Hans Trobst, the only German mercenary to fight among the Turkish nationalist and later a Nazi reporter) for creating a völkisch unitary front, völkisch purification, effective mobilization of the nation, and thus liberating the “nation from Entente oppression” (p. 100).

While Mussolini was (and still is seen) often as the Nazis’ prime role model, Ihrig’s extenstive research shows that especially until the 1923 Munich Putsch, official Nazi papers Heimatland and Völkischer Beobachter used their narratives of MKA “as a means of creating a pro-putsch atmosphere” with articles such as “Give Us an Ankara Government” (p.105) As a matter of fact, Mussolini’s “legalism” was hardly approved by the Nazis who expressed admiration for MKA who had started “as a traitor in the eyes of the law, but was in fact and according to the voice of the people their savior from misery.” The parallels between the life stories of MKA and Hitler were frequently drawn; MKA was against the rotten, infested center, of his country, i.e Istanbul, as Hitler was critical of Berlin. According to Hitler himself no salvation could come from Constantinople because “the city was, just as in our case, contaminated by democratic-pacifistic, internationalized people, who were no longer able to do what is necessary. It could only come from the farmer’s country.” (cited in p.97) For Hitler, who was thus speaking during his post-Putsch trial in 1923, the German recovery “could only come from a relatively healthy part of Germany, and that was Bavaria” (p.96) just as it was Ankara saved Turkish nation. During his final speech at the trial Hitler tried to legitimize their coup d’etat, using MKA’s example before Mussolini “If we ask ourselves: What has legalized Kemal Pasha’s deed in the end? The gaining liberty for his nation.” (p.98)

In the wake of the Munich Putsch, the official Nazi papers were closed down, and the German press in general largely remained unresponsive to the debates about the Ankara solution and Hitler’s references to MKA. The aftermath of the Putsch were the years of Nazi ‘legal’ tactics, during which MKA and Turkey were not mentioned as often as it had been during the first years of the Nazi movement. As Ihrig states “this was all too understandable: to talk about Atatürk as a role model would have meant admitting to aspirations of a violent seizure of power, with the promise of war against the Versailles powers, civil war, and establishment of a strong dictatorship… Throughout the Weimar years it was thus dangerous to proclaim Turkey as one’s role model.” (p.109) Whereas Mussolini appeared more in the Nazi discourse after the failure of the 1923 Munich Pustch. Hitler discussed neither MKA, nor Mussolini in any depth in his prison oeuvre, Mein Kampf where, Ihrig observes, there was only one indirect reference to Kemalist struggle and an admiration note for Enver Pasha. (p.110)

However, as Nazis’ ascend to power, Hitler continued drawing parallels between himself and Atatürk, as well as between his movement and the Kemalists, even when such discourse heavily conflicted with his new “legality” course. In 1928, addressing the NSDAP gathering in Nuremberg, discussing the German defeat in World War I, Hitler compared Turkey with Germany and praised MKA: “The inner strength [of the Turkish State] had remained and the man came who managed to remind his people of its great tradition and who led them forward. That is what was different with us Germans.” (p.111) In another speech he said “[Today] an Anatolian farmer is worth more than a German man of letters with the highest income. A nation must be able to sacrifice itself for its ideals.” As Hitler’s political career took shape and stylized, he was depicted as MKA: a born leader who came from the periphery of the nation with humble backgrounds and transitioned “from unknown soldier to statesman” (p.157), a man of action who chooses to live a frugal life and lives “like a common soldier” and “closer to his soldiers than to his fellow officers (p.158). Ihrig argues that this “great variety of actual, coincidental and manufactured parallels” were utilized to establish glorification and veneration of the Führer myth and principle, and “had a very pronounced didactic quality” to forge the nation into a “battle community” which was “needed to be bound by the belief in the Führer and the love of the fatherland” (p.162) MKA was depicted with his no-compromise attitude towards the opposition which he treated harshly and “in a good soldierly fashion. (p.164) For Nazis, the fact that his autocratic and dictatorial style demands “total obedience not only from his soldiers but also from his nation” made him the perfect example of the dictum that suggests “politics needed to be carried out as a form of war.” (p.164)

Atatürk visits the Istanbul University after its reorganization with the University Law of 31 May 1933 that introduced mixed-sex education to the academies, colleges and universities in Turkey. © Unknown| forumex.net
Atatürk visiting Istanbul University after its reorganization with the University Law of May 31, 1933, that introduced mixed-sex education to the academies, colleges and universities in Turkey. © Unknown| forumex.net

By 1933, Nazi publications were full of references to MKA and the New Turkey. Kemalism was described as “Turkish National Socialism” in Hamburger Nachrichten; re-established Völkischer Beobachter attributed the ascent of the Turkish nation to the “deed of this one single man, who with iron will and undiminished determination leads his nation to independence” (p.112) and in Kreuzzeitung, it was stated that “the German National Socialism of Adolf Hitler and Turkish Kemalism are closely related” (p.113) Hitler’s 1933 interview with Milliyet, a Turkish daily newspaper, was extensively reprinted in several German papers citing his famous phrase that elevates MKA to an iconic status as “a shining star in the darkness” (p.115).

In 1938, Ihrig cites Hitler saying the following to a delegation of Turkish politicians: “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 the first and I his second student.” (p.116) In 1941, on the occasion of the Turkish-German Friendship Treaty, Deutche Allgemeine Zietung reiterates to the readers the significance of MKA for the Nazi Germany “The Führer has always thought that the heroic deed of liberation by Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey, was a marvelous role model for the uprising against this system of coercion of international disorder.” (p.117) Similarly Frankfurter Zeitung, explained why following the Turkish model was of paramount importance for Germany, albeit belatedly because they lacked a leader until Hitler came around “Lacking a Führer who would have been able to realize the dream of national birth, the German nation saw its old ally, followed with a hot heart the unparalleled victorious march with which Kemal Pasha blew away the enemies of the Turkish nation only to lay the foundations for a truly modern state in the middle of the raging battle.” (p.118)

What would come as a surprise to the racists of 21st century, but not for the ideological climate of the Third Reich, Nazis were eager to claim that the Turks were not one of the lesser races and in 1936 NSDAP office for Racial Policy announced that “The Turks are Aryans!” (p.128) This was also compatible with the racial purification policies which facilitated the creation of the modern Turkey and admittedly an inspiration for the Nazi Germany.

MKA was equally admired for, and the success of his story was attributed to the ways in which he handled the minority questions as the Nazi writers discussed the positive role the destruction of minorities had for the völkisch power of the Turks. According to the Nazi commentators, the Ottoman Empire “lacked any healthy, sustainable or völkisch foundations” (cited on p.174) and collapsed for the reasons external to the Turks and their racial characters. These reasons were identified as “the multiethnic character of the empire in general, the influence and even rule of ‘foreign elements,’ and the heavily retarding character of Islam (p.174) According to this view, “the Turk was never sick, but he had to carry the incredible weight of an unorganic empire” (p.175) According to Froembgen, the author of the book Kemal Atatürk: Soldier and Führer, which came out in seven editions during the first year it was published in 1935, “Turkendom was dying slowly but surely of the poison that pours out of the racial mishmash of the subdued peoples, this famous sputum of peoples of the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea, of the Levantines, the Greeks, the Armenians, the Arabs, and the Jews, who like the resistant weed cover the ground [everywhere]” (cited on p.175) In that sense, the “sneaky, parasitic and unworthy” Armenians were seen as the “Jews of the orient” who had “stabbed the Turks in the back” during the war. As early as in 1924, on the front page of Völkischer Kurier, it was suggested that “what had happened to the Armenians might very well happen to the Jews in a future Germany” in an article written by Trobst, the German mercenary who fought among the Turkish Nationalists (p.179). At a general party meeting in 1927, Hitler likened the Greeks and Armenians, to the Jews because “they have these specific, disgraceful characteristics we condemn in the Jews” (p.180). The destruction of the Armenians was seen as the “one precondition for Atatürk’s success” as defined in Nazi texts (p.182) In addition to the cleansing of Anatolia of the Armenians, in order for Turkey to become a state that was “national and only national” another minority questioned had to be solved: the Greeks in Anatolia. The exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey, that uprooted and dislocated millions of people, was lauded by the Third Reich papers: “something truly unique was accomplished in the sphere off military politics and population science” (cited in p.183) because it provided the harmonization and standardization of their populations. According to Nazi writers, these double-ethnic cleansings constituted the precondition of the New Turkey; “only through the annihilation of the Greek and the Armenian tribes in Anatolia were the creation of a Turkish national state and the formation of an unflawed Turkish body of society within one state possible” (cited in p.184)

Ihrig shows that the Nazi publications were not equally content and often confused by MKA’s relationship with the Soviet Union or the Arab nationalist, yet they employed an embracing and understanding tone since “Atatürk was able to get rid of all weakening influences, which had worn out the Ottoman Empire” (cited on p.186) including Bolshevism and Islam. The Völkisch revival of the New Turkey was regarded more important than passing and pragmatic alliances with the Bolsheviks or competing Turkish and Arab territorial claims (in Alexandretta).

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk at the parliament presenting his Nutuk © Unknown | Images Atatürk, collection of the Republic of Turkey Ministry of National Education (MEB)
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk at the parliament presenting his Nutuk in 1927 © Unknown | Images Atatürk, collection of the Republic of Turkey Ministry of National Education (MEB)

Obviously, the way Hitler and Nazis narrated MKA and the New Turkey were more about themselves, their plans and prospects, than the actual Atatürk and the Turkish Republic. In their constructed and imagined narratives, the Nazis were attempting to justify their own power and ideology as they made selective use of history. Certainly MKA may not be responsible for being an inspiration and a shining star for the Nazis. However, a comparative reading of the Turkish official historiography, as founded in the grand oeuvre of MKA, Nutuk (a 36-hour speech delivered in 1927), and Nazi glorifications of the Turkish success story since 1919 reveals uncannily parallel narratives of militarism, exclusive nationalism and undemocratic veneration of a leader. What’s more, while Nazis’ take on history and society might have been heavily discredited, their narration of the Turkish success story is still taught in the history textbooks in Turkey and evidenced by the omnipresence of the Atatürk sculptures and busts throughout the country. It would not be surprising for the cautious researchers to discover that the public and pedagogic discourses on Atatürk in Turkey to this day still follow a parallel story line of territorial anti-imperialism, unified nation, strong state and determined leadership.

Ihrig, in his nuanced and detailed treatment of Nazi constructions of MKA shows that they might have misunderstood and fully ignored one of Atatürk’s main dictums “peace at home, peace abroad” (p.170) in their attempts to highlight his martial qualities for their own purpose and goals. Amidst his remarkable research on the Nazi war cries, crimes and consequences, it may so be that Ihrig himself might have neglected to see the cost and consequences of the kind of “peace” MKA had established for Turkey. Atatürk’s “peace at home” in practice was experienced as the criminalization of Kurds, Islamists, and any claim regarding Armenians, thus stifling public discourse and democratization for decades to come. But identifying the ills of the Atatürk’s regimes was not Ihrig’s task. Yet, anyone who is doing research to revise and reconsider Turkish official historiography still needs to engage with Ihrig’s discussion, as much as any student of nationhood, militarism and democracy.