Turkish-German Relations: Threats, Taboos and Truth


By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BERLIN — As the croupier at the roulette table says, “les jeux sont fait.” The die is cast. In the wake of the German Bundestag’s resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide, the hysterical reaction from Erdogan and his co-thinkers has raised the stakes in a risky gamble with political counterparts in Europe, a game that Ankara, contrary to its delusions of grandeur, has no chance of winning.

Bundestag President Norbert Lammert (CDU) was not mincing words when he responded to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s intimidating threats against members of the parliament for its resolution on the Armenian Genocide. “That a democratically elected state president in the 21st century,” he said on June 9, “could link his criticism of democratically elected members of the German Bundestag with doubts as to their Turkish heritage, and designate their blood as impure, is something I would not have deemed possible.” He categorically rejected Erdogan’s insinuation that parliamentarians of Turkish background were “mouthpieces for terrorists” and underlined that “anyone who tries to exert pressure on single parliamentarians must know: He is attacking the entire parliament.” He added, “We will correspondingly react with all lawful possibilities that are available to us.” Lammert said the leaders of all parliamentary parties had asked him to speak out, “to voice our collective position once again, unequivocally.”

This time, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had been absent during the genocide vote, was on hand, and applauded demonstratively along with government and parliament members to signal her endorsement.

In tandem, European Parliament President Martin Schulz, who is a member of Merkel’s coalition partner party the SPD, issued his rebuke with comparable forcefulness. In a letter addressed to Erdogan that same day, he repudiated the Turkish leader for having accused freely elected parliamentarians of terrorist sympathies for having expressed their views. “Such an act constitutes a complete breach of taboo, which I condemn in the strongest possible terms.” He went on: “As the president of a multi-national, multi-ethnic and multi-faith parliament, allow me to make the following point: the freedom of MPs to carry out their mandate as they see fit is a fundamental pillar of our European democracies.” The issue was not only institutional but also personal. Schulz wrote, “A string of the German Bundestag MPs you have personally attacked, but also Turkish parliamentarians affected by measures which you support, are among longstanding colleagues of mine; some of them are very close to me personally. I feel obliged to protect these colleagues wherever I can.”

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Protection from Threats

The reference to protection was not metaphorical. Quite aware of the causal link that may obtain between threatening words and deeds of violence, the Bundestag members targeted by Erdogan’s ire have taken threats seriously. And the government and security agencies have responded with concrete measures. As Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière told the Frankfurter Sonntags Zeitung on June 12, “The threats against parliamentarians of Turkish background are unacceptable,” adding that \ Lammert had “found the right words for it.” De Maizière said security measures would be adjusted correspondingly. “Most of the 3.5 million people of Turkish background in Germany – I want to stress – are good neighbors and an important part of our society,” he said. “The criminals and extremists are individual cases.”

To take it seriously means to adopt enhanced security measures, like police protection at home and the office, and, if necessary, personal bodyguards. The German Foreign Ministry, according to a Spiegel report, advised against travel to Turkey, due to the heated atmosphere, which might have security implications for them. For those Bundestag members who have dual citizenship, the danger is very real; if they do go to Turkey, they may be arrested at the airport and charged with “insulting the Turkish nation,” according to the infamous Article 301 of the penal code. Conviction could lead to a sentence of six months to two years. The mayor of Ankara, who had sent out photos on the internet of the 11 German parliamentarians of Turkish descent, had also stated, “The traitors should be deprived of citizenship.”

The decision to upgrade security for those threatened came after a meeting of some Bundestag members from all parties with representatives of the BKA (Federal Criminal Police Office), Berlin police and Bundestag police. They described harassment and threats they had received, from hate mail, insults shouted on the street or from cars driving by. Through “social” media some women MPs were told to seek employment in a whorehouse, others suggested prominent MPs should take a vacation in Buchenwald concentration camp, and similar rot. Some MPs had avoided returning to their election districts over the weekend to keep a low profile. Women MPs had received warnings from neighbors to watch out for their children, some avoided playgrounds or favorite ice cream parlors; family members, whether in Germany or relatives in Turkey, were also bombarded with abusive attack. Cem Özdemir, Green Party leader and initiator of the recent genocide vote, was ostracized by a Turkish homeland club of his father’s, according to Spiegel online. Özdemir reported getting messages saying “At some point your German friends may forget it, but we won’t.” Or, more bluntly, “We can find you wherever you are.” Citing the judgments of friends of Hrant Dink in Turkey, Özdemir said, “One has to take this damn seriously. So – take it seriously, but don’t let yourself be intimidated.”

And Turkish Groups in Germany?

If official Ankara responded to the Armenian resolution with threats, slander and preparations for a “plan of action,” Turkish social and political groups in Germany had to take a stand. Lammert noted that the Turkish Society in Germany and the Berlin-Brandenburg Turkish Federation had criticized the attacks on MPs as unacceptable. “I would hope,” he said, “that also other Turkish organizations in Germany, some of them very big, would also take a stand for the MPs and for our democracy — with similarly clear and unambiguous declarations as they have issued often very quickly and very loudly, in other instances.”

Cem Özdemir appealed to these organizations to go on the record. “One does not have to find the [genocide] resolution good: I am ready to answer questions from people. But Turkish organizations have to denounce death threats unambiguously. Here there is no room for two opinions.” Addressing these groups’ desires for social integration, he said: “Those who want to be taken seriously here, those who want to have religion classes in our schools, they cannot stand on the ground of our Constitution only on their tiptoes.”

DITIB, the biggest umbrella group of Muslims in Germany, expressed its “loss of trust” in those MPs with Turkish roots. Representative Zekeriya Altug was quoted by Zeit online saying that if its members formerly had felt represented by these MPs, that was no longer that the case. But at the same time, DITIB General Secretary Bekir Alboga denounced the slanders and threats of violence as “illegitimate means to deal with differences of opinion and conflicts in a democratic society.” DITIB had cancelled an invitation to Lammert and two MPs to a Ramadan Iftar (fast breaking) during Ramadan, after having received threats.

Then there are those of Turkish background in Germany who have another idea. Turkish-German businessman Remzi Aru launched an initiative days after the Genocide resolution, for the creation of a new Turkish party here. Qualifying the resolution as a massive discrimination against those of Turkish heritage, and warning that all should “beware the beginnings!” he announced that “As of today, there is no German party that a person with Turkish roots can vote for. We are forced to found our own party,” as a result. This, he said, would “not be for Turks, not for Muslims, but for all people in Germany in whom this Germany awakens worst memories.” The party program draft which is circulating says it stands for a “self-conscious, traditional, but also open, multi-racial, multi-national Germany, which nurtures a healthy patriotism and national pride, instead of falling from one extreme into the other.” It calls on Germany to play an equilibrating role in the world, instead of “playing schoolmarm to other countries.” Aru has presented himself officially in German talk shows as a supporter and representative of Erdogan’s policies.

What European Membership?

What meager success a self-styled party for the Turkish (or Muslim) minority in Germany might reap will be seen when and if the project ever takes off. Whether the proponents know it or not, a significantly large proportion of Germans of Turkish descent have taken this citizenship after having fled here from political persecution, received political asylum and then a German passport. It would be wildly arrogant and just plain wrong to assume that most ethnic Turks or other Muslims in Germany would line up with Erdogan.

Far more relevant is the question, where does Turkey end up as a member of the European club? In short: nowhere. The greatest collateral damage that Erdogan’s hysterical outbursts have wrought will be tallied in Brussels. Martin Schulz spoke as president of the European Parliament. He had also said that, when MPs have to witness how “the highest organs of another state” question the guarantees for them as well as journalists and others to act free from repression, “that will not in the long run be without consequence for international relations.” The German Foreign Ministry, in discussion with a diplomat summoned from the Turkish embassy, had made clear that the affair was “not compatible” with close German-Turkish relations.

Without recourse to such diplomatic niceties, it can be said without hesitation, that the Mafioso-style theatrics played out by Erdogan have taken Turkey’s bid for European Union membership from the back burner to the garbage can. In recent discussion about lifting visa restrictions for Turkish citizens – a demand Erdogan made in the context of the refugee deal with the EU – it was specified that to receive this, Turkey had to accommodate EU conditions on terrorism legislation, among other things. In the wake of the recent horrendous terror attacks in Turkey, it is unlikely that the government will acquiesce.

But, that notwithstanding, European eagerness to welcome Turkey in the club has noticeably waned in the wake of the Ankara-Berlin rift. Again, Cem Özdemir was the one to set the record straight. Complaining that there had been a lack of honesty on both sides, he explained that Turkey had been dishonest, in that it had not introduced the required reforms. “It does the opposite: Turkey distances itself daily from the European Union.” But also in Germany, he said, the debate is not really honest. “Honesty would mean saying: With Erdogan, with this policy that Turkey is currently pursuing, there can be no membership.” One need little fantasy to imagine that in the 1000–room palace of the Turkish president, there was little understanding, not to mention applause, for Özdemir’s pointing to a time “after Erdogan.” But, he said what had to be said. And there are few, in Berlin, or Brussels, or elsewhere in Europe who would disagree.

In the last three weeks Turkey’s would-be president-for-life has made more political mistakes — too enormous to be dismissed as diplomatic faux pas — than his carefully-orchestrated personality cult can afford. For reasons to be examined in a psychological profile of the man, he is incapable of assessing the impact in the real world of the utterings of his narcissistic, paranoid personality disorder. To wit: among his ravings against Germany after the Armenian Genocide recognition, he accused Germany of hypocrisy: who were they to accuse others of genocide, he raved, when they killed 6 million Jews, murdered Hereros, etc.?

This crossed a line, and one with existential implications for the identity of the German Federal Republic. Chancellor Merkel was quick to respond. She rejected out of hand the insinuation that Germany had failed to come to terms with its past. In the resolution on the Armenian Genocide, she pointed out, it was explicitly stated that Germany recognized the Holocaust as a singularity in history. Germany had officially recognized that there had been no comparable crime in history, and acknowledged its guilt. Not only, she said, had Germany dealt with this past, but it continues and will continue to do so in the future.

As for Erdogan’s ravings about German guilt in the Herero massacres, Lammert made clear that it had been addressed and would be on the agenda of the Bundestag again.

Erdogan again had shot himself in the foot. It is not Germany which has declined to face up to its historical past. On the contrary: its years-long critical engagement with the Nazi past, its historical research, its education programs through genocide studies in the curricula, its encouragement of civil society activities, its ongoing process of reconciliation, and so many other aspects, make the German experience exemplary for others. In the specific instance: for Turkey. When will Turkey find the courage to follow suit?