By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
Living in Europe, the past envelops you like a warm garment, and is never absent, especially the recent past, say developments over the last century. This is particularly true of Germany, where the political class, as well as the broader population, have invested immense intellectual, financial and emotional resources to work through the darkest chapter in their country’s history. But not only: in the 20th century, Europeans either lived under a totalitarian dictatorship, as in Italy and Germany, or suffered the consequences through occupation, repression, internment, concentration camps and the ravages of war. So when a public figure expresses the view that some event smacks of Nazism, he or she is not engaging in reckless name-calling.
Increasingly over the past week, politicians in Europe have raised the question explicitly, whether the Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdogan is becoming a dictatorship, a fascist regime, like under the Nazis.
Coup and anti-coup
Already at the time of the failed coup attempt in mid-July, when Erdogan responded with mass arrests and firings of public servants, military and civilian, officials in the judiciary, police and education sector, some ventured to suggest parallels with the Reichstag fire; when on February 27, 1933 an arsonist set the Reichstag in Berlin on fire, Hitler, who had weeks earlier become Chancellor, placed the blame on the communists. The Dutch Communist van der Lubbe was charged and the Hitler regime launched a massive roundup of suspects, under the rubric of fighting Communism.
For Erdogan, who identified the movement of Fetullah Gülen as responsible for the coup attempt, anyone and everyone related to it, or who could be accused of the same, was open game. Gülen and his alleged associates were dubbed terrorists. Calls on governments to persecute these presumed criminals, whether it was asking Washington to extradite Gülen or demanding that German officials crack down on institutions associated with his movement, did not yield the desired results. Unless Ankara could provide concrete evidence of criminal behavior there was little chance that individuals would be prosecuted; and the very notion of guilt by association, which was the driving force behind demands issuing from the Erdogan government, was duly ridiculed and dismissed.
Casting the Net Far and Wide
Erdogan’s pursuit of terrorists expanded in late summer, as Turkish forces, in the context of the anti-terrorist offensive against IS in Syria codenamed “Protective Shelter Euphrates”, targeted Syrian Kurds, also labeled terrorists. At the same time, as the wave of purges of alleged Gülen sympathizers swelled into a flood of biblical proportions, repression at home focused increasingly on Kurdish journalistic and political formations, accused of complicity with the terrorist PKK.
By October Erdogan had introduced two more reasons for alarm bells to be set off in Europe. First, his suggestion that the death penalty be reintroduced in Turkey, and secondly, his triumphant claim that Mosul and Aleppo were actually Turkish, with reference to the National Pact of 1920. As his political moves became more brazen, his rhetoric approached tones of hysteria.
While inaugurating a new train station in Ankara, Erdogan responded to his supporters’ cries for the death penalty, that yes, the death penalty would come soon. “What counts is what the people say, not what the West thinks,” he bragged. “In a democracy, the people always get what they want.” Although in summer, when the issue had first surfaced as a proposal, Jean Claude Juncker, the European Commission President, had said that it would signal the end of EU admission talks (since the EU shuns the death penalty), that was not the real issue. Rather, as German press commentaries underlined, here we are dealing with fundamental political concepts. Is democracy a system in which, as Erdogan would have it, the people get their will? In the European understanding of democracy, that is not the case. Democracy is not tyranny of the majority.
On October 31, Erdogan celebrated Halloween by having the Editor in Chief of Cumhurriyet, Murat Sabuncu, and eight of his colleagues arrested. EU Parliament President Martin Schulz issued a statement saying, “a red line that against freedom of opinion has been crossed.” And the response of Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim was not long in coming: “What are your red lines worth? Over your line, we draw another one.”
The reaction by official Germany to these new arrests was token, to put it kindly. Chancellor Angela Merkel could only say, “The journalists can be sure of our solidarity. Just as all those who in Turkey under difficult conditions fight for press and opinion freedom.” She added that it was “most alarming that the high value of freedom of the press and opinion are repeatedly being limited.” The German Ambassador in Turkey Martin Erdmann staged a demonstrative visit to the editorial offices of Cumhurriyet on November 1. But, as Can Dündar, former editor in chief now in exile, complained, solidarity was not enough.
Just days later, on November 4, Erdogan moved against Kurdish politicians, ousting the mayors of Diyabarkir and replacing them with handpicked trustees. As if to test how far he could go, he also went after legally elected parliamentarians. The two HDP party leaders Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yüksekdag, the parliamentary faction leader Idris Baluken and six other members of parliament were arrested. Erdogan accused the party of being the long arm of the PKK. Others who had been detained were later freed but on condition they not leave the country. According to Anadolu news agency, Demirtas would be prosecuted for a speech he gave in October 2011 in Adana, allegedly praising the PKK, and could face five years in prison. Yüksekdag could face the same term for a speech she gave in 2015 allegedly insulting the government.
A day later, in Cologne thousands of Kurds took to the streets to demonstrate against Erdogan’s policy, especially the new arrests. As if in response, on November 5 nine more HDP political figures were arrested, including provincial and district party leaders of Adana. When protesters demonstrated in Istanbul, police stopped them with violence.
Erdogan Goes for Broke
As tensions between Turkey and the EU escalated, Erdogan pursued his tactic of responding to criticism with narcissistic impudence, bluster and threats. For example, when the German mass tabloid Bild Zeitung on November 6 called him a dictator, he said that meant nothing; it “went in one ear and out the other.” Rather, he charged, Europe was supporting the PKK, which could “move freely and without problems” in Europe: “Europe as a whole supports terrorism,” he declared. As for Germany, it not only protects PKK supporters and Gülenists, but has actually become “a haven for terrorists.” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier responded coolly that he could not comprehend such accusations, and Erdogan simply shifted into higher gear. “Hey, Europe,” he was quoted as saying, “are you aware that this terror plague will hit you like a boomerang? We are concerned about your position, at the moment you are opening your doors to terrorism,” he went on. “You will be remembered for all time, because you have supported terror.” To be specific he said that Germany has “protected” the PKK, the left terror DHKP-C and the Gülenists.
Such a harangue, coming in the context of expanding repression at home did cross a red line. Cem Özdemir, parliamentarian and leader of the Green Party in Germany, said Erdogan was turning Turkey into a dictatorship, “a country which is drifting in the direction of an Islamo-Turkish dictatorship.”
Luxemburg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn drew the historical parallel explicitly. On November 7, he criticized Erdogan’s projection of himself as all-powerful at the expense of the state of law, and compared this to “some ‘instructions for use’ for a dictatorship.” He said the fact that Kurds and Turks live in fear of being jailed is unworthy of a country seeking EU membership. He also mooted that torture is being used again and said something like “civilian death” is being practiced, whereby people released from prison are put on blacklists, cannot find employment and are deprived of their diplomas and passports. People have no jobs, lose their homes, and have nothing to eat. “These are methods, one must say bluntly, which were used during the Nazi period,” he said.
The same day, German President Joachim Gauck received Can Dündar officially in the presidential residence Bellevue Palace. Dündar said Turkey was “turning into a Gestapo regime,” and appealed to Germans to open their history books to understand where his country was heading. The homes of intellectuals, politicians and people with different ideas are being stormed, he reported; scientists have been banned from universities, artists arrested. “In the end, it is only a witch hunt.”
Perhaps the weightiest and most eloquent characterization came from someone who is old enough to remember. This is Edzard Reuter, son of Social Democrat Ernst Reuter, who fled Nazi Germany and lived largely in Turkey between 1933 and 1946. His 88-year-old son Edzard, who had just returned from a visit to Turkey, told Dündar during a meeting, “What is happening now in Turkey reminds me of the beginnings of the Nazi period in Germany.”
How to Respond?
Among the options under discussion by worried Europeans are a halt to talks on EU accession for candidate Turkey. Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) called for suspending all EU membership talks. “A country that tries to lock up journalists and opposition leaders has no place in the EU,” he said. “For me, the red line has been crossed long ago.” For Asselborn this need not be further discussed since the talks have been “theoretically already abandoned.” Rather, Asselborn thinks economic pressure through sanctions would be meaningful. Considering that 50 percent of all Turkish exports go to EU and 60 percent of investments in Turkey come from EU, “That is an absolute means of pressure, and at a certain point we will not avoid using this means of pressure, to impede the indescribable situation of human rights.”
Outside of Europe, there are other powerful voices that could make themselves heard. Turkey is not only a neighbor and partner of Europe, but a member in NATO. It is actively engaged in the military operations in Syria and Iraq, and not without territorial ambitions. One wonders where NATO’s leadership has stored its history books.
Inside Turkey, the HDP has decided to cease parliamentary activity, in protest against the recent arrests. In a statement, the party leadership stated, “The Erdogan-AKP government is not only targeting the political will of six millions voters,” but has deprived the parliament of power, desiring to hand it over to a trustee, just as it has placed newspapers and other enterprises under trustees. According to German-Turkish MP Ziya Pir, they might give up all their mandates. It is significant that now even the opposition party CHP is being forced to rethink its alliances and tactics. As Cem Özdemir put it, that party, though it “has no MPs in jail, lacks a strategy because … it tried to ally with Erdogan against the coup attempt and now it realizes it might be next.” Indeed the CHP in part supported the parliamentary vote which led to lifting immunity for members, which made the arrests of the HDP members possible.
One should, indeed, reopen the history books in Germany. There one can read about Martin Niemöller, a Protestant pastor who initially supported Hitler. Then he joined the Confessional Church, which opposed the Nazification of the Protestant church, and as a resistance fighter was jailed and spent years in concentration camps. One quotation has become universally known:
“When the Nazis came for the Communists, I did not speak out; I was after all not a Communist.
When they locked up the Social Democrats, I did not speak out; I was after all not a Social Democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for me, there was no one any longer who could protest.”