By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
BERLIN — Few could have imagined the depth to which relations between Germany and Turkey have sunk over the past weeks. No matter how accustomed one has become with outrageous statements issuing from Ankara, who could have predicted that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would accuse the government of Angela Merkel of “Nazi practices”? On March 5 in a speech in Istanbul, Erdogan, addressing Berlin, said there was “no difference between your practices and the Nazi practices in the past.” He was referring to the cancellation of rooms in German towns, for political campaign speeches planned by Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag and Economics Minister Nihat Zeybekci. Bozdag had reacted with accusations of “fascist methods,” but Erdogan went the extra mile.
The reasons given for the cancellations were technical; in one case, no lease for the room had been signed in advance, in another, there were concerns that local authorities would not be able to provide adequate security on short notice for predictably large crowds as well as expected protesters. Zeybekci did end up speaking on later dates in two cities. In Leverkusen on March 5, he appeared at a cultural event commemorating the anniversary of the death of a Turkish musician, and later in Cologne, he held a political meeting, which was billed as a private affair, in a rented hall of a hotel. (See related editorial on page 17.)
Aside from such technical considerations, such as the fact that by law in the German Federal Republic, municipal authorities are responsible for deciding on whether or not to host political events in their cities, what is at issue is political. Those Turkish figures eager to speak in Germany, whether government members or not, are members of the AKP, and want to campaign among Turkish citizens living in Germany, to win their support for a “yes” vote in the upcoming referendum. The referendum, set for April 16, is to decide whether or not Turkey adopts a presidential system which would expand the powers of the president to such an extent as to establish an authoritarian one-man rule.
How Much Freedom of Speech?
The German Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, and not only for German citizens. Political campaigning even by non-Germans, has occurred; everyone remembers Barack Obama’s mass rally in Berlin in July 2008. So why should there be such a fuss about a Turkish minister or even Erdogan himself coming to whip up support for the referendum?
The question has not only aggravated tensions between the two governments, it has created rifts among the German political class, across the party spectrum. Is it not a contradiction in terms, some argue, to grant freedom of speech to those who are organizing a system that will limit that and other freedoms? Should such campaigners not be forbidden to speak here? Hans-Peter Uhl of the CSU openly called for a ban on such speeches. Or should freedom of speech be granted, even to those preparing to eliminate it, but on certain conditions? For example, as Green Party co-chairman Cem Özdemir proposed, let them come, let even Erdogan himself come to campaign, but on condition that the opposition in Turkey be allowed the same rights. Özdemir suggested he and others of his political outlook be allowed to hold campaign rallies in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Or, as he and others have demanded, let the Turkish authorities release German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel, who has been arrested on charges of “terrorist propaganda” and “incitement.” (In an address on March 3, Erdogan accused Yücel of being “a German agent” and a “PKK representative.”)
Others argue that, precisely because Germany protects free speech, it should shun any form of limitation. This is the official government position; as Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert stated, “The German government deplores the fact that freedom of speech and freedom of the press are currently limited in Turkey to an unacceptable degree. If we deplore this in another country, then we should be even more alert to make sure that freedom of speech is respected, within the framework of the law, in our own country. We should demonstrate what we demand from others.” Taking the high ground, German President Joachim Gauck said there was no need to ban such speeches. “Are we, the democratic middle,” he asked, “so weak that we have to fear the arguments of those whose views we do not share, that we have to prevent them from speaking in public? I do not see this weakness,” he said, and added, “We should not make them a present of our fear.”
Concrete steps taken by the government have been diplomatic in nature. On March 4, following protests from Turkey against the cancelled speeches, Chancellor Angela Merkel called Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and, after an hour-long conversation, the latter said it had been “good and productive.” He said the Turkish government would “somewhat alter its electoral tactics,” alluding to planned events in Germany. As for Merkel, her spokesman Seibert merely confirmed that the call had taken place, without details.
But then, the very next day Erdogan raised the stakes by comparing the practices of today’s German government to those of the Nazis. Just hours after making this wild accusation at a rally, he added fuel to the fire, saying, Germany had nothing to do with democracy. “I thought National Socialism was a thing of the past, but it is continuing,” he was quoted by Anadolu news agency. And, as for possible plans to visit Germany himself, he said, as Anadolu reported, “If I want to, I will come tomorrow. I will come and if you don’t let me in or don’t let me speak, I will stage an uprising.”
The outrage was massive. On March 6, Chancellor Merkel herself denounced the affront in no uncertain terms. She referred to “the recent statements by Turkish government representatives, even by Turkish State President Erdogan, in which the Federal Republic of Germany has been compared to National Socialism. I tell you quite honestly,” she said, “one can actually not seriously comment on such misplaced utterances. There can be no justification for them whatsoever.” Turning to “all these serious differences of opinion between us and Turkey,” she said they now appeared on the table “in all clarity and, as far as we are concerned, on the basis of our values, that is, freedom of opinion, of the press, of speech and of assembly.” She made clear that “appearances by Turkish government representatives” are allowed in Germany, “within the limits of the law” and if they are “scheduled in an orderly and timely manner, and granted permission.” She included in her remarks the demand that Yücel be immediately freed.
Where will this all lead? Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel announced he would meet with his Turkish counterpart on March 8, in an effort to prevent “friendly relations between our two countries,” as he put it, “from being wrecked.” Those in Berlin, like Merkel and Gabriel, who seek to avert a total crisis are doing so in view of multiple considerations, among them Turkey’s status as a NATO member and a trade partner. Furthermore, Turkey could back out of its agreement on refugees; Erdogan has publicly threatened to open the borders and let the refugees flood Europe, especially Germany. This fact has led German opposition figures to accuse Merkel of succumbing to blackmail.
Madness and the Method
One further question being debated pertains to the rationale behind the exacerbation in relations: why is Erdogan going so far? Although some analysts attribute this to a well-known syndrome of narcissism, and conclude that the person is essentially out of control, yet, there may well be method to this brand of madness. According to one hypothesis, the AKP machine is not as confident of a “YES” vote as it pretends to be. This has generated a climate of near hysteria in some quarters, if press reports are true that inside Turkey, any public use of the word “NO”, in advertising against smoking or the like, for example, is being suppressed.
On the more rational plane, recent polls point to a very close race; this means that the 1.4 million Turkish eligible voters in Germany could be the swing factor. Not only are public campaign events vital in whipping up support, but outrageous attacks, like the Nazi-baiting and other verbal violence, launched by Erdogan et al are calculated to provoke negative reactions from Germany, thus feeding into paranoid fantasies. The intention would be to convince Turks living in Germany that they are being discriminated against, and therefore should support the strongman who defends their identity. One should not forget that, during a campaign rally in Germany held in February 2008, Erdogan called on his compatriots to protect their culture, religion and identity, declaring that “Assimilation is a crime against humanity.” If the man-on-the-street interviews with Turks in Germany that appear on television newscasts daily are any indication, the conflict that has erupted is increasing in intensity, passion and irrationality.
(The author may be reached at [email protected])