Germany-Turkey: A Centuries Old Love Affair?

That’s over now, we are going to finish this off thundered Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a televised speech to the state-run Red Crescent humanitarian organization, Monday 4 April 2016. State television channel TRT aired live the speech. The neo-Sultan was referring to the generation old autonomy-seeking Kurdish insurgency that has claimed, so far, more than 40,000 lives, mainly ethnic Kurds. The Kurdish search for autonomy dates back to 1984. Moreover, 3000 Kurdish villages in the southeast have been wiped off the country’s ethnic map by the Turkish Security Forces.

To put things into perspective, the number of obliterated Kurdish communities in Turkey proper is twenty times bigger than the number of Greek communities (around 150) erased from Cyprus’ ethnic distribution map as a result of the brutal Turkish invasion of 1974. The ongoing death toll of ethnic Kurds stands, as of today, at eight times the number of Greek Cypriots killed (military and civilian) as a result of the 1974 two phased Attila operation. Moreover, the size of the Kurdish population seeking autonomy, civil and political rights in Turkey exceeds 12 million. Clearly, the magnitude of the Kurdish problem for Ankara is simply immense. The thirty years old heavy-handed approach of successive Turkish governments to this purely political problem, no doubt constitutes an ongoing war crime - possibly bordering genocide – for which Ankara should be held accountable by the international community.

Yet the approach of major European powers to Erdogan is one imbued by appeasement rather than indictment for the numerous war crimes committed diachronically by the Turkish leaderships against Armenians, Greeks and Kurds alike. This is certainly the case with Germany.

More and more analysts are convinced that hundreds of years of close relations between Germany and Turkey dictate today’s approach of Berlin to Ankara with reference to the Kurdish, possibly, the Cyprus issue as well as the unprecedented refugee crisis caused to a great extent by Ankara’s interventionist policy in Syria.

Let’s take a brief historical review of German-Turkish relations in order to establish the background to current approaches. At the high tide of Ottoman ascendance (16th, 17th & 18th c.)  German states in the old continent adopted a friendly approach to the Sultan while the rest of Europe was teaming up against the Ottomans. In 1761 a peace and friendship pact was signed by Ferdinand II of Prussia and the Sultan. Consequently, the two parties exchanged ambassadors. Confirming the lasting nature of the close bilateral relations, the Prusso-Ottoman Treaty was renewed in 1790.

The following 19th century saw an unprecedented flourishing of German-Ottoman bilateral relations:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent visits to the neo-Sultan (mocked at in the recent German state broadcaster music video that provoked Erdogan’s wrath) seem to be a continuation of the path set out by the Kaiser who decided to come to the rescue of the Sultan at a time when his Ottoman Empire all but collapsed.

Having supplied Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1842-1918) with a German military mission under Marshal von der Goltz, Bismarck followed up his Turkophile move with a much-advertised visit to the Sultan-Khalifa.

Subsequently, Abdul Hamid II turned to Germany for aid to fight the Russo-Ottoman war of 1877-78 – which he badly lost: the Sultan was forced to sign up to the San Stefano armistice, just outside the walls of Constantinople, to save his skin from the advancing Russians. He drew German loans to wage this ill-fated war against the Russians while he struck a deal with Deutsche Bank for financing the Baghdad – Constantinople railway. German investments in end of 19th century collapsing Ottoman Empire take an upward turn sideling French controlled Ottoman Bank. The closeness of German-Ottoman relations is testified once more by the three visits of Kaiser Wilhelm II to Constantinople (1889-1917).

German schools mushroomed in the Bosporus. The German Military mission helped to train the Young Turk officers who under Kemal’s leadership set out to eradicate the ‘infidel Armenians and Greeks’ thereby Turkifying Asia Minor once and for all. German military advisers no doubt inspired the young and ambitious Mustafa Kemal to go for the ‘final settlement’ of the thriving Christian minorities question in Turkey. It is interesting to observe that the elimination of the progressive Greek and Armenian communities in Anatolia took place twenty years earlier acting as a precursor of the results of the (in)famous Nazi Wannsee Conference (Berlin suburb, 20 Jan 1942) that took the decision on the ‘final solution to the Jewish question’ in the European space deemed vital by Nazi Germany.

In WWI the two countries were close allies. General Otto Liman von Sanders (1855–1929) served as the leading military adviser and commander in the Ottoman Empire. Already in 1914 the Germans ‘advised’ the Young Turks on the expulsion on Greeks from Eastern Thrace and Anatolia. In 1918, General von Sanders commanded an Ottoman Army during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign.

Early in WWII, Turkey and Germany signed a Non-Aggression Pact (1941). Turkey’s pro-Nazi Germany policy is well documented in a unique and fascinating account produced by Frank G. Weber entitled The Evasive Neutral (University of Missouri Press, Columbia & London, 1979). Turkish duplicity was laid bare only when German defeat was more than obvious: on 23 February 1945 Ankara declared war on Berlin.

In our next article, we shall continue our analysis on German-Turkish ties by looking into more interesting aspects of their recent close cooperation.