One of the most popular beliefs adopted in the U.S. and Europe is that Hitler was among the most terrible leaders of all time, while yet another popular belief in the West suggests that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is one of the greatest nation-builders from the same century.
Stefan Ihrig's book published two weeks ago, "Atatürk in the Nazi Imagination," shows that Hitler held Atatürk in high regard and tried to emulate how he interpreted Atatürk's actions. Hitler saw Atatürk as a greater role model for himself than Mussolini. These are some of the arguments and evidence cited in the book: World War I was over and the central powers including the Ottoman Empire and German Empire were defeated. The German Empire was brought to heel with the Treaty of Versailles, while the Ottoman Empire was brought into line with the Treaty of Sèvres. However, when Turks got engaged in a new struggle and started the Turkish War of Independence with the repudiation of stipulations imposed by the Treaty of Sévres, German nationalists were excited and inspired by this attempt, feeling that they were humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles. According to Ihrig, almost every day, newspapers of that time devoted space daily to Mustafa Kemal and the Turkish struggle. The Nazi newspaper Völkische Beobachter put the matter in a nutshell calling Turkey Germany's "role model" in early 1921. According to Hitler's defenses during the case of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, his failed coup attempt to seize power in Munich, Hitler walked in the footsteps of Atatürk, who established a government in Ankara ignoring the Imperial Government of Istanbul.
After coming to power, Hitler's admiration for Atatürk continued. He made statements indicating he wanted to follow in the footsteps of Atatürk especially in the following four ways: The need for a ruler who people will obey unconditionally, the necessity of a one-party regime, the idea of "national sacrifice" and the strategy of suppressing opponents under the color of uniting together against enemies.
The following remark quoted from Hitler's "Table Talk" clearly shows the extent of his infatuation with Atatürk: "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 his first and I his second student." During an interview with that time's Turkish daily Milliyet, Hitler said, "The rising and shining star in Turkey showed us the path to follow." This argument, which was covered as the subheadline by the newspaper, offers obvious credence to Ihrig's arguments.
There are further examples regarding Hitler's admiration of Atatürk - a day before Hitler's birthday, Atatürk sent an official delegation to Germany upon the death of the Turkish ambassador there, Kemalettin Sami Pasha; Hitler had a bust of Atatürk that he considered one of his cherished belongings; Hitler sent his generals to Atatürk's funeral and flew the Nazi flag at half-mast when Atatürk died.
Here are the primary reasons why Hitler saw Atatürk as a role model: Atatürk was involved in the killing of 30,000 people, seeing them as a threat to the regime due to their Kurdish, Armenian or devout Muslim identities. He denied the rights that the Treaty of Lausanne bestowed on non-Muslims who were left out of the definition of "Turkishness." He administrated the country without experiencing any elections throughout his life. He assumed the title of "Atatürk" and established a one-man regime without giving any right to question.
Even though the rights of Kurds, non-Muslims and religionists are being rehabilitated by the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, our Western friends who have been questioning whether Turkey is moving away from Atatürk's legacy for the last two years, may want to look at Atatürk's legacies from this point of view, as it may not be the best choice.
About the author
Hilal Kaplan is a journalist and columnist. Kaplan is also board member of TRT, the national public broadcaster of Turkey.