The Third Reich has surely been the subject of more books and articles than any other topic in European history. Although it is certainly possible to imagine new discoveries of relatively minor features of Nazism or of the Nazi period, it is difficult to imagine someone uncovering facts about National Socialism that are both new and significant.
However, a young German scholar, Stefan Ihrig, educated in Britain, has done just that. He has discovered the important role played by Kemal Atatürk and Atatürk’s Turkey in the Nazi imagination. Ihrig’s book, which focuses first on the early 1920s and then on the Third Reich, is based on his reading of the public statements and written expressions of leading Nazis relating to Turkey, and even more on his exhaustive examination “of thousands of articles from German newspapers from the early 1920s and the Third Reich.”
Ihrig argues that the Nazis, including Adolf Hitler, saw and presented Turkey under the leadership of Kemal Atatürk as an inspiration and a model for the new Reich they sought to create in Germany—first, during the early years of the Weimar Republic, and then during the Third Reich itself. Despite the fact that Turkey was initially neutral and ultimately joined the war against Germany on the side of the Allies in World War II, Nazi leadership and the Nazi press remained sympathetic to Atatürk and Atatürk’s Turkey until the Third Reich’s bitter end.
The Ottoman Empire had long been an object of “orientalist” fascination for Germans. Despite its apparent exoticism, however, the empire was regarded as Germany’s natural ally, particularly during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The relationship culminated in Turkey’s alliance with Germany in the First World War.
Nevertheless, it was the Turkish war of independence, which began in May 1919 and ended in mid-1923, that made Turkey and Mustafa Kemal heroic exemplars for Germans. The war established the boundaries of modern Turkey and, most significantly for the Germans, resulted in the revision (in the Treaty of Lausanne) of the “Turkish Versailles,” the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, which had dismembered the Ottoman Empire, leaving Turkey something of a rump state. Turkey’s revision of a humiliating treaty, and the attendant nationalist revival in Turkey under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, became (in Ihrig’s words) a “major Weimar media event” during the early years of the shamed, “desperate and desolate” republic.
A resurrected and revitalized Turkey was held up as a “role model” for Germany, and Kemal was celebrated as a nationalist hero, particularly in newspapers on the far right of the political spectrum. Rather than being seen as exotic or oriental, Turkey was now portrayed as “similar, and comparable to Germany” in the nationalist press. If Turkey could achieve the revision of a humiliating peace treaty and produce an authoritarian, inspiring leader to resurrect the nation, then Germany could as well.
There were a number of right-wing enemies of the Weimar Republic who saw themselves as potential “German Mustafas”—Adolf Hitler not least among them. Based on his reading of the Nazi press in the period before November 9, 1923, Ihrig boldly claims that Hitler’s failed putsch attempt in Munich on that date “was inspired much more by Mustafa Kemal and the events in Anatolia than by the example of Mussolini’s ‘March on Rome.’ ” Indeed, according to Ihrig, Atatürk’s critical influence on Hitler’s thought and action has generally been overlooked in historical literature in favor of that of Mussolini.
Ihrig contends that “Mustafa Kemal Pasha must have been a key influence in the evolution of Hitler’s ideas about the modern Führer and about himself as a political leader” during the early 1920s. The fact that the Nazi press and Hitler spoke favorably about Atatürk and the Young Turk revolution does not necessarily mean that the actions of the Nazis and of the future Führer were inspired by them, or even that Atatürk was more important than Mussolini in the Nazi imagination. Nevertheless, Ihrig presents convincing evidence that Atatürk’s “Turkish example” was important to the Nazis and to Hitler in the first years of the Weimar Republic—that they hoped to achieve in Germany what they perceived to have been Atatürk’s accomplishments in Turkey, and even that there was “a Turkish, Kemalist dimension” to Hitler’s 1923 coup attempt.