Erdogan's New Turkey: Goodbye Atatürk, Hello Atatürk

03/11/2015 06:15 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2015

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey's incumbent president and past prime minister, struggles to escape the shadow of modern Turkey's founder. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk looms large over his country's past, present and future. It is hard to dismantle the figure, the legacy and the lasting authority of Atatürk, very much to Erdoğan's dismay, especially as Erdoğan seeks to radically redefine the country -- from the place of religion in society to a reform of the constitution, including a shift to a presidential system.

For a short moment, a few months ago, it seemed as if Erdoğan had received help from an unlikely source: Adolf Hitler. As my recently published book detailed for the first time, Hitler and his national socialists were big fans of Atatürk and his "New Turkey" -- so much so that they instituted a minor cult around the Turkish leader in the Third Reich.

Hitler's dictum that Atatürk and the Turkish nationalist movement had been his shining star in the darkness of the democratic Weimar Republic in the 1920s, became the official line of the Third Reich.

When the book came out, I was anxious about the reactions in Turkey. To my surprise, they were not only immediate but also quite positive. But then I realized it was primarily newspapers close to the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) -- Erdoğan's party -- that seemed interested in discussing Nazi fandom of Atatürk as a means to discredit Atatürk and his project.

As more people in Turkey had a chance to actually read the book, however, less was said about it. To use whatever the Nazis said and did for one's own political ends is always a difficult and dangerous matter, no less so for the AKP as it tried to dismantle Atatürk -- and distance Erdoğan from him.

The Nazis' one-sided love affair with Atatürk and his Turkey focused on four aspects:

  1. The Turkish war of independence against the Greeks and the Entente powers, which followed World War I, and during which the Turks achieved impressive results. In the end, the Treaty of Sèvres was modified with much more favorable terms. The Germans, smothered under the Treaty of Versailles, which imposed restrictive measures on development, were envious.
  2. The rapid modernization and re-construction of the country unimpeded by a multi-party system and carried out by a strong leader, "according to the will of the nation."
  3. The marginalization of religion in public and political life.
  4. The campaign to rid Turkey of its minority populations (mainly through the Armenian genocide during World War I, which came before Atatürk, and then through the Greco-Turkish population exchange at the close of the Turkish war of independence).

All these, however, are fairly unusable in order to discredit Atatürk from an AKP point of view -- except for the bit about secularism. (The Nazis, actually, did not make much of this aspect of the New Turkey, publicly anyway -- they feared the power of the churches and popular sentiment.) Theoretically, that would leave the Turkish war of independence and modernization under a strong leader, as well as the Armenian genocide and the expulsion of the Greeks. The Armenian genocide is something that is still apparently too hot to touch for most Turkish politicians, even for the otherwise unimpeded Erdoğan. And the AKP surely would not go as far as to discredit the Turkish war of independence, as it was a founding event for Turkey.

And by now it might become clear that the Nazi adulation of Atatürk is a potential boomerang for the AKP if it really wanted to exploit this episode of German-Turkish history. The only aspect of the Nazis' fandom that may be at all usable from an AKP perspective to discredit Atatürk via Hitler is the one dealing with the leader-figure Atatürk and his monumental modernization project.

Today, when we look back at Kemalism in its first decades, we will probably, with historical hindsight, want to stress its modernizing foundations and its role as a midwife to democracy after World War II. The more we know about the history of Turkey and the late Ottoman Empire, the more we appreciate the many great things Atatürk did for his country, many of them marvelous to the point of miraculous.

But we could also look at the darker sides of Kemalist rule and remember how the opposition was dealt with, how there was no plural democracy but a one-party system and how a small elite set the agenda of the state, economy and society -- without so much as checks, much less balance. And it was precisely this the Nazis had focused on: the first decades as a leader-led, one-party state nearly unbounded in its zeal and scope for reforms. While the Nazis make for poor guides when it comes to politics and morality, in their fandom of Atatürk, they identified the birth defect of modern Turkey.

"Erdoğan can run and scream all he wants; he is Atatürk's kid."

The recently -- and Putinesquely -- elected President Erdoğan likes to refer to his state as the "new Turkey," just as Atatürk and his Nazi admirers did. That by itself may not mean much, but the label signifies the same: a Turkey that radically breaks with what was before. Erdoğan can run and scream all he wants; he is Atatürk's kid. His emancipation from Atatürk, however, means doing what the father has done, with similar tools and perhaps even scope, "only" with a modified goal. It is still modernization, and potentially radical at that, but a more Islamic modernization. That by itself does not have to be a bad thing -- though we have yet to discover the full implications of Erdoğan's vision. The problem is, as always with mega-projects, how to get there.

Atatürk's project did not ask the people beforehand, for example, if they wanted to lose their language and their Ottoman-era dress. Erdoğan seems not to want to bother much with asking questions either, and the envisaged refurbishment of the constitution, which may happen later this year, could open the gates for a radical reconstruction and redefinition of Turkey by the AKP.

Where did Atatürk's mandate come from? It always leads back to the Turkish war of independence, and also to the historical context in which it was fought. Atatürk's was a victory against the world's most powerful countries, which had grown accustomed to treating the Ottoman Empire in a quasi-colonial fashion. They had threatened to cut down Turkey to a miniature version of itself, both geographically and politically. Atatürk won a war that seemed unwinnable, and for the rest of his life could draw on this, his national and political mandate. What Atatürk's reformist frenzy did, however, was provide a precedent for radical and, yes, un-democratic modernization.

Erdoğan's "Turkish war of independence" was the (real and imagined) inclusion of those previously excluded from Kemalist mainstream Turkey, as well as the enormous economic growth of the last decade. Is this a mandate for a radical break with what was before? For a break with democracy, the rule of law and an open society?

Despite Erdoğan's increasing conspiracy theory-driven rhetoric about Turkey's foreign enemies, today's Turkey is not the Turkey of 1919 or 1923. We do not know yet what the AKP proposal for a new constitution will look like. But one thing is for sure: Nobody should ever be given Atatürk's mandate again -- if only because its potential scope was utterly undemocratic.

Such a mandate requires an almost super-human self-constraint. And in any case, Erdoğan is no Islamic Atatürk anyway.

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