importing trouble

How the Turkish election divided a German country town

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The Turkish president is a divisive figure in Germany. Source: AP

Almost exactly two years ago, the worrying phone calls began. Tanks were rolling through the middle of Istanbul, Turkish soldiers were blocking bridges and fighter jets were screaming over Ankara. There’s a coup against the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in progress, Abdulhamit Karatay’s relatives called to tell him.

Mr. Karatay was nowhere near Istanbul: He lives in the comparatively idyllic country town of Bergneustadt, east of Cologne in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The town has 20,000 inhabitants, of whom about 18 percent have Turkish roots – Mr. Karatay among them. He still loves Turkey and as the phone calls from his relatives kept coming on that dramatic night, he remembers wishing he was back there, to prevent what he calls “the terrorists” from taking over. He was talking about the so-called Gülen, or Hizmet, movement, led by the US-based Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gülen, who was later accused of instigating the attempted coup.

That same night, not far from Mr. Karatay’s house, Azize Goez was sitting at her parents’ kitchen table. A friend called from Turkey. It’s total chaos here, she told Ms. Goez, another Bergneustadt local with Turkish roots, who considers Fethullah Gülen the spiritual leader of the political movement that she supports. Ms. Goez went to sleep worried but didn’t realize how fast the attempted coup in Turkey would have an impact on this German town so far away. The next morning she woke up, looked out the window and saw a new sign in the window of the Turkish bakery opposite her parents’ house: Gülen supporters are not welcome here.

Something simmering

By Saturday afternoon, Bergneustadt’s mayor, Wilfried Holberg, had also had a taste of the Turkey-related tensions that would continue to grow here. Unknown locals had hoisted a large Turkish flag in the central square. The 63-year-old city councilor had the flag removed. Then he walked along the street to the bakery with the anti-Gülen sign and asked the owners to remove that too.

“These are relics of a time in Germany that we no longer want to live with,” he said.

The flags and signs might be gone but the feelings are unchanged. And since then, a number of events in Turkey have continued to divide the population in this small town in the middle of the German countryside and so far, geographically, politically and culturally, from the Mediterranean. That includes last April’s referendum on presidential powers in Turkey. And now, as Turkey goes to the polls again this weekend, tensions are again high.

Gabriela Graf is the local police contact for Muslim organizations in the area; she’s based in Gummersbach, about seven kilometers away from Bergneustadt and she’s known most of the Turkish community for years. That’s what makes her cautious when asked about the divisions in the community. But she does admit that the tensions in Turkey are being transmitted “one to one” to this area. “There has been no violence but under the surface, something is simmering,” Ms. Graf warns. Neighbors no longer trust each other and she worries that there’s no sense of community any more.

The mayor himself says he can’t tell much about how various Turkish community groups feel because he’s not close enough to them, but he says he has not approved applications for certain political events due to security concerns. “It amazes me but so far, thank God, we haven’t had any violent confrontations in Bergneustadt,” Mr. Holberg notes. At the Turkish referendum last year, politicians who came to Germany to campaign proved so divisive that politicians decided to restrict such campaigning.

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On the mean streets of Bergneustadt. Source: Max Brugger

But that doesn’t mean nothing has happened. Ms. Goez says a cleric at the local mosque in Bergneustadt compiled a list of Gülen supporters and sent it to the authorities in Istanbul. “My cousin, who has been imprisoned for 18 months in Turkey, was presented with this list when he was being interrogated, and asked about us,” she explains. That cleric, who came to be known for preaching hatred at the local mosque, has since left Germany.

An educational institute in Bergneustadt that is known to be close to the Gülen movement – Aktive Lernhilfe, or Active Educational Help – was tutoring around 80 children with Turkish backgrounds in English and German before the attempted coup of 2016. Since then, more and more families have withdrawn their children. Now, only 20 are enrolled. Security concerns from parents and the lower numbers have seen after-school help cancelled altogether. Now, the institute’s rooms are used instead for smaller events and refugee integration courses.

The conflict between former friends and neighbors in Bergneustadt also raises wider questions about integration in Germany. Why is it that second- and even third- generation Germans, with Turkish roots, are becoming embroiled in this kind of dispute?

Yunus Ulusoy, an expert in demographic change, migration and labor market impact at the Center for Turkish Studies and Integration research, part of the University of Duisburg-Essen, believes he has some of the answers.

Blaming German media

The first generation of Turkish immigrants came to Germany in the 1960s and in this part of the country, many of them were low-income workers, without higher education, who came from their own country’s mining industry to work in Germany’s coal and steel industries. Basically, Mr. Ulusoy says, “they were simple and religious people.”

After that, it really depended on whether the next generation, born in Germany, retained their parent’s values. Today the Turkish president speaks a simple, populist language and encourages in his compatriots a feeling of belonging; He is “a strong, manly leader who reads the riot act to the West, a place where many Turks still feel like outsiders,” Mr. Ulusoy explains.

That’s persuasive for immigrants, or whose family came as immigrants, who still feel they are discriminated against, even in their own home town.

“I’ve lived in Germany almost my whole life,” says one young Bergneustadt local with Turkish roots, as he drank a cup of tea. “But I still feel like a stranger here.” The Germans won’t even let their footballers pose with Mr. Erdogan, he complains, referring to a recent controversy over members of the national soccer team with a Turkish background who posed for a photo with the Turkish leader. “How loyal would those players be to Germany?” one local tabloid posed the inflammatory question. And no, the Bergneustadt man doesn’t think it’s about the fact that the footballers were socializing with a would-be autocrat who has jailed more than 50,000 people since 2016. It’s just discrimination, he says.

People wave with flags showing Turkish President Erdogan before Turkish Prime Minister Yildirim is expected to addresses a crowd in Oberhausen
Popular populist: A rally in support of Mr. Erdogan in Germany. Source: Reuters

“It’s the German media’s fault,” rages another local with Turkish roots, a toolmaker and father of three, watching a Turkish TV channel in the bakery where the anti-Gülen sign was posted back in 2016. “They never write anything positive about Turkey,” he says, before talking about a German school teacher who discriminated against him. “But Erdogan has our backs,” he concludes, adding that things have been going well in Turkey ever since he took over.

Mr. Ulusoy, the migration expert, says people like the toolmaker and the tea drinker (who didn’t want to share their names due to the town’s divisions) also often belong to Turkish organizations with religious and nationalistic leanings. Mr. Erdogan’s political party has offices in every large German city and many smaller ones too. Conservative mosques also advise worshipers how to vote. All these influences shape voting choices, which is why 63 percent of German Turks who voted in last year’s referendum chose to expand Mr. Erdogan’s powers. In Turkey itself, only 51 percent opted to do so.

Ahead of Sunday’s election, Turkish authorities report that about half of the Turkish expats in Germany who have the right to vote have already done so. At last year’s referendum, the turn-out in Germany was 47 percent.

Ms. Goez, the Gülen supporter, is worried. “I get the feeling that depending on how the election goes, the atmosphere here could change for the worse again.”

At work, Mr. Karatay’s colleagues asked whether he supports “Erdogan the dictator.” That bothered him, he said, sitting in the local Muslim culture center, where the walls are decorated with a Turkish flag as well as three black crescent moons – the symbol of Turkey’s ultranationalist, extremist Grey Wolves, who support Mr. Erdogan’s party. He sees it as bullying and said it has to stop. And, Mr. Karatay argues, “if somebody in Bergneustadt wants to find somebody else, no matter where, they can find them. It’s not a big city. So they can’t tell me they’re scared. That’s just nonsense.”

Anna Gauto is a reporter for Handelsblatt. This story was adapted in English for Handelsblatt Global by Cathrin Schaer. To contact the author:,

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