The Fallout from the Turkish Referendum in Germany

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Turkey is about to hold a referendum on the whether or not to establish an executive presidency, that would replace the existing parliamentary system. The referendum is seen as controversial as it will extend the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s powers.

  • Facts


    • Turkey holds a referendum on constitutional reform on April 16.
    • Turkey has been seeking some form of E.U. membership since 1987. The membership bid has stalled over accusations that the country is becoming more authoritarian and moving away from conditions members need to fulfill.
    • Germany needs Turkey as a partner to stem the flow of refugees to Europe.
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Protest gegen Erdogan
At a recent rally in Berlin, protesters demonstrate against President Erdogan's proposed referendum on the Turkish constitution. Photo: Paul Zinken/dpa

The current Turkish-German quagmire isn’t just about Turkey spying on unpopular citizens or Germany preventing Turkish ministers from making public appearances. Nor is it merely about President Erdogan accusing Germany of employing “Nazi methods” in response to German politicians canceling Turkish political rallies.

What is currently happening between Germany and Turkey, between Germans and Turks and within the ethnic Turkish community in Germany, is destroying friendships, dividing families and sparking fear and rage. Along various fronts, the mood is more charged than ever before. And it is coming to a head with the Turkish referendum on April 16, which could transform the country’s parliamentary democracy into a presidential system.

The question, it seems, is whether Germany is currently losing its Turks to Mr. Erdogan. To understand how this situation came about, it’s important to examine the lines of conflict. 

One runs between Berlin and Ankara. When large numbers of refugees were struggling to make it through Turkey to Europe, the relationship between Mr. Erdogan and Chancellor Angela Merkel began to change. Initially, the German leader was unwilling to attempt to strike a deal with Turkey, though eventually she had no other choice. Compared to today, the mood at the time was downright harmonious, despite German criticism of Turkey’s authoritarian political tendencies. But that harmony ended last year when the German parliament adopted a resolution on Armenia and an attempted military coup in Turkey transformed the country’s political environment.

What is currently happening is destroying friendships, dividing families and sparking fear and rage.

Many Turks perceived the German resolution, which recognized the Ottomans’ treatment of the Armenians as genocide, as a humiliation. To add insult to injury, after the coup, Ankara felt that there was a certain lack of solidarity. The tone of the rhetoric coming from the Turkish capital has sharpened since then, accusing Germany of giving free rein to the PKK and the Gülen movement. Berlin, for its part, has tried to remain calm. This was disrupted when the head of the German Federal Intelligence Service, the BND, publicly stated that he did not believe Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen was the mastermind of the coup.

In contrast, tensions have subsided somewhat between the German and Turkish populations. Suddenly the refugees were the problem children of integration, while things were improving with the Turks. But now German views of the Turks have changed again. There are those to whom Germans feel a stronger affinity: secular Turks and Erdogan opponents. And then there are the conservatives who support Mr. Erdogan, and who happen to constantly be on TV. For some Germans, their behavior serves as proof that integration is failing.

For some Turks, this German standpoint confirms what they have always suspected: You’re all Nazis! You see us as nothing but street vendors and girls in headscarves! You see us as genetically inferior!

However, ethnic Turks living in Germany are not just being criticized by non-Turks. They are also berating each other, and Ankara is whipping up the mood even further. As a result, German-Turkish politicians like Aydan Özoguz, a state minister for integration, no longer feel comfortable traveling privately to Turkey. “It will take us years to remove the wreckage,” she said.

Germans of Turkish origin – like so many other Europeans at the moment – may be recognizing for the first time what a gift it is to have grown up in a democracy.

Cemile Giousouf, a German-Turkish lawmaker with the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), receives death threats on Facebook from “fellow Turks” who don’t even try to hide behind their identities. This, of course, is bad but at least the targets are politicians who can use their public role to fight back. This is not the case for Gülen supporters, for example. They too were once pro-Erdogan back when the Gülen movement in Turkey helped Mr Erdogan consolidate power. Gülen officials are no longer as keen to talk about this period today and ordinary supporters are now under blanket suspicion.

But those aren’t the only fronts: Secular Kurds and conservative Kurds are usually split when it comes to Mr. Erdogan. While secularists in the vein of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, will likely vote no in the referendum, they are often staunch nationalists. And Christians in Turkey also feel oppressed by some Kurds, who are more likely to be seen as victims in Germany and justifiably so. Voices of reconciliation are being drowned out, as are the hopes of many looking to resolve their differences with friends, neighbors or even their own spouses.

But perhaps the current confrontation will also produce greater clarity. Germans of Turkish origin like so many other Europeans at the moment may be recognizing for the first time what a gift it is to have grown up in a democracy. And many ethnic Germans are instinctively noticing that things are more differentiated than they had thought – that there is no such thing as “the” Turkish community.

This article originally appeared in the newspaper Die Zeit. To contact the authors:

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