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Book Review: Ataturk in the Nazi Imagination

By (November 20, 2014) No Comment

Ataturk in the Nazi Imaginationataturk in the nazi imagination cover
by Stefan Ihrig
Harvard University Press, 2014

Stefan Ihrig’s fascinating book Ataturk in the Nazi Imagination provides an extremely detailed reminder of the fact that in his dreams of a victoriously ultra-nationalist Germany, Adolf Hitler had a very salient model in mind beside the more well-known one of Mussolini’s Italy: throughout his years as a radical fringe-politician and as Fuhrer of the Nazi state, Hitler was fascinted by the example of Mustafa Kemal, who led his native Turkey against the Entente powers in World War I and won the Turkish War of Independence, which concluded in 1923 with the Treaty of Lausanne. “If we are to believe Hitler,” Ihrig writes,

Ataturk was his “shining star” in the darkness of the 1920s. Ataturk’s revolution and the New Turkey had fascinated the German nationalists and far right in the early Weimer years like almost no other topic during this time … In 1924 defense speech Hitler identified Ataturk as having carried out the most perfect of the two revolutions, the other being Mussolini’s. This hierarchy of his role models still echoed on in 1938, when Hitler described Ataturk as the great teacher, whose first student had been Mussolini and whose second was Hitler himself.

German affiliation with the Ottoman Empire (out of the corpse of which the new state of Turkey was carved) went back to before Hitler was born, of course. Kaiser Wilhelm II somewhat presumptuously proclaimed himself protector of all Muslims while on a state visit to the Ottoman Empire ten years before the “Young Turks” revolution, and as Ihrig observes, “The special role of Germany for the world’s Muslims was a core ingredient of German World War I propaganda in the Middle East, which had been dubbed the ‘jihad made in Germany.'” The two worlds often blended together disconcertingly:

Another aspect of German-Turkish entanglement was the deep immersion of many German officers in all things Turkish. Prior to World War I, German military advisors had already “gone Turk” while working in the Empire. They had not only been integrated into the Ottoman army, but they dressed like other Ottoman colleagues and carried Ottoman titles, such as “pasha.”

When Turkey threw off such slumming imperialism, Mustafa Kemal (whose government voted him the title of “Ataturk” and decreed that nobody else could ever hold it) set about one of the most extensive societal restructurings since Napoleonic France. He assiduously modernized his country’s schools and legal systems, its infrastructure and international trading posture, its armed forces and religious institutions, and he conducted all of this with a thoroughness and forcefulness that was the talk of the Western world (and that makes Ataturk biographies gripping reading to this day, with Andrew Mango’s being the best by a wide margin). Little wonder, then, that, as Ihrig puts it, “In the eyes of a desperate and desolate Germany, this was a nationalist dream come true, or rather something like hypernationalist pornography.”

The Notes and Bibliography for Ataturk in the Nazi Imagination are very pleasingly comprehensive, and Ihrig’s brief notice about the methodology of his historiography is so interesting you’ll wish he’d trusted himself to make it three times as long. Even so, this is a gap-filling book that’ll be of deep interest to students of both World War II and National Socialism – and certainly more worth their time and money than the 500th retelling of the Battle of the Bulge.