Perhaps it was inevitable that as Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, continued his authoritarian course, relations with his Western European neighbors would worsen. Unfortunately, he’s managing to ruin not just his own relationships with other governments, but also the Turkish-German community’s relationship with the rest of their country.
In recent weeks, many policy makers have audibly changed their tone in addressing German Turks and those who claim to represent them in Germany, culminating in a harsh statement from Chancellor Angela Merkel in late August. “We expect from people of Turkish descent who have been living in Germany for a long time to develop a high level of loyalty toward our country,” she said in an interview. “In return, we try to listen to their concerns.” For Germans of Turkish descent who have lived in this country their entire lives, that had to sting.
And yet she wasn’t lobbing wholly baseless allegations. The situation started to escalate in June, when the German Parliament adopted a resolution defining the murder of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in 1915 as genocide, a move that Mr. Erdogan protested vigorously. So did German Turks: Soon after, about 1,500 people showed up to protest in front of the Brandenburg Gate.
German Turks’ public support for Mr. Erdogan’s government soared after this summer’s coup attempt. Many came out into the Berlin streets after Mr. Erdogan called on Turks abroad to show their solidarity with him. Some 40,000 gathered in Cologne in a roaring sea of red moon-and-star-flags.
Such outpourings only deepened suspicion of dual loyalty among the rest of Germany. When the newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported recently that Turkey had 6,000 informants and 500 intelligence agents in Germany, the image seemed complete: Germany was being systematically undercut by the Turkish government through the medium of the Turkish community in Germany.
There are roughly three million people of Turkish descent in Germany, many of whom are culturally and religiously conservative and sympathize with Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. That’s their right, but it is still hard, as a German, to see them hail a ruthless autocrat who has smashed Turkey’s independent news media, arrested thousands of alleged supporters of the coup and is flirting with the reintroduction of the death penalty.
But the community is not monolithic, and neither is its attitude toward Mr. Erdogan. Many feel increasingly alienated from the country of their ancestors. Serap Guler, a politician in Ms. Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Party, is one. She also complained in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that “many in my generation and the generation that follow would rather let themselves be used as extras” in Mr. Erdogan’s “great show than grapple with the true challenges.”
Often, the cleavages run right through families. My friend Hatice Akyun, a journalist, described the conflict with her father in an essay about a year ago, when Mr. Erdogan resumed his repression of his country’s Kurdish minority. Her father supports Mr. Erdogan; she is horrified by his embrace of authoritarian violence. “It’s poisoning our relationship,” she wrote.
To generally question this large and diverse group’s “loyalty” to Germany, as Ms. Merkel did, is as unfair as it is counterproductive. In demanding loyalty from Turkish Germans to the German state, Ms. Merkel is playing along with Mr. Erdogan’s scheme to segregate Turks from the rest of Germany, of making them a Turkish exclave on German soil, deepening the mutual feeling of alienation.
But Ms. Merkel also speaks for a large number of Germans, if not the majority, a fact that is as instructive as it is depressing. Despite the occasional tensions and setbacks, despite the considerably lower-than-average level of education and prosperity among Germans of Turkish descent, the country had just started to portray their integration as a success story.
Even the marches this summer, full of older and largely poor Turkish Germans, were a reminder of what that first generation of immigrants achieved in creating in their offspring, a generation of doctors, journalists, businesspeople — of successful, integrated Germans. But it is harder and harder to see things that way.
The renewed feeling of mutual alienation also gives us a better idea of the minimal requirements for being German. While bias and distrust toward Turks in the past were often driven by criticisms of conservative practices of Islam (and, no less, by racism and Islamophobia), the excessive public support for Mr. Erdogan also repels the German left and liberals. To them, “loyalty” to the German state means loyalty to the German Constitution and its liberal, democratic values — “the decisive marker of German identity,” according to Herfried and Marina Münkler, the authors of “The New Germans.” The pro-Erdogan rallies looked like a thousandfold public rejection of that identity.
All of this is instructive, not just in how Germany relates to its established immigrant communities, but the million refugees who have recently entered the country and are now attempting to build a new life. It is a reminder that, even decades from now, the process will still be continuing, with setbacks and tensions. But it should also be a reason for optimism — that Germany can, and must, make it work.
Anna Sauerbrey is an editor on the opinion page of the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel and a contributing opinion writer.