Why German Turks Voted for the Autocrat Far Away

Turks gathered in Berlin on April 16 after hearing the outcome of Turkey’s referendum on the constitution. Credit Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters
Turks gathered in Berlin on April 16 after hearing the outcome of Turkey’s referendum on the constitution. Credit Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Imagine a German politician accusing another country’s government of using “Nazi methods,” while demanding the reintroduction of capital punishment and the incarceration of both the opposition and journalists. Hilarious and untenable? Not in the eyes of many Turks who live here in Germany.

There are about 1.5 million Turks living in Germany who can vote in Turkish elections. Of those who participated in last weekend’s constitutional referendum, about 63 percent approved of granting immense unilateral powers to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who has attacked journalists and compared the German government to Nazis. These changes, which narrowly passed, make him a modern-day sultan.

With this result, Germany’s Turkish electorate proved to be a more reliable force of support than the one at home; in Turkey itself, only 51.4 percent voted in favor of Mr. Erdogan’s constitutional reform.

What’s wrong with you, my fellow countrymen and countrywomen?

The answers are all the more urgent, because as much as Germany has struggled to integrate generations of Turks, it suddenly has yet another problem on its hands: the one million immigrants who have come here since 2015.

I’m not confident that Germany will find the solution. Ruprecht Polenz, a longtime member of Parliament from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union, immediately warned against reading the vote figures as a sign of the failed integration of Turks here. Overall, there are 3.5 million Turks in Germany, with less than half of them able to participate in Turkish elections. And since only half of those eligible cast ballots, in essence, only 13 percent of the 3.5 million German Turks were “for Erdogan.”

Mr. Polenz’s analysis is flawed, both in terms of statistical laws and of social analysis. But it resonates with a society that has long shied away from asking hard questions about integration — which is itself one reason for the shocking result of last weekend’s vote.

Yes, Turkish migrants and their offspring have been discriminated against since they were brought to Germany to work in its factories during the “Wirtschaftswunder,” or “economic miracle” era of 1961 to 1973. The first big mistake back then was to regard those who came as “Gastarbeiter,” or guest laborers, which often lead to the naïve question: “And when are you going home again?” When they didn’t, Germans shrugged and turned their backs. This was the second big mistake.

Germany’s political right regarded them as too marginal and culturally foreign to make any political efforts to improve their lot. And the political left greeted foreignness as a value in itself, enriching Germany’s menus and diluting its Nazi DNA. Those who tried to ask critical questions about the values and cultural practices of often poorly educated immigrants from Anatolia were quickly denounced as xenophobes. Unfriendly and friendly indifference, coupled with the fear of being suspected of racism, boiled down to one effect: apathetic negligence.

I remember Sadek, an elementary school classmate in the 1980s. For every homework assignment that was wrong or incomplete, we had to draw a chalk stroke on a board next to our names, to be wiped out only once the homework was completed to the teacher’s satisfaction. For Sadek, who hadn’t learned German at home, the strokes grew longer and longer, leaving no chance for him to ever get rid of the shame. I encountered Sadek again some 20 years later, when he brushed my wheel rims in the carwash. Clearly, his Germany was a very uneven playing field compared with mine.

Yet all these failures don’t explain why third-generation German Turks feel loyalty and even enthusiasm for an anti-democratic hothead like Mr. Erdogan. A considerable part of their alienation is self-made. When I once asked young German Turks in Essen, the city where most Turkish voters (76 percent) voted for Mr. Erdogan’s autocracy, why they hadn’t opted for a German passport, they replied that “they” — the Germans — “regard us as Turks anyway.”

I understand that everyone, especially young people, looks for an emotional home and that many Turks don’t feel it in German society. But the status of victim can be a dangerously comfortable one, especially when an “honor culture” like Turkey’s encourages you to be easily offended. Too many German Turks, compared with immigrants from Italy, Greece and the former Yugoslavia, have preferred to take this easy path, blaming others for their failures instead of making the effort of self-criticism.

This leads to ghettoizing, both mentally and physically. In Essen I met women who had been living in Germany for 30 years and still didn’t speak a word of German (sometimes because their husbands wouldn’t let them). The same was true for an imam who was sent there by the Turkish government. The actions and influence of the Turkish religious authority in Germany, known as Ditib, should have been monitored and restricted long ago.

There is another, awkward reason for the Erdogan frenzy of many German Turks: a low regard for their own people. In Hamburg, a Turkish-born, highly educated businessman who aligns with the German Social Democrats and who is well connected in Ankara told me why he was keen to vote yes in the referendum: He believed that Mr. Erdogan truly wanted to modernize Turkey and to ultimately make it a democracy. In order to achieve this, though, he needed increased powers. Why? Because, the man replied, the Turkish people weren’t ready for democracy.

That answer, more than anything, represents the failure of Germany to imprint its culture on its Turkish immigrants. After all, if they have learned nothing else, German Turks should know that their adopted country once rejected democracy in favor of an autocrat promising big things — and with disastrous results.

Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a contributing opinion writer.

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