President Erdogan's verbal tirades seem like a relic of bygone times. But there's more to them than meets the eye, writes DW's Kersten Knipp. The Turkish leader is holding the nation hostage in the myths of history.
As a German, you may get a bit emotional when you listen to the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's verbal attacks. "He does not know his place," said Erdogan of German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel. "Who do you think you are, talking to the president of Turkey? Speak to my foreign minister!" Tens of thousands of Germans born in the 1960s or 1970s may feel a pang of nostalgia when they hear Erdogan's words. The president may remind them of the strict high school teachers of yesteryear whose authoritarian attitude was rapidly becoming a thing of the past – even then.
These school teachers thought they could impress their students with their bad temper and force them into submission. Their determination made them blind to the loosening mores of the era. They also showed how little they understood the zeitgeist and they failed to adjust to the new times. These elderly teachers did not notice their anachronistic behavior and you almost felt sorry for them. From the German perspective, the Turkish president's tantrums are reminiscent of an old-fashioned generation.
The great manipulator
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, however, certainly does not deserve any sympathy. On the contrary, his authoritarian attitude amounts to no less than an attempt at historical manipulation – for example, when he addresses the German chancellor or the foreign minister by first name. He uses displays of loutish behavior to present himself as a strongman, and thus, the protector or father of the Turks. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk did the same, albeit with much better manners. The intentional similarity to Ataturk shows how much Erdogan himself has become ensnared in the pitfalls of history. But Ataturk, Erdogan's role model and imaginary rival, died almost 80 years ago.
By invoking the Ottoman and thus Islamic heritage of his country, Erdogan clearly wants to dissociate himself from the thoroughly secular Ataturk. But his stubborn reliance on ideology has long dissolved into aesthetic and political triviality, rendering the differences invalid.
What the two statesmen do have in common, however, is their full exploitation of the culture of fear. This has its origins in the final years of the Ottoman Empire, when the West viewed it as the "sick man of Europe." In light of the rapid decline of power, many Turks at the time developed the sinking feeling that they were surrounded by enemies. The political errors made by the Ottoman Empire led to painful territorial losses, which gave the Turks the feeling that their neighbors were against them. This is when Turkish nationalism was born.
In the chamber of historical myths
The political elites of the country have since then cynically exploited this collective feeling. Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic, adopted the nationalist tone that Erdogan uses today. What the two leaders have in common is their willingness to leave their compatriots enchanted by the spell of the past, thus, not allowing them to leave the chamber of the nation's historical myths.
Self-exaltation has been employed as a means of symbolically compensating for the real loss of power. This may have been excusable in the early years of the republic but a hundred years have passed since then. It has created the poisonous type of nationalistic foundation on which Erdogan is building to help him win his presidential bid in 2019.
There is no price too high for the achievement of this goal. He has no qualms about trapping a part of the Turkish population in the myths of the past. He is prepared to prevent their arrival in the present for the sake of his personal political success. In Germany, Erdogan's rhetoric may seem ridiculous and hopelessly antiquated, but in Turkey, it hinders cultural and political growth. This is why Erdogan's reactionary attitude is no longer a laughing matter.