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Germany and Turkey: 100 years of diplomatic relations

April 24, 2024

One hundred years ago, the newly founded Turkish Republic established diplomatic relations with Germany. Since then, the two countries have gone through some turbulent times together.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (center) greeted by schoolchildren waving flags
Turkish-German relations have seen many ups and downs over the last hundred yearsImage: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

The year 1924 was a profound new beginning for both the Turkish Republic and Germany: As allies, both countries had been on the losing side of World War I and had been forced to relinquish territory as a result and both saw the end of their monarchies. In Germany, the Weimar Republic replaced the German Empire.

The transformations within Turkey were even more radical. The country's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, wanted a secular, Europe-oriented Turkey. The caliphate and Shariah law of the Ottoman Empire were replaced by a Western legal system.

Previously, the two former states, the Ottoman Empire and the German Empire had also maintained close diplomatic, military and trade relations. Only a few months after the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, diplomatic ties were reestablished, and a friendship treaty was signed.

Historian and Turkey expert Rasim Marz said Germany did not take the agreement very seriously at the time. 

"Despite the resumption of relations in 1924, the crisis-stricken Weimar Republic did not attach much political significance to diplomatic relations with the young Republic of Turkey until the 1930s," he told DW via email. But "Germany's good reputation within Turkey remained unchanged," he wrote.

Germany: Guest workers who came and stayed

Turkey: Refuge for victims of the Nazi regime

One chapter in German-Turkish relations that is often forgotten today was the period of exile for several hundred Germans persecuted during the Nazi era who went to politically neutral Turkey.

"Turkey under Atatürk became a refuge for many persecuted academics. The Turkish Republic needed highly qualified people," Marz said. Among them were the SPD (Social Democratic Party) politician and later mayor of Berlin Ernst Reuter, the economist and politician Fritz Baade, and the composer Paul Hindemith. They "were instrumental in the further expansion of the state based on the European model," according to Marz.

Turkish migrants in Germany

Arguably no decision has had a more lasting impact on current relations than the signing of the labor recruitment agreement for Turkish workers in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1961. According to the Federal Foreign Office, around 876,000 people came from Turkey as a result. They worked in mining, the car industry, and opened stores. Many brought their families with them and settled down permanently. Today, around three million people with Turkish roots live in Germany.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier who is currently on a state visit to Turkey, his first since taking office in 2017, paid tribute to these workers at a historic site — Istanbul's Sirkeci train station, where many of the recruited Turks boarded trains bound for Germany. "They helped build our country, they made it strong, and they belong at the heart of our society," said Steinmeier.

Deterioration of relations under Erdogan

But since Recep Tayyip Erdogan took office as Turkey's president, relations between the two countries have deteriorated. Erdogan has clamped down on political opponents, notably after an attempted coup in 2016. The German government has repeatedly condemned the human rights situation in Turkey. The fact that it had been 10 years since a German president last visited Turkey is indicative of the tensions.

Erdogan's views on the Islamist militant Hamas group in the Gaza Strip are particularly problematic for German politicians. Erdogan has defended Hamas's massacre of Israelis on October 7 and described Hamas as a liberation organization, while the German government, the EU, the US and others have designated it as a terrorist organization.

Germany has been critical of some of Israel's actions in the Gaza Strip but upholds its commitment to protect the Jewish State as an official matter of German national interest. As if to underline the contrasts, Erdogan met with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh shortly before Steinmeier's arrival.

During his visit to Istanbul, the German President was confronted by demonstrators protesting against Germany's policy on Israel.

Fighting in Gaza clouds Erdogan's visit to Germany

EU membership negotiations with Turkey are on hold

German-Turkish relations have long been part of Turkey's relations with the EU as a whole. Since 2005, Turkey has been a candidate for EU membership, with the support of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. In reality, however, membership negotiations have long been on hold, another consequence of Erdogan's tough domestic and foreign policy.

Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel took a cautious approach towards Turkey, partly because she needed Ankara's help to limit the number of refugees arriving in 2015/16. Politicians in the current SPD-led government under Chancellor Olaf Scholz have been more vocal about their concerns, especially Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock from the Green Party.

This does not sit well with the Turkish leadership, says Rasim Marz. 

"Germany has lost considerable influence in Ankara since the era of Angela Merkel. There is deep discord between the two countries on various issues, as was evident during Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock's last visit (in July 2022)," he said. There is also "little prospect" of EU membership negotiations being restarted, he added.

Arriving in Germany – fleeing Turkey

A new beginning for German-Turkish ties?

The German government is pinning its hopes on Turkish civil society and the Turkish opposition. A few weeks ago, Erdogan's AKP party suffered a defeat in the local elections. The main opposition party, the CHP, gained ground across the country. The party's brightest hope, and possible future president, is the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, who President Steinmeier met before his talks with Erdogan. This was meant as a sign that Germany is hoping for political change and a fresh start in Turkish-German relations.

This article was originally written in German.

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