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Does Turkey’s ongoing purge resemble the 1933 Enabling Act in Nazi Germany?

In both cases, through democratic processes authoritarian rule is imposed on a previously fairly democratic country.

Erdoğan speaks to crowds at Erzurum Cemal Gursel Stadium. Αλέξης Τσίπρας Πρωθυπουργός/Flickr. Some rights reserved.The constitutional reform in Turkey of 2016 and the conditions under which it is being pushed through recall legal procedures like the Enabling Act 1933 by which the Nazis came to power in Germany in the 1930s. This has been noted by many international and in particular German, Austrian and Swiss media including ‘Die Tagesschau’, ‘Der Standard’ and ‘Neue Zuricher Zeitung’.

In contrast, what remains of the Turkish media (Daily Sabah 2016) tend to argue that the new system resembles the French or US presidential system, an argument often repeated by international media (e.g. The Guardian 2017). Other commentators criticise any comparison of processes in 1933 Germany and 2016 Turkey (e.g. Ayata 2016). However, Neil Gregor (History Today 2017) suggests that such comparative studies can shed light on two contrasting periods. Further to this, I would argue that the analytical categories and lessons learned from the rise of the Nazis, the Holocaust and the Second World War remain crucial for critically examining policy processes with the view to preventing the repetition of any such horrors (also see Jeffrey C. Isaac 2016). Hence the following inventory: 

- Turkey’s constitutional reform is prepared following an attempted military coup and the bombing of the parliament sometimes referred to as Turkey's Reichstagsbrand. President Erdogan declared a state of emergency and since 21 July 2016 Turkey is largely governing through emergency decrees. The Nazi Enabling Act was passed following an arson attack on the parliament, ‘Reichstagsbrand’.  President Hindenburg on the advice of Hitler issued the ‘Reichstagsbrand decree’ and thus a state of emergency.

- In Turkey, the post-coup emergency decrees were used to restrict civil rights, remove all opposition from their posts and ban critical media. In Germany, the ‘Reichstagsbrand decree’ lead to the restriction of civil rights, shutting down of all opposition media and this was used as the legal basis for the imprisonment of anyone considered to be opponents of the Nazis.

- Crucially important in Nazi Germany was the coordination or alignment (‘Gleichschaltung’) and thus ‘Nazification’ of all state authorities through removing all non-Nazis like teachers, professors, judges or civil servants from public posts and intimidating the rest. In Turkey, the ongoing purge is doing exactly the same by sacking over 128,000 civil servants across many sectors and silencing any possible opposition (see TurkeyPurge).

- In Turkey, constitutional reforms require a two-thirds majority. The AK party ensures the outcome by intimidating the parliamentarian opposition; the leaders and MPs of the opposition HDP were arrested. In Nazi Germany, the Enabling Act depended upon a two-thirds majority vote in parliament, Hitler and the Nazi Party ensured the outcome by intimidation and persecution. The Communist party with its 81 MPs was banned and also 26 Social democratic MPs imprisoned to achieve this end.

- In Turkey, the ruling AK party does not hold a parliamentarian majority and requires the collaboration of the nationalist MHP. However, the AK party and its ally still only muster a three-fifths majority; but due to a specificity in the Turkish constitution they can call for a referendum which is what is now happening. In Nazi Germany, the NSDAP needed the conservative Centre Party to fabricate a parliamentarian majority and in exchange offered certain concessions regarding the rights of Catholics.

- In Turkey, the reform will abolish the role of the prime minister, in Nazi Germany the role of the president (Hindenburg) was de facto abolished after Hindenburg died in 1934.

- In Turkey, Erdogan’s bid for power drives the process; many followers and some commentators refer to him as ‘Reis’, leader (or ‘Führer’ in German). In Germany, Hitler’s leadership was less formal and based on the so-called leader principle (‘Führerprinzip’). ‘Hitler was determined to command personally‘(Megargee on BBC 2014) and so is Erdogan it seems (Türköne 2014).

- In Turkey, the president and no longer the parliament will determine the structure of the government and all relevant authorities and appoint top state officials, ministers and thus the government (Ozturk & Gozaydin 2016). In Nazi Germany, the chancellor (Hitler) determined the structure of the authorities, appointed top state officials and ministers and thus the government.

- In Turkey, the parliament retains powers to issue, amend or annul laws. However, this power is undermined as the president can ‘veto’ any parliamentarian legislation of which he disapproves (Ozturk & Gozaydin 2016); the president (Erdogan) will also have the authority to annul parliament and call for elections. In Nazi Germany, the Enabling Act gave the cabinet and de facto Hitler the sole power to issue laws; the parliament continued to exist though all opposition parties were banned so that it became a mere ‘rubber stamp’ (US Holocaust Memorial Museum).

- In Turkey, six of 13 members of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors’ (four judges, the minister and under-secretary of justice) will be named by the president; the others will be elected by simple majority parliament and selected by the AKP. A new supreme board will be established within 30 days of the change of constitution. Also 13 of 15 judges of the Constitutional Court will be appointed by the president, Erdogan. This will severely cripple independence and powers of both courts. In Nazi Germany, the People’s Court (Volksgerichthof) was instituted by Hitler and due to the coordination policy only had Nazis as members.

- In Turkey, the president will be able to govern through presidential decrees (right now only the cabinet can issue decrees); the president can also rule through emergency decrees. The new constitution prescribes that emergency decrees must be approved by parliament within 30 days; however, if parliament does not approve or cannot reach a decision decrees still remain in power. Also presidential decrees can be abrogated by parliament but because Erdogan also controls parliament this rule is neutralised. President Erdogan de facto gains sole power to govern through decrees. In Nazi Germany, Hitler ruled through decrees which after the enabling act needed no more parliamentarian approval.

- In Turkey, the president (Erdogan) would simultaneously become formal chairman of the ruling party, has the power to determine AKP MPs and as such directly control the parliament (legislative) whilst also being head of government and state (executive). In Nazi Germany, Hitler was simultaneously head of the ruling party, government and state.

The processes of these reforms in Turkey and Nazi Germany and the conditions under which they take place are very similar. Meanwhile, the reforms as such differ in some important ways; whether this is a fundamental difference remains to be seen, notably as it is not yet clear how the process will continue.

Both president Erdogan and chancellor Hitler respectively were eager to give their politics the appearance of legality, though this was achieved by manipulation of the procedures and oppression of the opposition and media. The Enabling Act concentrated all executive powers within the cabinet and Reich Chancellor Hitler; the Turkish constitutional reform too will concentrate all executive power with the president. But from this point of analysis the two cases differ and comparison becomes more complex.

The Nazi Enabling Act removed all legislative powers from the parliament. In contrast, in the Turkish proposal the parliament continues to hold legislative powers. However, the president can rule through decrees, refuse approval of parliamentarian legislation and thus in effect side-line parliament. Also because the new constitution allows the president to be a member and a leader of a political party this means that Erdogan will almost certainly become AK party leader again and through parliament also has the powers to determine legislation.

The Turkish presidential system because it is based on only one chamber would be rather dissimilar from the US and French systems which both rest on two legislative chambers, one restricting the powers of the other. Further to this, the French system foresees a stronger role for the parliament, it has the power to question the president, a power not foreseen in Turkey’s system, a strong independent judiciary also no longer foreseen in Turkey and is therefore considered only semi-presidential. Justifying the Turkish constitutional reform on the basis of comparison with the French or US presidential system is not convincing.

Finally, the comparison of the constitutional transformations of Turkey and Nazi Germany does not per se suggest that Turkey is on the path of a totalitarian regime like the Nazi regime as Arendt defines it. The Turkish constitutional reform is thus not the same as the Nazi Enabling Act; however, the Turkish reform seems to enable Erdogan to become sole and unrestrained leader just like the Enabling Act enabled Hitler. Many commentators characterise the new Turkey as authoritarian (The Atlantic, The Observer, Foreign Affairs). It is frightening to observe how through democratic processes authoritarian rule is imposed on a previously fairly democratic country.

Any appeasement approach on the part of the EU similar to the allies response in the 1930s vis a vis the rise of the Nazis in Germany would seem to be utterly inappropriate.

About the author

Franck Düvell, PhD, is Associate Professor and Senior Researcher at COMPAS, University of Oxford, primarily working on migration, its drivers and migration policy in the EU and its neighbourhood.


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