Turkish extremist group Grey Wolves finds a favourable climate in Germany
How decades-old networks continue to support Turkish ultranationalists in Germany – and why this must change
Since the 1970s, largely unnoticed by the general public, a network of Turkish ethnonationalists known as the Grey Wolves has established itself in Germany, targeting Armenians, Kurds, Jews and political opponents. Today, the group constitutes a major domestic security threat, but one that has been consistently underestimated and neglected.
The Grey Wolves, the paramilitary wing of the neo-fascist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), were founded in Turkey after the country’s 1960 military coup. More than 100 political murders in Turkey have been attributed to the group.
The Grey Wolves were able to build on the ideological foundations laid during Turkey’s rapprochement with Nazi Germany from 1933 onwards. Their aim (then and now) to establish ‘Turan’ – an ethnonational and Muslim entity that would reach from Anatolia to East China and unite all Turkish ethnicities – was supported by the Nazis. In the 1980s, this form of ultranationalism merged with an increasing Islamism, resulting in a Turkish–Islamic synthesis.
The Turkish–German Recruitment Agreement, signed in 1961, introduced the Gastarbeiter (guest worker) programme, which laid the foundations for the more than three million people of Turkish origin living in Germany today. But the emergence of the Grey Wolves in Germany was not an accidental consequence of migration; rather, it was supported by politicians in both Germany and Turkey.
In 1978, Franz Josef Strauss, head of the Christian Social Union in Bavaria party (CSU) and then prime minister of Bavaria, advocated the creation of a “favourable psychological climate” for the Grey Wolves in the federal republic. This was part of his plan to provide financial support for anti-communist regimes around the world, including that of Augusto Pinochet in Chile and the apartheid regime in South Africa. Domestically, Strauss hoped that the influence of Turkish ultranationalists would curb the politicisation of Turkish migrants, whom he suspected to be Left-leaning.
Umbrella groups in Germany
The Grey Wolves prefer to describe themselves as Ülkücü, which means ‘idealists’. The number of people in Germany who belong to or support the organisation is unclear. According to the Verfassungsschutz, the office for the protection of the constitution, the group has up to 18,000 members, while experts such as Ismail Küpeli estimate it at around 7,000.
As a result of the Verfassungsschutz’s high – and unreliable – estimate, the Grey Wolves have often been described as the largest right-wing extremist group in the country. This sensational claim has also been used by other far-Right extremists such as the Alternative for Germany party (AfD) to pin the country’s rampant antisemitism exclusively on the Muslim community.
The movement’s control of most of the Turkish community’s mosques and centres in Germany allows them to use these spaces for political indoctrination and radicalisation. Grey Wolves’ members (and sympathisers) are mainly to be found within three umbrella organisations in Germany, which operate under the guise of political, religious or cultural associations.
The violence of the Grey Wolves against their political opponents in Turkey has continued without interruption in Germany
The so-called Türk Federasyon (ADÜTDF) represents the more political strand of the movement. In contrast, the European–Turkish Union (ATB) and the Turkish–Islamic European Union (ATIB) are more driven by religious convictions. Both of these belong to the Turkish–Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), the largest Islamic umbrella organisation in Germany, which funds more than 900 mosques and operates on behalf of the Diyanet, the directorate of religious affairs in Turkey.
The violence of the MHP and the Grey Wolves against their political opponents in Turkey has continued without interruption in Germany. The 1980 killing in Berlin of the Turkish communist Celattyn Kesim was – according to Kemal Bozay, an expert on the Grey Wolves in Germany – just the start of a series of murders of political opponents that lasted into the 1990s.
The 2015 outbreak of the Turkish–Kurdish conflict heralded a new wave of violence and threats by Turkish fascists in Germany, mainly against Kurds and their supporters. Nevertheless, German authorities and politicians have remained inactive in the face of this violence – until recently.
Support from CDU/CSU
One possible reason for this inaction is that the ties between the Grey Wolves and the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) did not cease in the late 1970s, but continues to this day, mostly at a local level. Local councils and committees advising on migrant integration have long been the preferred political stage for the Grey Wolves.
This long-lasting and ongoing liaison has been beneficial for both sides. For the CDU, it has helped them secure a foothold in the Turkish community; for the Grey Wolves, it has helped disguise their radical position as merely conservative, and enables them to boast of their political profile within their communities.
This collaboration has been increasingly criticised by CDU politicians, and an ‘incompatibility clause’ (banning simultaneous membership of the CDU and the Grey Wolves) has been suggested – albeit without mentioning how the party has supported the Grey Wolves for decades. However, the CDU’s federal party conference in 2016 voted against such a clause.
In addition, in 2020 the federal minister of the interior, Horst Seehofer of the CSU, refused to consider banning the Grey Wolves umbrella organisations. This was after almost all the federal parliament groups voted to ban the ADÜTDF, or at least to limit the influence of the Grey Wolves in Germany. In all likelihood, foreign policy concerns were important in this decision, as the federal government is preoccupied with maintaining good relations with Ankara in order to keep the EU–Turkey refugee deal intact.
Successive German federal governments have also given the Grey Wolves a free hand by outsourcing some religious policy to DITIB – and thus to the Turkish government. Historically, this is a consequence of the disinterest of successive German governments in integrating the immigrant workers arriving in the country since the 1960s.
DITIB has been consistently criticised – for spreading antisemitism and war propaganda during the Turkish invasion of Syria, denying the Armenian genocide and spying on opponents of the Turkish government in Germany. Many regional governments have been accused of collaborating with DITIB and even involving the organisation in the Islamic religious education of Muslim pupils.
In recent decades, German domestic security policy has consistently been uninterested in combating violent networks whose victims are mainly migrants – whether that’s the NSU, (the extreme-Right terrorist group National Socialist Underground), organised crime groups or the Grey Wolves – unless it can be exploited politically.
The formation of the new federal government – without the cooperation of the CDU/CSU – offers the opportunity to turn the page and act decisively against Turkish ultranationalists in Germany, by cutting off old networks, expanding educational programmes and seriously considering banning these dangerous organisations.
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