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It’s Complicated: Germany and Turkey’s troubled free speech relationship

This July, a sea of red flags emboldened with crescent moons swept over a reeling nation. Just two weeks after Turkey’s failed coup d’état – during which military leaders sent fighter jets flying over Ankara, leaving almost 300 people dead – 40,000 people gathered to support President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But they were not standing along the Bosporus in Istanbul – instead, they stood on the banks of the Rhine river in Cologne. Like many German cities, Cologne is home to a large population of Turkish migrants and Germans of Turkish descent, emblematic of the two country’s close intercultural ties. Yet Cologne has also become a battleground for the escalating turf war between the two countries over issues of national sovereignty and free speech.

The pro-Erdogan rally held in Cologne, which required the German police to deploy some 2,700 officers, had already drawn considerable controversy in advance. Due to Erdogan’s troubled human rights record – he has been accused of purging both the state and media of his critics – some German politicians and commentators questioned the legitimacy of such a massive show of pro-Erdogan sentiment in a democratic society, especially given Germany’s own history with despotism. But although the event was authorized and Cologne’s considerable Kurdish population canceled a planned anti-Erdogan countermarch to avoid violent clashes, the Turkish government was incensed, calling the German authorities’ handling of the event a “disgrace.” The reason for the anger: In a fast-tracked decision, the German Constitutional Court upheld Cologne’s decision to prevent the planned live-stream of a speech by Erdogan during the rally, forcing the organizers to show a pre-recorded video message from the Turkish President in its place.

This is not the first time that a public appearance by Erdogan in Germany – whether in person or via live-stream – has sparked controversy. He has made countless visits, and with good reason: The two countries have had close ties ever since a labor agreement in the early 1960s allowed hundreds of thousands of Turkish workers to come to West Germany and contribute to the Wirtschaftswunder, or post-war economic boom. Half a century later, Germany is home to over three million individuals of full or partial Turkish descent, the largest population of Turks outside Turkey’s borders. But things have not always been smooth: Cultural and linguistic differences as well as struggles to integrate have often strained the relationship between Turkish migrants and native Germans. Many immigrant families have retained a close relationship to Turkey, with 95 percent placing great importance on preserving its culture and values, according to a 2009 government survey. At the same time, immigration debates have often centered on the existence of alleged “parallel societies” – the supposed failure of a demographic group to interact with and adapt to society at large – within the Turkish community. On the political front, around 1.5 million Turkish citizens, and thus voters, reside in Germany. They have consistently formed a large bloc in support of Erdogan’s AKP Justice and Development Party. In 2014’s parliamentary election, the AKP received 60 percent of their vote, far more than what it received domestically in Turkey.

All of this explains why Erdogan’s appearances hit a sensitive nerve: At several rallies in Berlin, Cologne, and other German cities over the last decade, he has for example demanded that the children of Turkish migrants in Germany should be taught Turkish before learning German. He’s warned that “assimilation is a crime against humanity.” Such statements have drawn strong criticism from German politicians and media, who see Erdogan as meddling in Germany’s internal affairs. The latest squabble over Erdogan’s live-stream, petty as it may seem from the outside, should not be dismissed as irrelevant – in fact, the dispute goes right to the heart of questions over national sovereignty and free speech that have long preoccupied the two nations. Preventing Erdogan from speaking entirely would certainly offend the Turkish community, but allowing a president infamous for his imprisonment of journalists and intellectuals to spread his divisive message could be seen an equal attack on free society.

These long-standing questions are becoming ever more relevant – and ever more divisive – as the refugee crisis has begun to shape the way Turkey interacts with the West. For instance, a controversial EU-Turkey migrant deal was finalized in late 2015 and has been effective since March of this year. The deal allows the EU to send migrants reaching its shores back to Turkey in exchange for eventual visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in the EU, seven billion dollars in refugee aid to Turkey, and revitalized negotiations over Turkey’s potential accession to the EU. As part of the deal, Turkey also has to abide by 72 conditions, including altering its anti-terror laws. Since the failed coup, the Erdogan administration has used these laws as a carte blanche to detain some 32,000 people, impose severe restrictions on human rights, and rule by decree. EU leaders, in particular Angela Merkel, have firmly stood by the stipulations, refusing visa freedom until these anti-terror laws are amended.

In light of this tense situation, Ankara seems eager to remind the EU – and especially Germany – of their interdependence in grappling with the Syrian crisis, the expansion of the Islamic State, and the flow of refugees towards Europe. As a result, 2016 has seen some of the fiercest political standoffs between Turkey and Germany in recent history. The curious case of Erdogan’s botched live transmission in Cologne is just one example: The German parliament voted on June 2 to officially classify the 1915 Ottoman massacre of over one million Armenians as “genocide,” following in the footsteps of France, Italy, and over 20 other states. Turkey responded by denying, and later reinstating, access for German lawmakers to visit the Incirlik air base, where Germany has stationed troops and surveillance aircraft for the fight against ISIL. At the same time, the Turkish government threatened it would abandon the migrant deal entirely if not offered the requested visa freedom by October.

Erdogan, for his part, has not taken the increased criticism in the German media lightly. In March, German comedian and TV host Jan Böhmermann suddenly found himself in the middle of a diplomatic éclat after reciting a satirical poem mocking Erdogan on live television. Along with jabs at Erdogan’s human rights record, the poem suggested in no uncertain terms that the Turkish president regularly beats girls, engages in sexual acts with goats, performs sodomy, and watches child pornography. This “libelous poem,” as one German court later called it, prompted an immediate response from Ankara, which took advantage of an obscure and outdated German law prohibiting the defamation of foreign heads of state and pressed charges. After German chancellor Angela Merkel initially criticized Böhmermann’s poem, she faced backlash, with some suggesting that she prioritized her interest in the migrant deal with Turkey over the idea of free speech. She has since reiterated her commitment to free speech, but also defended her decision to let a German court proceed in evaluating the poem’s legality. Although the court decided in October that Böhmermann’s poem was satire – and thus lacked criminal intent – he could have faced up to five years in prison.

While the Böhmermann affair is exceptional, it is not a one-off case. In mid-September, the German news magazine Der Spiegel ran a special on Turkey after its coup attempt. The cover labeled Erdogan a dictator and was flanked by a visual backdrop of the minarets on Istanbul’s Sultan Ahmet Mosque turning into missiles. As a result, the German Embassy in Ankara closed for a week due to safety concerns from public outrage. More recently, a German news outlet sued the Turkish Ministry of Sport for its confiscation of an interview with the Turkish Sports Minister Akif Kilic. Since the piece covered a host of controversial topics including July’s coup attempt and gender equality in the Turkish State, the confiscation was widely viewed as an attempt to silence the German press.

Erdogan’s responses to these controversies have not only shown that he is thin-skinned, but also that he is willing to go beyond the borders of his country to seek retribution for perceived affronts by a free press, revealing a skewed perception of the true boundaries of his power. This, if anything, explains his continued crackdown on any form of domestic opposition. As the leader of a major global power, Erdogan has a right to be treated respectfully, but should also be prepared to face tough criticism and, at times, even ridicule.

Ideally, the large diasporic community of Turks in Germany would aid in pressuring Erdogan into changing his behavior: Those who identify nationally as Turkish but live outside the country would be optimal allies against Turkey’s restrictions on speech. But ordinary citizens cannot be expected to be political problem solvers. Instead, some fault rests with the German government for struggling to assert its interests for fear of alienating Turkey and thus compromising the EU-Turkey refugee deal. Germany should have reflected upon this possibility prior to signing an agreement that gives Turkey a large amount of leverage and whose collapse would be politically costly.

However, Germany and other EU governments should at the very least continue to insist that Turkey must make baseline changes in its anti-terror laws to prevent them from being used for indiscriminate arrests and widespread human rights restrictions. How much this would improve the situation on the ground remains uncertain. But it would at least limit the damage to the reputations of Germany and the EU by showing that their interest in restricting the refugee flow to Europe has not eclipsed their opposition to despotic rule and human rights abuses. As for Erdogan, perhaps it is time he reevaluates his priorities and places the wellbeing of his people over the preservation of his image abroad.

About the Author

Allison Meakem '20 is the Campus Editor of the Brown Political Review. Allison can be reached at