Two German Turks

Özlem Türeci and Uğur Şahin are two of the big winners of 2020. Their start-up BioNTech was the fastest to develop a COVID-19 vaccine with a new technology. They are also two German-Turks. Two out of almost 3 million, who are politically meanwhile as polarized as Turks in Turkey.

2020 was for most of us a rather sub-optimal year. However, there are exceptions such as the founders of a start-up in the German city of Mainz, the city where Guttenberg developed the mechanical movable-type printing press and which has one of the most famous Carnivals in Germany. Nowadays Mainz is the talk of the town, because BioNTech's headquarters reside in the street with the telling name “At the gold mine.” The founders are Özlem Türeci and Uğur Şahin, both in their mid-50s, who founded their second company 12 years ago. Both grew up in Germany, he came as a four-year-old to Cologne, she was already born in Northern Germany. They met each other at a university hospital. Their idea is to develop a whole new class of medicine by upgrading the human immune system, especially in the treatment of cancer. The focus is on the mRNA, which serves as a kind of software for human cells. Once you have it under control, you can tell the cells what to do. This is what they have achieved in the case of COVID-19. For this, they are admired in both Germany and Turkey, but with different intentions. They are in Turkey praised as successful “Turks” and in Germany as a “great example of integration.” They enjoy this status of "both countries' darlings“, because they have never expressed themselves politically. And such a status is nowadays a rarity.
 
Before we elaborate on this, let's have a look at why the human factor in the bilateral Germany-Turkey relations are so special. According to latest statistics from 2019, there are 2.824.000 people living in Germany with a personal or family background in Turkey. This is the highest number ever and accounts for 3.4 percent of Germany’s population of roughly 83 million. Among these, 1.472.390 were Turkish passport holders. The ratio of German and Turkish passport holders therefore is roughly 50:50.
Turks and Kurds are well represented in politics; the current German parliament counts 14 such MPs, the highest number ever, which accounts for almost 2 percent of MPs. This is by percentage more than there are German-Turks with a German passport. However, these MPs, who in the current parliament represent only three centre-left parties (SPD, Greens, Left) are in an awkward position, because they are seen as anti-Turkey agitators by the governing coalition in Turkey and supporters of President Erdoğan in Germany.

There has always existed a mismatch between the politically active Germans of Turkish descent and the broader German-Turkish society and the mainstream in Turkey, because of issues such as minority rights, LGBTI rights, feminism, coming to terms with the past etc. However, until the Armenia resolution of the German Bundestag of June 2016, these MPs were also seen by Turkey and the broader German Turkish community as “their” MPs, many were looked upon with pride. The most famous of them and first Turkish-origin MP in 1994, Cem Özdemir, was a frequent guest in Turkey and invited not only concerning “Green” issues, but also by business associations and rather nationalist universities. This was mostly during the golden years of Turkey’s EU alignment, when also many German-Turkish artists like Fatih Akın were frequently seen in cafes and bars in Istanbul. Soccer players like Mesut Özil seemed to be able to bridge the German and German-Turkish societies. There were lots of visible human bridges between the two countries.
 
Then two things happened: the already mentioned Armenia resolution and the possibility for Turkish passport holders abroad to vote, which happened for the first time in 2014. Through this, the politicization of the German-Turkish community increased enormously, and Turkey’s harsh polarization was more visibly imported to Germany.
 
This had as a result two parallel universes with hardly anything in common. Besides the above mentioned German Turks in mainstream political parties, German-Turkish supporters of the AKP and President Erdoğan have two options: Turkey-sponsored mosques (DITIB) and Turkish language and culture classes organized by the consulates. Or, more actively NGOs like the UETD, which renamed itself UID (Union of International Democrats) in 2018 or even political parties like the 2010 founded BIG party or the AD party, which was founded as a reaction to the Armenian resolution in June 2016, symbolically at 14:53 hours, in reference to the conquest of Constantinople. These parties and the UID have close and direct links to the Turkish government, but little influence on German politics.
 
Also pro-government circles seem to have understood this handicap, which is why some candidates in municipal elections in 2020 had supposedly close contacts to either the Justice and Development Party (AKP) or the ultra-nationalist movement, and there are already a few personalities with such supposed linkages in local parliaments, such as Mustafa Güngör, who is the chair of the parliamentary group of the SPD in Bremen.

This issue will not go away. This group with a large base in the German-Turkish community will certainly try to become more influential in German politics, both through their own lists and parties, but also within mainstream parties. For these parties this poses a dilemma, because President Erdoğan and AKP are very popular among German-Turks. In the latest 2018 presidential elections, the AKP won almost 56 % of votes in Germany, 13% more than in Turkey, and president Erdoğan received almost 65%, which is 12% more than in Turkey. Even if we assume that the German passport holders are a little less enthusiastic about Erdoğan and the AKP, this is an important potential voter source, that political parties will want to tap in and with their current Turkish and Kurdish candidates can’t.
 
Şahin and Türeci in Mainz will continue to stay away from politics. However, they could be forced to take a stand. On Dec.1, HDP deputy Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu suggested to grant the BioNTech founders the Turkish medal of honour at the Turkish parliament. If that were the case and they accepted, they would be criticized in Germany, if they refused, the same would happen in Turkey. However, since the motion came from an HDP deputy, who is currently the preferred target of the AKP government, the chances of acceptance are close to zero.