Pictured: Turks in Berlin, Germany wave flags at a demonstration in support of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on July 15, 2017. One man in the photo is giving the hand sign of the Grey Wolves organization . (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
As German federal elections approach on September 26, the candidates hoping to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel are reiterating the need to thwart far-right extremism, particularly neo-Nazism, in Germany. In fact, the largest far-right extremist group in Germany is Turkish, not German, according to a new intelligence report on domestic threats to Germany's constitutional order.
The Turkish neo-fascist movement Ülkücü (Turkish for "Idealists") — popularly known as Grey Wolves — now has at least 11,000 active members in Germany, according to the new annual report (Verfassungsschutzbericht 2020) by Germany's domestic intelligence agency (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, BfV).
The German Parliament and other federal agencies estimate that the true number Grey Wolves in Germany is above 18,000. This is five times more than the number of members (3,500) of Germany's neo-Nazi party, the National Democratic Party of Germany (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands, NPD).
The ideology underpinning the Grey Wolves movement is a Turkish version of Aryanism and sets itself in opposition to anyone who is not Turkish or Sunni Islamic. It is anti-Christian and anti-Jewish, as well as anti-American, anti-Armenian, anti-Kurdish and anti-Greek.
The objective of the Grey Wolves is to unify all the Turkish peoples into a single country called Turan whose territory would stretch from Europe to China. The Grey Wolves also want to establish a new world order based on Islam that is led by Turkey; they are opposed to the assimilation or integration of Turkish immigrants into Western society.
Followers of the Grey Wolves carry out intelligence-gathering operations for the Turkish government, and have murdered, assaulted and intimidated critics of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Germany.
"The Turkish right-wing extremist 'Ülkücü' movement ('idealist' movement) emerged in Turkey in the middle of the 20th century. It is based on a nationalist, anti-Semitic and racist right-wing extremist ideology, the roots of which lie in Pan-Turkism and Turanism. The ideological spectrum of the movement ranges from neo-pagan elements to nationalist Kemalism to the fringes of Islamism. The aim of the movement is to defend and strengthen Turkish citizenship. 'Ülkücü' followers consider the ideal idea to be the establishment of 'Turan' — an ethnically homogeneous state of all Turkic peoples under leadership of the Turks. The country of 'Turan' would incorporate the settlement areas of all Turkic peoples. Depending on the ideological reading, these extend from the Balkans to western China or Japan.
"The 'Ülkücü' movement regards the Turkish nation as the highest value both politically, territorially, ethnically and culturally. The assumed cultural and religious superiority is expressed in the exaggeration of Turkish identity and results in a degradation of other ethnic groups who are declared 'enemies of Turkishness.' The symbol and best-known identifier of the 'Ülkücü' movement is the 'grey wolf' ('Bozkurt') and the so-called wolf salute derived from it, in which the fingers of the right hand on the outstretched arm shape the head of a wolf. Supporters of the 'Ülkücü' movement are often referred to as 'Grey Wolves' ('Bozkurtlar').
"The 'Ülkücü' movement is heterogeneous. Of the approximately 11,000 supporters living in Germany, around 9,400 are organized in three large umbrella organizations. These represent the various forms of the 'Ülkücü' ideology in different ways. Some of the associations are foreign organizations of extremely nationalist Turkish parties. The associations strive for a moderate appearance in their external presentation and tend to cultivate their right-wing extremist ideology internally, especially in their associated affiliations. The unorganized supporters of the 'Ülkücü' movement live out their mostly racist or anti-Semitic enemy images in different ways, often on social media, but also when they meet their political opponents, especially the Kurds, in public. This shows the high potential for violence....
"The topics of 'Ülkücü' supporters in Germany in 2020 were determined by events in Turkey. These included, for example, Turkey's conflict with neighboring states in connection with drilling for mineral resources in the Mediterranean Sea or the war between Azerbaijan's 'Turkic people' and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The rededication of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul in summer 2020 from a museum to a mosque also met with unanimous applause from 'Ülkücü' fans. Many hailed this event as a reminder of the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, which they understood as a 'victory over Christianity.' In relation to this interpretation of the historical event, 'Ülkücü' followers generally use the number '1453' as a code, for example on social media or in tattoos, to express Turkish rule and their supposed 'racial superiority.'"
The Grey Wolf movement in Germany is divided into three main umbrella organizations:
Federation of Turkish Democratic Idealist Associations in Germany (ADÜTDF) is the largest 'Ülkücü' umbrella organization in Germany. It represents the interests of Turkey's far-right 'Nationalist Movement Party' (MHP), which is the parent political party of the 'Ülkücü' movement. ADÜTDF has around 160 local branches in Germany with around 7,000 members, according to the report, which adds:
"Outwardly, the group demonstrates a commitment to comply with German law and it tries hard to maintain a moderate demeanor. Inwardly, however, the ADÜTDF is an advocate of a nationalist right-wing extremist ideology in line with its parent party MHP. Because of its membership size, the association is a major exporter and disseminator of right-wing extremist ideas among Turks and Germans of Turkish descent living in Germany.
"The ADÜTDF is convinced of the superiority of Turkishness.... This worldview violates the principle of equality anchored in Germany's Basic Law and counteracts the integration of migrants of Turkish origin into German society."
Union of Turkish-Islamic Cultural Associations in Europe (ATİB) represents a more Islamic-oriented part of the 'Ülkücü' movement. ATİB claims to have 80 branches in Germany with over 8,000 members, but the German intelligence report estimates that the group, which is based in Cologne, currently has around 1,200 members organized in around 25 local branches. The report, which does not explain the reason for the discrepancy, states:
"ATİB wants to preserve the cultural and religious identity of immigrants of Turkish origin in Germany.... Through its roots in the 'Ülkücü' ideology, the umbrella organization creates a disintegrative effect and promotes Turkish nationalism with right-wing extremist influences, which is characterized by an extreme friend-foe thinking. This leads to the devaluation of other ethnic groups or religions, especially Kurds and Judaism."
Federation of World Order in Europe (ANF) is the European organization of the extreme Turkish nationalist 'Great Unity Party' (BBP), which is directed against ethnic minorities (especially Kurds) as well as against religious minorities (especially Christian Armenians). ANF was founded in Germany in 1994 and currently has around 15 local branches in Germany with a total of around 1,200 members, according to the report, which adds:
"Like BBP, ANF represents the part within the movement that has expanded the classic 'Ülkücü' ideology to include the factor of religion in the sense of the so-called Turkish-Islamic synthesis. According to this idea, being Turkish is only possible in connection with Islam. The striving for a unification of all Turkic peoples in a homogeneous state 'Turan' is just as much a part of the political agenda as the creation of a new world order. Behind this is the idea of a world domination of Islam under the leadership of the Turkish nation....
"The Turkish-Islamic synthesis...represents a hard line of demarcation from those of different faiths.... Components of 'Ülkücü' ideology such as racism, anti-Semitism and anti-Christianity, supplemented by Islamism... is directed against the core foundations of the free democratic basic order such as personal individuality and identity as well as the legal equality of every human being."
Unorganized "Ülkücü" Movement. In addition to the 'Ülkücü' supporters organized in ADÜTDF, ATİB and ANF, around 1,600 people belong to other 'Ülkücü' structures and the unorganized 'Ülkücü' movement, according to the report. They are mainly younger people who are in contact with one another primarily via social networks on the internet, but sometimes also meet each other personally. "In doing so, they cultivate their image of the enemy and agitate against their 'opponents,' above all Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Kurds and the United States who are belittled by 'Ülkücü' supporters and declared to be 'enemies of Turkishness.'"
A report by the Vienna-based MENA Research and Studies Center, explained the myth that underpins the Grey Wolf movement:
"Their symbol: the grey wolf. Their name: Ülkücü, Turkish for idealist. Their goal: a Turkish empire and the elimination of political opponents....
"According to legend, a wolf in pre-Islamic times led and saved endangered Turkish tribes who were from the Altai Mountains in Central Asia. The Grey Wolf is considered a powerful hunter that roams the country freely and independently. Since he lives from hunting, he will never recognize others as free and independent. The Grey Wolves movement follows this picture: All non-Turkish sections of the population, especially minorities in their own country, are 'racially' persecuted....
"The declared goal of the movement is the establishment of a Pan-Turanian nation that stretches from the Balkans through Central Asia to China and unites all so-called 'Turkic peoples' in a 'Greater Turkic empire.' Its symbol, the Grey Wolf, is still used as a sign of distinction today: followers greet the world with the wolf salute. In addition, the howling wolf, along with the Ottoman war flag with the three crescents, is a popular flag motif on the scene. Officially, Turkish followers call themselves Ülkücü, idealists, unofficially they are the Grey Wolves."
Banning the Grey Wolves
Austria banned the Grey Wolf salute in February 2019. Anyone found making the gesture in public faces a fine of €4,000 ($4,750); repeat offenders face fines of €10,000 ($12,000). France proscribed the Grey Wolves in November 2020, after they defaced an Armenian genocide memorial near Lyon. On May 4, 2021, the European Parliament called for an EU-wide ban of the group:
"The European Parliament is highly worried that the racist right-wing extremist Ülkücü movement, known as 'Grey Wolves,' which is closely linked to the ruling coalition party MHP (the Nationalist Movement Party), is spreading in Turkey itself, but also in EU Member States; it calls on the EU and its Member States to examine the possibility of adding Grey Wolves to the EU terrorist list, to ban their associations and organizations in EU countries, to closely monitor their activities and to counter their influence, which is especially threatening for people with a Kurdish, Armenian or Greek background and anyone they consider an opponent."
In Germany, Chancellor Merkel has been reluctant to outlaw the Grey Wolves, apparently out of fear of angering Turkish President Erdoğan.
Germany's conservative party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), recently called on the German government to ban the Grey Wolves. A parliamentary resolution dated November 16, 2020, said that the group "represents a threat to the constitutional order and social peace in Germany." It added that Grey Wolves were being used by the Turkish government to intimidate and silence critics of President Erdoğan in Germany, and that its objective was to prevent the integration of Turkish migrants. The resolution elaborated:
"In Germany, Grey Wolves have been pursuing the goal of establishing a Turkish nationalist identity against the majority society — under the motto of 'European Turkishness' with the slogan 'Become a German, remain Turkish!' — to misuse them for the creation of a strong Turkish nationalist lobby in Germany....
"The Austrian National Council decided last year to ban the wolf salute. A ban on this right-wing extremist symbol is long overdue in Germany as well. But it is not enough to ban the symbols of the 'Grey Wolves." The anti-constitutional activities of the 'Grey Wolves' that endanger internal peace must be stopped altogether."
A day later, Germany's far left party, Die Linke, also called for the Grey Wolves to be banned, not only in Germany but throughout the European Union. A parliamentary resolution dated November 17, 2020, stated:
"Supporters of the Grey Wolves are responsible for a large number of murders of political opponents and members of minorities in Turkey and abroad. In Germany, supporters of the Grey Wolves have committed several murders and attempted murders of Turkish and Kurdish activists. They have also attacked and intimidated opposition members and critics of Turkish President Erdoğan, including members of the Bundestag who are of Turkish origin, for example, with regard to the resolution on the Armenian genocide. The Turkish secret service, with the knowledge of German authorities, uses the Grey Wolves for 'intelligence matters' in Germany."
On November 17, the Bundestag rejected both motions calling for a ban of the Grey Wolves. Instead, Germany's mainstream parties — the CDU/CSU and the SPD (the parties that comprise the ruling coalition government) as well as the FDP and the Greens — issued a watered-down resolution. Far from banning the Grey Wolves, it simply called for the government to "push back" (zurückdrängen) against group's influence (Einfluss) in Germany.
The resolution called for the government to "check" (prüfen) whether Grey Wolf associations in Germany were engaged in anti-constitutional activities that could warrant a ban. It also called for the movement's activities to be monitored by German intelligence, a process that is already taking place. Finally, the resolution called for "showing solidarity" with people and groups persecuted by the Grey Wolves in Germany, Europe and Turkey and to support them "as best as possible."
Merkel Resists a Ban
Writing for the German blog Tichys Einblick, commentator Zara Riffler said that the resolution issued by the mainstream parties reeks of hypocrisy and was issued only to save face after France banned the group.
In a two-part series (here and here), Riffler presented a history of the Grey Wolves in Germany. She showed how Chancellor Merkel's CDU was the first German party to hold talks with the Grey Wolves, aided them in getting residence permits and even helped them to set up organizational structures in Germany. "It was the CDU that helped to democratically legitimize the Grey Wolves," she wrote. "The CDU's silence on this is deafening."
Riffler recounted how Merkel's chosen successor, Armin Laschet, the Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia, ordered a cover-up after German media revealed that the German-Turkish politician Sevket Avci, who represents the CDU for Duisburg, was himself a Grey Wolf. Riffler wrote:
"How many CDU Grey Wolves has Armin Laschet covered up to this day? What kind of game is he playing? The journalistic question urgently arises: Is there something being received in return from Turkish right-wing extremists or even from AKP (Erdoğan's party) lobbyists? Sevket Avci did not suffer any consequences from the CDU despite great media outrage.... The fact is: The CDU tolerates Grey Wolves within its ranks — can one then still speak of 'infiltration'?"
Riffler also demonstrates how Chancellor Merkel has repeatedly met with and allowed herself to be exploited by leaders of the Grey Wolves associations in Germany, as well as with leaders of MHP, the Turkish party that controls the largest Grey Wolf association in Germany. Riffler concluded: "So, the CDU is in reality working with the right-wing extremist Grey Wolves, although it preaches that right-wing extremism is the greatest danger in Germany."
In an interview with Tichys Einblick, CDU politician Ali Ertan Toprak, a long-time critic of radical Islam in Germany, said that it was time for the Grey Wolves to be banned:
"The Grey Wolves have become increasingly influential and increasingly aggressive, so the danger they pose can no longer be kept under the carpet. The increasing public pressure in the German population to finally take action against radical foreign organizations quickly drew attention to the Grey Wolves, because they are also the largest right-wing extremist group in Germany....
"Erdoğan despises the West and Western values. He says this openly at every opportunity. He is building a nationalist-Islamist response, which he tries to spread with his foreign organizations and their structures in every corner of Germany and Europe. The mosques and affiliated Koran schools also poison their parishioners and our youth with the poison of nationalistic-religious segregation. One is not working here on integration, not even on a parallel society, but quite obviously on a counter-society.
"The alliance between the AKP and the right-wing nationalist MHP is also having an impact in Germany. With massive financial support from Ankara, an ominous alliance has emerged that calls into question the basic values of our society. Germany is losing the hearts and minds of those who have already arrived here. Those who defend our free democratic values are abandoned. Why can Merkel — and Germany — criticize Trump and the USA, but not publicly and unequivocally put Erdoğan in his place? Is the USA strategically less important to us than Turkey?"