German Diaspora in Turkey

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Much has been written about the current Turkish Diaspora in Germany. There is evidence that this Diaspora, albeit mostly made up of blue-collar labor, is contributing to the host economy. Precious little has been written, especially in the English language, about the German speaking Diaspora in Turkey circa the 1930s and 1940s. In headcounts it was small – about 1000 individuals including families and staff; in its duration of stay it was short – for most of the émigrés.[1] [2]

A decade prior to Hitler’s takeover of Germany, the Republic of Turkey was established in 1923 after a prolonged series of wars. Its system of higher education inherited from the Ottomans comprised between 300 to 400 Islamic medreses, one of which was converted at the turn of the century into the Dar-ül Fünun (House of Knowledge), while the rest were closed by government edict soon after the establishment of the Republic. This educational system also included three military academies, one of which had been expanded into a civil engineering school around 1909 and a number of secondary-school level trade schools. In 1933, by government decree, Turkey reformed its higher education using first German then Austrian and Czech expatriates fleeing the Nazis and for whom America was out of reach for numerous reasons. Increasingly anti-Semitic policies in Germany coincided with the radical social, economic, and educational reforms undertaken by Kemal Atatürk, first President and founder of modern Turkey. With secularization enshrined in the Republic’s constitution and in line with government policies of modernization and westernization throughout Turkish society, its one university clearly needed modernization in both scope and depth of coverage. Other post-secondary institutions needed to be created from ground up. The personnel to do this were unavailable indigenously, prompting Atatürk to follow the precedent set by Sultan Bayazid II in 1492. As a matter of government policy, Turkey invited and provided safe-haven to over 190 intellectuals and professionals fleeing Austria, Germany, Czechoslovakia, and at least one from France.

The Ingathering

With the passage of the German Civil Service Law and the realization that the worst was yet to come, many looked for ways to leave. Among those fired from their jobs was Dr. Philipp Schwartz, a Hungarian-born Frankfurt pathologist who fled with his family to Switzerland. In March 1933 Schwartz established the Notgemeinschaft Deutscher Wissenschaftler im Ausland (Emergency Assistance Organization for German Scientists) in Zürich to help persecuted Jewish and non-Jewish German scholars secure employment in countries prepared to receive German refugees. Turkey was the Notgemeinschaft’s success story because Atatürk capitalized on the developments taking place in Germany. In 1933 Turkey had only two universities. Both were in Istanbul, and one was a technical university. Today the Turkish system of higher education is nationwide, and boasts of no fewer than seventy-two public and private universities. Significantly, over forty percent of the professors are women who have never encountered a glass ceiling in academic administration. Annually, over 1.7 million students sit for the national university admission examination and the best of these get the widest choices for acceptance.

Currently, mention of Turkey conjures up many thoughts–some positive, others negative. Even among scholars, attitudes toward Turkey’s role during the Holocaust are often quite negative. Few realize that Turkey provided a safe haven for over 1000 individuals. These included some of the most eminent intellectuals and their families who had nowhere else to go. While most did not consider themselves Jewish, they were so according to Nazi definitions. They were “enlightened.” Many were decorated WWI veterans. That, in the end, would not protect them. They had been displaced, and among the fortunate ones were those invited to Turkey for the knowledge they could bring – knowledge that Turkey needed at the time. It was not easy for professionals at the height of their careers to relocate themselves and their families and resume their work without the proper tools, assistants, equipment, and supplies. This held particularly true for those thrust into a somewhat hostile place with an unfamiliar culture and language.

In retrospect, just a few of decades after the Ottoman Empire had taken its last breath, the general exodus of professors had so depleted Germany's premier higher-learning institutions that the University of Istanbul was rightfully considered and sincerely called "the best German University in the world."

Following the war’s end, many of the émigrés came to America making major impacts on the sciences, humanities, medicine, and the arts. Central Europe’s great loss was, at first, Turkey’s gain and later America’s as well. The displaced assets of a once-humanist culture resulted in a significant contribution to the educational reforms of a new nation. “Turkey placed a significant amount of German intellectual capital in escrow until it could be returned home safely and with interest.” For most of the émigrés, home was no longer the old Heimat. It was America and Israel. Some of the older émigrés did return to Germany and became instrumental in de-Nazifying German universities. Most were elected to serve as Rektoren Presidents) in their respective institutions and some went to what is now the State of Israel.


Reisman, A. (2006) Turkey's Modernization: Refugees from Nazism and Atatürk's Vision Washington, DC: New Academia Publishers. 2006)

This included the creation of a new, Latin-based alphabet and industrial infrastructure, Reisman, Turkey’s Modernization, 19 and 43.

In 1492 Ferdinand, the king of Spain, issued an edict to expel from Spain all remaining Jews who did not convert to Christianity. In that very same year, Sultan Bayazid II ordered the governors of all Ottoman provinces "not to refuse the Jews entry or cause them difficulties, but to receive them cordially," jews/history/life.htm. Shaw, Turkey and the Holocaust, 4-14.

Andic and Andic, “Fritz Neumark, 11-19.

Philipp Schwartz, Notgemeinschaft Zur Emigration deutscher Wissenschaftlernach 1933 in die Turkei (Marburg: Metropolis-Verlag, 1995), 1-100.

Fewer of the academics found their way to Ankara than to Istanbul, because in 1933 Ankara University existed primarily on paper. Unlike those émigrés who came to the University of Istanbul under the auspices of the Notgemeinschaft, most of the scientists, architects, and artists who went to Ankara were invited through the German and Austrian legations; the largest share of them went to the state school of music, the faculty of arts, and the medical institutes. The correspondence found in several worldwide archives involves only members of the Istanbul contingent.

Reisman, Turkey’s Modernization, 439 and 443.

It also permitted safe passage to Palestine for over 20,000 refugees from central Europe. Reisman, Turkey’s Modernization,305.

Onur Öymen (a member of Turkey's Parliament) addressing the seminar, “Culture as a Weapon, Academicians in Exile” (Berlin, 29 July 2003). <> viewed 16 May 2007.

Seyhan, German Academic Exiles, 274–88.

Reisman, “Turkey’s Invitations to Nazi Persecuted Intellectuals Circa 1933: A Bibliographic Essay on History’s Blind Spot.” Working paper, 2007. Available on request from the author.

This article is based on Reisman, A. (2007) “German Jewish Intellectuals’ Diaspora in Turkey: (1933-1955).” The Historian. Published on behalf of Phi Alpha Theta History Honor Society, Volume 69 issue 3 Page 450-478, Fall 2007