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German soccer star Özil's tattoo: Who are the Gray Wolves?

July 27, 2023

German soccer star Mesut Ozil has sparked controversy with a tattoo of the Gray Wolves. But who are the Turkish ultranationalists and why are they under observation by authorities in Germany?

Two men expose their stomachs in a gym. On the right is blurred-out text from an Instagram post
Former German national team player Mesut Özil has a tattoo with Gray Wolves symbolsImage: Instagram

Fitness coach Alper A. is fond of posting pictures of his clients on Instagram, typically the classic "before and after" shots that showcase his success stories. The most recent one, featuring Mesut Özil, a former Germany national football team star, has caused a stir. The two men stand side-by-side proudly flaunting their toned stomachs after an apparently successful training program.

But it is the tattoo visible on the left side of Özil's chest that is at the center of discussions in Germany, where he was born and raised in a Turkish immigrant family. It shows the silhouette of a howling wolf and three crescent moons — typical symbols of the Turkish ultranationalist group the Gray Wolves, also known as the Idealist Hearths or Ulku Ocaklari.

The animal is an important symbol for Turkish right-wing extremists. In mythology, a gray wolf saved the ancestors of the Turkish peoples from their enemies and helped them ascend as a great power. For many, it therefore represents power. The wolf hand salute also comes from this myth.

A hand makes the gray wolf salute in front of a blurred-out red flag
The well-known gray wolf salute on displayImage: Imago/M. Trammer

Three crescents were found on the war flag of the Ottomans. Today, they form the party logo of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which has beenthe largest ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for years.

Gray Wolf ideology

German authorities characterise the group's ideology as nationalist-extremist, anti-Semitic and racist. Their stereotypical enemies include Kurds,Armenians, Jews and Christians, since they believe in the superiority of the Turkish nation. The Gray Wolves committed numerous acts of violence and murders in the past, particularly in the 1970s.

According to Germany's domestic intelligence services, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the aim of the Gray Wolves is to establish a homogeneous state of all Turkic peoples under Turkish leadership — from the Balkans to western China.

A boy waves a flag with three crescent moons on a red flag in front of a crowd
The logo of ultranationalist party MHP: three white crescents on a red backgroundImage: AP

There are two main currents within the Gray Wolves: the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Great Unity Party (BBP), the extremism researcher Kemal Bozay finds.

Of the two, the ultranationalist MHP is the original Gray Wolves organization, according to Germany's Office for the Protection of the Constitution.

Gray Wolves in Europe

Gray Wolves are organized throughout Europe. A regional umbrella organization, the Turkish Confederation in Europe, was founded in the German city of Frankfurt in 2007 to bundle the various European offshoots.

Across Europe, there have been repeated clashes involving Gray Wolves, particularly with Kurds. Austria prohibited Gray Wolves symbols in 2019 and France banned their offshoot in 2020. Late that same year, the German parliament resolved to consider a similar ban. So far, it has not come to fruition.

Security authorities in Germany believe there are some 11,000 Gray Wolves members, around 9,500 of them organized in associations, nationwide.

The association with the largest number of members is the "Türkisch Demokratischen Idealistenvereine in Deutschland" (Turkish Democratic Idealists Associations in Germany), known as ADÜTDF from Turkish-language acronym. It represents the interests of the ultranationalist MHP, Erdogan's ally. With over 7,000 members in Germany, ADÜTDF is the largest known umbrella organization within the Gray Wolves milieu. It is organized into 160 local associations.

The second biggest is ATIB, the "Union der Türkisch-Islamischen Kulturvereine in Europa" (the Union of Turkish-Islamic Cultural Associations in Europe). According to the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, it has 1,200 members and is organized into 25 local associations throughout Germany. It was founded in 1987 by a well-known member of the Ülkücü milieu, who is said to have provided the hitman's weapon and wages for the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II.

A man with a shaved head wears a red headscarf with symbols of the Gray Wolves
The Gray Wolves are also known as the Idealist Hearths (Ulku Ocaklari)Image: Boris Roessler/dpa/picture-alliance

Germany's third umbrella organization is the Federation of World Order in Europe (ANF). Nationwide, it has some 1,200 members in about 15 local chapters, according to German authorities. ANF represents the interests of the Islamic-ultranationalist Great Unity Party (BBP), which is also a member of Erdogan's electoral alliance. Numerous political murders in Turkey have been attributed to the BBP. Its members are also alleged to have been involved in the murder of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in Istanbul.

This article was originally published in German.

Elmas Topcu, sitting next to a bookcase full of books
Elmas Topcu Stories on Turkey, German-Turkish relations and political and religious groups linked to Turkey.@topcuelmas