The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A Turkish TV blockbuster reveals Erdogan’s conspiratorial, anti-Semitic worldview

A picture released on April 17 shows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visiting the tomb of Yavuz Sultan Selim, a sultan of the former Ottoman Empire, in Istanbul. (Turkish Presidential Press Office/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish Parliament, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Oren Kessler is deputy director for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“The Last Emperor” is Turkey’s newest television blockbuster, consistently rating among Turkey’s top dramas since its February premiere. Every Friday night, 1 in 10 viewers tunes in to relive the last years of Abdulhamid II — an absolutist, pan-Islamist Ottoman sultan who resisted the secular-reformist Young Turk movement until it finally overthrew him in 1909. The series, airing on state television in three-hour episodes, promotes a worldview uncannily similar to that of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: A free press, secularism and democracy are the work of foreign powers, religious minorities and godless liberals, and ultimately serve to erode national identity, honor and security.

Of all the series’ villains, none are more sinister than the Jews. Two minutes into its very first scene, Abdulhamid is riding in a procession in Istanbul when a mustachioed onlooker flips a coin into the hand of one of the royal guards. The soldier opens his hand to find the coin is etched with a Star of David surrounding a squat cross in the style favored by Crusaders and Freemasons. The signal thus received, dozens of his fellow guards turn around and open fire on the royal carriage. The screen fades to black — and to the crescent moon that accompanies the mournful opening theme.

Later in the episode we learn that underneath the coin-flipper’s Ottoman fez is a black skullcap of a Catholic priest, for he is a Vatican emissary working for none other than Theodor Herzl, the Jewish Austrian journalist who founded modern Zionism. Herzl, his beguiling assistant Sarah and their various co-conspirators are forever haunting Istanbul, meeting with wayward members of the sultan’s family who are themselves intoxicated by deviant, imported ideas such as popular sovereignty. Herzl is the series’ arch-villain, so perfidious as to hold his penniless father imprisoned without his mother’s knowledge — all because the old man opposes Zionism.

As with much of “The Last Emperor,” most of it is fiction. Herzl’s father wasn’t poor but a wealthy businessman, and differed with his son not on the necessity of Jewish statehood but only on the methods for achieving it. Sarah, Herzl’s sidekick, doesn’t appear to be based on any real-life figure. At the First Zionist Congress, held on the show in Vienna (the actual one was in Switzerland), bearded delegates evoking the Elders of Zion applaud Herzl’s stump speech. “Soon all humankind will only live to serve us Jews, chosen by Jehovah,” Herzl intones, then paints the Zionist flag, a blue Star of David, for the assembled, braying crowd. Not satisfied, a red-dressed Sarah calls out from the audience, insisting that he flank the star with two horizontal blue stripes to mark the Jews’ supposed territorial ambitions: no less than the Nile to the Euphrates. To the delegates’ delight, Herzl complies.

That episode, which aired in March, provoked a surge in anti-Jewish invective on social media. One Twitter user vowed to turn the supposed Jewish homeland into a “Jewish graveyard.” Another, citing the same purportedly vast territorial objectives, declared, “The more I watch ‘The Last Emperor,’ the more my enmity to Jews increases — you infidels, you filthy creatures.” Both users identify in their bios as Erdogan supporters.

The real Herzl is known to have visited Istanbul only a handful of times and obtained an audience with the sultan only once. Though he failed in his chief objective — obtaining a sultanic charter for the already-nascent Zionist settlement enterprise in then-Ottoman-controlled Palestine – he was given a first-class induction into the Order of the Medjidie, a prestigious honor the Ottomans only ever granted to 50 people. Herzl hadn’t exactly made a Zionist out of the sultan, but the notion of a rivalry between the two leaders — one of a sprawling empire and the other of a minuscule Jewish-nationalist movement — is revisionist in the extreme. Herzl’s attempt to curry favor with the sultan was brief and unsuccessful, and he soon resumed his activism, journalism and fundraising in London and Vienna.

This revisionism would be less egregious if the show portrayed itself accurately –as historical fiction. Instead, a split-second screen at the start of each episode declares that the program is “inspired by real historical events.” In the words of a descendant of Abdulhamid who serves as a historical adviser to the series, “history repeats itself … these meddling foreigners now call our president a dictator, just as they used to call Abdulhamid the ‘Red Sultan.’ ”

And Turkish officials go further still. Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus even visited the set in February, lauding it for “shedding light” on the sultan’s life “in an objective manner.” Last month, just two days before a referendum granting himself vastly expanded presidential prerogatives, Erdogan added his own praise, telling state TV, “The same schemes are carried out today in the exact same manner … What the West does to us is the same; just the era and actors are different.”

One prominent journalist even quoted a television critic telling him that officials from the presidential palace had encouraged the show’s producers to scour Erdogan’s past statements on the perils of foreign meddling and place them in the sultan’s mouth. Indeed, when Abdulhamid discovers a British plot to sabotage his plans for a railway to Mecca, his Koran-inspired remark (“If they have a plan, God too has a plan!”) just happens to be one of Erdogan’s signature lines.

The villains in “The Last Emperor” also bear a keen resemblance to Erdogan’s own bogeymen. In the show, Jewish conspiracies often meld together with those of Britain and other European powers, the Catholic Church, socialists, Young Turks and Freemasons into one overarching scheme (the Vatican emissary, for example, goes by Hiram, a name closely associated with the Masons). Erdogan himself often refers to such a grand conspiracy, overseen by a nebulous puppet-master he calls “the Mastermind.” In turn, “Mastermind” was the name of a documentary aired on a leading pro-government news channel, which among other insights revealed that Jews have dominated the world for the past 3,500 years.

For many Turkish Islamists, the 1908 Young Turk revolution and post-World War I creation of the secular republic were themselves the work of world Jewry (a long-running conspiracy theory holds that Ataturk was himself Jewish), Freemasons and a few weak-kneed Ottomans seduced by Europe’s wiles. In the 1970s, while a youth leader of the main Islamist political party, Erdogan staged a play called “Mason-Communist-Jew” about a Turkish factory owner who sends his son to Europe, where he drifts from Islam and adopts the continent’s dissolute ways. In it, a Jewish agitator poses as a Muslim Turk to incite workers against the owner, who pays with his life. At one climactic moment, one devoutly Muslim character recites the moral of the play: “All evil regimes are Jewish inventions!” Erdogan both directed the production and gave himself the starring role.

“The Last Emperor” may have superior production values, but its message is much the same. It is state propaganda designed to appeal to viewers’ worst instincts and leave them with a revisionist, conspiratorial narrative of Turkish history. Worst of all, while this account of Abdulhamid’s reign is almost pure fiction, the plight of Turkish citizens living under Erdogan’s increasingly sultanic rule is very much real.