Oberndorf am Neckar is a small city in southern Germany, unknown to many Germans.
With a population of 14,000, a river flowing through the middle, cute buildings lining both sides of the river and the woods giving the city a natural background, it is a typical German city. It has a small cemetery. Among many well-tended graves, decorated with crosses and flowers, are two modest ones. As we come closer to one of them and see an inscription reading, “Ottoman Captain İbrahim Efendi, 1854-1882,” we wonder what the Ottomans might have been doing in this small German city. Our quest for the answer takes us on an interesting trip back in time.
Oberndorf is a small city, but it has fame far beyond its size. Its fame is attributable to the Mauser arms manufacturer, which is known in Turkey as “mavzer.” While Turkey tends to regard mavzer as a type of firearm, the name is actually derived from an arms factory that produced hundreds of thousands of arms and sold them to big states in the 19th century. It is even said that if the rifles produced by this company were attached to each other, they would travel around the world twice. The Ottoman Empire contributed to their impressive production by buying its share of guns from Mauser. In fact, the Ottoman state was among Mauser’s major customers. A delegation of Ottoman officials arrived in Oberndorf to discuss a contract and receive firearms training, and these Turks stayed in the city for some time and became very popular among locals.
The arms deal in question actually served as one of the milestones of the Turkish-German friendship. Historian Mehmet Beşirli believes that the German arms industry helped avert the financial crisis of 1891-1894, thanks to Mauser’s weapons sales to the Ottoman state in Oberndorf and Loewe, in Berlin.
It was largely due to the famous Von der Goltz Pasha that the Ottoman Empire chose Germany over the UK and France as their source for buying about 1 million arms to modernize its army. Beşirli says that Goltz Pasha, an influential partner for German arms companies, acted like the representative to Turkey for German companies during the 12 years he stayed in Turkey. Pasha was trading in İstanbul when he learned about Abdülhamit II’s plans to modernize the Ottoman army. He quickly went to Oberndorf and came back with a weapon specifically produced for the Ottoman sultan. Abdülhamit was impressed with the gun and wanted to buy more for the army. So he sent an Ottoman delegation consisting of experts and military officers to Oberndorf in 1879, but they were unable to return as quickly as they had left. As the Ottoman sultan ordered more and more arms, the delegation had to stay longer in the city. Turks established warm relations with German peasants and they even attended the city’s traditional carnival, Fasching. This festival was how inhabitants of Oberndorf came to know oranges.
The custom was that during the festival, people in the procession would throw breads, sausages and candies to onlookers. Thanks to the Ottoman delegation, they started to throw oranges as well.
Mahmut Şevket Pasha, the head of the Ottoman delegation, saw that breads called “bretzel” were being thrown by the festival procession, and he suggested to Germans that they might throw oranges instead. Germans complied with the pasha’s wish and the Ottoman palace learned about this development. The Ottoman sultan liked the idea very much, and he started to send oranges to Oberndorf during festival time every year. Oberndorf Museum Director Andreas Kussman Hochhalter explains that the Ottoman palace continued to send oranges until the 1920s. Oranges are still thrown during the festival today.
Cengiz Taştan, who spent his childhood and youth in Oberndorf, says that he clearly remembers that oranges were thrown during festivals when he was a child. However, he adds, no one except old Germans know that this tradition was introduced by the Ottomans. Taştan indicates that Turks living in the vicinity do not know about the Ottoman presence in Oberndorf, but those who know it pay a visit to two graves in the city cemetery.
Mauser, established by King Frederick I of Württemberg in 1811, stopped producing arms in 1946. It was replaced by Heckler-Koch, which now produces hunting rifles and small firearms. In the city cemetery, there are two graves. One is small, belonging to an unknown Ottoman, and the other belongs to Captain İbrahim Efendi. Both are waiting for visiting Turks to say prayers for their souls.