Can Germany Mediate Armenian-Turkish Reconciliation?


By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

n 2005, the German Bundestag passed a resolution calling on the German government to facilitate a process of Armenian-Turkish understanding and reconciliation. Now, six years later, scholars and civil society activists are asking: what has been achieved since then? This was the subject of a one-day seminar on “The Armenian Genocide and German Public Opinion” on September 22, organized by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin. That all-party resolution called on Berlin to contribute to such a process by encouraging an honest examination of the historical record. This included demands for the release of historical documents both from the Ottoman archives and copies of documents given by the German foreign ministry to Turkey and the establishment of a historians’ commission with international experts. The aim was to encourage the Turkish authorities to deal with the 1915 Genocide and move towards reconciliation and normalization of relations with the Republic of Armenia. Guaranteeing freedom of opinion in Turkey, especially regarding the Armenian question, was stressed.

International historians presented updates on the status of genocide research: Prof. Raymond Kevorkian of Paris gave an overview of the history of genocide studies; Swiss historian Hans-Lukas Kieser and German researcher Wolfgang Gust discussed the German role on the basis of official documents and considerable discussion revolved around whether the Germans, allied to the Young Turks in World War I, were co-responsible or complicit, what they knew when and what they did or failed to do to stop it. One important point made by Gust was that, contrary to official Turkish propaganda that the Armenians constituted a military threat to the Ottomans, the German archives do not support this assertion.

The seminar then heard reports by civil society activists involved in engaging members of the Armenian, Turkish, Kurdish and German communities in a dialogue process about their common tragic past. Among the initiatives mentioned were the Hrant Dink Forum in Cologne (and now Berlin), the Association of Genocide Opponents in Frankfurt, the well-known study excursions to Berlin organized by Turkish-born German author Dogan Akhanli and others of Recherche International in Cologne and the grass roots movement of Toros Sarian, an Armenian journalist and editor from Hamburg who publishes the online magazine ArmenienInfo.net.

If such grass-roots initiatives have contributed significantly to educating citizens about the Armenian Genocide, there remains much to be done, especially on the level of formal education. Here, the issue of history textbooks becomes critical.

In Germany the state governments are responsible for curricula, but so far, only Brandenburg has succeeded in presenting the Armenian Genocide to pupils in history classes. Opposition to such teaching by informal Turkish lobbyists has thus far prevented other states from addressing this subject, among other controversial issues.

Two other projects presented at the seminar illustrated the power of dialogue in seeking understanding among members of former adversary populations.

I am not the Murderer, not I

One exciting project is a special attraction for student audiences, which could fill an important gap in curricula regarding the Genocide of 1915. This is not a classroom lesson but a theatrical reading presented by actors and actresses, to musical accompaniment. The piece, titled, “I am not the Murderer, not I,” is the brainchild of Heinz Böke, from the German Bundestag. Böke said, “Until four years ago, I knew nothing about the Armenian Genocide, simply nothing.”

He responded by delving into the history, which included a visit to Armenia. In the course of his extensive research in Germany, he came across the court records of the trial held on June 2-3, 1921 of the young Armenian, Soghomon Tehlerjan (also Soghoman Tehlirian), who gunned down Young Turk leader Talaat Pasha in Berlin on March 15, 1921. Böke saw the educational potential in the case, and, in collaboration with others, put together a play, “The Talaat Pasha Trial — A Theater Project for Intercultural Studies,” which debuted in 2010.

Talaat had escaped to Berlin with German help after the end of the war. Tehlerjan had been deployed by the Armenian commandoes known as “Operation Nemesis,” to hunt down and assassinate Young Turk criminals. The trial examined not only the crime but also the assailant’s motivations: why did he kill Talaat? What had Talaat done? The assassin later explained his action with the words, “I killed a man, but I am not a murderer.” Talaat, he meant, was the mass murderer. The court ruled that Tehlerjan was of unsound mind and could not be considered guilty and acquitted him.

The performances open with a short introduction by Böke on the historical background followed by an Armenian song. This is not theater in the conventional sense, certainly not theater as entertainment, but rather theater as an educational medium. Students watching the play are thrust into the historical context and must think through the choices that historical personalities at the time faced.

In the discussions held at the end of the play, three main themes emerge: the problem of violence as a political tool; the enhanced readiness for violence among some layers of youth in Germany today, for example, in right-wing extremist milieu; and the question of guilt. The theatre group has taken care to stress that it is not a question of attributing guilt to Turks or Turkish immigrants in Germany, but to document that the 1915 Genocide was the work of the Young Turk regime in power at the time.

Speaking to One Another

The other institutional initiative, presented by Matthias Klingenberg of the Institute for International Cooperation of the German Adult Education Association (dvv), was the research project, “Adult Education and Oral History Contributing to Armenian-Turkish Reconciliation.” This project, financed by the German Foreign Ministry, brought together ten university students from Turkey and ten from Armenia who received training in October 2009 in conducting oral history interviews from qualified social scientists. From October 2009 to February 2010, two teams did field research into the events of 1915, hoping to facilitate a dialogue among members of the Armenian, Turkish and Kurdish communities about their common past. The interviewees were second and third generation survivors who had learned of the 1915-related events from parents and grandparents. They came from the Armenian Diaspora, many in Turkey, and also from the Republic of Armenia.

Well over 100 interviews were conducted and a selection (13 in Turkey and 35 in Armenia) was then published in Turkish, Armenian and English, in a volume titled, Speaking to One Another. What emerged from the study was a wealth of specific information about the Genocide — the executions, the deportations, the abduction of women, the expropriation and/or destruction of land and buildings, emphatically including places of worship and so forth — presented in a trans-generational dialogue between the interviewers and interviewees.

The book starts with testimonies from Armenians, Kurds and Turks living in modern-day Turkey. And yet to identify them in such ethnic terms is deceptive; for, as their family histories reveal, the overriding question for them is precisely what their ethnic/religious identity is. There are those Turks who discover that their grandmothers were Armenian, others, presumably Turks, who discover Armenian, Kurdish and Arab ancestors. This quest for identity is not only a human drama as depicted in the interviews; it plays a powerful part in the process now unfolding in Turkey where the citizenry is asking fundamental questions about the past, particularly related to 1915. Although official Turkish policy has obscured the historical record and criminalized anyone daring to call it genocide, the assassination of Hrant Dink in 2007 “was a significant milestone which transformed relations within the Armenian community, as well as between the community and Turkish society” (p. 19). Armenians became more willing to talk about 1915 and Turks sought to learn about the history of Armenians in their midst.

One Turk who had attended primary school in the 1960s in Akshehir in central Anatolia, told his interviewers how he had pestered his grandfather back then with the question, “Grandpa, who were the gavurs?” (heathens or Armenian Christians). As an adult, he learned about the Armenians who had once lived there and that it was they who had worshiped in a church whose ruins remained; and, he learned that after the Armenians were “gone,” the local economy suffered from the absence of their skills. Then there is Mete, a 24-year-old, who began in 2009 to make video recordings of conversations with family members in an attempt to answer the question: “Who am I?” When, in high school, he first heard about the Genocide, he couldn’t believe it, thinking only the Nazis had committed such crimes. For Adil, born in 1983 in Diyarbakir, the question was: why did he have blond hair and green eyes? He was to learn that he had inherited these somatic features from his grandfather’s mother, Sosi, an Armenian who, as a 13-year-old survivor, had been “sold” and married off. For Adil, exploring the story of his Armenian ancestor helped overcome the sense of guilt felt by many Turks and Kurds about 1915, in that they can identify with the victim. The 77- year-old Ruhi reported that when he discovered his mother was Armenian, it robbed him of his identity. Like so many other young girl survivors, she had been “taken away” in 1915 at the age of 8 and married to a Turk.

The second part of the book features citizens of the Republic of Armenia. Many were descendants of survivors who had fled to Russia, or orphans who reached the USSR after transit through Arab countries. In the context of friendly Russo-Turkish relations, public discussion of the Genocide was nil. But in the 1930s, as those orphan survivors reached adulthood, they began to talk, at least to one another. What the researchers found was that, although the overwhelming majority of the Armenians had never had any contact with Turks over the past 90 years, they all had “memories of memories,” passed down through their families. In the 1960s public consciousness of the Genocide matured, with public rallies and campaigns to build commemorative monuments, as well as ceremonies to remember the resistance at Musa Dagh and April 24.

The stories told by Armenians in the new republic are full of gruesome details of the Genocide: decapitations, incinerations, drownings and deportations. A recurring motif is that of “beautiful young Armenian girls,” who are “taken away” and forced to marry Turks or Kurds. Many mothers preferred to have their daughters die than suffer such a fate. One Armenian woman, forcibly married to a Turkish man, strangled all the children she bore over seven years, because “she did not want to have children from a Turk…” (p. 109).

The enormity of the suffering, no matter how difficult for a reader to face emotionally, is crucial to provide insight into the attitude of many Armenians today towards the Turks and Turkey. The emotions that they related to the word “Turk” included “hatred,” “hatred, revenge,” “they are cruel, cruel,” “enmity” and so forth. When asked whether they had even encountered a Turk, most said no. Some feared such atrocities could recur, saying they thought that if Turkey did not acknowledge the Genocide, in the future Turks might repeat the Genocide. Asked to explain why it occurred in the first place, most thought that the Turks wanted to expropriate the Armenians, take their gold, their land, their possessions. Many found no rational reason, saying simply, “I don’t know” (p.133).

Yet, and this is the most important feature of the oral history project, there is a readiness to overcome the hostility, to forgive and to forget. Aram, a doctor from Istanbul, stressed the shared culture of Turks and Armenians: “I don’t think I am culturally different. Because you belong to the same land. You belong here…. Even if you killed each other, even if you don’t look at one another’s face, the same thing makes you happy.” Many Turks expressed nostalgia about the time before 1915 when the two peoples lived together peacefully and guilt about the Genocide. Speaking of the pain, Aram went on: “It can be forgotten through forgiving. Discussing is something, questioning is another thing, but eventually you have to love. And they have to love you in return” (p. 30). The precondition for such forgiveness is acknowledgement of having done wrong. The researchers write: “[F]orgiveness starts from demeanor of the one who acted wrongly. The one who acted wrongly would be prepared to avoid repeating the wrong action again; to avoid repeating the wrong action he should understand, should acknowledge that he did wrong. Then, forgiveness would make sense. Forgiveness makes no sense without repentance. To forgive who? To forgive what?” (p. 134).

Thus the need for Turkey to recognize the Genocide, a key point made in a public round table discussion concluding the day’s proceedings. Keynote speaker Cem Özdemir, chairman of the Green Party in Germany, whose family comes from Turkey, stressed his view that, although he understands the desires of the Armenian Diaspora for recognition on the part of many parliaments, he considers the only “solution” to lie in action by the Turkish parliament. “Healing the wounds lies in Turkey,” he said.

(Muriel Mirak-Weissbach is the author of Through the Wall of Fire: Armenia – Iraq – Palestine: From Wrath to Reconciliation and can be reached at mirak.weissbach(at)googlemail.com and www.mirakweissbach.de.)