By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
BERLIN — Will the German Bundestag ever make up its mind about the genocide? This is the question raised last October when the news broke that the government coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats (CDU-CSU/SPD) had agreed to put the issue on the back burner, for an undetermined period of time. The reason, clearly, was Berlin’s concerns not to endanger negotiations with Turkey regarding the refugee crisis that is destabilizing German politics and threatening the European Union with internal strife if not dissolution. My view at the time (Armenian Mirror-Spectator, “Recognition, Realpolitik and the Ravages of War” October 22) was that the genocide resolution could wait, if necessary, but that it was urgent for German political leaders, eager to fight the root cause of the refugee crisis, to acknowledge the nefarious role played by Erdogan’s Turkey in the Syrian war. I argued that, however vital in managing refugee flows, Turkey was itself part of the problem, by virtue of its support for the so-called Islamic State. Unless that issue came to the fore, hopes to deal with the refugee crisis merely through negotiations would be in vain.
Last week, the question was raised again and in a forceful manner, when the opposition Green Party forced debate on a resolution in the Bundestag, demanding recognition of the genocide. The lengthy discussion that followed Green Party leader Cem Özdemir’s presentation ended in a highly unusual fashion: Özdemir withdrew the resolution on condition the government parties pledged to reach a vote on the issue by April 24 of the current year, a condition they accepted and sealed with a handshake. What had happened?
Parliamentary Democracy and Realpolitik
The resolution the Green Party hoped to put to a vote was a text based on an earlier all-party resolution, which the Green party had revised last fall in collaboration with experts from the coalition parties, CDU-CSU and SPD. In presenting the motion, Özdemir recalled that all parties had agreed on April 25, 2015 that what the Ottoman Turkish government had perpetrated against the Armenians was genocide. He also recalled that a hundred years ago the German parliamentarians had debated the issue, and then, as now, Realpolitik had won the day; Imperial Germany, an ally to Ottoman Turkey in the war, had explicitly admitted it would do all to keep its alliance, even if that meant the elimination of the Armenians. Özdemir said that the current government, in its plea to postpone the issue so as not to anger Erdogan, was guilty of “cynical Realpolitik,” and criticized it for allowing a foreign government to set the agenda in Berlin. For this reason, his party was presenting the resolution as its own initiative and calling for a vote. In closing, he quoted a letter sent him by Archbishop Karekin Bekjian, Primate, Diocese of the Armenian Church in Germany, who wrote that the aim was truth and recognition; the church leader pointed to the discussion process ongoing in Turkish civil society and urged German legislators to send a signal supporting this. Recognition of the genocide would signify the beginning of a democratic process.
In the energetic debate that followed, speakers for both coalition and opposition parties intervened, all announcing that their factions would not vote for this resolution. The reasons were several. For the opposition Linkspartei (The Left), an abstention would be in order for two reasons related to the content of the resolution; Ulla Jelpke, speaking for the faction, explained that, first, although using the word “Genocide” in its title, it watered down the concept in the body of the text; secondly, the role of Germany, though mentioned, was not adequately characterized as an accessory to genocide.
The speakers from the coalition parties focused instead on the timing of the Green Party’s initiative, pointing to upcoming elections in three federal states on March 13, and suggesting there were opportunistic motives behind the move. More critical, they pointed to the extraordinary European Union-Turkey meeting on refugees scheduled in Brussels for March 7. No one questioned whether or not it was genocide in 1915, and Claus Brähmig (CDU-CSU) was not the only one to repeatedly refer to the consensus achieved by all parties last April. It was rather, he argued, a question of timing. A party colleague suggested the Greens wanted to damage diplomatic relations with Turkey just ten days prior to the EU-Turkey meeting. Then, he concluded his intervention asserting that they would present the genocide resolution this semester, i.e. by summer.
Dietmar Nietan (SPD) again stressed the significance of the consensus reached last April, calling it a “moment of glory” for the Bundestag, and lamented the fact that the current debate was considerably less glorious, due to the spirit of disunity. He too argued against the vote on grounds the moment was not opportune. This prompted a question interjected by a Green Party deputy: “If today is not the right moment, then when is the right moment for the SPD?” To which Nietan replied, “It would be wrong not to reach a decision by April 24, 2016.” If there were no majority for a vote today, he said, no one in Turkey should think that a postponement meant the issue were a dead letter. He elaborated that there were no objections as to content or to the need to acknowledge German co-responsibility. In fact, he urged wide publication in several languages of the wartime archive material of the German Foreign Ministry documenting what the Germans knew and did or did not do during the genocide. (Such documentation is actually already available on the Internet at Wolfgang Gust’s www.armenocide.net.). Nietan stressed that Germany must do everything possible to avoid “sweeping the truth under the rug.”
Speaking for the CDU-CSU, Johann Wadephul introduced the idea of a compromise. Stating full agreement with Nietan, he took a further step, declaring his own “mea culpa” for the fact that the resolution last year had not been put to a vote. But, he went on, there was “no less appropriate moment” than the present to force a vote. “Can’t we sit down together and discuss this?” he asked, appealing to the Greens to jointly deliberate to reach a consensus for a vote in the foreseeable future. Concretely, he asked the Green Party to wait, adding, “We are extending our hand to you, take it.”
In a surprise move to most, Özdemir took him up on the offer, saying, if he were serious, and would include in a resolution the German role, as well as commitment to promote improvement of relations between Armenians and Turks, then he “should say so — no tricks!”
Wadephul answered, in his own name and that of his party colleagues and Nietan, reiterating that it was an honest offer; the resolution should be withdrawn on the understanding that a joint resolution would come up for a vote by April. Özdemir rose, walked over to the head of the CDU-CSU parliamentary faction Volker Kauder and demonstratively shook his hand to seal the agreement. He said it was a matter of substance, not timing. If all factions agreed to explicitly state in a resolution 1) that it was genocide, 2) that Germany was co-responsible and 3) that Germany should intervene to improve Armenian-Turkish relations, then, “if that is a promise, we withdraw our resolution.” As he noted, the pledge was being made before the eyes of representatives of Christian communities, the Armenians, Arameans, Greeks, Syrians as well as German Catholics and Protestants, who were observing the debate from the visitors’ gallery. (Although Özdemir did not mention this, Chancellor Angela Merkel was also personally present during the debate – and was seen conversing with Kauder at the conclusion.)
In response to this handshake, as much a surprise to parliamentary protocol as a traditional gesture of trust, the entire Bundestag broke out in applause. For journalist Peter Carstens, commenting in the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung on February 28, it was a rare demonstration of functional debate: “None of them had in the past months of increasingly poisonous strife over refugees and Europe experienced anything of the sort…. it radiated just a brief feeling of happiness about this terribly laborious government form we live in, which is, though, better than all others.”
Principled Agreement or Rotten Compromise?
It would be easy to cry sell-out and accuse the German legislators of capitulating. Perhaps that was the reaction of some hardliners. But that might be a hasty judgement. As Özdemir himself acknowledged, no solution to the refugee crisis can be found without negotiating with Erdogan and helping Turkey deal with the millions of Syrians who have found refuge there. But, he said, one had to deal with an autocratic leader with more self-consciousness.
Perhaps the debate has sent such a message to Ankara. First, the Greens did succeed in forcing debate on the issue. Secondly, no one equivocated on the question of genocide and all confirmed that a consensus would be attainable. Nietan’s warning, that no one in Turkey should view the postponement as the end of the matter, places pressure on the Erdogan government, without jeopardizing negotiations on the refugee crisis. The Bundestag has in effect pledged that it will vote up a resolution recognizing the genocide by the end of April, and that cannot be music to Erdogan’s ears.
Just how critical the refugee crisis is may not be apparent to readers outside of Europe. The Merkel government has been struggling against immense pressure from abroad and within its own coalition ranks, to find a humanitarian solution to the suffering of millions of people fleeing war and terrorism. Many countries have closed their borders or refused to take in a proportionally appropriate number of refugees, and this includes the United States, a land once known for its open immigration policy. The US, with a population of over 300 million, had taken in 2,290 Syrian refugees by the end of last November, equivalent to 0.0005 percent of the 4.2 million refugees overall, according to TIME magazine on November 30, 2015. In comparison, Germany, with a population of 81 million, took in 1.1 million in 2015 alone. (Again, for comparative purposes, Turkey with 75 million people has received 2.2 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon 1.1 million, or a fourth of the whole population of 4.5 million, Jordan 630,000 (officially) or 10 percent of its population. These figures are conservative and refer only to officially registered persons.)
As should be obvious, ending the war in Syria is a precondition for solving the crisis and the temporary ceasefire has raised hopes that diplomacy may shift the current war dynamics. Both behind the scenes and in the public domain — especially the press — pressure has been mounting on Turkey to end its de facto support for ISIS. That includes NATO warnings against Turkish attacks on Kurdish anti-terror troops. The court decision to release Cumhuriyet editor Can Dündar and Ankara bureau head Erdem Gül, after three months in prison, is a political signal from inside Turkey to the world at large: the two had been imprisoned on espionage charges because they had published photos and facts showing Turkish supplies of weapons to the ISIS terrorists. In short, the truth is seeping out. The court decision to release them pending trial was violently contested by Erdogan.
Viewed in this broader political context, the extraordinary session in the Bundestag last week might be read differently. Perhaps journalist Carstens is right in considering the compromise a win-win outcome, “a compromise that made them all into winners, above all, parliamentary democracy.” Included among the eventual winners are those rightly demanding genocide recognition.
(The author can be reached at [email protected])