Genocide Is Genocide: Views from Berlin


Cem Ozdemir

Cem Ozdemir

By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BERLIN — The resolution on the Armenian Genocide, long awaited by the Armenian community especially in the diaspora, and long-feared by the Turkish establishment, is set to be put to a vote on June 2. As the Mirror-Spectator goes to press before that date, it is impossible to predict here how the proceedings will unfold and what they will yield. What is possible, however, is to present the content of the resolution, based on a draft proposal leaked to the press a few days before — a draft which as such is subject to changes in the course of the actual debate — and to sketch the parameters of the political debate it has unleashed.

The unified text agreed upon by the parliamentary factions of the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU), Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Green Party, is entitled, “Remembering and Commemorating the Genocide against the Armenians and other Christian Minorities in 1915 and 1916.” In a series of premises, the Bundestag presents its position before listing demands it makes on the government.

The Bundestag honors “the victims of the expulsions and massacres of the Armenians and other Christian minorities of the Ottoman Empire which began over 100 years ago.” These “crimes of the then-Young Turk government … led to the near total extermination of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire” and victimized other Christian communities, “especially the Aramaen/Assyrian and Chaldean Christians.” It was a “systematic expulsion and extermination of over one million ethnic Armenians.” To characterize it as genocide, the text cites a formulation used last year on April 24, 2015, by President Joachim Gauck, and repeated in the Bundestag debate that followed the next day: “Their destiny stands as exemplary for the history of mass murders, ethnic cleansing, expulsions, yes Genocide, which characterized the 20th century in such a terrible way. At the same time we know the uniqueness of the Holocaust, for which Germany bears guilt and responsibility.”

Further reference is made to last year’s commemoration: “On the centenary, April 24, 2015, speakers of all parliamentary factions in their debate and the German president on the evening before it, condemned the Armenian genocide, commemorated the victims and called for reconciliation.” And, as was the case a year earlier, the role of Germany is cited: “The Bundestag regrets the ignominious role of the German Empire, which, as the Ottoman Empire’s leading military ally, despite unequivocal information also from German diplomats and missionaries about the organized expulsion and extermination of the Armenians, did not try to stop these crimes against humanity.” And: “The German Empire shares the blame for the events.” Due to its complicity, Germany bears “a special historical responsibility” to facilitate the process by which Turks and Armenians work through the past in pursuit of understanding and reconciliation. This point is reiterated and elaborated, as the Bundestag expresses its support for all initiatives leading in this direction and urges the government to pursue the same. This refers not only to relations between Armenians and Turks but also to the state-to-state relations, whose improvement is “also important for the stabilization of the Caucasus region.” The text furthermore notes the “task for education in Germany, in schools, universities and political formation to take up study of the expulsion and extermination of the Armenians, including it in curricula and textbooks, as part of the study of the history of 20th century ethnic conflicts, to transmit this to future generations.”

A central point is that “Germany’s own historical experience shows how difficult it is for a society to come to terms with the darker chapters of its own past. Yet the honest reappraisal of history is the most important foundation for reconciliation, within society as well as with others. In this respect one must distinguish between the guilt of the perpetrators and the responsibility of those living today. Commemorating the past also reminds us to remain alert and to prevent hatred and destruction from threatening individuals and peoples again and again.”

On the basis of these premises, the text articulates what the Bundestag demands of the government, for example:

– in the spirit of the German Bundestag debate on April 25, 2015 on the centenary that it continue to contribute to a vast public discussion of the expulsions and near-extermination of the Armenians in 1915/16, as well as the role of the German Empire.

– that it encourage the Turkish side to openly deal with the past expulsions and massacres and thereby to lay a necessary cornerstone for reconciliation with the Armenian people….”

The emphasis in the demands is on promoting study and reappraisal of the past, seeking reconciliation and providing the means (scholarships, programs, financial aid etc.) to make this possible.

In a section on background, the text, referring to the “greatest and most serious catastrophe in the thousands of years of history of the Armenian people,” states that “Numerous independent historians, parliaments and international organizations characterize the expulsions and extermination of the Armenians as genocide,” and that this, along with religion and language, is of fundamental significance for their identity. It repeats that the German Empire knew everything, but did nothing. It states that Turkey denies the facts, rejects that it was planned, questions the figures, etc. Again, the importance of facing the truth is stressed as a precondition for reconciliation. As for the German Empire’s role, details are given on the efforts of Johannes Lepsius to raise the alarm with his “Report on the Situation of the Armenian People in Turkey,” and how the military censorship banned and confiscated it. A final note on the historical record pertains to the vast material in the wartime archives of the Foreign Ministry which documents the “systematic execution of the massacres and expulsions….”

The Resolution and Its Critics: The Turkish View

From the Turkish standpoint, the resolution was illegitimate, riddled with falsehoods and constituted political poison, and therefore had to be stopped. On May 28, it was reported that a motley collection of Turkish groups, otherwise divided among themselves, had come together to sign email letters to members of the Bundestag protesting the resolution. Over 500 organizations are estimated to have joined this initiative under the leadership of the Turkish Community in Berlin, from members of the AKP, and CHP, to rightwing Grey Wolves, Islamists and Kemalists. (There was even mention of something called the “Talaat Pasha Committee.) Their message to the Bundestag, according to press reports, was: “Over 90 percent of the Turkish population rightly rejects the accusation of genocide, and considers it slander.” They continued with the warning that any resolution would be “poison for the peaceful coexistence between Germans and Turks here, as well as in Turkey.” Their reference to 30,000 Germans living in the Antalya region could be read as a not-so-veiled threat. Although the mailing reportedly went to all parliamentarians, those of Turkish background or who have ethnic Turks among their voters were particularly targeted. The same day, an estimated 1,300 demonstrators from this milieu took to the streets in Berlin, with signs saying “parliaments are not courtrooms,” and “the Bundestag is not competent” (i.e. does not have jurisdiction over such matters).

Foremost among the parliamentarians to be attacked by this coalition was Cem Özdemir, the Green Party leader who has led the Genocide resolution initiative. As he told the press, he had been called every imaginable name: “It’s always the same terms,” he said: “Traitor, Armenian pig, S.O.B., Armenian terrorist, even Nazi.” He remarked that the situation for parliamentarians in Germany, however, differs from that in Turkey. “No Bundestag member should fear being jailed or even killed,” he said.

On May 31, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took action. Although his speaker had already announced that it would be better not to pass the resolution, Erdogan personally picked up the phone and called Chancellor Angela Merkel to warn that passage of the resolution would damage relations between the two countries. Appealing to Germany’s “healthy common sense,” he told Merkel, “If this text is accepted and Germany blunders into this trap, this could worsen all our relations to Germany, where three million Turks live and which is our NATO partner.” Merkel expressed her “concern.” Her office announced she would try to attend the vote, if her schedule allowed it. SPD faction leader Thomas Oppermann commented that “The Bundestag has a quorum even without Merkel and [Foreign Minister] Steinmeier.”

Call a Spade a Spade

If the draft resolution provoked rage and protests from Turkish quarters, it also raised serious questions from those who — Armenians or not — supported political action to condemn the genocide officially. One point singled out for criticism was the absence of any reference in the text to the Greek Orthodox, who should be included among the victims of the genocide. The most important criticism dealt with the way the text deals with the issue of genocide per se. Three leading public figures who are proponents of genocide recognition, sent an open letter on May 30 to the members of the Bundestag. They are Helmut Donat-Freiherr von Bothmer, whose Donat publishing company was a pioneer in issuing works on the Armenian Genocide; Steffen Reiche, former Bundestag member and parish priest; and Prof. Wolfgang Schlott, President of the Exile-PEN in German-speaking countries. The case they argue reflects the thinking of a significant segment of German civil society engaged in the Armenian issue.

Expressing concern that the lawmakers “are making a serious, irreparable mistake” in the draft, they write that the June 2 decision will carry consequences of political and historical nature, as well as in relation to international law. They assert that since 1915 the full truth about the Genocide has been “repressed, denied or at best ignored” by a succession of ruling bodies in Germany and that to recognize the Genocide means taking this into account. Instead, they state, aside from its title, the text deals with genocide only indirectly. They criticize the formulation which refers to the destiny of the Armenians as “exemplary for the history of mass murders, ethnic cleansing, expulsions, yes Genocide, which characterized the 20th century in such a terrible way,” saying it is “inappropriate and unacceptable” in the context of a century of silence on the issue. They criticize the fact that further references to genocide in the text are attributed to “numerous independent historians” or to speeches by parliamentarians and Gauck. The open letter includes a critique by Berlin genocide expert Prof. Tessa Hofmann, who reviews the German role in 20th genocides, from the Herreros and Nama in Namibia, to the Jews, Sinti and Roma in World War II; in the interim period, she writes, Imperial Germany was co-responsible for the Ottoman war crimes on Christians between 1914 and 1918. She attacks the repeated formulations “massacre” and “expulsions” which play down the fact that the deportations were in fact death marches. She also calls for stronger wording to include the Greek Orthodox victims.

The open letter makes its central point forcefully: “In no place does the resolution of the CDU-CSU, SPD and Green Party say that you yourselves consider and condemn the events of 1915 as Genocide. Yet this is precisely the issue – it is the evaluation of the legislative branch which you belong to. It is not a matter of whether Person X, various speakers or part of some professional group present the view that it was genocide.” The open letter therefore calls on the parliamentarians to alter the disputed formulations and/or to add: “The German Bundestag condemns the persecution, mass deportations and systematic killing of Armenians, Greek Orthodox and Aramaic speaking Christians by the Ottoman Empire as genocide.”

Mooting that the parliamentarians would never formulate a resolution on the Holocaust in such euphemistic terms, the authors of the open letter demand adequate, precise language. They underline the fact that “in evaluating the resolution draft, it is not a matter of hair-splitting, but of genocide – the most heinous crime in the history of mankind. And if the Bundestag takes a position on this, it must be unambiguous.” By the same token, they demand that the ignominious role of Imperial Germany’s role be clearly named and denounced.

A more detailed analysis of the genocide debate in Germany will be possible after the vote has been taken. One key aspect to be examined – and which the authors of the open letter reference — is the extent to which the entire issue has become a political football in the Realpolitiking world of relations with Turkey, then and now.

(Note: All quotations have been translated from the original German by the author.)