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Guilt & Denial: Germany’s Recognition of the Armenian Genocide

By September 8, 2016 No Comments
A memorial to the Armenian Genocide, located in Emerson, New Jersey. Image Source: Adam  Jones, Flickr

A memorial to the Armenian Genocide, located in Emerson, New Jersey. Image Source: Adam Jones, Flickr

Germany’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide confirms what some scholars, activists, and policy advisors have been debating for a centennial. The term genocide is not just descriptive; it is unavoidably political.

Deep in the archives of the New York Times, published on February 23, 1916, are Lord Bryce’s reflections as the head of the British delegation to the Anglo-French Parliamentary conference on Turkish atrocities committed against Armenians. One of its most telling passages stated, “There is no people in the world which has suffered more. It has been a victim not of religious fanaticism, but of cold-blooded, premeditated hatred on the part of the brigands who term themselves the Turkish Government and who do not intend to permit the existence of any national vitality except in their own element.”[1]. The American ambassador, Henry Morgenthau, would later write in his memoirs, “When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact.”[2]

Drawing on sentiments such as those expressed by Lord Bryce and Henry Morgenthau, on June 2nd, 2016 the German Bundestag overwhelmingly voted in favour of recognizing the mass killings of Christian Armenians at the hands of Turkey, as genocide. There are now 26 countries that recognize the Armenian genocide, suggesting the foundation of an international moral consensus of Turkey’s wrongdoing. However, the outcome of the vote is almost as significant as those who were absent from it. The chancellor, deputy chancellor, and minister of foreign affairs were among those who voted in favour of the resolution during a test vote at a party meeting, but they were absent from the actual vote.

Chancellor Merkel had to navigate a fine line between acknowledging Germany’s dark history engendered in genocide, providing recognition for the hardships of survivors and their families, preserving Germany’s leadership in the refugee crisis, and maintaining peaceful relations with regional and international allies. As the pragmatic political considerations stacked up against idealism, Merkel attended a previously scheduled speech in Berlin, not the vote.

The Facts, the Myths, and the Dance of Denial

Occurring between 1915 and 1917, the Armenian Genocide was in the thick of World War I (WWI). The leaders of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), which assumed power during a coup in 1913, oversaw the administration and execution of a plan to forcibly deport Christian Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. These deportations were masked as resettlement programs. Communal leaders and men were imprisoned or murdered, whereas women, children, and the elderly were “resettled” to southern desert regions in modern Syria and Iraq. Resettlement was paired with rape, mutilation, and death from exposure, starvation, and thirst. It is estimated that at least one million perished and more than two-thirds of the previous population were deported.[3]

Following the end of WWI, a military tribunal was established by the Ottoman government to weigh the guilt of officials involved. There was a simultaneous internal investigation in parliament amid external pressures from states such as Britain. However, these actions did not last long in the face of a War of Independence. By 1920, the leaders of the new nationalist movement had no agenda for carrying out the persecution of the perpetrators. Jennifer Nixon, in her article titled “Defending the Nation? Maintaining the Narrative of the Armenian Genocide,” outlines two factors that contributed to this shift away from such tribunals and investigations.

Firstly, allowing CUP leaders and officials to be held responsible for the massacre of the Armenian people would have threatened the goal of securing the Anatolian heartland for the Turkish people.[4]  Secondly, many of those directly perpetrating the genocide were, in fact, leading the nationalist movement. Their support, organizational skills, and political contacts were thought to be invaluable.[5] While these are certainly not the only factors, they help sketch out the reasons for Turkey’s ‘dance of denial’ performed on the world stage.

The official position of the Republic of Turkey, both in the past and present, is:

Turkey does not deny the sufferings of Armenians, including the loss of many innocent lives, during the First World War. However, greater numbers of Turks died or were killed leading to and during the War. Without belittling the tragic consequences for any group, Turkey objects to the one-sided presentation of this tragedy as a genocide by one group against another.[6]

This position, according to the Turkish government, is informed by available archival documents, academic research, and oral history. When confronted by opposing research, Turkey is sceptical of academics’ affecting their conclusions, stating, “…compassion becomes problematic if it is selective.”[7] While the official position of Turkey has never wavered, the government’s tactics of denial have shifted over the years. In the period immediately following WWI, the tactic was to find a scapegoat to blame for security measures gone awry. The usual scapegoats cited were Kurds and common criminals.[8] Then, the tactic of silencing discussion all together was used, mainly carried out through political and diplomatic pressure. When this tactic failed in the 1960’s efforts were made to change the narrative, essentially to tell Turkey’s side of the story through influencing journalists, teachers, and public officials.[9]  Finally, in the 1980’s, the Government of Turkey established institutes whose purpose was to further research on Turkish culture and history.[10] Academics point out that at least one of these institutes was used to further their denial of the Armenian Genocide.

Presently, the recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), decreeing that it is not a crime to deny the Armenian genocide, has only helped the strength of Turkey’s denial as it continues to inform their relations with world actors and states, moving beyond official government representatives to religious and cultural leaders. For example, when Pope Francis reiterated Pope John Paul II’s remark that the fate of the Ottoman-Armenians was the “first genocide of the 20th century”, the Prime Minister of Turkey, Ahmet Davutoglu, claimed that the pontiff was conspiring against Turkey.[11]

Despite this obvious and longstanding effort by Turkish officials, 26 countries have now recognized the genocide according to the definition laid out in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948). It reads:

…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part 1; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

However, only a few dozen countries have followed in the footsteps of those such as Canada and Germany, a fact that suggests legal technicalities are not the only considerations that influence a state’s decision to recognize the Armenian genocide The question remains, are they unconvinced of Turkey’s guilt, or do they lack the political will required to recognize the genocide? Learning from the political consequence of Germany’s vote, it may be a combination of both.

Political Consequences

The immediate diplomatic consequences following the German vote were clear. Erdogan, the President of Turkey, was publicly fuming at the result of the vote, declaring that the decision “…will seriously affect” Turkish-German relations.[12] The Turkish ambassador to Germany was withdrawn in less than two hours, and armed riot police stood outside the German embassy in Istanbul in case of protests. Recalling ambassadors is not unique to the German recognition. On April 22, 2015, Austria officially recognized the Armenian Genocide and Turkey’s reaction paralleled what was seen in Germany. After recalling the Turkish ambassador to Austria, President Erdogan warned that the two countries’ relations would be permanently damaged.[13]

Internationally, Merkel continues to rely on Turkish help to stem the flow of refugees to European shores. The refugee crisis is a top priority for Europe – constituting the largest movement of people since WWII – and both Germany and Turkey are necessary and integral players in solving the issues born out of this mass migration. It is reported that Merkel and Erdogan spoke by phone the night of the vote in a vital effort to preserve the fragile European Union Refugee Accord.

Regionally, Brexit has undoubtedly weakened the European Union (E.U.), and Merkel as the de facto leader of the regional organization must not only provide direction after the United Kingdom’s exit, but must also craft a response to calls for similar referendums in other E.U. countries. For example, just three days after Brexit, a leader of Austria’s populist Freedom Party called on the country to hold a referendum on its E.U. membership if the body did not refocus on its original role as an economic and trade alliance within the year.

Domestically, Germany is home to 3.5 million ethnic Turks, and this vote came at a time when Merkel was trying to raise her popularity after widespread discontent regarding her initial response to the refugee crisis. Merkel did attempt to reach out to the large Turkish-German population by stating, “I want to say to people with Turkish roots: you’re not only welcome here but you are part of this country”.[14]  Merkel’s kind words may have been reassuring to some but a poll on ARD television showed that while 74% of Germans supported the term ‘genocide’ to describe the killings, 57% think the resolution will hurt ties with Turkey. Understandably, the German population remains apprehensive.

Although the genocide took place over 100 years ago, the political considerations of acknowledging the tragic event are not yet part of history. However, despite the pragmatic international, regional, and domestic considerations, modern Germany is built on a national recognition of guilt – and on June 2nd, 2016, the country lived up to this sobering reputation. The resolution that was passed acknowledged Germany’s fault in not taking the necessary actions to stop the systematic slaughter in 1915. Therefore, it is especially significant that the German Bundestag overwhelmingly chose to recognize a genocide that Turkey has made their international mission to deny.

As Cem Ozdemir (the German Green Party co-chair) declared, there is “never a favorable time to speak about something as dreadful as genocide”.[15]  Thus as Merkel took the precarious walk along the tightrope of diplomacy, Ozdemir’s statement rang true. Political considerations matter more and more in an interconnected world, yet they cannot be severed from the legal and moral aspects of genocide. Therefore, each country that chooses to recognize the Armenian Genocide will be a small victory, but a victory nonetheless.