On June 2, Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, voted to declare the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 a genocide. The move, which came one year after thecentenary of the Armenian genocide, caught most onlookers by surprise, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who quickly denounced the resolution and recalled his ambassador from Berlin. Judging from past examples, however, the vote is unlikely to seriously disrupt Turkish–German relations.
The Germans are not the first to take this step and they will not be the last. In Europe, they are following the example of Austria, France, Sweden, and several other countries that have recognized the Armenian genocide in the past few years. Almost all historians of the period agree that the mass killing of the Armenians was an act of genocide, although the term is vague and was devised 30 years later.
But the location and timing of this genocide resolution distinguish it. When the Ottomans began to deport Armenians during World War I, Germany was their closest ally. German officers and soldiers had no direct role in the deportations, which wiped out almost the entire Armenian population of the empire, but they did nothing to stop them.
In 1921, the German general Liman van Sanders, who had commanded the German forces in Turkey during the war, offered the first major apology when he testified in the trial of the young Armenian who assassinated Talat Pasha, the Ottoman minister of the interior and the architect of the genocide. The Bundestag resolution picks up where Sanders left off, by talking of the “historical responsibility of Germany” for the massacres.
When the Ottomans began to deport Armenians during World War I, Germany was their closest ally.
The German resolution is also significant because of the shadow of the Holocaust. In the 1940s, the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide” chiefly to describe the Holocaust of the Jews. The term’s close association with the Holocaust leaves the other examples of genocide that Lemkin invoked—including the slaughter of one million Armenians—in an invidious position: they are constantly compared and contrasted with an even larger and more deliberate instance of mass killing. It also helps explain why Turks recoil so strongly from the term “genocide”: they feel instinctively that it equates the behavior of their grandfathers with that of the Nazis.
The German lawmakers phrased the Bundestag resolution sensitively to avoid implying that it makes Germany in any way less responsible for its own historical crime, writing that “At the same time, we realize the distinct features of the Holocaust, for which Germany bears its guilt and responsibility.”
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Members of the Armenian community in Germany hold up signs reading ' Recognition now says thanks' during a session of the Bundestag to debate approval of a symbolic resolution that declares the 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman forces a "genocide", in Berlin, Germany, June 2016.Yet the timing of the resolution is still curious. After all, the obvious time to pass it was last year, during the centenary of the genocide. Even many Armenians have acknowledged that the passage of parliamentary genocide resolutions is a tired process, which may provide them with some kind of therapeutic comfort, but which has not forced Turkey to acknowledge or compensate the descendants of those who died in 1915. After 2015, it seemed time to move on.
But for many German politicians, this was an indirect, if only symbolic, way to answer what they saw as the bullying tactics that Erdogan has used during the migrant crisis, when he threatened to send thousands of migrants toward Europe if Turks were not granted visa-free travel to the EU.
Germany is in many ways a second Turkey in Europe, with a population of more than three million people of Turkish origin. Among these, Kurds and leftists are strongly represented, which means that Turkey’s left-wing Kurdish party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which received ten percent of the vote in Turkey’s last elections, has a much stronger profile in Germany than it does in Turkey. One of the driving forces behind the Armenian motion was Cem Ozdemir, co-leader of Germany’s Green Party and a strong ally of the HDP. Most other members of the small group of Turkish–Germans in the Bundestag also backed the resolution.
The Germans are not the first to take this step and they will not be the last.
In Turkey, the HDP has broadened itself to be more than just a Kurdish party and has become an umbrella group for all of Turkey’s minorities. As a result, local HDP officials in the Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakir have rebuilt an Armenian church, issued an apology to the Armenians for the 1915 massacres, and built a monument to the victims. In Turkey, the Armenian cause has effectively been joined with the Kurdish one.
In Erdogan’s first term as Turkey’s prime minister, he prioritized attacking the military and the old Kemalist establishment, who represent the elitist secular values he despises.
Umit Bektas / Reuters
A woman holds a portrait of Cem Ozdemir, a member of German Bundestag and co-chairman of the Green Party, during a protest against approval of a resolution by Germany's parliament that declares the 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman forces a "genocide" in Ankara, Turkey, June 2016.At the same time, he oversaw an expansion of Kurdish rights and took the historic step of allowing full discussion of taboo historical subjects, such as the destruction of Turkey’s old Christian minorities. During his first term, Turkey stopped being a republic in which only one ethnic group, the Turks, were dominant; other nationalities won a place in the sun.
But in his new authoritarian guise, Erdogan has declared war on Kurdish rights and by extension on those of the Armenians. Erdogan wants a new majority in parliament so that he can push through amendments to the constitution and establish a much more powerful executive presidency, headed by himself. To do so, he is in the process of stripping HDP members of parliament of their immunity, so they can be prosecuted on terrorism charges, removed from parliament, and replaced with Erdogan loyalists.