With moral force, Germany calls the Armenian massacres a genocide

June 10, 2016
Source: Boston Globe

When the German parliament recently adopted a motion labeling as “genocide” the mass murder of more than a million Armenian Christians by the Ottoman Turks a century ago, the Turkish government reacted the way it usually does: It threw a tantrum. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s autocratic president, warned that the vote will have “serious repercussions” for German-Turkish relations. The country’s new prime minister, Binali Yildirim, declared truculently that Turkey’s conscience is clear and that “no incident... will force us to bow our heads.” The Turkish ambassador was recalled from Berlin. And Turkey’s foreign and justice ministers crudely suggested that Germany was trying to minimize its own genocidal crimes by maligning Turkish history.

Germany wasn’t minimizing anything. The resolution to which Turkey reacted with such sputtering fury acknowledged “the German Reich’s complicity in the events” of 1915-17, when Germany was a key ally of the Ottoman Empire. And it contained six explicit references to the Holocaust. Germany’s government never whitewashes the Nazi genocide; that is why its condemnation of Turkey’s century-old extermination of the Armenians carries noteworthy moral force.

German-Turkish relations have been especially tense lately, and the Bundestag’s vote was bound to aggravate them. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has been struggling to keep Turkey from abandoning the deal it reached in March with the European Union, under which the Turks agreed to take back refugees from the Middle East who enter Greece. The last thing Merkel needs is an embittered Erdogan, who bluntly warned her against letting the genocide resolution go forward. She did so anyway (though she stayed away from the chamber when the motion came up); the chips will fall where they fall, but in the end, historical truth about the genocide was too important to sacrifice on the altar of appeasement.
Germany’s government isn’t the first to officially tag the slaughter of the Armenians as genocide. Some 20 other governments have done so, always amid Turkish fulminating and fist-shaking. Last year, Pope Francis referred to the killings as “the first genocide of the 20th century.” But Germany’s declaration is particularly noteworthy, because it comes from a nation that has wrestled with, and faced up to, its own horrific legacy.

The US government ought to emulate Germany’s example. No American president has been willing to apply the “G-word” to Turkey’s attempt to annihilate the Armenians. As a White House candidate in 2008, Barack Obama insisted strongly that the Armenian genocide should be candidly acknowledged, but since taking office he has never used that term.

Yet Washington has known the truth for a century. In July 1915, the US ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau, cabled that “race murder” was underway — a “systematic attempt to uproot peaceful Armenian populations and... to bring destruction and destitution upon them.” These weren’t random flare-ups, Morgenthau reported, but a purposeful killing campaign “directed from Constantinople.” In his memoirs, he bluntly labeled the butchery “The Murder of a Nation.”

Morgenthau is long gone; so is the Ottoman regime. The facts of the Armenian genocide, however, are unchanged. Turkey’s official denial is an ongoing affront to the memory of the massacred Armenians. More than that, it is a grotesque disfigurement of Turkey’s own image on the world stage. It is long past time the Turks dealt honestly with their history, and for nations that consider themselves Turkey’s allies — like the United States — to stop subordinating truth to political expedience.