Germany and the Armenian Genocide

Berlin's Response to Erdogan?

June 8, 2016
Source: Foreign Affairs

By Thomas De Waal

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 the centenary 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.

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.”

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 [4], 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.

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.

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 [5] on Kurdish rights [6] 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 [7], 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.

One of those under attack is the Armenian–Turkish HDP parliamentarian Garo Paylan, one of those who has championed minority rights and who challenged Erdogan’s bid to be Turkey’s new Sultan. Paylan was hurt [8]in a fist-fight in parliament on May 2 and says that other members of parliament have subjected him to ethnic abuse.

The Bundestag resolution may therefore only make life more difficult for Paylan and his comrades in Turkey. Germany’s Commissioner of Integration, Aydan Ozoguz, who is also of Turkish descent, warned [9]that Erdogan and Turkish ultranationalists “will get a huge boost” from the resolution. Turkey’s small Armenian minority and tens of thousands of Armenians who work semi-legally in Turkey are especially vulnerable to any backlash that the authorities may choose to unleash.

One of the sad lessons of the aftermath of the 1915 genocide is that foreign interventions can often push the Turkish authorities to once again lash out at minorities as fifth columnists and agents of foreign powers. Even if there is a certain historical resonance to Germany’s resolution, the real battle over Turkey’s responsibility is still being fought in Ankara and Diyarbakir.

Thomas de Waal is a Senior Associate with Carnegie Europe and author of Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide (Oxford University Press, 2015).