Germany and the debate on 1915
On 22 February 2005, the CDU/CSU parliamentary group tabled a motion on the "Commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the beginning of the expulsions and massacres of the Armenians on 24 April 1915 – Germany must make a contribution to reconciliation between Turks and Armenians". The text did not mention the word genocide, referring instead to "deportations and mass murders". Turkey, the CDU/CSU members complained, denies any intent.
"This dismissive attitude is contradictory to the idea of reconciliation that is the foundation of the community of values existing in the European Union, of which Turkey wishes to become a member."
The motion also acknowledged the role of the German Reich in the tragedy. German leaders,
"despite urgent petitions submitted to the Chancellor of the Reich by many prominent Germans from academic, political and religious spheres, failed to exert any influence on their Ottoman ally by any means other than mere diplomatic notes."
"The German Bundestag bows in commemoration of the victims of state violence, murder and expulsion among the Armenians. It regrets the dubious role of the German Reich, which had information from the Foreign Office regarding the organised annihilation of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, but still did not even attempt to intervene."
No open debate on the issue is possible in Turkey, the motion lamented. Researchers trying to investigate the events of 1915 face prosecution. The motion also referred to Armenians and Turks living in Germany:
"Especially in view of the large number of Muslims from Turkey living in Germany, it is an important task to recall the past and thereby contribute to reconciliation. As Germans, we bear a special responsibility and therefore appeal to Turks and Armenians alike to seek paths towards reconciliation and understanding in order to overcome the divides of the past."
The motion ends with 5 recommendations to the Federal Government:
- "to advocate that Turkey unconditionally examine its role vis-à-vis the Armenian people, in history and in the present day,
- to advocate the granting of freedom of speech in Turkey, particularly also as regards the massacre of Armenians,
- to work towards Turkey immediately normalising its relations with Armenia,
- to make its own contribution to achieving agreement between Turks and Armenians through reconciliation and forgiveness of historical guilt,
- to make a contribution to the expulsion of the Armenians also being confronted in Germany, as it is an integral part of confronting the history of ethnic conflicts in the 20th century."
The motion was signed by 18 CDU/CSU MPs, among them the current chancellor Angela Merkel, current economy minister Karl-Theodor von und zu Guttenberg, and former economy minister Michael Glos.
On 21 April 2005, SPD MP Gernot Ehrler made a press statement on behalf of his parliamentary group. The text, entitled "Make the commemoration of the fate of the Armenians a starting point of reconciliation", called the deportations genocide.
"The Bundestag acknowledges German joint responsibility in this genocide – partly through approval and through failure of efficient counter measures – and therefore asks the Armenian people for forgiveness."
The statement also made a strong link between coming to terms with the past and the European integration process.
"The SPD parliamentary group hopes that this debate will deliver a fruitful impulse for a reconciliation process, which constitutes an important basis for the further integration process of Turkey on the way to Europe."
On 21 April 2005, the motion was discussed in the parliament plenary. As Annette Schaefgen described it:
The debate in the Bundestag put a damper on chancellor Schroder's state visit to Turkey in early May 2005. A month later, however, on 16 June 2005, the Bundestag unanimously adopted a slightly revised motion, tabled jointly by the SPD, CDU/CSU, Alliance 90/Greens and the FDP, on "Remembering and commemorating the expulsions and massacres of the Armenians in 1915 – Germany must make a contribution to reconciliation between Turks and Armenians".
"Unambiguously, the MPs Markus Meckel (SPD) and Fritz Kuhn (Greens) called the crime by its name and named it 'genocide' whereas the Union parties deliberately abstained from it not to annoy Turkey."
The Bundestag was requested to adopt the following motion:
"The German Bundestag bows down in commemoration of the victims of violence, murder and expulsion which the Armenian people suffered before and during the First World War. It deplores the deeds of the Young Turks government of the Ottoman Empire, which led to the almost total annihilation of the Armenians in Anatolia. It also regrets the inglorious role of the German Reich which, in the face of the wide variety of information available regarding the organised expulsion and annihilation of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, did not even attempt to stop the atrocities."
The word 'genocide' is used in the resolution only once:
"Numerous independent historians, parliaments and international organizations qualified the deportation and extermination of Armenians as genocide."
Despite the cautious wording, the resolution set off a wave of angry reactions from Turkish diplomats and politicians. Mehmet Ali Irtemcelik, the Turkish ambassador to Germany, had already accused the CDU/CSU of becoming "the spokespersons of the fanatic Armenian nationalism, which is using organized terror around the world." Now Irtemcelik called the adopted resolution a "gross defamation of Turkish history". Prime Minister Erdogan decried that the Bundestag had bowed to lobby groups: "I find this very ugly." The Turkish foreign ministry warned of negative consequences for bilateral relations: "With great regret we have to state that none of our warnings were taken into account by the Bundestag." "The decision is full of mistakes," added then foreign minister Abdullah Gül. "It talks about the UN's determination concerning this issue. However, international institutions have no determination about it […]. This decision opens the door to provoking enmity towards Turkey."
The Turkish embassy in Berlin sent material to German MPs stressing that there were victims on both sides and citing the "provocation of massacres through Armenian terrorists." It was to no avail. German Green politician Cem Ozdemir, the most prominent German politician of Turkish descent, noted simply that "With state propaganda, which has worked far too long in a closed society, you cannot continue in an international debate."
Surviving Herero after the escape through the arid desert of Omaheke in German South-West Africa (modern day Namibia).
Photo: Wikipedia Commons
In fact, one year before passing this resolution Germany had itself overcome its hesitation – and fears of possible legal consequences – and recognised a genocide committed in 1904 in Nambia. In response to a Herero uprising that killed around 130 German settlers and soldiers, colonial troops led by Lothar von Trotha ordered the Hereros to leave Namibia or be killed. Men, women and children were subsequently massacred or driven into the desert and left to die. Of some 100,000 people, only 15,000 survived. In 2001, the Hereros filed a USD 4 billion lawsuit against the German government and two US-based German companies. The claim was opposed by the German government, who argued the international humanitarian laws on the protection of combatants and civilians did not exist at the time of the conflict.1
In August 2004, the German development aid minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul attended a ceremony in Okakarara, Namibia. She had come to issue a formal apology for what historians have called the first genocide of the 20th century, committed by German colonial troops during the Herero uprising of 1904:
"We Germans accept our historic and moral responsibility and the guilt incurred by Germans at that time … The atrocities committed at that time would have been termed genocide."2
When the German apology was finally forthcoming, exactly a hundred years after the events, the court proceedings were abandoned.
1.Andrew Meldrum, "German minister says sorry for genocide in Namibia", The Guardian, 16 August 2004.