As expected, the German parliament voted on Thursday to become the 26th nation to define the mass murder of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in 1915 as genocide – though the representatives had to do so in the much-criticized absence of Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
The nearly unanimous declaration predictably drew emotional reactions from Germany’s Turkish and Armenian communities. Some 1,500 Turks gathered at the Brandenburg Gate on Wednesday to protest against the impending debate, though the Turkish Community in Germany (TGD), the largest community organization in the country, distanced itself from the demo.
Nevertheless, TGD chairman Gökay Sofuoglu criticized the Bundestag’s resolution as an unnecessary “political show” that could only harm relations between Germans and German-Turks living in the country. “The resolution mixes day-to-day politics with a historical question that should be re-appraised scientifically,” he said in a statement.
But for Germany’s Armenians, estimated by the Armenian Embassy at between 50,000 and 60,000, the resolution is more than welcome. “It’s a historic day for all Armenians of Germany,” said Ani Smith-Dagesyan, of the Central Council of Armenians in Germany (ZAD). “We really appreciate the decision of the Bundestag.”
“It does take a long time for a government to process something like this – until you arrive at this acceptance and then make this decision,” said Mari Davidian, of Berlin’s Armenian community organization. “It’s long overdue. But better late than never.”
The Berlin-based organization “Working Group Recognition – Against Genocide, for International Understanding” (AGA) had been collecting signatures in support of the bill for several weeks. The petition, many of whose 353 signatories are Turks, argued that this wasn’t an attack on Turkey: “We believe that the passing of this bill in the German parliament, albeit very belatedly, will be to the benefit of Germany helping it to come to terms with its own historical responsibility as the then military and political ally of the Ottoman Empire.”
Davidian said that relations between Armenians and Turks in Germany are still very difficult. “They are very strained,” she said. “I hope it gets better, also because of the Bundestag’s decision, now that the truth is finally being talked about. At the moment we’re still more in an argumentative and defensive mode.”
“I think there’s still lots of pressure coming from Turkish organizations in Germany, and from the Turkish government, which does not allow Armenians and Turks to get together, even in Germany,” said Smith-Dagesyan. “They encouraged them to go on the streets to demonstrate against the resolution.”
But she was careful not to generalize about Germany’s Turks. “There are some small initiatives and civil groups and activists and journalists who do not share those opinions, but all in all I would say the Turkish position was not very helpful in the last two weeks,” she said.
Both the ZAD and the Berlin Armenian organization have organized joint cultural events with Turkish groups, but often in the context of general migrant organizations, or with other groups that represent minorities in Turkey, such as Kurds or Alawites.
Caveats to the resolution
The AGA, which has been pressing the German government on the issue for the past 16 years, wasn’t totally happy with the bill adopted by the parliament. “In principle we welcome it, even though we would have preferred a more courageous and precise formulation,” its statement said.
The AGA accused the Bundestag of “hiding behind the opinion of a third party” by underlining that it was not a judicial body, and so ducking out of forming its own evaluation of the genocide.
The AGA also went on to say that there was still much that Germany could do, beyond the resolution. “With the exception of the state of Brandenburg, the Ottoman genocide is missing from the curriculums and teaching materials in German states,” it said.
Davidian agreed. “There are Armenian and Turkish children in those schools, and others,” she said. “So as a neutral country Germany could confront the issue with the truth and not just allow the children to hear from their families or from the German-Turkish citizens that there was no genocide.”
“I think stimulating civil society movements in Turkey would help a lot too,” added Smith-Dagesyan. “There are some initiatives in Turkey, but with the current authoritarian government it’s just impossible to do anything big to achieve something. I think the next step that Germany could take is to help stimulate the NGO sector in Turkey.”