Germany’s parliament last week voted to recognize the Armenian Genocide – in spite of intense pressure from the Turkish government. While the Bundestag passed the resolution almost unanimously, the official German declaration acknowledging the genocide belies just how much Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has gone out of its way to appease Ankara.
The mass killings of Turkey’s minority Christian Armenians a century ago is recognized as a historic genocide by some 29 nation states, including Russia, France and now Germany, as well as the European Union. The extermination under the Ottoman Empire is explicitly denied by Turkey, which grew out of the defeated empire following World War One.
Merkel was reportedly not in the Bundestag to cast her vote on Thursday, due to keeping an appointed meeting with NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg. Other senior German ministers, Sigmar Gabriel, the vice chancellor, and foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier were also “otherwise engaged” in attending public events.
The resolution was tabled by the opposition Green Party, but it was supported by Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats and coalition partner, the Social Democrats. Merkel had earlier expressed her personal support for the declaration. However, her absence in the actual parliamentary vote, as well as that of senior cabinet members, suggests that Berlin was trying to limit the political damage with Turkey.
In the run-up to the Bundestag resolution, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had warned the German chancellor in phone calls that there would be “serious consequences” if Germany voted to declare its recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Erdogan’s newly appointed prime minister Binali Yildirim had also denounced the Bundestag’s decision to hold a vote as “absurd” and threatened that it would “test Germany’s friendship with Turkey”.
Ankara responded furiously within hours of the resolution being passed, saying that there would be grave repercussions for bilateral relations between the two historically allied nations.
In the days ahead of the Bundestag vote, the Turkish embassy in Germany and hundreds of Turkish associations had mounted an intense campaign lobbying parliamentarians to reject the resolution.
The implication in Ankara’s foreboding warnings is that it may scupper the recent refugee deal between the European Union and Turkey. Merkel’s government has been the main political driving force in Europe to hammer out that arrangement with Turkey, in which Ankara has agreed to take back thousands of mainly Syrian refugees from Greece in return for fast-tracked EU accession and visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. Turkey is also to receive over €6 billion in financial aid from the EU.
Human rights groups and other legal bodies have criticized the EU-Turkey deal signed in April as a violation of international laws on asylum for refugees. In any case, the arrangement has brought much needed political respite for Merkel’s government, as it is credited with dramatically reducing the flow of refugees from Turkey into Europe, and Germany in particular. The influx of over one million migrants into Germany last year due to Merkel’s “open door” policy was causing a severe political backlash from voters against the ruling coalition partners in Berlin.
Merkel is thus beholden to Erdogan’s ruling AK Party to stem the flow of refugees and the loss of votes to the rising anti-immigrant, anti-EU political opposition in Germany.
So although the Bundestag vote on the Armenian Genocide may seem to signal a certain defiance in Berlin over Ankara’s political pressure it is not what it appears.
For a start, the vote was delayed from April last year – on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian massacre – out of Berlin’s concern then to not antagonize Ankara. The decision by the Bundestag to hold the vote last week was bound by statutory protocol. It had no choice but to go ahead with the vote as mandated by German constitutional law.
Secondly, the definition of the Armenian Genocide is hardly a controversy as far as the vast majority of international historians have judged. The Polish-American lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who authored the term “genocide” in 1943 and who initiated the UN Convention on Genocide in 1948, is on record as having said that the Armenian massacres were his primary case study in defining the concept.
Last year, Catholic Pope Francis called the mass killings of the Armenians the “first genocide of the 20th century”.
Why more states have not joined Russia, France, Italy, Canada, Netherlands, Greece, Sweden and others, in declaring the Armenian Genocide is largely down to political expediency.
The United States, Britain and Israel have deferred the question similar to the way that Germany procrastinated so as to not antagonize geopolitically important Turkey.
In the US, some 44 states out of 51 have declared the Armenian Genocide, but Washington continues to withhold federal state recognition of the event as a genocide. Barack Obama, when he was first running for president in 2008, vowed that he would make the issue an official declaration of the US. But over his two terms in the White House, President Obama has reneged on that earlier promise and even self-censors when speaking publicly about the event, referring instead to it as “mass killings”.
The US and British refusal to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide is largely based on a calculation to not rupture the NATO military alliance, of which Turkey is a key member given its geopolitical location. When the US Congress has previously raised the historical issue, Ankara tersely threatened to cancel NATO overflights on its territory, which has been of utmost concern since the US-British invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and more recently with regard to the Syrian war for regime change.
In addition to moral cowardice on the part of the US, Britain and others is the historical matter of guilt among these nations for their own involvement in separate genocides. The US has a case to answer over its extermination of native Americans during the 18th and 19th centuries as well as its mass enslavement and segregationist persecution and lynching of Africans.
The British have a case to answer for tens of millions of humans who were killed under its imperial rule in Asia and Africa. The starvation death of up to two million Irish peasants during British colonial rule in the 19th century is but one of many such native destructions accountable to British rulers.
No wonder then that these two states, the US and Britain, would rather demur on the general topic of genocide and the Armenian event in particular because it could rebound badly with precedent for their own historical conduct.
Germany, however, could not postpone the Armenian question. After all, as a Central Power ally of the Ottomans during the First World War, Germany was complicit in the Armenian Genocide.
Moreover, it was Chancellor Adolf Hitler who two decades later in 1939 invoked international silence over the Armenian massacres as impetus for launching the Third Reich’s Final Solution against Jews, Slavs and other “sub-human races” designated as such by Nazi Germany. “Who speaks of the Armenians?” quipped the Fuhrer to embolden his Wehrmacht officers.
Nevertheless, it is perplexing the degree to which modern-day Germany has wriggled and squirmed on what should be an unequivocal matter.
Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic rule and violent repression against minorities within Turkey has drawn unnerving comparisons with the early pogroms under the Ottoman Empire leading up to the Armenian Genocide, in which 1.5 million people perished.
Over the past year, up to 2,000 Turkish academics, journalists, lawyers, students and ordinary citizens have been prosecuted for “insulting” Erdogan over alleged comments posted on the internet. The latest case is that of a former Miss Turkey beauty queen who was given a suspended jail sentence.
Turkish opposition newspapers have been shuttered and editors prosecuted with life-imprisonment sentences for daring to publish information purporting to show Turkish state collusion with terrorists trying to subvert the government of neighboring Syria.
The European Parliament and no doubt every government in the EU knows full well that the Turkish state under Erdogan is descending into a dictatorship. But yet the EU, and Berlin in particular, turns a blind eye to the violations out of expedience over the refugee problem.
Erdogan’s autocratic hubris seems to know no bounds as illustrated by Ankara’s continual interference in Germany’s national politics and culture. When German satirist Jan Böhmermann mocked Erdogan on German TV and Ankara demanded his prosecution, Merkel acquiesced to the demand. Böhmermann was since absolved by a Hamburg court, but the case shows how beholden Merkel’s government is to Ankara.
If the German Bundestag had capitulated to Turkey’s pressure last week on the Armenian Genocide, it would have been an international disgrace for Berlin, and an admission of abject cowardice. Germany had to vote the way it did.
But the German vote does not disguise the underlying kowtowing and appeasement by Berlin towards Ankara. Merkel’s absence from the voting chamber is proof of that.
The vote is therefore nothing more than a symbolic, academic exercise. It’s a paper tiger and a toothless one at that. In effect, Erdogan knows he has license from Berlin, the EU, NATO and Washington to keep aggrandizing his despotic powers.
“Who speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?”demanded Hitler rhetorically in 1939. Shamefully, today, too many nations still remain silent, including an equivocal, timid German government.