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Atrocities Then and Now: Germany, Turkey, and Recognizing the Armenian Genocide

June 7, 2016


On June 2nd the German parliament passed a resolution officially recognizing the 1915 mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Turkish government as genocide. The resolution also states that Germany, an ally of the Ottomons at the time, bears some guilt for doing nothing to stop the killings. Cem Oezdemir, a German politician in the Greens Party and one of the initiators of the resolution, acknowledged Germany’s role in the killings during deliberations preceding the vote, stating that “working through the Shoah is the basis of democracy in Germany. This genocide is also waiting to be worked through.” Oezdemir’s additional reference to the Holocaust is echoed also in Turkey’s negative response to the resolution. Shortly after the resolution was passed, Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavuslogu tweeted, “The way to close the dark pages in your own history is not by defaming the histories of other countries with irresponsible and baseless decisions.” Most recently, in a speech given at the graduation ceremony of a university in Istanbul, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated,

“Germany, I am saying this again; first you will be held accountable for the Holocaust, then you will be held accountable on how you killed and destroyed more than 100,000 Namibians in Namibia. You are the last country who should conduct a parliamentary vote for Turkey on the so called Armenian genocide. We have no issues, no problem in our history on this topic.”

His reference is to the massacre of up to 100,000 Herero and 10,000 Namal peoples in modern day Namibia by German colonial forces between 1904 and 1907, a massacre that such politicians as Oezdemir are pushing for the German parliament to recognize. Erdogan’s statement depicts a modern Turkey that is doing exactly what it accuses Germany of doing: trying to disguise its own past by attacking the dark past of another country.

The Turkish government gives multiple reasons for not accepting the term genocide for the mass killings of Armenians, one of the most notable being that genocide wasn’t codified into international law until 1951, many years after the killings took place in 1915. It also denies the systematic nature of the campaign to slaughter Armenians, a requirement in the legal definition of genocide, stating that many ethnic groups, including Turks, were killed also in the violence that preceded the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey has expressed outrage in the past when other European nations have recognized the killings in Armenia as genocide. After the current resolution was passed, Turkey’s Ambassador was called back to Ankara for consultations, echoing exactly Turkey’s response when a similar resolution passed in France. Presently 12 of the Europeans Union’s 28 members have recognized the genocide, and Turkey has maintained good relations with these countries despite initial protest. However, Turkey’s negative response to this particular resolution is seen as especially worrisome in light of the EU-Turkey migrant deal that passed this last March. Though Chancellor Angela Merkel recently tried to diffuse the primacy of resolution in Germany’s relationship with Turkey, stating “there is a lot that binds Germany to Turkey and even if we have a difference of opinion on an individual matter, the breadth of our links, our friendship, or strategic ties, is great”, the centrality of Turkish cooperation in the migrant deal still leaves plenty of room for worry.

On March 20th, the EU and Turkey signed a migrant deal in hopes of alleviating the number of migrant deaths in crossings between Turkey and Greece. In the “one in, one out” deal, Syrian refugees arriving in Greece who do not apply for asylum or are rejected are sent back to Turkey. In exchange, a Syrian refugee already housed in Turkey will be granted entry into Europe. This process will be in place until 72,000 refugees are taken into the EU, after which the deal will need to be renegotiated. In exchange for its cooperation, Turkey has been promised that by the end of this month Turkish citizens will be granted visa-free travel within Europe. Also, the payment of 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion) that the EU promised to pay to Turkey to help it manage the influx of refugees has been speed up.

BBC- Migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey

These migrants were among the first to arrive in Greece from Turkey after the deal went into affect 

Even in the short amount of time that the deal has been in place, many of the worries initially expressed during its negotiation are coming to light. For example, there has been ample concern regarding the living conditions of the camps both in Greece and in Turkey. Eyewitness accounts state that the conditions in both are poor, and that these terrible conditions are causing migrants on both sides to still try and make the Mediterranean crossing, either in attempts to get to other nations in Europe or return to Turkey. Applying for Asylum status is also a slow process, amplifying the time that refugees spend in the camps, and the ever present threat of deportation increases low morale. Though the amount of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean have decreased since March, long term effects of the deal, both positive and negative, are still being addressed, and Turkey’s continued cooperation is vital.

When the debates about the German resolution began, the president of the Bundestag Norbert Lammert stated that the current Turkish government “is not responsible for what happened 100 years ago, but it does have responsibility for what becomes of this.” The primary component of this resolution is emphasis not just on historical events, but most importantly, how we remember them today. In that sense, it seems incredibly vital that both Turkey and Germany honor the atrocities of the past by aiding those fleeing atrocity today. The ability of both countries to remember rests on their ability to continue to negotiate the terms of the EU migrant deal, and should Turkey refuse continued cooperation, we should all take it as a warning for what may follow.

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