So Germany has finally recognised the Armenian Genocide. Somewhat ironic, some might say.
After all, no country is better qualified to talk about the organised killing of 1.5 million ethnic Armenians and other Christian minorities than Germany.
Some of the most detailed records of the Armenian Genocide were compiled by German military advisors assigned to the Ottoman Empire, so Germany has always known what transpired just over 100 years ago. Furthermore, it remembered those events when others had forgotten them. Adolf Hitler famously cited the impunity of history to justify his slaughter of six million Jews and people of Polish derivation and language in a 1939 speech:
“I have issued the command—and I’ll have anybody who utters but one word of criticism executed by firing squad—that our war aim does not consist of reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy. Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formations in readiness—for the present only in the East—with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need.”
Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Modern Germany has moved on from those days. But it has taken a century for the country or its predecessor states to acknowledge what happened, and even then without acceptance of its own role in those events. So what is this recognition really about? Can Germany be serious if it now says that it knows what happened, but still refuses to admit that it has actually known all along?
Russian readers will remember what happened in their own country after 1917. The Western powers withdrew a large percentage of the soldiers fighting on the Western Front to try and return the Tsar to power. When they failed, their intervention was rubbed out of history and the Tsar demonised using the same propaganda the Bolsheviks had used.
Europe was still anti-Bolshevik, but presented the Bolshevik coup as somehow inevitable due to the failings of the Tsar they had tried to defend. Even today, with Communism gone the way of Tsarism, no one wants to admit that if Nicholas II failed, those countries which sent troops to defend him also failed. No one wants to admit that if his methods didn’t work, or were morally wrong, those countries which defended him were equally in the wrong.
Germany has not gone as far as saying that the Armenian Genocide was inevitable because the behaviour of the Armenians somehow provoked it. But will it admit that those German military advisers could have stopped it, or denounced it as soon as they knew the facts?
Mauled by a dead sheep
In the light of this, it is hardly surprising that Turkey feels less wounded by the German recognition of the Genocide than those of other countries. Previously it has denounced the Armenian diaspora groups in those countries and their networks of influence, claiming these, rather than objective historical analysis, have led other governments to describe what the Turks call “wartime fighting” as genocide.
This time however Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said, not unreasonably, that Germany should be “the last country” to make such accusations and resort to blackmail, as it has the blood of millions of innocents on its hands. “I am addressing the whole world. You may like it, you may not. Our attitude on the Armenian issue is clear from the beginning. We will never accept the accusations of genocide.” he added.
Erdogan refusing to accept the accusations does not make them less true. It also means there is a risk that Turkey might do the same again if it sees nothing wrong with it. It is this latter point which should equally be condemned by Germany.
But that isn’t happening because no one actually wants to do anything about this historic event. Recognition does not mean supporting Armenian territorial claims, creating an ethnic Armenian equivalent of the State of Israel as compensation or putting anyone on trial. It is a political move with no real substance, a gesture which will have not deprive Turkey of a place at the table, merely be trotted out when some country wants to complain about Turkey but not actually do anything about the matters it is complaining about.
They’re all alike
Germany’s problem with Turkey has nothing to do with the Armenian Genocide, which is part of the blood on its own hands that Erdogan alluded to. It is that Turkey is trying to improve relations with Russia, whilst at the same time pressing loud and long for EU membership.
Germany is the EU country most insistent that any country the EU deals with must choose between the EU and Russia, not have relations with both. Even those countries which fought hard to escape Soviet domination are not as supportive of this policy as Germany, despite its demonstrable failure in several countries where it has been pursued.
Ukraine, Belarus and other prospective EU partners were given ultimatums but refused to bow to them. Ukraine’s refusal led to the second forced removal of elected president Viktor Yanukovych. Belarus, alongside other countries further afield, decided Russia was a better partner because it wasn’t against the EU helping them as well, despite the latter’s stated desire to re-establish its old sphere of influence.
Therefore Germany has to change tack. Rather than saying how much prospective EU partners have improved, it is getting its retaliation in first. Any country which wants to have good relations with both the EU and Russia must, ipso facto, have something wrong with them. In Turkey’s case, this was the Armenian Genocide, presented as an integral sickness of the country as a whole, irrespective of its political positions at a given time.
The country which committed the Armenian Genocide, we are supposed to think, will obviously make equally bad decisions concerning who its friends are. The one thing explains the other. But all would be forgiven if Turkey, long a staunch Western ally, just did this other thing the EU wants. Whether Turkey thinks it is worth bothering to try will be a test if what the EU is really worth in the global political scene.
The court of excuses
There are several political and judicial mechanisms available to address acts of genocide, including historic ones. Klaus Barbie was only extradited to France from his US-arranged exile in Bolivia in 1983, but then finally stood trial, and was convicted, for the multitude of crimes he had committed as the head of the Gestapo in Lyon between 1942 and 1944. Similarly, Efrem Rios Montt was convicted of genocide in Guatemala by a Spanish court in 2013, twenty years and more after the events in question.
Turkey’s behaviour towards its Kurdish “minority,” itself a dubious notion because most of those classified as Turks are at least part Kurdish, tends to support the German notion that an unrepentant genocidal nation will happily continue along this road. But as Martin Berger has pointed out, the EU, and Germany in particular, are actually turning a blind eye to these latest of many atrocities committed against the Kurds. It is doubtless a lot easier to condemn a historic genocide than drag Turkey through the courts of today, but does the one course of action have meaning without the other?
Nothing hits a collective nerve of denial with generations of Turks more than being confronted with their sordid and bloody history. As the Washington Post writes, “there is scarcely a more delicate topic than what historians say was the murder of more than a million Armenians and other Christian minorities 100 years ago.”
The Kurds, however, have acknowledged their own role in the Armenian Genocide, even though they were not a political entity at the time and could not be held responsible for it as a community. Many individual Kurds actively opposed the slaughter, whilst many of those who joined in did so simply to be released from jail and may not have personally killed anyone. Despite this, many Kurdish political parties, newspapers and cultural groups have apologised for the Kurdish involvement in the Genocide, even though it can be seen as another manifestation of their own repression by the Ottoman Empire.
Germany is insisting that, whatever it says about Turkey, it should help stop the flow of refugees to Western Europe. Turkey is responding by asking for more money to do it, whatever that will actually be spent on. But now Germany has accused Turkey of having a national cancer, with the implication that it will take a great deal more money to fix it. It has given Turkey no incentive to apologise for its historic or present day crimes, but has no intention of actually doing anything to redress them.
Thorn by any other name
I have personally spoken to elderly survivors of the genocide, in Tbilisi and other places. One of them, who I am sure is now dead, was a professor who was in his nineties when I spoke to him more than 10 years ago. I remember him telling me the story of a Russian soldier taking a cow from a Turkish family, and giving it to him because he was an orphaned child. He instructed him to suckle it – and he did, sharing it with other Armenian children. A few others survived with him due to the efforts of that single Russian soldier.
I have also spoken to someone who is apparently the sole survivor of a less well-reported genocide – that of the Northern Khogyani, which took place at some time during the Afghan Civil War. One of the various militia groups in that conflict had decided that all the Northern Khogyani were siding with the enemy, due to a change in political configuration between the groups which they had no control over. They were gathered together and given the choice of exiling themselves and changing their names, thus never again identifying themselves as Northern Khogyani, or being shot.
Every single one of the Northern Khogyani succumbed to one fate or the other. The survivor got out a few days before this happened, could find no compatriots anywhere and ended up in London, where he was initially refused status because no one could verify his story. There is more than one way of exterminating a people, and not even acknowledging the existence of the Northern Khogyani is one. If everyone suddenly forgets how to speak German, maybe the Federal Republic will get it.
Germany wants to bash Turkey for “crimes” it is now certain to continue committing, whilst willfully ignoring its real ones and likewise encouraging them. This is not what recognising the Armenian Genocide is supposed to be about. It helps no victim; it does not prevent further atrocities occurring. When people are reduced to political footballs, not human beings, is this not also a form of genocide?