Article by Minister of State Michael Roth published in the Tagesspiegel on 2 June 2016.
Catchphrases make life easier. They hit so many things on the nail. However, it is difficult when they narrow down an issue so much that there is a danger they will prevent a proper exchange of arguments. Today the German Bundestag is debating a motion put forward by the CDU/CSU, SPD and Alliance 90/The Greens on “Remembrance and commemoration of the genocide committed against Armenians and other Christian minorities in 1915 and 1916”.
It seems to me that from the outset the discourse was mainly focused on the crucial question: “what does the term “genocide” mean to you?” Is that not too little? Focusing solely on a single term is inadequate given the complexity of the issue. Do we describe the mass murder of Armenians, as well as members of the Assyrian, Aramaic, Greek and Chaldean minorities in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 as genocide? Or do we speak of massacres and systematic displacement? The Bundestag will answer this today – in a decision which, incidentally, it is making independent of the Federal Government. But what then?
Since my visit to Yerevan last year to mark the centenary, this question has haunted me time and again during my talks with Turkish and Armenian politicians and representatives of civil society. What can we achieve in concrete terms? For it is impossible for a German parliament to come to grips the history of Armenians or Turks on their behalf.
However, we can most certainly take a look at the wrong committed by the German Reich. There is good reason why our joint motion mentions the fact that the German Reich shares some of the responsibility, by remaining silent, looking the other way and condoning the mass suffering and killings. That is anything but a minor point. Nor is it a “German reflex”, an almost pathological desire to take the blame. There is ample evidence that the Ottoman Empire’s key military allies bore some of the guilt and this has to be examined critically.
And let us finally stop pretending that the name we give to events in 1915/16 depends on current political issues! Implementation of the refugee agreement between the EU and Turkey or the worrying domestic situation in Turkey have nothing to do with what happened 101 years ago. The dead, the displaced and their descendants do not deserve to have their fate treated as a bargaining point in disputes among states.
Yes, the debate in the Bundestag is important. However, we should not overestimate the significance of today’s decision. The many obstacles which still stand in the way of reconciliation between Turks and Armenians cannot be removed by a parliamentary debate in a friendly state, no matter how earnest.
Time and again we point to our own experiences in coming to grips with our historical guilt in connection with the unparalleled genocide of Jews and Roma in Europe. Behind this lies an unspoken piece of advice: “dear Turks, dear Armenians, do what we have done. On the basis of historical facts, be honest to yourselves and brutally self-critical!” I wish it was that simple!
Is this even an accurate description of how many Germans have dealt with the Holocaust? Here in Germany, too, we struggled for a long time to deal with our past in an appropriate manner and to shoulder responsibility. Germany’s example is thus not really a blueprint for others. However, there is something we can do: we should encourage Turks and Armenians and do even more to help them find projects which foster understanding and reconciliation. Above all, I am pinning my hopes on the younger generations in both countries. That might not sound like much. However, it would finally make the future and not only the past the focus of attention. The most difficult part of the road towards rapprochement between Turks and Armenians is still to come. Today’s debate in the Bundestag will not change that in any way.