All around the globe the Armenian Diaspora has been campaigning in their respective countries to recognise the massacres of 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 as genocide. This year marks the 105th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide but the successor state of the perpetrator – Turkey – continues labelling it as ”so-called” genocide. After many years of hesitation, Germany became the 25th country to officially adopt a resolution to recognise the Armenian Genocide in 2016. How has this step impacted the perspectives of the Armenian community in Germany?
The path to 2016: What led to the adoption of the resolution on the Armenian Genocide by the German parliament?
The German parliament (the Bundestag) joined the countries recognising the atrocities in 1915 as genocide on June 2, 2016, by adopting the respective resolution almost unanimously. In order to track the history behind this decision, it is important to understand the dynamics within the local Armenian community and activities that were carried out. With this intention, between October-November 2019, we conducted a preliminary research project among some leading institutions and members of the Armenian community in Germany. Besides participating in several events organised by the local community, in-depth interviews (in the Armenian language by Armenuhi Nikoghosyan) were conducted with eight representatives on the 2016 resolution and their perspectives for the future. The collected data does not allow to talk about “the Armenian community in Germany” as such but rather gives interesting insights into different perceptions within the community which otherwise would hardly go beyond their circles. According to the Armenian Embassy in Germany, there are currently around 50,000 Armenians living in Germany. The community is quite active within various social, cultural, religious and political institutions, which have been important actors in the recognition of the Armenian Genocide in Germany. These institutions have focused heavily on organising commemorative events on the Armenian Genocide such as film screenings, literature events, conferences, and local protests.
The Armenian community’s efforts towards the recognition of the Genocide in Germany dates back to 1965 when the first commemoration event was organised on April 24 at Mainz Cathedral by four Armenian students from the University of Mainz, as one of these four students shared during the interview. The first public protest against the silencing of that history and towards recognition took place in Bonn in 1975. However, it wasn’t until 2000 that a petition was handed to the Bundestag to start discussions on the Armenian Genocide recognition. This first attempt to open up parliamentary debates on the matter failed because the Bundestag decided not to interfere into the relations between Armenia and Turkey. Historian of International Relations Eldad Ben Aharon, states that Germany’s reasoning for not recognising the Armenian Genocide was three-layered: firstly, Germany wanted to maintain the “uniqueness” of the Holocaust; secondly, Germany’s role in 1915 was a refrain not to take its share of responsibility; thirdly, due to the possible loyalty conflicts of Turks living in Germany.
After a long break, a considerable political achievement was finally registered in 2005, when an Armenian Genocide Recognition motion was brought to the Bundestag, calling for reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia. In this motion, however, the word ‘’massacre’’ was preferred over the G-word, leaving the responsibility to those historians, countries and international organisations that “describe the expulsion and annihilation of the Armenians as genocide”. Though the motion was perceived positively by the local Armenian community and the Central Council of Armenians of Germany defined it as a “correct signal”, it did not yield the desired fruits. As some interlocutors stated, the resolution of 2005 was not adopted, as German authorities were cautious not to damage relations with their ally Turkey. Against this background 2015 was a remarkable year in the history of Germany’s Armenian community. On April 23, 2015, right on the eve of the Genocide centennial, the then President of Germany Joachim Gauck paved the way, by using the G-word in his speech in the commemoration event in Berlin for the first time. These political achievements towards recognition finally culminated in the 2016 resolution, and when compared to the document of 2005, admittedly, the adopted resolution was formulated in a more diplomatic manner.
Correspondingly, our interlocutors brought forth their different reasonings of the timing. A distinguished academic who had already been engaged for a longer time stated that the resolution was “delivered … little by little, in small doses”. A young community activist pointed out a possible reason why the resolution was brought to life in 2016 only, stating that “most probably they [the Bundestag] did a rough calculation and took into account that the Turkish community is bigger here than the Armenian one, that is why they did not take any steps before 2016; recognising the Genocide in 2015 would have been risky as there was great tension.” Another one mentioned that the success was due to the fact that in 2016 all the activities of the Armenian community were “synchronised and simultaneous”. No doubt, the merit of the success is a collective one, and the Armenian community was generally very pleased with the recognition. Nevertheless, the absence of Angela Merkel and the vice-chancellor during the voting lead to widespread dissatisfaction and criticism among Armenians in Germany.
After the resolution: what has it brought about for the Armenian community?
As it was to be expected, the German resolution generated political conflicts between Germany and Turkey. After the decision was finalised in the Bundestag, it immediately affected Turkish-German relations. The Turkish Prime Minister claimed that the resolution was “truly testing Germany’s friendship with Turkey” and the consecutive step Turkey took was to recall its ambassador from Berlin. However, Turkey hardly “could afford to sever its ties with Germany” for a long time as the latter is one of the most important partners for Turkey.
Though the adoption of the resolution by the Bundestag was accepted wholeheartedly by the Armenians in Germany, the resolution itself is perceived as not enough, “…somewhere in the middle of what the Armenian community needed.” According to one of our interlocutors, a religious figure in the community, the resolution “brought no significant change”. He pointed out that even though now the German officials can use the G-word freely, many people still avoid it, including top governmental leaders, thus underlining the foremost symbolic meaning of the resolution.
Moreover, even after passing the resolution there are still – or maybe even more – difficulties when the Armenian community organises commemoration events. The young community activist stated that ”nowadays [organising a commemoration event] is more dangerous”: on April 24, 2019, a commemoration evening was to be held in a local church in Stuttgart, but there was a phone call to the church alarming about a bomb inside the church. As a result, the event was cancelled. Our interlocutor recalls that the situation is becoming tense every five years of the commemoration, and ”the number of Armenian participants in the commemoration increases together with the number of Turks who are organising counter-protests”. In that sense, the tension between the Armenian and Turkish communities in Germany has not been eased by Germany’s act of recognition but remains to be overcome.
What’s next? Expectations of Armenians in Germany
The resolution is adopted but the work isn’t over yet. There are some expectations that the Armenians in Germany would like to bring to life as our interlocutors shared with us.
First, educational materials on the Armenian Genocide should be incorporated in textbooks in Germany. The 2016 resolution itself highlights that the educational institutions in Germany “need to re-analyse the expulsion and extermination of Armenians by including the issue in curricula and teaching materials and by passing it on to future generations. The federal states play a particularly important role in this process.” Several federal states such as Brandenburg, Hamburg, Lower Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Baden-Württemberg, Hesse and Berlin, have included the Armenian Genocide in the curriculum. However, the teaching process can be sometimes challenging: In 2016, Martin Stupperich outlined these difficulties and stated that some teachers face resistance from Turkish families. Therefore, the community aims to continue to take steps in this regard.
The community also used to ask for and will continue to, erecting memorials devoted to the Armenian Genocide victims. There has been some practice in Germany, e.g. in Cologne, when – with the efforts of the German Armenians in 2017 – a cross-stone (khachkar, a stone-carved cross typical for the Armenian culture) was erected in the memory of the Armenian Genocide victims. However, a khachkar is not enough, as one of the interlocutors stated. Moreover, organising protests against Turkey’s denial in Germany is still on the agenda and was commented on as one “duty of the younger generation” in the talks. The protests will aim at raising awareness among the public in Germany since ”most people here do not know about Armenia, let alone about Genocide,” one of the interlocutors explained. This act has a preventative goal as well since condemning and remembering “reminds us to stay alert” for possible such crimes in the future.
Lastly, the end goal of all these efforts is obviously the recognition of the Genocide by Turkey. In this vein, many Armenians residing in Germany appear to think that Germany should, as a next step after the official recognition, exert pressure on Turkey to take responsibility for the history. A teacher of Armenian language explained this as a necessity in order to ease the pain: “Germany accepted the resolution but what? It [the pain] will never disappear from any Armenian until Turkey apologises.” However, the young community activist explained that “it [recognition] should come out from its [Turkey’s] own people.”
In this regard, the shared diaspora situation in Germany and other countries can be a starting point and should be made use of: it is highly important for the Turkish and Armenian communities in Germany to advance towards “peaceful coexistence”, and this could entail the opportunity of radiating into Turkey and Armenia. One interviewee from the Armenian community expressed that establishing a relationship with Turks should be the next step to achieve. Another spiritual leader highlighted that a dialogue between the Turks and Armenians can be reached; however, it should be done “without putting the Armenian Genocide in question”.
Recognition is just a first step
Overall, the recognition of the Armenian Genocide in Germany is not an end in itself but rather a new starting point for the Armenian community in the country. The Armenians in Germany will continue with their efforts to reach their final goal – Turkey’s and her people’s recognition of the Genocide. Meanwhile, Germany has the biggest Turkish Diaspora. It will be crucial to foster societal cohesion in Germany across the communities of descent. So far, Germany has played a constructive role in aiming at reconciliation, inter alia by financing various international social and cultural exchange programmes for Armenians and Turks. However, for the fight against stereotypes and enmity, initiatives are also needed that enhance encounters between the German Armenian and Turkish communities.