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Opinion

Opinion: Belated expression of German guilt

For decades, German governments avoided using the term genocide when referring to the massacre of Armenians 100 years ago. The Bundestag on Friday forced clarification, and rightly so, says DW's Richard Fuchs.

Actually, it isn't even about this one small word, genocide. All the same, it came across as almost cathartic that both President Joachim Gauck and German federal lawmakers said out loud what is by now regarded as a historical fact: In 1915 and the following years, Armenians were methodically exiled and annihilated on the territory of the Ottoman Empire.

Lammert: "It was genocide"

While previous German governments have avoided referring to these historical facts in so many words out of consideration for NATO ally Turkey, the Bundestag and Germany's president have now forced the issue.

"It was genocide," said Bundestag President Nobert Lammert in the commemoration debate, waving aside any ambiguity. Surely that will provoke an outcry from the Turkish government. And it may even result in a few diplomatic crises of the kind the German government, intent on maintaining a balance, would have liked to avoid. But this historic clarification is worth risking disagreement.

Richard Fuchs

DW's Richard Fuchs

For a simple reason: keeping silent about crimes has never resulted in ending enmities between people and peoples. There is still plenty of acrimony in the Armenian-Turkish relationship that needs to be dispelled.

It's about more than reducing crimes to a definition. And it's certainly not about the legal term genocide itself, as defined in the 1948 Convention on Genocide. Using the term, however, helps understand the dimension of those crimes - which is important in order to restore the victims' dignity and to recognize the distress their ancestors suffered. It's also absolutely necessary, because otherwise future generations would continue to pass on reports not founded on history but bearing the seeds for further conflict.

German complicity, German responsibility

Germany's recognition of the past crimes as genocide doesn't mean Berlin is interfering in Turkish-Armenian affairs. Instead, it is a belated expression of German guilt and to a degree even complicity in the genocide. By exiling and killing Armenian Christians, the Young Turk rulers hoped to create an ethnically homogenous state - and the German Empire turned a blind eye. The Germans had a greater interest in their own advantage than preventing a crime against humanity, a crime that perhaps no one but the Germans could have stopped. Germany's complicity arose from this indifference to the fate of the Armenians - and now, the German Bundestag has lived up to this responsibility.

Seeking the truth

The Germans aren't about to lecture anyone, or take on the role of know-it-alls. No one in this country holds modern-day Turkey responsible for what happened 100 years ago. But, as Norbert Lammert so aptly put it: "What happens to this commemoration in the future is up to the Turkish government."

To this very day, Ankara denies that historical facts - like what happened in 1915 - can be put into a historical context by a parliament. Turkey maintains that is up to the courts, only they are legitimized.

But the debate in the German Bundestag shows that a parliament is in fact a good place to deal with the dark chapters of history. When the president and the Bundestag call a crime a crime, they aren't being bossy or arrogant, and they're certainly not ignoring history. To the contrary: with respect to Germany's complicity in the genocide of the Armenians, Germany mainly presented itself as honest.

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