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100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide

Richard A. Fuchs, Berlin / cmkApril 3, 2015

Germany's politicians have debated the question of whether the Armenian Genocide should be referred to as such. Shortly before the 100th anniversary of the massacre, the discussion has entered a new round.

Armenien Völkermord ARCHIV
Image: Auswärtiges Amt

On April 24, the world will mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the Armenian Genocide. But instead of a proper commemoration in the Bundestag, there is controversy.

On the day of the anniversary later this month, the German parliament will devote an hour to the debate over the crimes committed against Armenian Christians in the former Ottoman Empire. In place of cross-party unity, dissent is expected to prevail.

The Greens and the Left Party are in favor of recognizing the massacre, which took place from 1915 to 1916, as genocide. But that's just what the governing coalition of Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD) want to prevent - likely over the fear that such a decision would lead to a deep freeze in diplomatic relations with Turkey. Ankara has steadfastly rejected any acknowledgment of the past events as genocide.

"I, personally, am disappointed that there seems to be a critical lack of courage when it comes to saying what really happened," said SPD politician Dietmar Nietan, in a recent interview with the Berlin-based Tagesspiegel newspaper.

Türkei Die armenische St.-Giragos-Kirche in Diyarbakir
Descendants of the victims live near the Surp Giragos Church in DiyarbakirImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Can Merey

'An apology would be enough'

Descendants of massacre survivors have now called on the government to do just that. "An apology would be enough," Ergün Ayik, head of the Surp Giragos Church Foundation in southern Turkish city of Diyarbakir, told the news agency dpa. The Surp Giragos Church is the largest Armenian church in the Middle East.

Armenian historian Ashot Hayruni, a professor at the Yerevan State University, also thinks Germany has a duty. "It's important for the German Parliament to recognize the genocide as such, and condemn it," he said, adding that the government should also actively influence Turkey to relent and make the same decision.

Many representatives of German civil society have condemned the government's continued reluctance to recognize the genocide by name. "Even ignorance can be meaningful," said Shermin Langhoff, the director of the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin, speaking to the Tagesspiegel. Langhoff, who has dedicated a special series of programs at the theater to the memory of the genocide, believes the Bundestag's behavior is fatal and will leave open "a major gap in Europe's cultural memory."

Markus Meckel, a civil rights activist from the former East Germany and a former SPD member of parliament, feels as if the current debate has been pushed back a decade. The Bundestag first dealt with the genocide question in 2005, and even back then the Turkey factor prevented the government from adopting a resolution.

Markus Meckel SPD Präsident des Volksbundes Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge
Markus Meckel has called for clarity from the German governmentImage: imago/Christian Thiel

After much back and forth, it was decided that Germans should apologize for the "inglorious actions of the German Empire" - more was not possible at that time. Even today, according to Meckel, the Bundestag is threatening to stop short. "Anyone who denies the term [genocide] essentially minimizes the disaster and the suffering," he said.

The Germans knew everything

The involvement of the German Empire in the deportation of Armenians has long been considered a fact by historians. What has remained controversial, however, was the extent to which Germans were involved. Were they witnesses - or complicit?

According to estimates, anywhere from 300,000 to 1.5 million Armenians died in the genocide. In Armenia, the catastrophe is known as "aghet" - and is definitively categorized as genocide. In Turkey, however, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, the suffering of those days is still officially considered "war-induced displacement and safety measures." Casualty figures are also disputed by Turkey, which has prevented reconciliation between the two countries.

But Christin Pschichholz, a historian at the University of Potsdam, doesn't mince words. "The German government was fully aware of the policy of extermination of the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire," she said, after reviewing documents from Germany's Foreign Office. Death marches, executions and forced labor - German diplomats meticulously recorded everything that was going on around them at the time.

Armenien Völkermord ARCHIV
As Armenians faced mass expulsions and killings, German officers and diplomats looked awayImage: Auswärtiges Amt

"The conclusion that between the years 1915 and 1918 a genocide took place on the territory of the Ottoman Empire has been known by the German government for the last 100 years," said Rolf Hosfeld of the House of Lepsius Organization, which runs a genocide studies program together with the university.

Germany doesn't want to jeopardize reconciliation

Bu that knowledge is not reflected in action. Government representatives have always avoided the use of the word genocide in connection with Armenia, instead using the terms "massacre" and "expulsion."

During an inquiry by the Left Party in the Bundestag in February, the government once again fell back on this language. The stated reason: Germany does not want to jeopardize reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey. The conceptual framing of the massacre, according to the official line, should be left to the academics.

Armenia, along with more than 20 other countries, has recognized the events as genocide under the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948. About a year ago, then prime minister and current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan broke his country's decades-long silence and apologized to the victims and their descendants, speaking of "inhuman consequences" that led to the expulsion of the Armenians. He did not, however, speak of genocide.

Armenien Völkermord ARCHIV
One hundred years ago, Armenians fled the genocide with some ending up in Aleppo, SyriaImage: Auswärtiges Amt

In deference to Turkey

Meanwhile, all eyes will be on the official commemoration on April 24 in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. And also on the German delegation that will travel to Armenia to mark the anniversary.

Here, too, it seems Germany has deferred to Turkish sensibilities and will send only a small delegation. DW has found out that the government's human rights commissioner, Christoph Strässer, and Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Roth will travel to Yerevan.

Neither Chancellor Angela Merkel nor Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier are planning to take part in an event which will see many other prominent world leaders - including French President Francois Hollande.

Cem Özdemir, co-chairman of Germany's Green party, who traveled through Armenia last month, sharply criticized Germany's behavior in the Tagesspiegel. "With false regard to Mr. Erdogan, the government is downplaying the Armenian Genocide," he said. "Hardly a dignified response toward the victims and their descendants."