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German cultural council to Turkey: Mind your own business

Interview: Gaby Reucher / ssApril 27, 2016

A musical project in Dresden has come under fire for branding the Armenian massacre a "genocide." The head of Germany's cultural council says it's yet another case of Turkey's inappropriate interference abroad.

Olaf Zimmermann, copyright: Imago/J. Heinrich
Image: Imago/J. Heinrich

The director of the Dresdner Sinfoniker Markus Rindt conceived an ambitious project in November 2015, alongside German-born Turkish guitarist Marc Sinan. Musicians from Turkey, Armenia and Germany would come together for the concert project "Aghet" in remembrance of the persecution and massacre of Armenians 101 years ago during the final days of the Ottoman Empire. The event was intended to be a sign of reconciliation.

Turkey, however, has taken umbrage in this, and is particularly offended by the use of the term "genocide" on the homepage of the European Commission, a main sponsor of the event. The EU appears to respect Turkey's position and has removed its related pages. But Olaf Zimmermann, head of the German Cultural Council, says that this could become a slippery slope leading to encroachment of freedom of art and expression.

DW: Turkey appears to be targeting German cultural figures once more. This time it has taken aim at a concert by the Dresdner Sinfoniker orchestra, scheduled to be performed this weekend to commemorate the Armenian massacre at the end of the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish government does not view the killings as a "genocide" - but surely that's not all?

Olaf Zimmermann: No, it's not just about that one word, of course. It's about an artistic endeavor that examines the unique fate suffered by Armenians as they were forced into migration. Needless to say, the characteristics of this project deal with a situation 101 years ago. So referring to these massacres as genocide is not a creative concept, but rather builds on the opinion of reputable historians. Those artists in Dresden don't represent dissenting views, but are part of the mainstream interpretation of events.

But Turkey has repeatedly resisted being associated with the terminology of genocide in the past when it comes to Armenians.

And that's perfectly fine. Everyone has to find their own way to come to terms with the past. But trying to enforce one particular interpretation of a historic event amounts to a transgression and is, simply put, unacceptable. What they are doing is like aiming their cannons in the general direction of Dresden to do nothing but hit mere sparrows.

But Turkish President Erdogan skipped the immediate step of voicing his grievances at the orchestra and rather went straight to the EU, which is one of the sponsors of the project. And in response to his complaint, the EU actually went ahead and removed the description of the concert from its website to rephrase its wording. What do you think about these measures?

I think that's problematic. Mr. Erdogan tells our leaders to jump and they seem to ask "how high?" At first it was only our chancellor, who reacted that way to that poem recited by comedian Jan Böhmermann, and now it's the entire EU. Instead they could just tell him that it's none of his business and that we won't do anything about these things.

There have been such interventions in the past already, but they're beginning to amass. And this is on account of the fact that Erdogan apparently seems to believe that the German government and the EU as a whole have become susceptible to such blackmail since we need his assistance in dealing with the refugee crisis. That's why he seems to feel free to intervene in our domestic issues. Both the German government and the European Commission have become nervous and fearful, and the Turkish president is abusing this. This is a considerable problem.

Aghet - a project by the Dresdner Sinfoniker, copyright: aghet.eu
Turkish President Erdogan says that the term "genocide" is an offence to Turkey's interpretation of the Armenian massacre and has prompted the EU to take down such references onlineImage: aghet.eu

Markus Rindt, director of the Dresdner Sinfoniker, says that this amounts to a major encroachment on freedom of expression and freedom of art. Are these freedoms being undercut?

At the very least, we're getting accustomed to a foreign president having something to say about what we choose to do artistically in Germany, and if he doesn't like something he seeks to prevent it. That is a rather unusual way of dealing with things, and I would really, really, really like to ask the government for more backing here, telling Erdogan to keep out of our business.

In our last interview, we spoke about the populist AfD party (Alternative for Germany), which said that it also would like to have more influence on cultural policy issues. The party wants to have a say in repertoire for concerts and plays. Does this mean that culture has become so powerful that some people seek to keep it under control - or is culture rather a means for politicians to exert influence on the populace?

I don't believe that culture has gained in strength, but rather that politics have lost some of their influence. There's nothing revolutionary about recent events in culture, but certain statements are being played up as if there was something revolutionary about them. The satirical clip about Erdogan shown on the "Extra 3" TV show wasn't revolutionary, nor was the poem recited by Böhmermann. It wasn't revolutionary. It wasn't even any good.

However, some leaders seem increasingly to have a chip on their shoulder when it comes to taking freedom of art for granted. I find that rather worrisome. It's not as if culture is growing particularly strong or loud or even bold at the current moment. Not at all. People in culture are simply doing their jobs, and it's a perfectly normal job to pursue. However, that perfectly normal job, which only yesterday seemed to be a perfectly unproblematic endeavor to pursue, is now under threat.

That said, our laws governing freedom of expression and freedom of art are not under threat as such. No one can change these paragraphs, not Chancellor Merkel and especially not the Turkish president. We have to deal with such matters more confidently, resting assured that nothing can destroy our democracy. That simply won't happen.