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Call genocide by its real name

Christoph Strack / nm
April 21, 2015

Up to 1.5 million people died in the mass extermination of the Armenians 100 years ago. Germany's government has agreed to refer to the killings as "genocide" - mainly thanks to President Gauck, writes Christoph Strack.

Armenien Völkermord Gedenkstätte
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Koerbel

So there. Finally. On the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, the German Bundestag will back a draft resolution calling the killings "genocide." Although the word itself doesn't appear in the official title of the joint statement from all the government factions, or even in the document's first few sentences. But still. Naming the systematic extermination of a defenseless people accordingly was long overdue. That means no judgment of political actions in modern Turkey, which is currently grappling directly with succession to the Ottoman Empire - but it does cast them as morally accountable.

Pope Francis was the spark

It is telling that the German parliament's decisiveness and the new debate about the term "genocide" gained momentum thanks mainly to two men: Pope Francis and German President Joachim Gauck. Ten days ago, the leader of the Catholic Church celebrated Mass with Armenian Catholics in St. Peter's Basilica. He spoke then of "genocide," just as Pope John Paul II had done in 2000, and indeed as Francis himself had earlier in 2013.

The leadership in Ankara accused the pope of speaking "nonsense," and angrily summoned the pope's ambassador to Turkey, while recalling its own ambassador to the Vatican. Francis took it calmly. But every newspaper in Germany reported on the controversy, and many members of parliament thought: "yes, genocide. The pope is right!"

And yet, the official German line remained the same. Several times at government press conferences, officials used other words, elaborate words that could describe everything, only that "genocide" could not be mentioned. So it appears to be a happy coincidence (although certainly not a coincidence) that all the church denominations in Germany a few days later announced an ecumenical service in Berlin for Thursday on the eve of the 100th anniversary and the parliamentary debate that is slated to include a short speech by President Joachim Gauck.

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DW correspondent Christoph StrackImage: DW

The former GDR civil rights activist has already chosen not to mince words on several occasions this year, at times when diplomats would have preferred he had been more circumspect. How would it look if the German president referred to "genocide" at the ceremony on Thursday evening, and then, a good 12 hours later, the coalition parties only tiptoe around the term in their debate?

A dishonest debate

Few political debates in Germany about the history of the 20th century have been as dishonest as the current one. Greens politicians clamor around the fainthearted coalition - and yet in 2005, when they sat in government and prominent Green party member Joschka Fischer led the Foreign Ministry, the word "genocide" didn't appear even once in the statement at the Armenian commemorations, but remained hidden.

Now, current coalition leaders have found the confidence to use the term, but one still has to search to find the artfully-transformed phrase in the text. One Christian Democrat politician wrote on Tuesday that in the coalition parties' resolution, "the term genocide had been deleted from the title at the request of the chancellor's office and the foreign ministry," adding that the adjustment would "provoke opposition."

More and more MPs wanted "the genocide of the oldest Christian nation in the world to be named as such." These lines also say something about the self-confidence and understanding of the individual's role in the coalition parties in the government. According to legal experts, the current review of the word "genocide" won't carry any criminal or civil relevance. Since 1947, "genocide" has been a legally broad term. Back then, the United Nations General Assembly used the word while looking back on the horrors of the Nazi era. And so it is for Armenians, who now face a moral, political test. And with that inevitably comes the knowledge of the massacres and systematic expulsions that took place in 1915.

Nothing against Turkey

The use of the word "genocide" doesn't in any way apply to today's Turkey. Politics should avoid creating that impression, something it usually does anyway. But it remains true that dealing with Turkish politics and Turkish society when it comes to the events of 1915 will send a signal one way or another. Part of it is certainly not to contest the multiple estimates of the number of victims from "perhaps only 200,000" to "up to 1.5 million deaths."

The phrase "in remembrance lies the secret of redemption" of the Jewish tradition also applies here: remember, see and take seriously the suffering of others, take responsibility for the future. There have been some signs in recent months that present-day Turkey - this important, proud country on Europe's periphery - is prepared to face up to the debate. Their overbearing, blustering president is not among them.

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