Next week, German President Joachim Gauck could call the genocide in Armenia by name. This would be disgraceful for the German government, which instead wants to avoid the word “genocide”. But criticism is constantly growing louder – even among its own ranks.
Will President Gauck utter the words that the grand coalition, out of consideration for its Nato partner Turkey, wants to avoid all together?
For weeks, the centre-right alliance and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) have debated whether to clearly define the 1915 Armenian Genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire as genocide.
Due to pressure from the Chancellory and the Foreign Office, a corresponding motion from both ruling factions was defused when the term ‘genocide’ was taken out of the title.
But now the government must reckon with the head of state choosing clear words on the evening before the 100th anniversary of this crime against humanity.
Opposition speaks of moral cowardice
At the invitation of Christian churches in Germany, Gauck will participate in an ecumenical service on 23 April in the Berlin Cathedral, in remembrance of the “genocide perpetrated against Armenians, Arameans and Greeks of Pontos”.
Following the ceremony, the German President will make a brief speech. In coalition circles, his acceptance, alone, has been interpreted as a clear sign that Gauck will call the genocide by name, without respect for diplomatic considerations.
In that case, the centre-right alliance and SPD will face the threat of disgrace. On the following day, the 100th anniversary of the genocide, the coalition plans to introduce and discuss the toned-down version of its motion in the Bundestag. Shortly after, the Green and Left parties will accuse the coalition of moral cowardice and opportunism, in all probability referring to the President’s words in the same breath.
Meanwhile, leaders of the coalition are faced with a more uncomfortable situation: within its own ranks, the restraint considering Turkey is also seen as embarrassing. This could also come to light in the parliament on Friday (17 April).
Erika Steinbach, who hails from the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is chairman of the working group on human rights in the centre-right Bundestag faction. It would be “deeply humiliating”, for the Bundestag not to call the genocide against Armenia by name, she told the Tagesspiegel newspaper.
The “credibility of German human rights policy” is at stake here, Steinbach warned. She has already had her name put on the list of speakers for Friday’s session. The CDU politician said, “In the Bundestag, I will clearly say that it was a genocide.”
The SPD’s human rights policy spokesman, Frank Schwabe, is struggling with the guidelines from the administration of Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
“The German government must be capable of clearly naming the Armenian Genocide,” Schwabe said. “Otherwise we are robbing ourselves of the opportunity to define current and future genocides as such.”
With this opinion, Steinbach and Schwabe are by no means alone within their respective factions. When the motion is discussed in the parliamentary group sessions this coming Tuesday (21 April), chairmen Volker Kauder (CDU) and Thomas Oppermann (SPD) will have to reckon with substantial opposition.
“If we were to vote freely in the faction, independent of diplomatic considerations, the genocide would be defined as such,” Schwabe said assuredly.
At the latest, pressure has been mounting in the centre-right alliance since last weekend, when Pope Francis decried the genocide as the first of the 20th century, and was consequently rebuked by the Turkish government.
Central Council of Jews: Germany has a special responsibility
On Wednesday (15 April) the Central Council of Jews in Germany left little room for doubt regarding its position.
“100 years ago, over a million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were deported at the government’s command. They were directly murdered or starved and died of thirst in the desert,” the organisation’s president, Josef Schuster, told Tagesspiegel.
“This terrible event should be called what it was: a genocide,” he argued. As a result, Schuster sees the German government as having a special responsibility, because German officers were among the accessories and accomplices.
“Later, Hitler virtually used the Armenian Genocide as a model for the extermination of the Jews,” Schuster said.
Armenian sources indicate that 1.5 million people fell victim to the genocide. Among historians, it has long been undisputed that the 1915 atrocities of the Ottoman Empire should be recognised as genocide.
More than a dozen countries including France, Switzerland and the Netherlands define the displacement, rape and massacres that took place as genocide. The United Nations and the European Parliament also share this view.
The 100th anniversary of the start of these crimes is a significant opportunity to process the past, a resolution from Wednesday evening indicated.
Meanwhile, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has for years rejected the accusation that a genocide took place in Armenia. Even now he emphasised, “There is no black spot of genocide on our country.”
Hundreds of thousands of Christian Armenians died during forced removals in 1915 by the Ottoman army from what is now Eastern Turkey, but Turkey denies that the move constituted genocide.
The country's attitude vis-à-vis the bloodshed in 1915 is one of the defining aspects of modern Turkish diplomacy, with any use of the term ‘genocide’ either within Turkey or abroad swiftly denounced by Ankara.
Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was killed in 2007 after openly saying that the events of 1915 were genocide.