The Bundestag will approve a symbolic resolution today (2 June) that declares the 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman forces a “genocide”, a move that risks aggravating tensions with Turkey at a sensitive time for Berlin and its European partners.
Turkey rejects the idea that the killings of up to 1.5 million Christian Armenians during World War One amounted to a genocide and has warned German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the run-up to the parliament’s vote that it will damage bilateral ties.
The timing could not be more awkward for Merkel, who has staked her political future on a deal with Turkey under which Ankara has agreed to stem the flow of refugees to Europe in exchange for cash, visa-free travel rights and accelerated talks on European Union membership.
After repeated delays over the past year, Merkel is powerless to stop the resolution, which has been championed by the opposition Greens, and is also supported by lawmakers from her conservative bloc and the centre-left Social Democrats.
Berlin is expecting a backlash from Ankara. Last year, when neighbouring Austria passed a similar declaration, Turkey recalled its ambassador to Vienna and warned of “permanent negative effects” on relations.
But German officials hope the vote will not undermine the migrant deal between the EU and Turkey, which has been under a cloud since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pushed out his prime minister last month and began questioning parts of the agreement.
“We can only hope this doesn’t lead to an over-reaction from the Turkish side,” said Franz Josef Jung, a senior lawmaker in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
“Despite some of his rhetoric, we believe Erdoğan has a strong interest in making the migrants deal work and will not allow this to get in the way,” added a German official close to Merkel who requested anonymity.
Merkel will not be in the Bundestag for the vote due to public appointments, a spokeswoman said.
The resolution uses the word “genocide” in the headline and text. It also acknowledges that the German Empire, then a military ally of the Ottomans, did nothing to stop the killings.
“The fate of the Armenians is exemplary in the history of mass exterminations, ethnic cleansing, deportations and yes, genocide, which marked the 20th century in such a terrible way,”the resolution reads.
More than 20 other countries, including France, have passed similar resolutions in past years, infuriating Turkey, which accepts that many Armenians were massacred in 1915 but denies there was any organised campaign to wipe them out.
Over a thousand Turks demonstrated against the resolution on Saturday in front of the Reichstag building in Berlin and some German lawmakers say they have been bombarded with hate mail and insults on social media for supporting the motion.
Following centuries of alternating Ottoman and Persian rule, Armenians by the mid-19th century lived across the Russian and Ottoman empires.
Between 1.7 and 2.3 million Armenians were living in eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire by 1915, according to estimates of Western scholars.
Ottoman authorities had been suspicious about the loyalty of Armenian subjects since the late 19th century when a nationalist movement gained momentum, seeking autonomy from Ottoman rule.
An estimated 100,000 to 300,000 Armenians are thought to have been killed in 1895-1896 in the so-called Hamidian massacres under sultan Abdul Hamid II. In 1905 he narrowly escaped an Armenian attempt to assassinate him with a bomb.
In 1914, the Ottoman Empire entered World War I on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary.
As major battles erupted in Armenian-inhabited provinces, the Ottoman authorities unleashed a propaganda campaign portraying Armenians as an "enemy within".
On 24 April 1915, hundreds of Armenian community leaders and intellectuals suspected of being hostile to the Ottoman government were rounded up in Constantinople, present-day Istanbul.
Most of them were later executed or deported.
24 April is commemorated by Armenians as Genocide Remembrance Day.
Following two laws authorising deportation of Armenians and confiscation of their property, hundreds of thousands were marched into a desert in present-day Syria. Those who survived were put into 25 concentration camps.
Armenians were subjected to mass shooting, burning and poisoning, according to accounts by foreign diplomats and intelligence agents at the time.
On 30 October 1918, the Ottoman Empire surrendered to the Allied powers -- Britain, Russia and France. The armistice agreement provided for the return of Armenian deportees to their homes.
In February 1919, a court-martial in Constantinople found a number of top Ottoman officials guilty of war crimes, including against Armenians, and sentenced them to death, though failed to prosecute those who had fled the country.
Armenia says up to 1.5 million people were killed between 1915 and 1917 and has long pushed for international recognition of the killings as genocide.
Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, accepts that massacres and deportations were carried out but describes the bloodshed as an internecine conflict.
Ankara argues that 300,000 to 500,000 Armenians and at least as many Turks died in civil strife when Armenians rose up against their Ottoman rulers and sided with invading Russian troops.
In April 2014, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for the first time offered his condolences over the massacres, calling them "our shared pain".
Yerevan dismissed the statement.
The massacres were abundantly documented in numerous official records and accounts of eyewitnesses, including by foreign diplomats.
Describing the bloodshed in a July 1915 cable to the Department of State, the US ambassador Henry Morgenthau said: "A campaign of race extermination is in progress under a pretext of reprisal against rebellion".
Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who in the 1940s coined the word genocide, cited the massacres as a defining example of the term's meaning.
In 2000, 126 scholars - including Nobel Prize-winner Elie Wiesel, historian Yehuda Bauer, and sociologist Irving Horowitz - published a statement in The New York Times, affirming that "the World War I Armenian genocide is an incontestable historical fact".
'Intent to destroy'
The 1948 UN Genocide Convention defines the crime as acts "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group".
Yerevan says that the Armenian massacres are today recognised as genocide by more than 20 countries, including France and Russia, as well as the European Parliament and the Council of Europe.
US President Barack Obama had pledged in his campaign that he "will recognise the Armenian genocide" if elected, but has thus far avoided using the politically charged term, stressing however that his "view of that history has not changed".
Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was killed in 2007 after openly saying that the events of 1915 were genocide.