In a nearly unanimous vote of the German Parliament yesterday, lawmakers resolved to declare the 1915 killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks a genocide. In doing so, the Germans join eleven other European Union member countries who’ve recognized the Ottoman campaign as genocidal, while leaving behind the semantic reticence of the United States under President Obama.
The Turkish government—which vehemently denies the charge of genocide—denounced the vote in advance, warning that it would have a negative impact on relations between Turkey and Germany, nations that have become increasingly interdependent in the effort to address the current migration crisis. And indeed, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recalled his country’s ambassador to Germany in the hours after the resolution passed.
The Germans, though, describe the resolution as a movement to acknowledge their own complicity in the mass killing of Armenians, rather than to condemn modern Turkey for the actions of the Ottoman Empire. Citing the nation’s ongoing effort to accept its “special historical responsibility” and move beyond its own dark past, the measure concedes the indirect German involvement stemming from the Kaiser’s World War I alliance with the Ottomans.
It bears noting here, too, that the Armenian Genocide casts a longer shadow on the German past, as historian Stefan Ihrig has shown. In Justifying Genocide, Ihrig writes that the Armenian Genocide “was and is of towering importance for German history,” and argues that the Nazis found in the Ottomans a model answer to their own Jewish question. Ihrig shows in the book that German society had wide and public discussions about the Ottoman killing of Armenians, and he maps the racialization at work there onto nationalist German anti-Semitism.
From the book:
There can be no doubt that the Armenian Genocide held a crucial position in the broader Nazi worldview. However, it did not exert its power on the Nazis and within the Third Reich so much through direct discussions of the Armenians and their fate during World War I as through a discussion of what came next: the New Turkey. The depiction and appraisal of the state created by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk during and in the aftermath of the Turkish War of Independence (1919–1923), the New Turkey, by Nazis and German nationalists must also be viewed as a discussion and an appraisal of a “postgenocide” country, as it was exactly in this fashion that it was understood. In the Nazi vision of the New Turkey, this meant a state that had, on a grand scale, “solved” its minority question, in a “final” manner. And in these discourses the New Turkey, the resulting new national body, emerges as a kind of “postgenocidal wonderland.”
This German preoccupation extended through Hitler’s own fascination with modern Turkey’s founder, the subject of Ihrig’s Atatürk in the Nazi Imagination. Ihrig has been careful to deny that there are “easy and automatic casual connections from one genocide to the next,” but these histories illustrate what he calls “the importance and the pitfalls of how we come to terms with the past.” And, as reaffirmed by the controversy surrounding this week’s resolution, they also illustrate that, in Ihrig’s words, “we are far from done with struggling to understand the tragic 20th century.”