The Turkish Taboo

The Armenian Genocide refers to the deliberate and systematic destruction of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire during and just after World War I. It was implemented through wholesale massacres and deportations, with the deportations consisting of forced marches under conditions designed to lead to the death of the deportees. The total number of resulting Armenian deaths is generally held to have been between one and one and a half million. Other ethnic groups were similarly attacked by the Ottoman Empire during this period, including Assyrians and Greeks, and some scholars consider those events to be part of the same policy of extermination. It is widely acknowledged to have been one of the first modern genocides, as scholars point to the systematic, organized manner in which the killings were carried out to eliminate the Armenians, and it is the second most-studied case of genocide after the Holocaust. The word genocide was coined in order to describe these events. [ Rechtehinweis: picture alliance/CPA Media ]
The Armenian Genocide refers to deliberate murder of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire during and just after World War I.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    A planned vote by the German parliament to classify the persecution of the Armenians at the end of World War I as genocide will likely inflame Berlin’s already tense relations with Ankara.

  • Facts


    • As many as 1.5 million Armenians died in massacres and death marches in the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1917.
    • In 1987, the European Parliament labeled the persecution of the Armenians as genocide; In 2011, the French National Assembly made denying the Armenian genocide an offense punishable by law.
    • On Thursday, the German parliament, the Bundestag, is voting on whether to also recognize the killings as genocide.
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Recep Tayyip Erdogan sounded the call and millions came. With a bombastic mass rally, the Turkish president celebrated the 563rd anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople on Sunday.

As a leader who likes to bask in the bygone glory of the Ottoman Empire, Mr. Erdogan reacts all the more indignantly when this supposed golden era is tarnished.

And the German Bundestag is threatening to do just that with its planned vote on a resolution labeling the persecution of the Armenians during World War I as genocide.

The vote hasn’t even happened yet and the resolution is straining the already tense relationship between Ankara and Berlin. Turkish groups have protested and Mr. Erdogan’s spokesman warned the Bundestag against “political exploitation” of the Armenian subject.

The debate in Turkey isn't helped by lectures from the outside like the Bundestag resolution.

Though the exact number of victims is still a subject of debate, most serious historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians perished in the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1917. They were either massacred or died of thirst in death marches through the Mesopotamian desert.

For the Ottomans, the Christian Armenians were considered a fifth column due to their close ties to Russia, Istanbul’s war-time enemy.

The tragedy remains taboo in Turkey and is regularly minimized. Ankara claims that 200,000 Armenians died due to “sickness and the confusion of war,” not because of systematic persecution.

Turkey has political motivations for doing so. Officially calling the persecution of the Armenians genocide would not only enrage nationalist Turks, it would also open the door to reparation claims.

There are good reasons for Germany to classify the massacres as genocide – as most historians do. Diplomats of the German Empire knew about the massacres. Berlin condoned them and covered for its war-time Ottoman allies.

That makes Germany an accomplice to the massacres. One could argue that this gives the Bundestag a legitimate reason, even a responsibility, to debate the issue.

But is the legislature really the best venue for this?

The question of whether or not the persecution of the Armenians amounts to genocide is not one for politicians to answer. It’s a question for historians.

The supporters of the Bundestag resolution argue that they want to push Turkey to finally confront this chapter of its history. And this kind of historical soul searching is indeed urgently needed. But the resolution will have the exact opposite effect: It’s counterproductive.

In 1987, the European Parliament classified the massacres as genocide. Numerous national parliaments followed suit. The French National Assembly passed a law in 2011 that made denying the Armenian genocide a punishable offense.

Last year, Pope Francis called the persecution of the Armenians “the first genocide of the 20th century.” And German President Joachim Gauck has used similar language.

None of this has had any real impact; the battle-lines of have only hardened. That goes for Ankara’s relations with the 60,000 Armenians who live in Turkey as well as Armenia itself.

Turkish civil society has begun to address the issue not because of pressure from abroad, but because of the 2007 murder of Armenian civil rights activist Hrant Dink by a Turkish nationalist. The debate in Turkey isn’t helped by lectures from the outside like the Bundestag resolution.

The argument also doesn’t hold up that the intent of the resolution isn’t to level accusations against Turkey, but is instead to recognize the Armenians as victims of genocide.

Critics warn that a vote on the resolution will only hinder Turkey’s reckoning with its history. This concern is justified. And the Armenians would be the first to feel the effects of such a hardening of attitudes.

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