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(Finally) calling a genocide a genocide

After a century of denial, the German government has finally recognised the 1915 Armenian genocide. Historian Jürgen Gottschlich tells us what this means.

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Armenian civilians, escorted by armed Ottoman soldiers, are marched through Harput (Kharpert), to a prison in the nearby Mezireh (present-day Elâzığ), April 1915. (Wikimedia Commons)

Today, April 24, is the 100th anniversary of the 1915 massacre of 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey), and Germany has taken the occasion to finally recognise the killings for what they actually were: a genocide.

In a statement at the Berlin Cathedral on April 23, German President Joachim Gauck finally used the word after a century of avoidance. “The fate of the Armenians is an example of the history of mass destruction, ethnic cleansing, deportation and, yes, genocide with which the 20th century is so horribly marked,” he said in a memorial service in the Berlin Cathedral. With those words, Germany became the 25th country to officially recognise the Armenian genocide, joining France and Russia but not the United States – on Thursday, Barack Obama would only go so far as to describe the massacres as “terrible carnage”.

Germany’s possible complicity in the genocide is another matter, and today in Berlin, there’s been a big corresponding debate in the Bundestag on whether to admit that the German government backed the mass murders. Historian Jürgen Gottschlich, who’s been calling for attention on this matter for many years, came all the way from Turkey to participate as a spectator. Last time we spoke to him, in advance of his panel discussion appearance at the Gorki Theater, he said that for Germany to recognise the genocide, “it would have to risk a conflict with the Turkish government. Nothing suggests this will happen.” We spoke to him again during a busy day at the Bundestag to hear his thoughts on this sudden change in terminology:

As a historian who’s been lobbying for Germany to recognise the genocide for a long time, how does it feel?

Well, first of all, I found the speech from President Gauck yesterday evening very good. Not only because he spoke of an actual genocide, but also because he very clearly admitted to German complicity in the genocide. The debate this morning in the Bundestag was also very good, but we still have yet to see the term being officially adopted. The parliament hasn’t made an official decision yet. But they will certainly do so, sooner or later, probably during this summer.

How big a step is this for Germany?

Well, they’ve been approaching it for some time, but this is definitely a big step. Like Cem Özdemir (co-chairman of the Green Party) said: “This is a historical session.”

Will this change the relationship between Turkey and Germany though?

There’s bound to be some protests on a Turkish government level. But I don’t believe it will lead to a real deterioration between the two countries. It’s all symbolic policy, and there’s an election in Turkey at the moment, and when that’s over in June, this theme will have been long buried. I don’t think there will be long-term fallout.

Now that Germany is on the list of countries recognising the genocide, what’s the next step?

Now, the important thing is that the American Congress makes a clear statement. They too have not yet recognised the genocide.