Germany struggles with Armenia genocide debate

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Man walks past mural in Yerevan depicting Armenia's genocide memorial (22 April)Image source, Getty Images
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Germany's Nazi past and its alliance with the Ottomans make its role with Armenia highly sensitive

The Pope has spoken of it; the European and French parliaments have voted on it. And, of course, Kim Kardashian, has had her say too.

Now Germany's government looks set to condemn as genocide the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks 100 years ago. In some ways.

On Friday, parliamentarians in Berlin will debate a motion on the 1915 massacres, in which hundreds of thousands of people died.

But instead of a clear statement of condemnation, politicians will discuss an opaque, tortuously-worded sentence, which aims to be unclear enough to keep everyone happy - with the sort of convoluted phrasing that the German language is so good at.

Image source, AFP
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Skulls lie in a ruined Armenian village in 1915 (pic: Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute)

Roughly translated, politicians will debate whether the fate of the Armenians "exemplifies" the 20th Century's terrible history of mass killings, ethnic cleansing, expulsions and genocides.

Whether that is calling it genocide or not is a matter for lawyers and linguists. The danger for Berlin is that there is enough room for interpretation for both sides to be offended.

For Turkey, the very fact that the G-word is there at all will be cause enough for outrage - whether plural or singular, or prefaced by the verb "is" or not; while for many Armenians the unclear wording will come across as cowardly and unsupportive.

Armenian genocide dispute

  • Hundreds of thousands of Armenians died in 1915 at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, whose empire was disintegrating
  • Many of the victims were civilians deported to barren desert regions where they died of starvation and thirst. Thousands also died in massacres
  • Armenia says up to 1.5 million people were killed. Turkey says the number of deaths was much smaller
  • Most non-Turkish scholars of the events regard them as genocide - as do more than 20 states including France, Germany and Russia, and some international bodies such as the European Parliament
  • Turkey rejects the term "genocide", maintaining that many of the dead were killed in clashes during World War One, and that many ethnic Turks also suffered in the conflict

But it's not a simple matter for Germany. The country's largest immigrant population has Turkish roots: more than three million people in Germany have at least one Turkish parent.

So relations with Turkey are important and Chancellor Angela Merkel is keen not to antagonise the Ankara government - not to mention her own voters.

Image source, Reuters
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The German chancellor is keen not to antagonise Turkey but is under pressure

And the suspiciously sudden fervour of some of Germany's right-wing politicians to jump on the genocide bandwagon can be all too easily seen as anti-Turkish, anti-immigrant prejudice.

At the same time, today's Germany is all too aware of its own terrible Nazi history, and a key part of modern German political culture is very much about taking the responsibility of that weight of history seriously - which includes condemning human rights abuses and owning up to historical guilt.

This particular issue is complicated by Germany's historical connection to the fate of the Armenians.

Hitler once referred to the massacres as an example for the Holocaust just a few decades later.

And, given that 100 years ago Berlin was a close ally of the Ottoman Empire and is accused by some of turning a blind eye to the massacres, today's Germany is now under considerable pressure to take a stance.