Deciding what to call a century-old Turkish atrocity
(economist) TURKEY considers the Ottoman Empire’s mass murder of well over a million Armenians and other Christians in 1915-17 a tragedy. But “genocide”? Armenia and many historians say it was. Turkey insists it was not—and berates any country, from France to the Vatican, that uses the word. Nonetheless, more than 20 countries have officially recognised the killings as genocide. On June 2nd it was Germany’s turn, when its Bundestag passed a resolution calling the killings “genocide” no fewer than four times.
That vote could not have come at a worse time for Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. She is the main architect of a deal reached in March between Turkey and the European Union, under which Turkey promised to take back refugees who cross to the Greek islands; in return, the EU will pay Turkey €6 billion ($6.7 billion) in aid, allow Turks to enter without visas and revive talks to accept Turkey as a member state one day. Mrs Merkel, more than any other EU leader, needed this deal: she wants an orderly and “European” solution to the refugee crisis, rather than brute border closings by individual member states.
But Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, clearly interpreted Mrs Merkel’s efforts as weakness. Since the deal he has pressed ahead in his quest to become an autocrat, rejecting European criticisms with threats to scupper the refugee deal and let hundreds of thousands of refugees make their way to Greece again. This has exposed Mrs Merkel to criticism in Germany that she has sold out to a dictator. Even members of her own coalition accuse her of kow-towing. Voters share the misgivings. In a poll in April, 68% opposed Turkish membership of the EU, and 79% said that Turkey “cannot be trusted”.
Some see the souring of the relationship as retribution for Mrs Merkel’s past diplomatic mistakes. She “showed zero point zero interest in Turkey until she rediscovered it in the refugee crisis”, says Cem Özdemir, a son of Turkish immigrants and co-leader of the Green Party who is also the driving force behind the genocide resolution. In 2007 Mrs Merkel, along with other European leaders, in effect slammed the door shut for Turkey’s ambitions to join the EU. At that time Mr Erdogan, then prime minister, was still claiming to modernise Turkey and bring it into line with EU norms on civil liberties. Stung by Mrs Merkel’s rejection, Mr Erdogan turned against the West and decided to become a neo-Ottoman sultan instead, thinks Joschka Fischer, a former foreign minister.
That psychology explains much of the recent German-Turkish antics. Mr Erdogan went ballistic in May after a German comedian ridiculed him (see article). An orchestra in Dresden has been performing a series of concerts called “Aghet”, Armenian for “catastrophe” (referring to the genocide). The European Commission gave the project €200,000; after Turkish protests, the commission removed advertisements for “Aghet” from its website. Many Germans are enraged that Turkey tries to muzzle free speech abroad.
Turkey will respond to the Bundestag’s resolution with its usual sound and fury. In late May, three groups in parliament, including Mr Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development (AK) party, condemned the draft as a “distortion of historical facts”. Turkey withdrew its ambassadors to Austria, Luxembourg, and the Vatican last year after similar pronouncements about the 1915 killings. Mr Erdogan has warned of a deterioration in ties with Berlin, albeit without mentioning the refugee deal.
Mr Özdemir originally meant to put the genocide resolution to a vote on April 24, 2015, the centenary of its start. Anxious to avoid provoking Turkey, Mrs Merkel kept delaying, he says, even though the new timing looks even worse. This spring Mr Özdemir pushed ahead again. The resolution is necessary to acknowledge Germany’s complicity in the genocide as the Ottoman Empire’s main ally at the time, he says. As for Turkey, he thinks, if it had dealt honestly with its past and its minorities, it might already be an EU member.