By Stefan Ihrig, historian at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, book Atatürk in the Nazi Imagination (Harvard University Press, 2014).
The Armenian genocide and the German dimension of it should make us rethink our perception of humanity – what does it mean that people knew of genocide and mass atrocities in progress? And did so already in the years before the Holocaust?
Perhaps Germany’s recent vote to recognize the Armenian genocide as well as its own role in it might come as a surprise to many there as well as abroad. But the Armenian genocide has a long German history. Already over a hundred years ago, in January 1916, the agenda of the German parliament featured a question about the Armenian genocide.
A month earlier the socialist parliament member Karl Liebknecht had submitted a written question to the German chancellor in which he mentioned that Armenians had been “butchered in the hundred thousands”: would Germany would do something for the remaining Armenians now? Liebknecht’s question had come on the heels of a similar request made a few weeks earlier by the Catholic and Protestant Churches of Germany to the chancellor. He had replied that Germany would ensure that nobody suffered from persecution on religious grounds. Political Germany, the Churches and Liebknecht knew that this answer was an outright rejection. People at the time understood what was happening not so much as a religious matter, but rather in terms of national or racial persecution.
When Liebknecht’s question was finally answered in parliament, it turned into a rather disgraceful performance by Germany’s parliamentarians.
After having received another evasive answer, Liebknecht responded that some experts after all spoke of the “extermination of the Armenians.” He was laughed off the stage and treated like a buffoon.
And yet, behind closed doors political Germany knew Liebknecht was right. Since May 1915 German diplomats in the Ottoman Empire had bombarded their Constantinople embassy and Berlin with reports of genocide in progress; many of these diplomats begged their superiors to intervene for the Armenians, to stop genocide, in vain.
After the end of World War I, the German Foreign Office published a collection from precisely this diplomatic correspondence on the Armenians to fend off accusations of German guilt during the Paris peace treaty negotiations. This attempt failed – not least because Germany had done nothing of real import for the Armenians, all the while enabling the Ottoman leadership to carry out genocide – but it kicked off a debate in Germany itself about this “murder of a nation” or “annihilation of the Armenians” which continued in some form until 1923.
This debate took shocking twists and turns: condemnation and denial, trivialization and shock, and finally broad acceptance of the charge of “murder of a nation,” i.e. genocide – only then to have some far-right voices, including the Nazis, to go on to outright justify genocide. All this merely a decade before Hitler came to power – and yes, already then (Jewish) commentators warned of the possible future implications of this shocking genocide debate for the Jews of Germany under Nazi or other radical far-right rule.
Germany’s own checkered history with the violence against the Ottoman Armenians (from the 1890s) is indeed and itself the link between the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust. But this link is not at all necessary for recognizing the Armenian genocide for what it was, and neither are the comparisons to the Holocaust, which have often obscured the unique, intrinsic significance of the Armenian genocide. And often enough these have been used to fend off the application of the label.
The German diplomatic documents, first published in selection in 1919 and now available in expanded editions in German and English (2005 and 2013), edited by former Der Spiegel editor Wolfgang Gust, are the greatest advocates of the label “genocide.” Denialists generally choose to simply ignore the existence of these documents.
This is mainly because there is no easy way to dismiss them and no sensible (denialist) explanation as to why German diplomats would make up reports of genocide, continually so, when these caused such great anxiety in Berlin about the political fallout of genocide right from the start.
Thus a hundred years later, with the Bundestag’s resolution on the Armenian genocide Germany has found a (first) conclusion to its very own hundred-year conflict over the Armenian topic. Thus German parliament did not only deliberate on the history of another country, but made a statement about its own Armenian history. The Armenian genocide is, to some extent, also a German story. It cannot be relegated to the obscurity of specialist historical writing and historiographical debate; it is part of the core experiences and themes of our bloody and traumatic 20th century.
The Armenian genocide and the German dimension of it should make us rethink our perception of humanity – what does it mean that people knew of genocide and mass atrocities in progress? And did so already in the years before the Holocaust? It has long been assumed that there had been silence on the Armenian genocide in interwar Germany and that this silence had been “a signal for the Shoah” – but it turns out the opposite was true. There had been a debate, a real genocide debate (about the extent, intent and implications of this murder of a people). What does this mean for our understanding of the Holocaust? This latest recognition should also make us discuss when and where this bloody 20th century really began. In Eastern Anatolia during the Armenian genocide? In the sands of Libya during the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-1912? Or in German Southwest Africa during the genocide of the Herero and Nama people (1904-07)? Was there not, historically, a trajectory of large-scale violence which led from colonial spaces to the Middle East and Anatolia and from there back to Europe? Parliamentary recognition is not enough (and the Herero and Nama are still waiting for it), but it can be a starting point for coming to terms with a past that is vaster, more complex and so much bloodier than often assumed.
And nothing of this relativizes the Holocaust or minimizes Germany’s guilt and responsibility – quite the contrary.
The author is a historian at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and the University of Haifa. His most recent books include: Justifying Genocide – Germany and the Armenians from Bismarck to Hitler (Harvard University Press, 2016) and Atatürk in the Nazi Imagination (Harvard University Press, 2014).