The German parliament damns Turkey for conducting genocide against
Armenians in 1915, achieving little except strengthening President Erdoğan.
This week, the European Union (EU) officially warned Poland that
changes to its constitutional court endanger rule of law; South Carolina became the 17th state in the US to
ban abortion starting from the 20th week of pregnancy with no
exception for protecting the woman’s health; Uber raised $3.5 billion from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign
wealth fund; OPEC failed to agree to limit oil output in Vienna; the European Central Bank (ECB) also met in Vienna to keep
interest rates unchangedJohn Major declaring that the British people were being
deceitfully misled, among others, by “court jester” Boris Johnson.
As with most weeks during this eventful year, selecting the key
developments is not an entirely straightforward one. Yet one development stands
out this week because it ties in issues of history, narrative, crime, guilt,
atonement, identity, international relations and more in a heady cocktail that promises
to leave quite a hangover. On June 2, the Bundestag, the German
parliament, almost unanimously voted to declare that the Turkish 1915-16
killings of Armenians was “genocide.”
Turkey is furious. It recalled its ambassador “for consultations over the German
parliament’s decision” and declared that Germany had made a historic mistake. German Chancellor
Angela Merkel, who was conveniently not in the Bundestag during the
time of the vote, tried to soothe frayed Turkish nerves by purring that
relations between Turkey and Germany remained “broad and strong.”
In 1961, Edward Hallett Carr delivered the George Macaulay Trevelyan Lectures at the University of
Cambridge. These were later published as What is History? a book that has gone on to become a
classic. Carr brilliantly pointed out that historians choose a few facts to be
historic such as Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon. Facts are chosen or
ignored quite arbitrarily, making history quite a subjective exercise. Yet
facts matter and Carr defined history as “a continuous process of interaction
between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present
and the past.”
What happened in the German Bundestag this week is less about
history and more about identity. Germany is a country that still wallows in
guilt. During World War II, the Nazis were responsible for the Holocaust. An estimated
6 million Jews and another 5 million Poles, Slavs, Romanis, communists et
al were killed. Europe and Germany see Nazism was an aberrant
phenomenon to the story of the Enlightenment. How else could the land of
Immanuel Kant, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Johann Sebastian Bach end up
becoming the land of Adolf Hitler, Hermann Wilhelm Göring and Paul Josef
The truth is that, like most stories, the European story is
complicated. The formation of European nation states was a bloody and brutal
process. In England, the Puritans were persecuted and fled to North America. In
their new land of the free and the home of the brave, they largely exterminated
the natives to take over their land and resources. Spain
expelled the enlightened Moors of Andalucía. Ferdinand and Isabella got rid
of all the Jews in 1492. Spanish conquistadores unleashed an orgy of
violence on pagan natives, killing them wantonly, raping their women and
robbing them of gold, silver and land.
The idea of “un roi, une foi, une loi” (one king, one faith, one
law) was fundamental to the European state formation. Unlike the
contemporaneous Ming, Mughal and Ottoman Empires, European nation states were
uniform enterprises where one people speaking one language united to forge
their common destiny. In the process, they savaged natives of distant lands,
fought their neighbors and persecuted their minorities. Even fellow Christians
were not safe, as Huguenots
found to their horror during the St.
Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and les dragonnades.
Once the Turks were beaten back from the gates of Vienna in 1683,
European nation states waxed whilst Ottoman Turkey waned. By the end of the 19th
century, Turkey was the
sick man of Europe. This rambling empire with multiple religious minorities
failed to embrace the Industrial Revolution or adopt modern military
technology. Yet minorities, even though subordinate, were better off under the
Ottomans than European states.
Like the Habsburgs, the Ottomans did not survive World War I. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk led a revolution that beat back the
victorious allies and set out to create a European-style nation state. The
various territories of the Ottomans had already been whittled away. Now, all
the Turks were to be united in a cohesive nation. Roman alphabet, European
dress, emancipated women, modern technology and secularism were supposed to
yoke Turkey into modernity. Atatürk’s revolution never entirely succeeded.
Islam never ceased to be important in a socially conservative land. Ultimately,
secularism was guaranteed by the barrel of the gun. The military kept Islam
under wraps. In the new post-Cold War zeitgeist, religion reassumed its traditional
importance. Astute observers could see the clash between rural Muslim society and cosmopolitan
Unsurprisingly, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became prime minister in 2003
and president in 2014. From day one, he began
expanding his powers. Today, Erdoğan is a sultan, albeit an elected one. He has survived
protests regarding Gezi Park, accusations of corruption and outrage over the
1,000-room Ak Saray, or the White Palace, which happens to be bigger than the
White House or the Kremlin.
Many Turks love Erdoğan for the same reason that Russians love
Vladimir Putin. He is proud of his faith and tradition. His wife wears a
headscarf in public. Erdoğan stands up to big powers for Turkey. He has leveraged the refugee crisis to extort concessions and cash
from Europe in general and Germany in particular. He has exhorted women to have
at least three children and has declared a woman’s life to be “incomplete” if she fails to
reproduce. For traditional Turks, Erdoğan is a man with the courage of
conviction who fights for his beliefs. Erdoğan cares about great power status.
He has set out to bury Atatürk and reclaim the legacy of the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, any
slur on the Ottoman record is a touch too close to Sultan Erdoğan’s bone.
Turkey has long denied that it was responsible for the “genocide” of Armenians.
Unsurprisingly, Erdoğan has declared that Turkey was ready to “pay the price”
for mass killings of Armenians if, and only if, an “impartial board of
historians” find the dying Ottoman Empire guilty. So far, 20 countries have
formally recognized genocide against Armenians.
The entire brouhaha over the issue of Armenian genocide raises
three key questions.
Philosophically, the first question that begs asking is whether
national parliaments ought to be passing laws on terminology of events past. In
World War I, Germany was an ally of Turkey and it seems that this law is to
mitigate its own Lutheran sense of sin. It ties in with the modern German narrative of deep guilt and public penitence.
By voting against Turkey, German politicians are engaging in collective
catharsis. It makes them look good and may help them get reelected. But what
does passing a resolution or law about terminology regarding a century-old even
The second question is who should be judging the past? Argentina,
Belgium, Canada, France, Italy, Russia and Uruguay have recognized the Armenian
“genocide” as has Pope Francis. However, no Muslim nation has done so. Even
India, a largely Hindu nation, has not dared to. Pope Francis is unlikely to
apologize for genocide of natives in Latin America or the Inquisition in Goa. Ethnicity and religion still
matter. Unfortunately, when nations use charged words like genocide they
exacerbate ethnic and religious divides. For once, Erdoğan is right. Whether the Armenian killings are genocide is best left to
historians not parliamentarians.
Third, who judges whom, and how far back in the past do we go?
Former British colonies could pass laws condemning or terming events of two
centuries ago. When the British East India Company took over the eastern part
of the Indian subcontinent in 1757, a third of the population died within 16 years. Yet no
country, including India, has termed this death of an estimated 10 million
people genocide. If the fashion of digging up dead ghosts of the past catches
on, then finger pointing will the name of the game. Politicians in South Africa
who are failing their electorates might pass one resolution after another to
manipulate public emotion and prey on outrage instead of rolling up their
sleeves and getting things done.
In a turbulent world, there is already a strong resentment against
injustices, real and imagined. Many Turks see this act of Germany as betrayal
of an ally that lost everything as a result of going to war. Despite hurt feelings,
not much will change. Both the Germans and the Turks need each other. After the
huffing and puffing will come the kissing and making up. More pertinently, the
German Bundestag has hurt Turkish pride and will end up helping Erdoğan to
become more of a sultan.