Turks Join Armenians in Germany to Honor Genocide Victims

Gayane Chorus

Turks Join Armenians in Germany
to Honor Genocide Victims

By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
April 30, 2012

It is not usually the case that the guest speaker at a commemoration event for the victims of the 1915 genocide against the Armenians is Turkish, at least not in Germany. But in Hamburg, it is becoming somewhat of a tradition, since Toros Sarian first broke the ice two years ago. Sarian, who issues a multilingual online publication ArmenienInfo.net (HayastanInfo.net), is co-founder of the Initiative for Remembrance of the 1915 Genocide, which organized a gathering in the St. Petri church on April 21st. In recent years, he has invited not only Germans of Turkish origin to speak, but has consciously engaged representatives of other communities. Thus, this year, flanking keynote speaker Cem Özdemir, National Chairman of the Green Party whose family comes from Turkey, was Ali Ertam Toprak, Chairman of the Alevi Community in Germany and Secretary of the Alevi Communities in Europe, and a spokeswoman for the Turkish-Kurdish Initiative for Democratic Rights and Freedom.

Two clergymen from the Syrian Orthodox community joined with Armenian Archbishop H.E. Karekin Bekdjian, Primate of the Armenian Church Diocese in Germany, to celebrate a requiem mass for the victims and the Syrian Orthodox Girls Choir offered prayers. Among those remembered were Armenians, Pontic Greeks, and Aramaeans as well as those Turks, including some officials, who refused orders to kill and contributed to saving lives of many intended victims. Completing the ecumenical gathering was the Secretary of the Working Group of Christian Churches in Hamburg and Minister of the St. Petri Church, Martina Severin-Kaiser, who opened the ceremony. The Gayane Choir, composed of German singers and directed by Gayane Grover, presented musical interludes with the cooperation of Turkish singer Leman Stehn. Among the participants numbering well over 500 were several state legislators, and German scholar Wolfgang Gust, who has researched and published documents on the genocide from the World War I German Foreign Ministry archives.

Audience in St. Petri Church

Representing the Republic of Armenia, H.E. Ambassador Armen Martirosyan thanked those nations who have recognized the genocide, and had to set aside their relations with Turkey to do so. But, important as such outside recognition may be, what is paramount is the Turkish position. Here, instead of acknowledgement, denial reigns supreme. In the words of the diplomat, denial is “inappropriate for modern Turkey” and it “traumatizes both sides.” In the search for reconciliation he urged present-day Turkey to acknowledge the deeds of past generations, and pointed to the example of Germany, whose post-war governments faced up to responsibility for the Holocaust. Ambassador Martirosyan, who expressed his gratitude to all those expending efforts to resolve the continuing diplomatic and economic conflict between Turkey and Armenia, underscored that such efforts would be “doomed to failure” if the genocide issue were ignored. He concluded on an optimistic note, that the truth would prevail.

Ali Ertam also touched on the German precedent in his remarks. Not only did his characterization of the Turkish nationalist ideology, which posited the supremacy of one faith, one language, and one race, evoke the spectre of the Nazi pseudo-theory of racial superiority, but he explicitly called on immigrants to participate in Germany’s “memory culture.” This means that “what applies to the [neo-Nazi party] NPD applies also to the Grey Wolves and Turkish nationalists.”

Cem Özdemir

When introducing Cem Özdemir, moderator Anni Kluge pointed out that he has come under attack from Armenians as well as Turks for his stance on the issue, a stance which is strikingly similar to that of Hrant Dink. Özdemir began by saying that all those who had gathered for the occasion in the church, a house of God, shared the belief in its holiness and in the sacredness of the human being as well. His parents, he said, had taught him that anyone who attacked another on the basis of religion was no Muslim. What the Young Turks had perpetrated was a “disgrace,” which could not be justified by religion. Turning to the matter of the number of victims—a question many denialists use in an attempt to minimize the immensity of the crime--, Özdemir said he did not think that was the issue. Even if “only” hundreds of thousands had perished, he said, in reference to those denialists’ arguments and figures, it would still constitute “genocide.” More recent examples of mass murder, in Rwanda and Bosnia, for instance, entail fewer victims but all are genocide. Hrant Dink had been murdered, Özdemir went on, because he “spoke to the hearts of Turks.” He cited cases of youngsters in Turkey, who, after having seen Dink on television, would turn to their parents and ask them, “Is what he said true?” – thus igniting debate throughout Turkish society. Özdemir praised the efforts of those “scientists” among Turkish intellectuals, like Ali Berktay, Taner Akçam, and Dogan Akhanli, who also succeeded in opening their countrymen’s hearts and enabling dialogue. “The key word is empathy,” he stated, again reflecting Dink’s approach, and that means empathy for the victims first. To understand how the genocide could occur, he referenced the traumas provoked by the Balkan wars and the accompanying fears and pain. Unless traumas are faced and dealt with, unless they are worked through, there is the danger that they will be repeated. The Green Party leader then underlined the need for Turkey to retrieve a multi-cultural and multi-religious identity, and to treat this diversity as its wealth. Turkey, he said, is a country where not only Aramaic, the language of Christ, is spoken, but also Armenian. He criticized the official education curriculum in Turkey, where Talaat, the Young Turk leader who organized the genocide, is worshipped as a hero, and expressed his hope that future textbooks would instead report on those individual Turkish officials who saved Armenians. Citing Dink, he lamented the loss suffered with the genocide of Armenians and said he hoped that the music of Komitas would be appreciated not only by fellow Armenians but by all. He concluded by “bowing down in grief” and uttering his hope to see the day when the brighter perspective would become reality.

Although the solemnity of the occasion had held back applause up to that point, after Özdemir’s remarks, the audience clapped in appreciation. Following was a brief presentation by the Turkish-Kurdish Initiative, which is campaigning in Turkey for recognition of the genocide.

Pastorin Martina Severin-Kaiser

In Frankfurt the annual commemoration organized by the Central Council of Armenians in Germany (ZAD) took place on April 24th. Last year, following Sarian’s example, the ZAD had invited Turkish-German author Dogan Akhanli to give the commemorative speech. Although this year the social composition in the historic Paulskirche—site of the first elected German parliament in 1848--was different than that in Hamburg, almost exclusively Armenian and German, the event was highly dignified and offered cause for reflection.

From Berlin, in addition to a diplomat from the Armenian Embassy, there was also one from the Republic of Berg-Karabagh, both of whom focused on the necessity of Turkish recognition of 1915. The keynote speaker, Bernhard von Grünberg, presented some particularly thoughtful ideas in his remarks. A jurist and state legislator for the Social Democrats (SPD) in North-Rhine Westphalia, von Grünberg is also Vice-President of the German Foundation for UN Refugee Aid. As he mentioned in his speech, he had an ancestor directly involved in the 1904-1908 extermination of the Hereros by German colonialists in Southwest Africa. And, his father was a member of the Nazi Party who participated in the founding of the neo-Nazi party NPD following the war. Thus, he could talk about genocide perpetrators from a very personal standpoint.

Ambassador Martirosyan

Von Grünberg posed the question: “How does German society want to receive the historical legacy of its Armenian co-citizens? How do and should politicians treat it?” His answer took up education policy, specifically how to teach history, and especially to students coming from an immigrant background. In his state of NRW, half the school children come from immigrant families, many of them from Turkey or other Muslim countries. For them, he said, it is important to learn about their own roots as well as the roots of their new homeland, Germany. He suggested that the contribution of other cultures become the stuff of classroom education and that, for example, teachers should tell students about the transmission of Greek civilization through the Arabs to Europe. “Respect and recognition of other cultural and religious backgrounds,” he said, “must be our new German identity.” Wolfgang von Goethe’s appreciation of Islamic culture could provide an opportunity to access this aspect. At the same time, von Grünberg stressed the importance of explaining the causes of the catastrophes of the 20th century, from the Armenian genocide to the Holocaust. “We need a completely new viewpoint regarding the last two centuries, from the perspective of European policy—or better: from the perspective of intercultural experiences of mankind which written history should also deal with.” Here he examined the political-cultural context in which such tragedies emerged, shaped by a sick nationalism which nurtured early 20th century colonialist ambitions. Darwinism and Marxism also played a role. Contemporary nationalism in his view is one major obstacle which today stands in the path of Turkish recognition of its past. Returning to the subject of education policy, he noted that in Germany there is only one federal state, Brandenburg, where the Armenian genocide constitutes part of the curriculum in history classes. His hope is that other states, like his own NRW as well as Hesse, will perhaps follow suit. In this connection he applauded school book commissions which are canvassing history textbooks for classroom use from this standpoint. Von Grünberg’s message was that German schools could contribute a good deal to educating youth, including those of Turkish background, about the 1915 genocide.

The question of genocide recognition was addressed on the more spiritual level in the commemorative remarks made by Archimandate Serovpé Isakhanyan of the Armenian diocese. Father Isakhanyan elaborated on the concept of forgiveness, which is often raised in a false light. If Armenians are Christians, it is often said, then why do they not simply forgive the Turks for what occurred in 1915? His response was at once empathetic and rigorous: Christianity, he said, is a religion of forgiveness to be sure, but does God forgive those who do not recognize that they have sinned? No; to be granted forgiveness one must acknowledge one’s sins. Thus the need for recognition that the genocide did occur. A final prayer for the dead concluded the moving ceremony.

Armenian Ambassador, Cem Özdemir, Wolfgang Gust (left to right)