Özdemir Receives Wallenberg Medal

by Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
Cem Özdemir
BERLIN, JULY 25, 2019— Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of Jews and others during World War II in Nazi-occupied Hungary. A foundation named after the humanitarian, who was detained and disappeared in January 1945, promotes educational programs and organizes public awareness campaigns focused on the values of solidarity and civic courage embodied in the activities of Wallenburg and other Saviors of the Holocaust.
This year the Raoul Wallenburg award went to Cem Özdemir, a national leader of the Bundnis 90/Die Grünen party and member of the Bundestag (Parliament). He received the medal for his role in “building bridges between Armenians and Turks and his pivotal contribution” leading the campaign to have the Armenian genocide recognized by the Bundestag in June 2016. The award ceremony took place in Berlin on June 16 at the Gedächtniskirche, a church that was bombed during the war and stands as a symbol of remembrance in the capital. The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation representative Pastor Annemarie Werner, head of the Vaterunser Church, and Martin Gremer, pastor of the host chapel, presided over the ceremony, which included remarks by Turkish-Armenian musician Marc Sinan. Dr. Amill Gorgis of the Society for the Promotion of an Ecumenical Monument for Genocide Victims in the Ottoman Empire (FÖGG) presented the award.
In rendering thanks for having been so honored, Özdemir referred to the historic chapel as “an impressive monument to the horror of the Second World War.” Though one might understand the desire of some to erase “the wounds of conflict from the cityscape,” he was glad it had been preserved; he pointed also to the fact that the square where the church is located was also the scene of a terrorist attack two and a half years ago, which killed 12 persons. “We cannot forget the victims of war and terror,” he said. “An open society needs remembrance as much as every individual needs air to breathe.”
“I am often asked what success I am most proud of,” he continued. “There have been several highpoints and I am grateful for all of them. But there is one event that stands out and concerns me particularly: as you all know, three years ago the Bundestag passed a resolution recognizing the genocide against the Aramaeans, Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldaens and Pontis Greeks. It filled me with pride to have contributed to this recognition.” He expressed his thanks to all those who helped in the effort, saying the award was also going to them.
“The resolution will remain,” he said. “There is nothing that can shake it. The statement that Germany was ‘complicit’ in the deaths of 1.5 million persons in the Ottoman Empire is written for all time in the protocols of the Bundestag.” This, he said, defined a task for everyone, to continue to develop the culture of remembrance in Germany, by adding a chapter to include the history of genocides in the twentieth century.
“In 1948,” he recalled, “the United Nations passed the Convention on Genocide,” and the term “genocide” was coined by the Jewish jurist Raphael Lemkin on the basis of his study of the Armenian tragedy in the Ottoman Empire. “That tragedy was, however, neither the first nor the last genocide in the 20th century.” In the killings of tens of thousands of Hereros and Namas, Germany “was not ‘complicit’ or ‘mainly responsible,’ but was ‘solely responsible.’ And the means adopted, like killing orders, expulsions, starvation and concentration camps, are a terrible reminder of the Armenian genocide and the Shoa. It is high time for the Bundestag to finally recognize also the genocide against the Hereros and Namas through a comparable resolution.” Özdemir added that this chapter has unfortunately not been closed, as documented by Rwanda (1994), Srebrenica (1995) and the “ethnic cleansing” in the Bosnian war (1992-1995)—atrocities which should have provoked a greater outcry.
Özdemir noted that genocides “do not occur in a vacuum” but have “models,” and cited Eli Wiesel’s characterization of the Armenian genocide as the “genocide before the genocide.” Thus the need to talk about the Armenian genocide, as well as those before and after it, including the Yezidi and Rohingya people today. “We have to talk about how we will prevent future Rwandas and Srebrenicas,” and do so early. “For this reason, the 20th century genocides must be featured appropriately in our textbooks in German schools.”
In the second part of his address, Özdemir turned to the current situation in the German Bundestag. He recalled the words uttered by then-President Joachim Gauck in 2015 on the centenary of the genocide. Gauck stressed the “responsibility of those alive today to be duty bound to a policy that respects and protects the right to life and human rights of every individual.” That responsibility, Özdemir said, no longer enjoys a consensus in the current German parliament. “There is a party that refuses to remember the darkest chapter of German history,” he said; “whose parliamentarians refuse to applaud when a Holocaust survivor speaks in the Bundestag; and whose party and faction leader describes Nazism as ‘bird shit’ (Vogelschiss) of history. They reject truth.” The party in question is the AfD, Alternative for Germany, the right-extremist group that now has elected officials at the national and federal state levels.
It is absurd, Özdemir stated, that the AfD should now speak up in favor of the resolution and demand implementation. “What is clear is that the AfD never supported it!” Özdemir recapitulated the three basic ideas behind the Armenian genocide resolution: “First, to recognize the complicity of Germany; secondly, to promote the study and working through of this terrible chapter in German and European history; and, thirdly, to support the dialogue between people in Armenia and Turkey. The AfD,” he noted, “does not endorse any of these aims.”
The reason the AfD refers to the resolution, Özdemir explained, is to put pressure on Turkey and the Turkish people, whether at home or in Germany, and to block possible EU membership for Turkey, “even if, hopefully in the not too distant future, it were to find its way back to democracy and the rule of law.” Özdemir commented that the AfD simply did not understand the meaning of the resolution, and added that, with its presence in the Bundestag today, that same bill would not be passed unanimously as it was 3 years ago.
The central point Özdemir made is that “the greatest honor we can render the victims of the Armenian genocide and all other genocides: to fight to ensure that extremism, hatred and violence find no anchor in our society.” In contrast to Hitler’s cynical remark that no one talked about the fate of the Armenians, Özdemir stressed the importance of living up to the slogan, “Never Again.” In closing the Green Party parliamentarian gave voice to his great respect for two role models: Raoul Wallenberg, for his courage and humanity, and Hrant Dink, “my friend, the Armenian Turkish journalist who was killed in 2017.” Regretting that Dink could not be present for the event, Özdemir said perhaps he was there in spirit; “and encourages us not to allow our hearts to be poisoned by the hatred of fanatics, and to believe more strongly in the power of truth, love and forgiveness, such that a new generation of Turks, Kurds and Armenians may extend their hands for reconciliation as good neighbors.”