The Quest for a Culture of Remembrance


Armenians in Germany Commemorate Armenian Genocide

By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BERLIN — Among the many nations where people gather on April 24th every year to commemorate the victims of the 1915 genocide, Germany holds a special place for three reasons: first, because it was here that the Holocaust occurred, a case of mass murder that was modeled on the Armenian genocide; secondly, because the post-war German political world faced up to what the Nazis had perpetrated. It was not only the fact that many of the criminals were brought to justice at the Nuremburg trials, and that Germany acknowledged it as genocide, but also that in the years and decades that followed, the reality of what had been committed was subjected to historical scrutiny, so that broader layers of the population and members of the successor generations became aware of this past. Germans refer to this process and what it has produced in civil society as “a culture of remembrance” (Erinnerungskultur). The third reason is that Germany’s Turkish population is the largest outside of Turkey, a fact which has a political, social and cultural impact in both countries.

This year memorials took place in several locations, at the historic Paulskirche in Frankfurt as well as in Berlin, and a number of smaller cities. In both Berlin and Frankfurt, the role of Germany then and now was a central theme. At St. Marienkirche in the capital, Archbishop Karekin Bekdjian celebrated the requiem mass and representatives of the German Catholic and Evangelical churches spoke. Musical offerings included liturgical church music from the Middle Ages and pieces by Komitas, played on saxophone, the duduk, counter bass clarinet. Vocal pieces were performed by Artak Kirakosyan, soloist from the Alexander Spendiaryan Opera and Ballet in Yerevan.

In his greeting, Armenian Ambassador Armen Martirosyan addressed issues of a fundamental character. Every year when commemorating the genocide, he said, we ask “Why”: “Why did it happen? Why did the world keep silent…? Why did the great powers close their eyes …to ethnic cleansing? Why did they not bring the criminals to justice? Have we Armenians drawn the lessons from this tragedy?” He went on to note the lamentable fact that “Ethnic cleansing was to become part of political culture, an acceptable way to solve interethnic problems…” in reference to the Holocaust, and the more recent mass murders in Rwanda, Cambodia and the Balkans. “The international community has drawn no lessons from the genocide against the Armenians,” he stated: “immunity from criminal prosecution, indifference and inactivity opened the way for the repetition of such horrible crimes against humanity.”

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

For those nations which have recognized the genocide, Ambassador Martirosyan expressed the gratitude of the Armenian people, and at the same time denounced others which, though campaigning for democracy and human rights worldwide, have sacrificed universal human values in pursuit of their own geopolitical interests.

Referencing the cultural heritage of Armenians going back thousands of years, he celebrated the rebirth of the nation, and said that its two pillars, the Republic of Armenia and the Diaspora, must both be equally strong. “Our unity is the course of our strength and our diversity is the source of our resilience.”

Sibylle Thelen, from the Baden-Württemberg Regional Center for Political Education, held the keynote on “The Power of the Many Voices: No Pluralism without the Freedom of Remembrance.” She characterized the 24th of April not only as a “day of mourning and remembrance,” but also “a day of clarification and belated reappraisal.” Thelen, who is the author of a book on “The Armenian Question in Turkey,” has documented the process through which citizens have gradually come to learn about, understand and face the historical facts of the genocide. “With every passing year,” she said, “the memory of 1915 comes closer and closer — also in Germany. And a bit also in Turkey.” In her speech she touched on these developments in civil society, among the Turkish immigrants in Germany and in Europe.

In Turkey, this process unfolds in various forms: there are citizens who research and relate their family histories, discovering and remembering their Turkified Armenian grandmothers; researchers link up with colleagues abroad and import new approaches and questions; artists explore the dark past, like Orhan Pamuk in his bestseller, Snow, and Elif Shafak in The Bastard from Istanbul. Thelen cited a new book, Serenade for Nadja by Zülfü Livaneli, which has continued this literary experience. The protagonist of the book, a 38-year-old Turkish woman working in a university, learns from a visiting American professor the tragic story of 700 Jewish passengers on a ship named Struma, who drowned in the Black Sea in 1941-1942 because no one in the international community offered them help in their attempt to escape persecution. Shocked by this story, she begins to research her own family history and discovers one grandmother was a Crimean Tatar, the other, an Armenian survivor who was forced to convert to Islam. Facing this past, the protagonist goes through a self-reflexive crisis which is painful, but liberating, as she gains inner freedom and self-conscious independence. The fact that this book has sold 250,000 copies speaks volumes. For Thelen, the heroine “symbolizes Turkish civil society” which, though small, has realized that taboos about history are inhibiting and enslaving. “It prevents the unfolding of Turkish democracy,” whereas “a Turkey that critically reappraises its past makes its own way to a free, pluralistic Europe.”

As for Germany, she recalled a resolution on the Armenian question which the Bundestag (Parliament) passed in 2005, on the 90th anniversary. Although the text avoided use of the term “genocide” it was an attempt, in the words of one of its sponsors, to bring the successor nation to the Ottoman Empire into the “European culture of remembrance” — the capacity Europeans have developed to face the tragedies of the 20th century, recognize responsibilities and open the way to reconciliation. The second part of the resolution explicitly identified it as a duty for Germany to provide Armenians and Turks support to work through the past to overcome it, for example, by encouraging classroom education in teaching youth about the genocide.  Although Thelen could not announce great strides made in this direction, she could point to some progress in introducing the theme in history lessons.

In this context, she noted that with such a large immigrant population, Germany faces the challenge of exploring new ways to present its own history, including the history of immigration and the reasons behind it. Means must be devised to allow newcomers to participate in the collective memory of Germany, and to learn even from its negative aspects. The speaker called for “historical work which is intercultural” and which provides “a multiplicity of perspectives to approach the past and present.” As an example, she cited a project built around a concentration camp memorial in the city of Ulm. Eighty per cent of the students came from immigrant families, and the question posed in the project was: what does your history have to do with me? The students investigated their own family backgrounds, compared them, discussed them and sought to locate them in a historical perspective.  “It is a matter of sharing memory,” Thelen said.

Looking to the immediate future, she noted that next year 2014 we will be commemorating the beginning of World War I, a watershed which has also undergone a shift in focus of research: from political-military accounts of the big battles, attention has moved to the cultural and social background, and the war has been recognized as the first great catastrophe of the century. The year thereafter 2015 marks the centenary of the Armenian genocide and with it the memory will inevitably prevail. “In the confrontation with history, suffering, guilt and responsibility find their place in collective memory,” she concluded. “And that is how it should be.”

The second guest speaker was Cem Oezdemir, the national chairman of the Green Party and member of the Bundestag. His speech was entitled, “In Memory of the Victims of the Genocide against the Armenians 1915.” Echoing Martirosyan’s sentiments, Oezdemir stressed how difficult it is to grasp the “why” behind the events: why the Young Turk leaders destroyed the multi-ethnic, multi-religious Ottoman state with their nationalist, racist ideology, and why the Armenians, known as the loyal people, were victimized. To put the apparently inconceivable crime in perspective, he reviewed the indispensable place Armenians had occupied in Ottoman society as professionals, manufacturers, intellectuals, artists. In Istanbul, for example, where they represented a tenth of the population, there were nearly as many newspapers in Armenian as in Turkish.

In his narration of the nationalist upheavals in the late 19th century which led to territorial losses in the Balkans and the expulsion also of Muslims, Oezdemir drew on examples from his own family history: uprooted Cherkessian ancestors on his father’s side who came under Russian occupation in the Caucasus and a maternal Greek grandmother who had to change her name and religion. It was in their desperate attempt to hold the crumbling empire together that the Young Turks propagated the creed of Turkish-Muslim superiority, and minorities were doomed.

Oezdemir delivered sharp criticism of the attempt to rationalize the systematic deportations and massacres of the Armenians as somehow undesired by-products of the war, and argued strongly in favor of an honest overhaul of history from the Turkish side. He said that formal measures, for example, legal codes and bans, may serve the purpose of denying the past, but they cannot heal the wounds of the past. Quoting Hrant Dink on the need for the two peoples to help the healing process, he called for a normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey, the opening of the border and accession of Turkey into the European Union – a move that he believes, as does Sibylle Thelen, would encourage the democratization process, thus contributing to restoring truth in official historiography.

Like Thelen, Oezdemir also struck a note of optimism at this prospect, pointing to current developments in Turkey as evidence; for one, he cited progress (albeit limited) in allowing some Christian schools and churches to restore their activities, and considered the recent Turkish government talks with PKK representatives as signs of a possible democratic solution to the Kurdish problem. In the context of a new democratic constitutional order, essentially all minorities could aspire to equal rights. Oezdemir implicitly challenged the authorities to take further steps in this direction, by asking rhetorically why those who dare deal with the Kurds or who have acknowledged the repression of Dersim in 1937/38 cannot take a similar approach to the Armenians – in time for 2015.

In the Paulskirche in Frankfurt, where the first freely elected parliament convened in 1848, the historical events took center stage. Prof. Dr. M.A. Niggli, Professor of Criminal Law and Legal Philosophy (Philosophy of Law?) at Freiburg University addressed the oft-raised question of whether or not the concept of genocide in reference to 1915 requires clarification, and answered with a resounding “No.” It was the jurist Raphael Lemkin, he recalled, who established the scientific conditions for a legal definition of genocide precisely on the basis of his study of the events in Turkey between 1915 and 1918. And it was this concept which prevailed at the enactment of the Genocide Convention at the United Nations. He also dealt with related questions as to the numbers of Armenians who perished, the way many survived, and the legitimacy of using the term genocide for events prior to its coinage.

Michael Hesemann, who is an author, documentary filmmaker and specialized journalist, has been working in Rome since 2008 researching documents in the secret archives of the Vatican for a book on the Armenian genocide and the Vatican, to appear in 2015. In his speech he reported on various interventions by Felix Cardinal von Hartmann and Pope Benedict XV in defense of the Armenian cause, which they launched immediately after April 24, 1915. Hesemann quoted from two letters, one by Cardinal von Hartmann (and the other by the Pope from March 12, 1918. Also participating in their efforts was the Catholic Nuntius in Munich Pacelli, Secretary of State Cardinal Gaspari and the Cardinal’s sister who had worked as a nun and witnessed the genocide. They addressed their efforts to the German government in Berlin directly, especially to Imperial Chancellor Count von Hertling who was a Catholic himself. Hesemann quoted from the answers of the Chancellor, who rejected the pleas for intervention in an utterly irresponsible, cynical fashion. He also mentioned the work of Johannes Lepsius, which was taken very seriously by Catholic leaders, as well as his contact to Mathias Erzberger, a leading (CUT: politician and) member of the Catholic Center Party in the Imperial Diet. Hesemann’s speech culminated in his statement that although Germany was not an accomplice it was in the know and therefore bears a special responsibility to ensure that the truth wins out. Concluding his remarks, he cited passages from the prayer which Pope John Paul II offered during his 2001 visit to Tsitsernakaberd.

Although differing in form and approach, the leading speakers at Germnay’s commemorative ceremonies shared the concept and the commitment, that Germany can and should engage in efforts to make 2015 the year of recognition, reappraisal and the triumph of truth.


Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: