Cem Özdemir, Bea Ehlers-Kerbekian and Archbishop Karekin Bekjian (left to right).

Weaving Close Ties between Germany and Armenia


By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BERLIN — “Wisdom is the art of considering things from all sides.” The saying is by Nerses Shnorhali and it was printed in Armenian and in German on the invitation issued by the Armenian Embassy in Berlin to a ceremony on March 23. And it fit the occasion: we were invited to attend an event honoring two outstanding individuals who might be considered practitioners of the “art” in the political and cultural realm.

Ambassador Ashot Smbatyan presided over the ceremony, during which he presented the State Award of the Armenian Republic. The order of merit, which is a high honor, was conferred on Cem Özdemir, Green Party member of the Bundestag (Parliament), and Dr. Raffi Kantian, chairman of the Deutsch-Armenische Gesellschaft (German-Armenian Society). Özdemir was selected “for his extraordinary services in the international recognition of the Genocide against the Armenians,” and Kantian, for his “special services in deepening German-Armenian relations.”

Cem Özdemir and Matthias Gust

Marc Sinan read the laudatio for Cem Özdemir. Sinan, a composer and guitarist, is a co-founder, with Dresden Symphony conductor Markus Rindt, of the German-Turkish-Armenian Friendship Society. The choice of speaker was most appropriate, for Sinan shares with Özdemir a Turkish background, although, as he developed in his remarks, their biographies also display significant differences.

Sinan began by saying he felt it was “an even greater honor for me … to present such a valuable prize, like the Armenian State Award, than it is for you, dear Cem Özdemir, to receive it.” The German political figure has earned his admiration, he said, because his biography “is proof that one can make it here in Germany, against all odds. Against everyday racism. Against disparagement.”

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

The two men come from similar backgrounds. Sinan’s mother arrived in Germany from Turkey in 1963, two years after Özdemir’s parents had come. Both were born in Germany, 11 years apart, and both grew up speaking German, albeit, in their local dialects, Bavarian and Swabian. Sinan was raised in a modest townhouse settlement where the only other immigrant was the child of a Lebanese mother. Sinan explained that it was due to his blond hair and fair complexion that he escaped the discrimination that his “black-haired cousins” had to fight against.

As he was to learn, his heritage was not only Turkish. “Why my grandmother from the Black Sea was an orphan and was ashamed to be the child of Christians lingered with me for many years in my consciousness. It took a lot longer for me to become fully conscious of the dimensions of the fact that she was Armenian and a survivor of the genocide.” His family members were Kemalists, and he “grew up with the awareness that one shouldn’t openly talk about my grandmother’s background and — oh yes — of course that Turkey was threatened by the Kurds, who were equivalent to the PKK.” He described the ideological climate of Kemalism, and noted that it took years for him to overcome it.

Sinan said he could not speculate on whether or not Özdemir had similar experiences, but mooted the possibility that he, too, had altered his worldview in the course of reaching adulthood; certainly he had had to fight discrimination to become “one of the leading political personalities of the German Federal Republic,” a fact that led Sinan to consider him an example.

Most extraordinary in Özdemir’s political biography, and the reason for his being so honored, is of course his tireless and successful campaign for genocide recognition. This, Sinan said, “is a historic achievement and will secure you a place in history books. More important,” he went on, “we descendants of survivors feel satisfaction along the still long way towards coming to terms with the collective suffering of our ancestors. For this I would like to thank you very personally.”

Sinan then turned to the dark clouds hanging over the event in Berlin — the ongoing military aggression in Afrin. Referencing the pledge “never again,” Sinan stated that “we are in the middle of an ‘again’” and proceeded to delineate the contours of the tragedy engulfing the Kurdish people there. He drew comparisons, even geographically, to the death marches in 1915, and concluded that “the expulsion and killing of at least 150,000 Kurds and other groups in the region, the ongoing abuse and plunder, is a direct continuation of the genocide against the Armenians. The Turkish government speaks openly of ‘cleansing.’”

Sinan focused on the credo of racist, nationalist ideology, citing Michel Foucault on the notion of the superiority of one’s own “race” over the “Other,” and compared the situation today to that of a century ago. To characterize the situation in Turkey, he borrowed an image from theatre: “when someone brings a pistol on stage, it will inevitably be fired. President Erdogan has laid a powerful Colt on the table and the magazine is still full. He has pumped youth full of racism and testosterone. They are bloodthirsty, as the Young Turks were once. It is clearly a matter of the death of the ‘evil race,’ in Foucault’s sense.”

Topics: Armenia, Germany
People: Cem Ozdemir

Turning to the situation in Germany, where a racist, right-wing party has entered the Bundestag for the first time since the end of World War II, Sinan praised Özdemir for having openly denounced it as such. Reiterating the notion that we “are in the midst of a war,” he concluded his speech with a warning not to be satisfied with what has been achieved, but to continue the political struggle at home and abroad. “We have to stop the sick killing by Turkey, we cannot allow the coming generations to be infected with racism, nationalism and hatred.”


Risks and Rewards of Political Controversy

In accepting the award, Özdemir delivered warm and humorous remarks to thank the many people who had been instrumental in organizing the Armenian Genocide resolution. He was especially grateful to Sinan for having brought culture and art into the discussion, as they are indispensable in dealing with and overcoming the catastrophic past. Dr. Raffi Kantian has been a discussion partner for Özdemir over the years; “we have often argued too,” he said, but through such debates he had learned a great deal, especially, that there is no such thing as “the Turks” or “the Armenians” or “the Germans.” One of the first Armenians Özdemir met was Archbishop Karekin Bekjian, Primate of the Armenian Diocese in Germany, who was also present. He thanked the church leader for his courage; years ago, “he invited me to speak at the church, even without knowing what I might say,” Özdemir related, and after the event the Archbishop got into trouble. “I got into a lot of trouble,” Özdemir added, saying he had essentially been put on a watch list.

As Sinan had indicated, the achievement for which Özdemir is best known, and for which he was being honored, is his role in pushing the genocide resolution through the Bundestag. He could not have done it alone, and he acknowledged those individuals who in one way or another supported the effort. Among figures in civil society, he mentioned Dr. Rolf Hosfeld of the Lepsiushaus, Wolfgang Gust and this author, and in the political realm, singled out for special thanks Dr. Norbert Lammert, then-president of the Bundestag, as well as former German President Joachim Gauck, both outstanding for their insistence on naming the Genocide by its proper name. Özdemir cited several colleagues in the Bundestag across the party spectrum, from the leftwing Linke Party to the Christian Democrat Union-Christian Social Union (CDU-CSU), who had supported the resolution.

Then he turned to his family, as Sinan had done before him. His mother and his late father, of Cherkessian background, had taught him to be proud of his heritage, and knew, through their own parents, what catastrophe the “poison of nationalism” could produce. Thanks also went to his wife and two children, who have had to pay a price for his political initiatives. Last but certainly not least, he thanked the BKA, the German Federal Criminal Police, who have done “a great job” in taking care of “people who have different views.”

In concluding, Özdemir reflected on the fact that it was not only Armenians, but also Aramaens, Greeks, in sum, the entire Eastern Christian community who were targeted. And the role of Imperial Germany at the time should not be overlooked; German diplomats in the Ottoman Empire knew what was going on and failed to prevent it. Özdemir ended on an optimistic note, expressing his conviction that just as the Armenian Ambassador was standing there, so one day a Turkish Ambassador may stand beside him — that, in short, reconciliation will come. He closed with an appeal to preserve the legacy of Hrant Dink, and Easter greetings to all.


A German-Armenian

If  Dr. Raffi Kantian was being honored for having further deepened German-Armenian relations, “we should be clear about the fact that the desire for ‘deeper’ relations between Germans and Armenians, between Germany and Armenia, places demands that are more difficult to meet than might appear at first glance.” Thus began Dr. Christoph Bergner, a Parliamentarian from the CDU-CSU and former Minister-President of Saxony-Anhalt, in his comments. There are developments pointing to improved relations – “Armenia’s desire for European integration and with it the deepest possible partnership with Germany,” as well as “closer bonds to Armenia” in Germany and a “multifaceted pro-Armenian enthusiasm especially in the realm of culture and science,” – and yet, this is “only one side of the coin.” From the political standpoint the challenge has been great; “for a long time,” Bergner said, “Germany’s lack of confrontation with the genocide and reluctance to talk about German responsibility” weighed heavily on relations.  Even following the resolution, he continued, challenges remain; these relate to differing foreign and security policy priorities, complex conflicts in the South Caucasus as well as “the questionable and contradictory German relation to the Turkish state.”

In this light, Bergner situated the special talents displayed by Kantian. He “has for decades assumed the task of building German-Armenian bridges with emphasis, prudence, expertise, patience and above all a strong personal motivation.” And the way in which he has gone about this can be explained, Bergner said, only when one considers his personal biography.

Kantian was born of Armenian parents in Istanbul, but his education was shaped by German cultural institutions; he attended the German school there and took a degree in chemistry in Göttingen as a student of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Though Bergner knew Kantian as a scientist, he learned only later that he was also a poet. Kantian’s work with literature in West Armenian served also to improve German-Armenian relations; “he mediated and translated Armenian literature and poetry and made them accessible to the German-speaking world, just as he brought modern German literature closer to an Armenian public.” Since 1995, he has served as the authorized representative for Germany of the Armenian Writers Association.

This approach to his engagement, which goes beyond simply diplomatic “understanding management,” Bergner said, derives from Kantian’s personal identity, as someone who has “become a German-Armenian,” and in whose breast  “two hearts beat.” On the many occasions when he has served as interpreter for high-level personalities, like the Catholicos or Armenian political leaders and representatives, Kantian has always demonstrated “a desire to bring the often differing viewpoints closer and to make them mutually comprehensible.”

Thanks to this capability and approach, Bergner went on, Kantian has fulfilled his official functions, making the German-Armenian Society into “center of competence” for German-Armenian issues and, with his editorial activity, he has contributed to expanding public interest in German-Armenian relations. In his publications as well as public conferences and forums, Kantian’s “special contribution,” said Bergner, “consists in his having always seen the German-Armenian relationship and the Armenian question in their historical and regional contexts.” At the same time, his diaspora background “has always contributed to his conceiving the German-Armenian relationship beyond the regional dimension.”

Kantian, the German-Armenian from Istanbul, completed the evening’s program by taking his hosts and guests on an imaginary tour through the old city of Istanbul with its Armenian heritage.

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: