Germany labels 1915 as genocide: Why now?

Germany labels 1915 as genocide: Why now?

The reaction of the Turkish government to the June 2 vote in the German Parliament - describing the 1915 killings of Armenians under Ottoman rule as genocide - was not nearly as strong as the reaction against similar decisions taken by other parliaments.

Answering a question during his visit to Kenya, President Tayyip Erdoğan said the Turkish ambassador to Berlin had been recalled to Ankara for consultations, after which further steps would be taken. A note of protest was also delivered to the German chargé d’affairs in Ankara, while Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said it was not right for a country to “try to cover the dark pages of its own history” by targeting others with “baseless accusations.”

The Turkish Parliament failed to produce a joint declaration of all four parties in the house, as the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) had vowed in its election manifesto that it was in favor of recognizing the 1915 disaster as genocide. 

In the end, the German Parliament voted unanimously to denounce the 1915 killings as genocide, with just one objection and one abstention. 

But why now? Neither the Angela Merkel government nor the Bundestag did anything in 2015, on the 100th anniversary of the mass deportation of Ottoman Armenians, collectively accused of helping Russian invaders, which resulted in the killing of hundreds of thousands. Germany up to now had taken no steps on the issue, despite insistent calls from both the Armenian government and Armenian diaspora organizations around the world. 

Has there been a sudden awakening in the Bundestag to distance Germany from its First World War allies, giving Turkey a lesson to face its own past just as Germany did for the killing of 6 million Jews during the Second World War?

Or is it something related to the overall negativity in Germany – and in Europe generally - regarding Turkey’s recent foreign policy, certain statements from President Erdoğan, escalating “insult” cases against him, and the belief that it is the right time to land a blow on Ankara? 

It is worth noting that the bill was presented at the height of debates as Turkey and the EU work on a deal to stop the influx of refugees into the EU, triggered by the civil war in Syria. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım had said before the vote that the outcome would not affect Ankara’s stance regarding the refugee deal, while adding that was a “friendship test” for Germany.

But what exactly Turkey will do in retaliation to the Bundestag’s vote remains an open question. Previous attempts to boycott imports from France and Italy in similar circumstances yielded no results. The Turkish government also would not like to be accused of obstructing the anti-terror fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) by imposing limitations on the use of its military facilities, when it itself is engaged in an anti-terror fight against both ISIL and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The German government seemed to be not very much affected by warnings from Ankara, referring to the nearly 4 million people of Turkish origin living in Germany. Indeed, the Turkey-origin population in Germany reflects and amplifies Turkey’s political fragmentation: The result was even celebrated by some Kurdish-origin Turkish citizens in front of the Bundestag, while one of the co-signers of the bill is Cem Özdemir, the Turkish-origin co-chair of the Green Party.

It seems that this vote was also in some ways a result of accumulated reactions against both Erdoğan and Merkel in German politics.

That consideration could be one reason why Ankara has opted not to overreact to the German Parliament’s decision, though the vote is still likely to leave a lasting scar on relations between the two countries.