Commemorating the Armenian Genocide: Affirming History

Hans-Lukas Kieser pictured during his formal remarks

Editor’s Note: The Armenian community in Germany holds its annual commemoration of April 24 in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt am Main – a historically significant place where the first freely elected German parliament met in 1848. Today, this setting is used for important political, cultural and civic events. This year’s keynote address was delivered by Dr. Hans-Lukas Kieser, a professor at the Universities of Zurich (Switzerland) and Newcastle (Australia). Professor Kieser is one of the most distinguished and internationally renowned experts on the history of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey, with special reference to the Armenian Genocide. In his latest book Talaat Pasha: Father of Modern Turkey, Architect of Genocide (2020), he presents an impressive political biography of Talaat Pasha and traces in detail his decision to commit genocide. These formal remarks by Dr. Kieser were delivered in German and have been professionally translated into English for exclusive publication in the Weekly. 

A jolt has gone through Europe and the world. There has been talk of a Western turning point since Russian forces attacked Ukraine.

“Democracy exists only as a defensible democracy—ready to defend its own good values externally and internally.” This true insight suddenly sounds from many mouths. A self-evident truth. For there are those who do not want to be democratic and constitutional, who, for example, follow corrupt leaders in the belief that they are called to greater things or because there are material incentives. Those who think grandiose in the collective or simply run with the group, easily absorb propaganda. To then deny dignity, rights and statehood to a smaller people, as Vladimir Putin recently did with regard to Ukraine, is easy-going. 

For democratic people, fundamental rights and truth—instead of fakes and hypocrisy—mean a reason for existence, a political foundation and a raison d’être.

A democratic polity wants to stand up for its own kind and for others who think differently, believe differently or do not believe. It intervenes where disparagement, coercion, violence or incitement against others occur. It defends itself as soon as freedom is abused instead of protected in its polity. It shows solidarity as much as it can, also to the outside.

Denying dignity and identity to a people can lead to denying the right to bear life. In 1915, the Young Turk party leadership went so far as to deny life itself to its Armenian nationals in the Ottoman Empire. Djavid Bey, the party expert on finance, in the silence of his diary at the end of August 1915, accused his party comrades: “Not only the political existence, but also the biological existence of an entire people you dared to destroy.” Back in Istanbul from negotiations in Berlin, he was bewildered by the contemptuous, exterminatory hatred of his colleagues.

In the spring of 1918, when the dream of a Greater Turkey, labeled Turan, was again electrifying nationalists in Istanbul, the factual Commander-in-Chief Enver Pasha wrote to his officers on the advance in the Caucasus: “It is unacceptable to give the Armenians an existence. We must weaken them completely and keep them in a wholly destitute condition so that evil living conditions prevent them from organizing themselves.” 

Even Enver’s apologists cannot put forward a motive of imperial security at this point. The ideological power of Turanism cannot be minimized. Real pan-Turkism, then as now, cannot be glossed over as tolerant internationalism. We are dealing with a claim to greatness that knows no human horizon and no or little sense of individuality, of being different and weaker, and certainly not of democracy.

The active recognition of the dignity of those who are different and weaker has nowhere entered world history more unreservedly and forcefully than through the Gospel. Early on, the Gospel became an element of Armenian identity and culture, but also of Armenian exposure and vulnerability.


Today, in the field of fossil energies and beyond, it has been the rule in recent decades for economically powerful states to pursue their interests in league with authoritarian powers. 

It was routine to abandon democratic movements and oppressed people in the Caucasus and the Middle East and to acquiesce in undemocratic patterns or even authoritarian leaders. It was routine to submit to supposed constraints with anticipatory obedience. One has forgotten that those who really want and seek will find ways to act more courageously: ways toward a watchful, instead of defeatist democracy.

Until the war in Ukraine, the EU and Germany hardly ever used their existing sharp economic and financial instruments for justice. Spoken in the biblical parable, lazy maids and servants buried their democratic talents. Instead, they accustomed society to maximize wealth, their companies to optimized profit figures, and politics to sideshows and self-fulfillment. They have made themselves irresponsibly comfortable with the question, “What is truth?” Even the most extreme, pacifist readiness for peace is serious only if it knows how to call a spade a spade and to put forward true, incisive words.

Russia and Turkey are currently at the top of the Council of Europe’s rankings when it comes to prisoners and the incarceration of dissenters and oppositionists. Many tens of thousands unlawfully imprisoned in Turkey today can count on far less European support than Osman Kavala and Selahattin Demirtaş. Demirtaş is harassed as a rival far superior in democratic dialogue. Kavala, an industrialist and patron of the arts, is hated in part because he advocates Turkish-Armenian understanding that takes historical truth and justice seriously. All of them, who stand for more democracy and truthfulness, do not enjoy the clear backing from Western democracies that they deserve.

There were always a lot of half- and untruths in the public space beyond national bordersunspoken things in the room, chalk in the throat. That is why it took more than a century for the Bundestag to at least acknowledge the Armenian Genocide as a historical reality in 2016, even though Germany itself had been involved in it. The delay was not due to a lack of archival documents, but to the lack of democratic intrepidness.

You all probably know the note of Reich Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg when he forbade any criticism of the ally, claiming supreme constraints. “Our only aim is to keep Turkey at our side until the end of the war, whether Armenians perish over it or not.” The statement dates from December 1915, when the first Anatolian phase of the genocide was completed. “Germans, Germans, why didn’t you take care of the rights?” sang the Kurds at the time in a new Eastern Anatolian lament, cursing Germany’s future.

Against this background, is Armenia’s security not part of the raison d’état of a chastened Germany? Politics in this country asserts to take the memory of genocide particularly seriously. It claims to have drawn fundamental consequences from the world wars and former contempt for human rights. Much good has come out of this attitude since then, but some of it was merely a reaction to expectations coming from the outside. It was not built on its own democratic courage and frankness.

The Republic of Armenia is a prominent but particularly fragile democracy in its greater region. It is threatened from its immediate western and eastern neighborhoods.

Fortunately, for the first time in two months, the Western world, including NATO, is clearly raising its voice and arm for democracy. Let us not imagine, however, how things would look in Ukraine without the clear determination of the 80-year-old white man in Washington. Exactly one year ago, President Biden showed the wise courage to use the word “genocide” where it paradigmatically applies. Government officials in Europe still have to heed this intrepidness to tell the truth, even outside of parliaments. We all, in Biden’s words, honor and remember today all the Armenians who died in the genocide that began 107 years ago today. We affirm history; we don’t sugarcoat history. There are no alternative facts.

Before Biden, there sat in the White House a despiser of democracy who was very fond of men like Erdogan, Aliyev, Putin and Kim Jong-un. He and the European capitals were unconcerned when, at the beginning of 2018, Turkish tanks—including some made in Germany—rolled into peaceful Afrin in northwestern Syria in violation of international law. The forces of the NATO member state killed over a thousand young people seeking to defend their livelihood and political achievements. Since then, the invader has established an unfree, lawless jihadistan there. Failing to react resolutely to this bloody destruction of nascent democracy has proved an evil forbearance. 

European susceptibility to blackmail, among other things as a result of the 2016 refugee deal, is no less self-inflicted than the now much-cited dependence on cheap Russian gas. Does today’s rhetoric by German political leaders about their Russia policy apply analogously to their Turkey policy: naïve, failed and a grave mistake? If Trump had his way, the destruction of democracy would have also hit the Kurdish-led northeast of Syria. For the sake of his comrade in mind and lover of grandiose palaces, namely Erdogan, Trump wanted to suspend American assistance there altogether. However, he was met with vehement resistance, beyond the Pentagon.

Trump was still in office at the end of September 2020. Therefore, there was no USA at that time, certainly no EU and also no Germany, which took a stand for democracy against dictatorial aggressors. At that time, Azerbaijani forces with active Turkish backing launched their attack on Armenian Stepanakert in Artsakh/Karabakh. Baku and Ankara disregarded the OSCE Minsk process for diplomatic settlement of the regional conflict. Besides arms business and strategic calculations, once again fossil dependence was an obvious reason to duck away or support Baku’s war in the fall of 2020. Armament with high-grade weapons from Turkey, Israel and Russia had prepared the war of aggression. 

Almost nine-tenths of Azerbaijan’s exports consist of petroleum products. Fossil deposits do not only make resource-rich states vulnerable to autocracy, corruption, repression and war, but they also corrupt oil-dependent democracies that trade with them. The malaise goes beyond weakness for caviar diplomacy to bribed members of parliament, press and academics. In Brussels and Berlin—and perhaps in other parliaments as well—bribed deputies sat with the task of blocking human rights initiatives and whitewashing an unjust regime. Anyone who reads Israeli newspapers will occasionally come across relevant articles in this vein there as well.

Audience members in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt am Main

Today, the concerted aggression in the Caucasus in the fall of 2020 complicates a committed commemorative speech for law and democracy. For it was Russian diplomacy that put an end to the bloodshed. Despite everything and despite the evil imperial statement of 1915—”We need Armenia, we don’t need Armenians”—tsarist, Soviet, post-Soviet Russia has so far offered a minimum of protection to Armenia when it mattered. Admittedly, it was only after waiting out the bloodletting of Armenian forces, outnumbered, out-materialized and out-strategized, that the Kremlin ruler was willing to intervene. He cannot be called a friend of Armenian democracy

But where were friends of democracy and those willing to stand up to their business partners in Baku and Ankara? Undisturbed, uninhibited and triumphant, the two autocracies celebrated their so-called conflict resolution through war at the end of 2020. Religious and racial blood brotherhood was again frenetically invoked like in the 1910s, as were the names of bloodstained Young Turk luminaries. Anti-Armenian hate speech and street violence flared up beyond Azerbaijan and Turkey. It appears that Europe is in dire need of an effective universal anti-racism penal code that includes organized genocide denial. The narrow majority of European judges in Strasbourg must have learned since 2015. In a somewhat starry-eyed assessment, they then dismissed the public denial of a prominent provocateur from Ankara in Switzerland as a private matter, quashing the Swiss federal court’s wise and well-based judgment.

In the fall of 2020, all of us in the West merely watched the bloody spectacle—the war that was so bitter for Armenia. No solidarity for democracy, certainly no arms deliveries for defense. No pressure whatsoever to force a ceasefire through sanctions or a halt to oil imports, to restart the Minsk process and thus to stand up for a fair and viable future in the region. In its latest report, the Washington-based Democratic think tank Freedom House understands the lack of Western response to Baku’s war of aggression as a spur to Putin’s attack on Ukraine.

Suffering the passive impotence of modern Western democracies to which one is inclined, this has been the Armenian experience since 1895 and World War I. No other people has had to go through disappointments of this kind so archetypically and repeatedly—and yet not given up. 

Armenian personalities were at the forefront of the Ottoman reform state when monarchies still prevailed in 19th-century Europe—after the German democratic revolution of 1848, which originated in this Paulskirche, had also failed. Small peoples know themselves more instinctively to be dependent on law, truth, solidarity and self-organization than larger, more powerful ones. 

When Moscow and Ankara partitioned the South Caucasus in 1921, they disparaged Armenia as a pathetic creature of the Paris Peace Treaties and the League of Nations. Similarly, Hitler and Stalin did the same with Poland on the eve of World War II. Until the Lausanne Conference, Bolshevik Moscow and ultranationalist Ankara were pulling the same anti-Western rope, although until mid-1920 the Bolsheviks had emphasized socialist-humanist solidarity with Armenia.

The League of Nations was then incapable of protecting Armenia and ensuring justice and prosecution after genocide. This was its first fatal failure and a bad omen for the otherwise promising Geneva peace, justice and democracy project. This project became a victim of the unexpected circumstance that America stayed away from the League of Nations and that the European powers could not and would not honor their commitments. In contrast to the UN, whose core is power politics which the Security Council proves again these days—the League of Nations was, from its basic idea, a solidary federation for global peacekeeping through law. It was to rest on democratic social contracts.

In the same year, 1921, Stalin overturned a decision of the Caucasian Committee of the Russian Communist Party. Following imperial logic, Karabakh was subsequently annexed not to the Soviet Republic of Armenia, but to Azerbaijan. Also, with disdain for minority self-determination and for the sake of Ankara, Stalin furthermore abolished the neighboring district of Kurdistan—the so-called “Red Kurdistan”—a few years later. The Kurds there were deported to Central Asia.

Again, a few years later, in 1937, 1938, the capitals in the East and West and even the League of Nations made a good face to a particularly nasty game. The Turkish army undertook what the contemporary press called a civilization campaign in the province of Dersim. The Alevi-Kurdish Dersim had been the only major refuge from genocide in 1915. Dersim was still home to numerous surviving Armenian families in the 1930’s, when it was renamed Tunceli. According to the almost unanimous opinion of today’s experts, that campaign was a genocide of double to triple the scale of that of Srebrenica in 1995. Nazi Germany was on record as having supplied poison gas, which according to eyewitness accounts and the testimony of a senior Turkish official was used against the civilian population. At the time, British diplomacy in Ankara flatteringly let it be known that it did not take the cries for help in the form of Kurdish letters to Geneva and London seriously at all. Macro-political competition prevailed on the backs of minorities, in this case a Kurdish minority without rights, which was not even allowed to claim minority status under the Treaty of Lausanne.

A commemoration of the victims of the Armenian Genocide is hardly imaginable without reference to the Lausanne Conference and the Lausanne Treaty in 1923. This only post-World War II treaty still in force today concluded a pact of interests between powers. It could never become a peace among and for people.

An important goal of the Western powers at the Lausanne Conference had been to wrest Turkey away from the young Soviet Union with an attractive deal. Ten years later, Nazi Germany also courted the favor of its former Great War partner. The Lausanne Conference definitely made the small Armenian people a victim par excellence of the 20th century. They were not only robbed of their homeland, their home, their possessions—and for a million of their bare lives. For many decades, they were denied the public articulation of their own history and identity, which nevertheless remained in their mind at every turn.

We are half lame,
For wherever we set foot –
On Syrian sand,
On a Paris sidewalk,
On the banks of the Nile,
Our other foot
Is sunk in the snow of Masis Mountain,
And we do not walk,
We do not reach,
We only trace
The closed circle of our exile
Wandering endlessly around Masis …

This is how a Gevorg Emin poem, translated by Tatul Sonentz-Papazian, expresses the post-genocidal human condition of Armenians. 

Being deprived of articulated history was for a long time international normality in public commemoration, at universities, in school history textbooks and especially in diplomacy. In Turkey, tens of thousands of mostly Armenian women, who were brought into Muslim families during the Genocide by force and through slave markets, or out of charity, were completely condemned to silence. 

As the international birth certificate of the Republic of Turkey, the Lausanne Treaty integrated the government in Ankara into Western diplomacy, and after 1945, into Western alliance architecture. It set the course internationally for nearly a century of cover-up and conceptual acrobatics, and with it, as it were, the symbolic annihilation of Armenians. US congressmen showed late courage in public shame in the fall of 2019 when they acknowledged the Genocide while confessing that their country had adulterated the truth for decades out of politically biased consideration for the perpetrators’ descendants.

Not that the Lausanne Treaty should be revised. Today it is mainly Islamists and supporters of a Greater Turkey who desire a revision, because they see in Lausanne the loss of the imperial sultanate and caliphate. On the contrary, in a new approach to Lausanne, I am concerned to perceive what were quite unacceptable political arguments and measures. These must no longer be allowed to stand as they are. We have to overcome in innovative ways the shortcomings and thus implicitly a treaty that belongs to the immediate prehistory of the Shoah in Europe.

Even today, you will read in most history books about the Peace of Lausanne as the most constructive treaty after World War I. Against this, as is generally known, speaks the gigantic forced migration – the so-called population exchange – of Christians from Anatolia and, a fraction of it, Muslims from northern Greece. Lausanne also sealed the de facto end of the political project of the League of Nations, whose charter no longer stood at the beginning of the treaty as it had in the previous Paris treaties. From then on, the rule was clearly might before right, and that successful use of force topped prosecution. Ankara also evaded the League of Nations’ protection of minorities. At the Lausanne negotiating table, it not only sought to appropriate the Kurds for Turkishness, but also the much-tested Yazidi people. This was intended to bolster its claim to the province of Mosul.

But especially for us commemorators today, the Lausanne Conference made Armenians—the history they experienced, the genocide, the expulsion of the survivors, their Anatolian homeland, the question of justice and accountability, the restitution of looted property, the destruction of Armenian cultural property, etc.—a taboo and non-topic, a political quantité négligeable. Therefore, mass expulsion, including genocide, could henceforth be considered a tried and tested means of ultranationalist politics, diplomatically acceptable, so to speak. This defined the emerging NSDAP, as various research, especially by historian Stefan Ihrig who teaches in Haifa, have comprehensively proven.

Truth stings, shames and breaks liturgical forms. To commemorate the Armenians means to explore the century of extremes beyond what is known and recognized. It means not stopping at historical reckoning, accounting or commemorative liturgy. 

In other words, it means being able to make use of existing democratic talents and do a surprising amount—even for endangered communities outside the country. There—in the Caucasus, Ukraine, northern Syria, parts of Turkey, and other places—many threatened people appreciate the existential value of democracy and the rule of law that they lack. With the Ukrainian exception, Europe has yet to show them a democratic heart.

Constant appeasement has helped enable the renewed autocracy in Ankara. The chancellor’s visits to Turkey in 2015 and 2016 were accompanied by the destruction of democracy, active war policies and unfair elections that Erdogan was able to force in his favor. As bad fruits of war mongering resulted in the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, the resumption of the war against the Kurds in the southeast of the country and in northern Iraq, also against the Yazidis. Who cares for the security of the again-threatened survivors of the IS genocide in the Sinjar?

The sultan-like ruler staged the visits from Berlin as a prominent show of solidarity with his new palace government. Judging from her body language on Turkish screens, the chancellor viscerally felt unease, if not, blunt aporia. But her actions fell within the corset of Berlin’s foreign policy tradition. In 2017, she prevented the EU from taking a resolute stance, i.e. sanctions, against Ankara’s aggressive expansion in the eastern Mediterranean. We are dealing with a long line of whitewashing, complicity, blackmail and the preference of economics and cronyism over law. A related sad current chapter is the compulsory—cynically speaking—“repatriations” of Kurdish asylum-seekers to Turkey.

Future politics will be allowed to look different. Democratic resistance and democratic intrepidness will move to the center, and with it an understanding of genocide that is politically effective. Therefore, I urge for democratic partisanship in a sustained, purposeful and smart way.

I conclude with concrete suggestions:

  • A German relationship with the Republic of Armenia that understands the security of this democracy as an element of German and European raison d’état.
  • A commitment to Artsakh/Karabakh that secures for the locals their future and connection with Armenia; that insists on a legitimate overall solution and does not buckle in a legalistic or pseudo-neutral way.
  • And finally: swift action for the release of Kavala, Demirtaş, Aysel Tuğluk and many more.

Today’s commemoration encourages us to resist the corrosive influence of hatred, bigotry and craving for status. 

Guest Contributor

Guest Contributor

Guest contributions to the Armenian Weekly are informative articles or press releases written and submitted by members of the community.

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