President Biden’s Recognition of the 1915 Armenian Genocide

Lily Gardner Feldman

Senior Fellow

Dr. Lily Gardner Feldman is a Senior Fellow at AICGS. She previously served as the Harry & Helen Gray Senior Fellow at AICGS and directed the Institute’s Society, Culture & Politics Program. She has a PhD in Political Science from MIT.

From 1978 until 1991, Dr. Gardner Feldman was a professor of political science (tenured) at Tufts University in Boston. She was also a Research Associate at Harvard University’s Center for European Studies, where she chaired the German Study Group and edited German Politics and Society; and a Research Fellow at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs, where she chaired the Seminar on the European Community and undertook research in the University Consortium for Research on North America. From 1990 until 1995, Dr. Gardner Feldman was the first Research Director of AICGS and its Co-director in 1995. From 1995 until 1999, she was a Senior Scholar in Residence at the BMW Center for German and European Studies at Georgetown University. She returned to Johns Hopkins University in 1999.

Dr. Gardner Feldman has published widely in the U.S. and Europe on German foreign policy, German-Jewish relations, international reconciliation, non-state entities as foreign policy players, and the EU as an international actor. Her latest publications are: Germany’s Foreign Policy of Reconciliation: From Enmity to Amity, 2014; “Die Bedeutung zivilgesellschaftlicher und staatlicher Institutionen: Zur Vielfalt und Komplexität von Versöhnung,” in Corine Defrance and Ulrich Pfeil, eds., Verständigung und Versöhnung, 2016; and “The Limits and Opportunities of Reconciliation with West Germany During the Cold War: A Comparative Analysis of France, Israel, Poland and Czechoslovakia” in Hideki Kan, ed., The Transformation of the Cold War and the History Problem, 2017 (in Japanese). Her work on Germany’s foreign policy of reconciliation has led to lecture tours in Japan and South Korea.

Will the German Government Follow?

On April 24, 2021, President Joe Biden recognized as a genocide the mass killings by the crumbling Ottoman Empire of 1.5 million Armenians, beginning in 1915 during the First World War. Many governments preceded Biden in using the word “genocide” to describe these events. The German government was not among them. This omission may seem surprising given Germany’s enduring commitment to confronting its own Nazi and Holocaust past (Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit) and its appreciation that acknowledgement by the perpetrators of horrific acts is necessary for a process of reconciliation with victims to begin. Recognition by the German government is not likely soon, however, for reasons both domestic and international.

The government’s official avoidance of the appellation “genocide” has not been shared by other parts of the German polity. In a speech on the centenary of the mass killings in April 2015, then-President Gauck insisted: “[T]he fate of the Armenians exemplifies the history of mass annihilations, ethnic cleansing, deportations, even genocides, that marred the twentieth century in such a terrible way.” He went on to say that “we Germans as a whole must [come to terms with this past] as we share responsibility, perhaps even guilt, in the genocide committed against the Armenians.”

In June 2016, the Bundestag passed almost unanimously a resolution calling the massacre a genocide and apologizing for Germany’s complicity with the Ottomans through the alliance of the German Empire. The Germans turned a blind eye to the massacre and there is evidence they were involved militarily in the killing of Armenian victims. The Resolution’s major sponsor, the Green Cem Özdemir, linked the imperative of the Bundestag action to Germany’s own past: “Working through the Shoah is the basis of democracy in Germany. This genocide is also waiting to be worked through.” Norbert Lammert, the then-CDU President of the Bundestag, concurred, referring to facing “our own chapters of dark history” leading to reconciliation. Lammert added that the current Turkish government did not bear responsibility for events of a century ago but should assume responsibility for how the past is handled in the present. The Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, and Foreign Minister were notably absent for the vote, although Merkel’s spokeswoman did indicate that she backed the resolution in her personal capacity at a caucus meeting before the vote.

The Armenian Foreign Minister praised the resolution as a “valuable contribution,” while the Turkish government recalled its ambassador to Germany. The Turkish Foreign Minister suggested an ulterior motive in the issuing of the resolution: “The way to close the dark pages of your own history is not by defaming the history of other countries with irresponsible and baseless decisions.” The Turkish response rested on two frequently articulated premises: 1) Many Turks were also victims in World War I, and 2) the estimates of Armenians killed were much lower than specified by the Armenian government.

Concerned that the resolution could derail German-Turkish relations with severe consequences for Turkey’s key role in finding a solution to the migration and refugee crisis in Europe, Chancellor Merkel sought to soften the blow by telling Ankara that the resolution did not interfere with Germany’s “amicable and strategic” ties with Turkey: “[T]here is a lot that binds Germany to Turkey. … [T]he breadth of our links … is vast – starting with defense issues and many other issues, and last but not least the 3 million Turkish citizens living in our country.” Turkey’s foreign ministry also invoked this community, arguing that the Bundestag was attempting to “alienate” Turkish Germans.

Since the June 2016 Bundestag resolution on the Armenian genocide, German-Turkish relations have deteriorated for multiple reasons.

Politically, Merkel needs to be attentive to the sensitivities of this community, as almost half of them, 1.2 million, are eligible to vote in Germany. There are contradictions in Turkish Germans’ political proclivities. While they normally vote SPD, Merkel herself, according to a Center for American Progress December 2020 survey, is the most popular politician in Germany (due to her handling of the 2015 refugee crisis). However, three times as many Turkish Germans feel the SPD is the party that most respects them (26 percent) compared to the CDU (7 percent). The survey also demonstrated that the majority of Turkish Germans agreed with the proposition that there “should be more support of Turkey and Turkish interests.” With regard to voting in Turkish elections, Germans with a Turkish background tend to be more conservative: Of the 1.2 million eligible to vote in Turkey, two-thirds voted for Erdogan in the June 2018 presidential election.

Since the June 2016 Bundestag resolution on the Armenian genocide, German-Turkish relations have deteriorated for multiple reasons, including the Turkish domestic crackdown and retreat on the rule of law after the failed July 2016 coup; the February 2017 jailing of a German-Turkish journalist; the disagreement over the election campaign tactics of the AKP in Germany; and Erdogan’s call on the Turkish community in Germany to boycott the CDU, SPD, and Greens in German elections.

Merkel’s desire to not further impair German-Turkish relations and her consequent preference for not using the term “genocide” does not signify that she is unsympathetic to the Armenian suffering in World War I. On a trip to Armenia in August 2018, Merkel placed a wreath at the memorial to the genocide and emphasized “We understand what atrocities were committed against countless Armenians. This suffering should not and will not be forgotten.” She explained that she visited the memorial “in the spirit of the Bundestag 2016 resolution,” but noted that the parliament’s June 2016 decision was a political and not a legal act.

In addition to internal concerns, external geo-political considerations militate against an official German recognition of the Armenian genocide in the near future. Turkey now stands at a crossroads as it crafts an assertive, Janus-faced foreign policy identity between East and West. Turkey’s purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia came as a shock to NATO given Turkey’s membership in that body. The growing economic and trade relations between Turkey and Russia have also elicited concern. From a German perspective, it behooves officialdom not to take action that would precipitate a Turkish move further into the Russian embrace.

In addition to internal concerns, external geo-political considerations militate against an official German recognition of the Armenian genocide in the near future.

EU-Turkey ties have faced vicissitudes also. Germany is considered the EU’s main channel to Turkey. The March 2016 EU-Turkey agreement on migration, of which Germany was the main architect, halted the flow of Syrian migrants to Greece and afforded some measure of relief to the 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. It was a singular occasion of unity on the part of the EU, but also created an EU dependence on Turkey. Turkey’s potential for causing disruption became clear in March 2020 when it temporarily opened its border to Greece for Syrian refugees. Merkel assured President Erdogan that she would support an increase in the 6 billion euros the EU provided Turkey for care of the migrants.

The EU has been disappointed in Turkey’s military involvement in Syria, in Libya, and in the Fall 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, in which it sided with the latter. The EU has expressed its further consternation about Turkey’s maritime forays in the Eastern Mediterranean and its provocative conduct concerning the Cyprus conflict.

On the eve of President Biden’s statement of recognition, Turkey warned that acknowledgement would halt Turkish-Armenian reconciliation. Armenians countered that there is no extant reconciliation process. There have been some infant steps by officials in the past fifteen years. For example, in 2008, the then-Turkish president visited Armenia to watch a World Cup soccer qualifier match between the two countries. In 2009, the two sides signed protocols that would have established diplomatic relations and opened the border, which has been closed since 1993. Intense opposition in both countries killed the chances for ratification of the agreements. Most recently, President Erdogan did offer condolences to the Patriarch of Turkey’s Armenian community, but not an apology. However, these efforts at cooperation have been ad hoc and episodic, devoid of institutionalization or pattern.

Missing in these small efforts was a recognition of the 1915 massacres as a genocide by Turkey. Such an initiative by Turkey requires visionary and courageous leadership, which is improbable in the foreseeable future. If such a daring act were to ensue, Armenia would need to respond magnanimously, such that both sides would feel respected. At such a point, Germany’s experience in forging a “special relationship” with Israel could be instructive, especially the first steps taken by Chancellor Adenauer after his September 1951 statement to the Bundestag recognizing the “unspeakable crimes” perpetrated against the Jews in the name of the German people by the Nazi regime.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.