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Fleeing from guilt: Germans, Turks and the genocide of the Armenians

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  • Fleeing from guilt: Germans, Turks and the genocide of the Armenians


    AZG Armenian Daily #141, 30/07/2005

    Armenian Genocide

    Fleeing from guilt: Germans, Turks and the genocide of the Armenians

    Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Feuilleton), 20.06.2005

    Just as the commemorations of the sixtieth anniversary of liberation
    have been symbolically drawn to a close with the opening of the
    "Memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe" in Berlin, the remembrance
    of a quite different genocide is unexpectedly raising some general
    questions regarding forms of remembrance in Germany. The genocide in
    question is that of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915/16,
    for which 2005 marks the ninetieth anniversary. It is tightly
    interwoven with the history of Europe and in particular that of
    Germany, for before the very eyes of the European public, this
    systematic genocide, committed in the shadow of the First World War,
    marked a turning point in twentieth century history: With this
    genocide, it became apparent that the extermination of a whole
    population group is not only conceivable, but is also realizable.

    Public discussion was triggered last year by the removal of the
    genocide of the Armenians from the main school syllabus in the
    Federal state of Brandenburg - and this through the intervention of
    the diplomatic representation of Turkey in Germany. In April, the
    Bundestag addressed this genocide for the first time, with a
    cross-party agreement that Turkey, which to this very day continues
    to emphatically refute the facts of the genocide, should be asked to
    finally face up to this issue. Specific mention was also made in the
    discussion to Germany's own share of the responsibility ` for as an
    ally of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, Germany was
    informed early on about the extent and goal of the deportation
    measures. At the same time, the discussion also implied a way out,
    with the setting up of a Turkish-Armenian commission of historians to
    devote itself to this question. And yet the Brandenburg schoolbook
    affair had only just demonstrated that Germany's responsibility does
    not lie in initiating a reconciliation between Turks and Armenians `
    irrespective of the fact that such a reconciliation would lend
    legitimacy to the German endorsement of Turkey's entry into the EU `
    but rather in bringing an end to its own tolerance of the denial.

    Finally, a Bundestag motion carried by all parties was accepted in
    which a rhetoric of obeisance towards the victims was
    exerted. However, this rhetoric was only tacit, as the motion was
    passed without any previous debate in which regret, lament and the
    call to recognise the act could have been articulated. Nevertheless,
    the resolution of this motion, supported as it was by all parties,
    still incited unrest on the part of the Turks. With a sea of Turkish
    flags yesterday in Berlin, the stance of Turkish politics, as rigid as
    they are resolute, was expressed. The Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan
    accused Chancellor Schröder of "spinelessness" and having
    "false and ugly politics". He himself, on the other hand, claimed to
    have politics "full of backbone", open to seeing a country's work on
    its own perception of history as superfluous.

    What is notable in this very context, however, is also the consensus
    of academics and intellectuals in Germany, who ` with few exceptions `
    kept the issue grandly cloaked in secrecy. How can this silence be
    explained? Is there, quite simply, no need for intellectual discourse
    if "way back there in Turkey the peoples are striking at each other"?
    Are we to think of the extermination of the Armenians as an event on
    the periphery, an Asian act that does not belong to the history of
    Germany, Europe and the civilised world? Or could it be, perhaps, that
    the refusal to engage in a discussion of this genocide, which is
    challenged by the culture of remembrance in Germany, has something to
    do precisely with the specific forms of this remembrance ` and its

    Nowadays, remembrance is preferably brought into play when the
    question is no longer of a specific inheritance, but rather of what
    history, experience and identity have in common, and indeed of the
    common ground of globalising societies. As a foundation of such a
    remembrance, designed to create identity, the "experiences of the
    totalitarian regime of the twentieth century" and the Holocaust are
    defined, as laid down in a joint article in May 2003 by Jürgen
    Habermas and Jacques Derrida on the future of Europe (F.A.Z. of the
    31st May 2003). The focus in this regard is no longer first and
    foremost on the National Socialist policy of violence, but rather on
    the status of the Holocaust as a shared symbol for the whole of
    Europe. The goal is the constitution of a consensus memory, whose
    task is to lead to a humanisation: In a formula of the Holocaust
    based on a policy of remembrance that can be universally followed,
    the aim is for all experiences of violence to be put aside and future
    acts of violence to be prevented.

    But what does such a universalisation of the Holocaust actually mean?
    What does it mean for the future of remembrance, what does it mean for
    the remembrance of other experiences of violence, and above all: what
    does it entail for the remembrance of the Holocaust itself? Is there
    not a danger that in the process of universalisation, the remembrance
    of the Holocaust will be removed from its own direct context, from its
    underlying experience, and thus ultimately drained? For with this
    universalisation, a remembrance that is preserved through a dynamic,
    living process of reconstruction is replaced by a formulated

    Memory is always a narration founded on experiences, both direct and
    indirect. Memories are orientations, and they are always associated
    with identifications. Memory is always tied to its
    bearers. Commemoration, by contrast, follows settings of history and
    identity, it should not first and foremost preserve, but rather
    integrate and harmonise under shared universal values. Memory as a
    whole cannot be universal - and a remembrance can only be universal
    when it is free of memories, when it removes itself from those
    experiences that are preserved in the narrations.

    A generic, universal commemoration of the Holocaust, detached from the
    experiences of the victims and from those of the perpetrators and the
    following generations, would therefore have to be free from any
    experience and any ability to experience. As a universalised
    singularity, congealed to an abstract commemorative emblem for
    collective violence, this formula of Holocaust would refer solely to a
    moral imperative. In the vanishing point of this commemorative
    formula, which has surely also been cemented in the Berlin monument,
    one no longer finds the victims ` nor even the perpetrators ` but
    rather the act alone. Thus the universalisation of a Holocaust free of
    victims and perpetrators could ultimately prove to be an empty
    formula, which is, however, well suited for the - intended? `
    overcoming of the memory of the Holocaust itself.

    It is this remembrance policy, urging as it does a homogeneity of the
    contents of memory, that is today being destroyed by other
    experiences of persecutions, collective violence and
    extermination. And these experiences appear all the more disturbing
    the more closely they are linked with the contents of the official
    German remembrance itself. The intensive focus on the Holocaust and
    the exemplary way in which German came to terms with its own history
    has changed the view of Germany with lasting effect, and this surely
    applies both for Germany's own self-image and for the perception of
    Germany held by others. The fact that the Federal Republic so
    explicitly placed itself into a position of historical responsibility
    has contributed to the emergence of a different Germany and has
    recently also legitimised a new role and a new strength for Germany
    in international politics. Now, with the genocide of the Armenians
    forcing its way into the field of discussion, the challenge is on for
    Germans to once again unearth its ` finally laid to rest ` history,
    putting pressure, too, on current politics.

    Perhaps the German intellectual community's reticence to discuss the
    place of the genocide of the Armenians in the European or global
    culture of remembrance can also be explained by a fear that the
    painstaking efforts to prove that Germany has faced up to its past may
    not be sufficient - and that one might once again be faced with the
    task of having to confront German guilt.

    Up to now, it has been possible to use the word "guilty" without
    actually meaning it, because politics had ritualised and
    institutionalised an admission of guilt that acted as a basis of
    legitimisation of a post-war Germany. After the building of the
    memorial in Berlin, the hope was that it would be possible to use the
    word "guilty" in the comfort of finally no longer belonging to the
    historical and generational cycle of responsibility for that history;
    that the concern was now with a passing, concluded history, in the
    remembrance of which the Germans could finally include themselves (as

    Now, though, Germany is confronted with the fact that once again a
    right of remembrance is being called for. And this new demand shows
    that remembrance can no longer be pushed away as a subjective,
    interest-fuelled notion, but rather that the question of the place of
    remembrance becomes a legitimate one directed at the current
    constructs of society.

    For the question of remembrance is linked with the knowledge contents
    of our present-day, global society, questions of concepts of
    community, minorities and tolerance. Thus the remembrance of the
    genocide of the Armenians also represents a challenge for current
    politics. Of course, a considerable issue here is also the stance that
    Germany takes regarding the integration of Turkey into the European

    Can the Federal Republic really support the admittance of a Turkey
    that assumes an attitude towards its own history that is
    diametrically opposed to facing up to violence and crime, even though
    this has become mandatory in Germany and now also Europe in the
    remembrance of the Holocaust? A policy under the postulate of linking
    one's own interests with an action for a "future of Turkey" like that
    pursued from the 1890s by Wilhelmine Germany ` and in so doing
    neglecting or perceiving as a mere disturbance other population
    groups in Turkey, in the past the Armenians and Aramaeans, today the
    Kurds ` appears to be continuing in the present day. Today, too, we
    are only bargaining for a future where the calls of the Armenians for
    a recognition of their history is sacrificed for the interests and
    the future of the Europeanised nation states. An intellectual
    discussion on the remembrance of the genocide of the Armenians would
    call for a reappraisal of the policy towards Turkey, a policy that
    finally takes into account a perspective of Europe that has been
    developed against the background of the experience of the Holocaust
    and the obligation of remembrance. Thus the appeal to allow this
    remembrance shows that remembering does not call for an
    identification with the victims, but rather to accept the victim as a
    victim: as a witness of persecution as well as a voice of the right
    to one's own accepted position, an accepted political place in the

    Meaning and workability of a European and then global culture of
    remembrance will ultimately be gauged according to whether a plurality
    of remembrances is allowed - indeed whether one is prepared to base
    this remembrance on the plural nature of memories. The way in which
    the Armenian experience is dealt with will therefore also be a
    touchstone for whether the discussions on remembrance, recollection
    and commemoration have been more than an academic exercise, more than
    a virtuoso piece of rhetoric on the politics of remembrance.

    BY Mihran Dabag, Director of the Institute for Diaspora and Genocide
    Research at the Ruhr University of Bochum (translated by Sarah Mannion