Why can’t politicians resist politicizing the Armenian Genocide?

Members of the Armenian community at the Bundestag hold signs saying ‘Recognition now says thanks.’
*Source: Reuters ©

Why can’t politicians resist politicizing the Armenian Genocide?

The German parliament’s vote in favour of recognizing the massacre of Armenians in 1915 as an act of genocide resulted in a predictably vitriolic response from the Turkish political elite.

Of course the timing of the German vote has deservedly raised some questioning eyebrows, with critics suggesting that it served merely to allay the German public’s politically correct sensibilities and its misgivings regarding German-Turkish cooperation on the refugee crisis.

Ultimately, this back-and-forth may have less to do with what happened in 1914 than with a game of moral one-upmanship between the two states.

The last Europeans

Now that Turkish-German relations are once more at the centre of European politics, a renewed drive to recognize the Genocide necessarily reflects a certain German ambivalence towards the historical dimension of the Turkish alliance.

After all, the Ottoman Empire was once a key ally to the German Kaiserreich. The vote is therefore not simply a Turkish issue. Many Germans feel that the vote reflects Germany’s own historical role in the geopolitical context of the Genocide.

This brings us right back to Nietzsche’s description of the so-called “last Europeans with a good conscience” (Die letzten Europaer mit gutem Gewissen). Nietzsche sardonically identified the European search for virtuosity as a theatrical display of its supposed enlightenment and its self-belief in European virtues.

If one identifies the vote not as a historical necessity, but as a display of righteousness, then the Turkish interpretation becomes more sympathetic. Many Turks understandably feel that the German vote is a rebuke of sorts. And for a country so firmly preoccupied with nostalgia for its Ottoman past, despite the amnesiac relationship it retains to what such a past might actually entail, international attempts to politicize the genocide are seen as hypocritical foreign meddling.

The German acknowledgement therefore presents a particular dilemma. On the one hand, it is tempting to think that the recognition constitutes a first step in a long and arduous process of restitution and memorialisation. This is undoubtedly true. Yet on the other hand, it is equally valid to observe that the German vote may only strengthen Turkish beliefs in the falsity of the historical event, reinforcing perceptions of its manipulation by western powers.

Of course the Genocide vote is political

The Turkish political elite has wasted no time in accusing their German counterparts of unsolicited interference. This follows the usual rhetorical line that any non-Turkish initiative to address the genocide serves merely to sabotage the Turkish Republic’s standing in the world.

To a certain degree this accusation is true. And why should it not be? After all, while in Turkey the mere mention of the Armenian issue has been essentially criminalized, foreign attempts to raise awareness do seek to disrupt this status quo by breaking the silence.

Where the Turkish accusation is wrong, however, is in assuming that ‘Turkey’ itself is threatened by such a vote. Rather, a vote recognizing the Armenian genocide seeks not to undermine Turkey as a country but to address the repressive hegemony that allows the issue to remain shrouded in silence.

In the ensuing back-and-forth, the Armenian Genocide itself becomes increasingly spectral, an abstract backdrop with an appropriately contentious historical context. This results in much rhetorical sabre-rattling by which the battle between the supposedly enlightened Europe can be brought to bear against an appropriately backward Turkey.

The ‘perfect’ crime is a paradox

In a twisted way, the vehemence with which Turkey denies the genocide only reinforces and amplifies its strongman stance towards the crime. In other words, might we not be justified in thinking that the Turkish political elite no longer cares whether or not the Turkish public privately recognizes the genocide?

If we look at it this way, it becomes clear that Turkey’s primary interest is to have its citizens believe a paradox. That (a), Turkey is so strong it could commit genocide, and that (b) it can now strong-arm its own citizens into denying that the genocide ever took place.

By voting to acknowledge the massacre as Genocide, Germany joins a growing list of countries who have done so already, including Russia, Brazil and France. In total, 29 UN member countries already recognize the Genocide. Why then is the vote still so contentious?

Increasingly, the Turkish stance towards the genocide has become one of near fundamentalist denial. For isn’t the issue with fundamentalists that they secretly know they will lose out in the long run? And this is why the politically correct assurances that the vote is no display of superiority towards them only works to increase their anger. The danger is that this anger becomes its own form of virtuosity, a Turkishness based on resentment rather than pride.

Unity, but for all the wrong reasons

That the denial of the genocide is the sole issue on which all Turkish political parties are in agreement only further points towards the level of mythos on which this denial rests. It is one that transcends partisan politics.

In a certain sense, the case follows exactly in the footsteps of the totalitarian logic that underpins any claim to hegemonic authority. The more the totalitarian system fails, the stronger its belief in its own predestined success. After all, why else would the system be faced with such staunch resistance, if not as proof of its own potency? The German vote will therefore in the short-term only result in a more dogged denial of the facts. This is an unfortunate yet entirely foreseeable outcome.

So it is best to consider the vote not through either a cynical or paranoiac lens, but to allow the rhetorical first act to play itself out in the media. Only then can a space be created in which a more authentic array of societal voices enters the stage. Only then might a potential for any true acceptance of the genocide come to fruition.

The hope then, is that the German vote can provide at the very least an opportunity for the debate to remain visible in the public eye. This in turn could allow for a time when the genocide is no longer even up for debate.

Whether this occurs in the official mode, or by means of a change in public consensus remains to be seen. For now, let us simply keep in mind that genocide should never be mere fodder for polemics: it is too grievous a thing to be politicized in such a facile way.

Julian de Medeiros

de Medeiros, Julian, “Why can’t politicians resist politicizing the Armenian Genocide?”, Independent Turkey, 7 June 2016, London: Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey). Original link: http://researchturkey.org/?p=11966

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