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Turks Join Armenians in Germany to Honor Genocide Victims
By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
It is not usually the case that the guest speaker at a commemoration event ‎for the victims of the 1915 genocide against the Armenians is Turkish, at ‎least not in Germany. But in Hamburg, it is becoming somewhat of a ‎tradition, since Toros Sarian first broke the ice two years ago. Sarian, who ‎issues a multilingual online publication ‎‎(, is co-founder of the Initiative for Remembrance of the ‎‎1915 Genocide, which organized a gathering in the St. Petri church on April ‎‎21st. In recent years, he has invited not only Germans of Turkish origin to ‎speak, but has consciously engaged representatives of other communities. ‎Thus, this year, flanking keynote speaker Cem Özdemir, National Chairman ‎of the Green Party whose family comes from Turkey, was Ali Ertam ‎Toprak, Chairman of the Alevi Community in Germany and Secretary of the ‎Alevi Communities in Europe, and a spokeswoman for the Turkish-Kurdish ‎Initiative for Democratic Rights and Freedom. ‎
Two clergymen from the Syrian Orthodox community joined with Armenian ‎Archbishop H.E. Karekin Bekdjian, Primate of the Armenian Church ‎Diocese in Germany, to celebrate a requiem mass for the victims and the ‎Syrian Orthodox Girls Choir offered prayers. Among those remembered ‎were Armenians, Pontic Greeks, and Aramaeans as well as those Turks, ‎including some officials, who refused orders to kill and contributed to saving ‎lives of many intended victims. Completing the ecumenical gathering was the ‎Secretary of the Working Group of Christian Churches in Hamburg and ‎Minister of the St. Petri Church, Martina Severin-Kaiser, who opened the ‎ceremony. The Gayane Choir, composed of German singers and directed by ‎Gayane Grover, presented musical interludes with the cooperation of ‎Turkish singer Leman Stehn. Among the participants numbering well over ‎‎500 were several state legislators, and German scholar Wolfgang Gust, who ‎has researched and published documents on the genocide from the World ‎War I German Foreign Ministry archives.‎
Representing the Republic of Armenia, H.E. Ambassador Armen ‎Martirosyan thanked those nations who have recognized the genocide, and ‎had to set aside their relations with Turkey to do so. But, important as such ‎outside recognition may be, what is paramount is the Turkish position. ‎Here, instead of acknowledgement, denial reigns supreme. In the words of ‎the diplomat, denial is “inappropriate for modern Turkey” and it ‎‎“traumatizes both sides.” In the search for reconciliation he urged present-‎day Turkey to acknowledge the deeds of past generations, and pointed to the ‎example of Germany, whose post-war governments faced up to ‎responsibility for the Holocaust. Ambassador Martirosyan, who expressed ‎his gratitude to all those expending efforts to resolve the continuing ‎diplomatic and economic conflict between Turkey and Armenia, underscored ‎that such efforts would be “doomed to failure” if the genocide issue were ‎ignored. He concluded on an optimistic note, that the truth would prevail.‎
Ali Ertam also touched on the German precedent in his remarks. Not only ‎did his characterization of the Turkish nationalist ideology, which posited ‎the supremacy of one faith, one language, and one race, evoke the spectre of ‎the Nazi pseudo-theory of racial superiority, but he explicitly called on ‎immigrants to participate in Germany’s “memory culture.” This means that ‎‎“what applies to the [neo-Nazi party] NPD applies also to the Grey Wolves ‎and Turkish nationalists.”‎
When introducing Cem Özdemir, moderator Anni Kluge pointed out that he ‎has come under attack from Armenians as well as Turks for his stance on ‎the issue, a stance which is strikingly similar to that of Hrant Dink. Özdemir ‎began by saying that all those who had gathered for the occasion in the ‎church, a house of God, shared the belief in its holiness and in the ‎sacredness of the human being as well. His parents, he said, had taught him ‎that anyone who attacked another on the basis of religion was no Muslim. ‎What the Young Turks had perpetrated was a “disgrace,” which could not ‎be justified by religion. Turning to the matter of the number of victims—a ‎question many denialists use in an attempt to minimize the immensity of the ‎crime--, Özdemir said he did not think that was the issue. Even if “only” ‎hundreds of thousands had perished, he said, in reference to those denialists’ ‎arguments and figures, it would still constitute “genocide.” More recent ‎examples of mass murder, in Rwanda and Bosnia, for instance, entail fewer ‎victims but all are genocide. Hrant Dink had been murdered, Özdemir went ‎on, because he “spoke to the hearts of Turks.” He cited cases of youngsters ‎in Turkey, who, after having seen Dink on television, would turn to their ‎parents and ask them, “Is what he said true?” – thus igniting debate ‎throughout Turkish society. Özdemir praised the efforts of those “scientists” ‎among Turkish intellectuals, like Ali Berktay, Taner Akçam, and Dogan ‎Akhanli, who also succeeded in opening their countrymen’s hearts and ‎enabling dialogue. “The key word is empathy,” he stated, again reflecting ‎Dink’s approach, and that means empathy for the victims first. To ‎understand how the genocide could occur, he referenced the traumas ‎provoked by the Balkan wars and the accompanying fears and pain. Unless ‎traumas are faced and dealt with, unless they are worked through, there is ‎the danger that they will be repeated. The Green Party leader then underlined ‎the need for Turkey to retrieve a multi-cultural and multi-religious identity, ‎and to treat this diversity as its wealth. Turkey, he said, is a country where ‎not only Aramaic, the language of Christ, is spoken, but also Armenian. He ‎criticized the official education curriculum in Turkey, where Talaat, the ‎Young Turk leader who organized the genocide, is worshipped as a hero, ‎and expressed his hope that future textbooks would instead report on those ‎individual Turkish officials who saved Armenians. Citing Dink, he lamented ‎the loss suffered with the genocide of Armenians and said he hoped that the ‎music of Komitas would be appreciated not only by fellow Armenians but ‎by all. He concluded by “bowing down in grief” and uttering his hope to see ‎the day when the brighter perspective would become reality.‎
Although the solemnity of the occasion had held back applause up to that ‎point, after Özdemir’s remarks, the audience clapped in appreciation. ‎Following was a brief presentation by the Turkish-Kurdish Initiative, which ‎is campaigning in Turkey for recognition of the genocide.‎
In Frankfurt the annual commemoration organized by the Central Council of ‎Armenians in Germany (ZAD) took place on April 24th. Last year, following ‎Sarian’s example, the ZAD had invited Turkish-German author Dogan ‎Akhanli to give the commemorative speech. Although this year the social ‎composition in the historic Paulskirche—site of the first elected German ‎parliament in 1848--was different than that in Hamburg, almost exclusively ‎Armenian and German, the event was highly dignified and offered cause for ‎reflection. ‎
From Berlin, in addition to a diplomat from the Armenian Embassy, there ‎was also one from the Republic of Berg-Karabagh, both of whom focused on ‎the necessity of Turkish recognition of 1915. The keynote speaker, Bernhard ‎von Grünberg, presented some particularly thoughtful ideas in his remarks. ‎A jurist and state legislator for the Social Democrats (SPD) in North-Rhine ‎Westphalia, von Grünberg is also Vice-President of the German Foundation ‎for UN Refugee Aid. As he mentioned in his speech, he had an ancestor ‎directly involved in the 1904-1908 extermination of the Hereros by German ‎colonialists in Southwest Africa. And, his father was a member of the Nazi ‎Party who participated in the founding of the neo-Nazi party NPD following ‎the war. Thus, he could talk about genocide perpetrators from a very ‎personal standpoint.‎
Von Grünberg posed the question: “How does German society want to ‎receive the historical legacy of its Armenian co-citizens? How do and should ‎politicians treat it?” His answer took up education policy, specifically how ‎to teach history, and especially to students coming from an immigrant ‎background. In his state of NRW, half the school children come from ‎immigrant families, many of them from Turkey or other Muslim countries. ‎For them, he said, it is important to learn about their own roots as well as ‎the roots of their new homeland, Germany. He suggested that the ‎contribution of other cultures become the stuff of classroom education and ‎that, for example, teachers should tell students about the transmission of ‎Greek civilization through the Arabs to Europe. “Respect and recognition of ‎other cultural and religious backgrounds,” he said, “must be our new ‎German identity.” Wolfgang von Goethe’s appreciation of Islamic culture ‎could provide an opportunity to access this aspect. At the same time, von ‎Grünberg stressed the importance of explaining the causes of the ‎catastrophes of the 20th century, from the Armenian genocide to the ‎Holocaust. “We need a completely new viewpoint regarding the last two ‎centuries, from the perspective of European policy—or better: from the ‎perspective of intercultural experiences of mankind which written history ‎should also deal with.” Here he examined the political-cultural context in ‎which such tragedies emerged, shaped by a sick nationalism which nurtured ‎early 20th century colonialist ambitions. Darwinism and Marxism also ‎played a role. Contemporary nationalism in his view is one major obstacle ‎which today stands in the path of Turkish recognition of its past. Returning ‎to the subject of education policy, he noted that in Germany there is only ‎one federal state, Brandenburg, where the Armenian genocide constitutes ‎part of the curriculum in history classes. His hope is that other states, like ‎his own NRW as well as Hesse, will perhaps follow suit. In this connection ‎he applauded school book commissions which are canvassing history ‎textbooks for classroom use from this standpoint. Von Grünberg’s message ‎was that German schools could contribute a good deal to educating youth, ‎including those of Turkish background, about the 1915 genocide.‎
The question of genocide recognition was addressed on the more spiritual ‎level in the commemorative remarks made by Archimandate Serovpé ‎Isakhanyan of the Armenian diocese. Father Isakhanyan elaborated on the ‎concept of forgiveness, which is often raised in a false light. If Armenians are ‎Christians, it is often said, then why do they not simply forgive the Turks ‎for what occurred in 1915? His response was at once empathetic and ‎rigorous: Christianity, he said, is a religion of forgiveness to be sure, but ‎does God forgive those who do not recognize that they have sinned? No; to ‎be granted forgiveness one must acknowledge one’s sins. Thus the need for ‎recognition that the genocide did occur. A final prayer for the dead ‎concluded the moving ceremony. ‎

Muriel Mirak-Weissbach is the author of Through the Wall of Fire: ‎Armenia – Iraq – Palestine: From Wrath to Reconciliation, 2009. She can ‎be reached at and www.mirak-‎‎


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