It is estimated that in the late 1930s, 45% of Germans were members of the Nazi Party or affiliated to Nazi organizations. Nevertheless, anyone who knew young Germans in the 1970s and 80s would have observed that none admitted to their families having had any involvement in this tragic chapter of German history and particularly in the Holocaust.
Their grandfathers, most said, had served in the German Army in a junior capacity and were not (of course) Nazis. The reason was a sense of collective guilt cultivated by the Allies (especially the Americans and British) in occupied post-war Germany. The historic memory of World War II remains alive today because certain powers demanded that a people be held accountable for its crimes.
Turkey’s direct involvement in the recent events in Nagorno-Karabakh is a reminder of the importance of historical memory to nations and peoples. As on so many other occasions since 1890 (when the first pogrom took place), the Armenians found themselves facing their archnemesis Turkey. Had it been Germany arming or directing Iran to attack Israel, the entire world would have been up in arms. Instead, the international community remained indifferent to the fact that a country which committed genocide against the Armenian people was attacking them again.
There is a reason why Turkey acts as it does. It is the result of its treatment by the international community during the terrible expulsion of all non-Muslim people from the territory of modern-day Turkey between 1914 and 1922. According to the (problematic) Ottoman census of 1914, non-Muslims in these areas accounted for at least 20% of the population. After 1922 (and before the agreement on the exchange of populations), they had shrunk to 2.5%. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres – which has never been implemented – demanded the surrender to the Allies of all persons responsible for massacres carried out on Ottoman territory during the war. In contrast, the Treaty of Lausanne disregarded this issue entirely. Why? Because the Anglo-Saxon, “this is Turkey” perception prevailed.
This resounding silence served as encouragement for neo-Turkish expulsions and massacres of Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians on Ottoman territory in 1909-18. It has also allowed Turkish newspapers today (like Yeni Akit, which is closely linked to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan) to get away with headlines about Nagorno-Karabakh such as: “Tell the infidels that the army of Muhammad is back.”
And in what context is this taking place? As the Black Lives Matter movement demands a re-examination of modern Western history from the perspective of the slave trade and colonialism. When the president-elect of the United States has said that “if we do not fully acknowledge, commemorate, and teach our children about genocide, the words ‘never again’ lose their meaning.” Why is remembering important? Because it can help prevent a repetition. Official recognition of a genocide is important; it is not a formality, a mere commemoration of its victims.
The issue of Turkey’s lost historical memory is not secondary, it cannot be brushed aside, because it is responsible for Turkey’s involvement in the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, its unfettered intervention in Syria and its actions in the Eastern Mediterranean. The response from many European countries, however, takes us back a century: “This is Turkey…” What they are suggesting is that Turkey has to be tolerated because of its strategic position. Germany is, unfortunately, among these countries. Even though it is the most powerful country in the European Union, it failed miserably on the bloc’s foreign policy front during its six-month rotating presidency. During this time, Turkey ramped up the tension in the Aegean and managed to change the balance of power in the Caucasus.
Because of its own past, however, Germany is the one country that does not have the luxury of overlooking the genocides committed by others to this day. It has a much greater responsibility to view international relations through the prism of historical memory. Acknowledgement of its own crimes does not erase its debt to Europe (or to humanity). It has an obligation by virtue of its history to be the leader among EU member-states that demand Turkish recognition of the genocides against Christians in the East. In the meantime, the bare minimum it can do is stop supplying Turkey with arms – so that some things remain in the past.
Angelos Syrigos is a New Democracy MP and associate professor of international law and foreign policy at Athens’ Panteion University.