Germany Recognizes Armenian Genocide. Will This Upend the Refugee Deal?

Today, the German Parliament voted to recognize as “genocide” the massacre of Armenians a century ago.

The decision of Germany to weigh in on this historical event may have some profound political implications in the here and now.

There was a genocide of Armenians

In 1915 Ottoman authorities began to target Armenians and other ethnic or religious minorities in the Ottoman Empire, arguing that they constituted a security threat. Intellectuals and leaders were deported, and able-bodied men were murdered or subjected to forced labour. Thousands of woman and children, and elderly men were marched into the Syrian desert to starvation and massacres. By the end of 1916 around 1.5 million people had been killed.

Despite being considered by most scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century, Turkey has aggressively tried to quell recognition that these crimes amounted to genocide. The Turkish government argues that they cannot be responsible for events that took place 100 years ago, and continues to fiercely attack any reference to genocide. The ongoing poor human rights record and social divisions in Turkey have not fostered an environment of reconciliation or commitment to minority rights, and the reaction today shows that Turkey has no plans to change course.

Turkish President Recep Edrogan has already recalled his ambassador in Berlin, labelling the German vote “null and void”.  That was an expected. But what remains to be seen is whether or not the Germany’s formal recognition of the Armenian genocide will affects the recent deal between Turkey and the European Union to address the refugee crisis. The deal, among other things, involves a quid-pro-quo in which Turkey cracks down on refugee routes to Europe and takes back refugees who are caught in Europe in exchange for preferential visa status for Turkish citizens in Europe.

This deal has helped to stem refugees from making it to Greece, and then to the rest of Europe from Greece. But now, the Turkish government warns that the deal will suffer.

What makes Germany’s vote influential?

Germany is not the first country to pass this vote. Twenty-nine countries, including France and Canada, recognize the genocide, and in Europe there have been efforts to include it in civic education along side the Holocaust.

But the historically-close cultural and political relationship between Germany and Turkey means, politically, this is a scolding from a partner rather than an irritating comment from an acquaintance.  It is much harder for Turkey to ignore the collective conscience of its ally and regional heavyweight. Turkey is certainly displeased by the vote and will threaten to derail the refugee deal, but with possible EU membership and a historically-powerful hand in European affairs hanging in the balance, it seems likely that President Erdogan will shout loudly but do little.

For Germany, this is a delicate moment to vote on this issue. It may seem a strange move given the guaranteed fury of President Erdogan, however the vote had been postponed for over a year and Germany has been under pressure to demonstrate it will not bow to Turkish bullying. It could also be an antidote to the recent controversy over Turkey’s demand for the prosecution by Germany of German comedian Jan Bohermann for insulting Edrogan in a satirical poem.  This was a prime opportunity to prove the German government’s commitment to free speech.

The vote also indicates the growing currency of the campaign to recognize the Armenian genocide. It was led by the Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and Green Party who have political and cultural commitment to recognizing the genocide.

Turkish President Erdogan has previously said that historians, not parliaments, will decide allegations of genocide. The vote today suggests that the force of history alone will be enough.