May Armenians Jews

Aghet - genocide of the Armenians

Wolfgang Benz

To person

Prof. em. Dr. Wolfgang Benz is the former head of the Center for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University of Berlin.

Comparative considerations

Public memory is part of the political culture of civilized societies. This also includes remembering terrible events - and admitting historical guilt. Whether genocides are comparable in terms of ideological criteria and phenomenological categories is, however, controversial in Germany. Not least for reasons of political ethics.

Deir ez-Zor (today's Syria) was the scene of massacres of the Armenians in 1915/16 (& copy Armenian Genocide Museum & Institute)

Desiderata of genocide research

As the central catastrophe of the 20th century, the genocide of the Jews dominates the political discourse of remembrance worldwide, regardless of other genocides, which are only gradually becoming the object of comparative consideration. The comparability of genocides according to ideological criteria and phenomenological categories is particularly controversial in Germany, not least for reasons of political ethics, the pivotal points of which are a sense of guilt and the resulting empathy towards the victims. The memory of the uniqueness of the murder of the Jews is a constitutive element for the political culture of the Federal Republic of Germany. However, apart from the singular method and systematic organization, this can of course not mean a general restriction of the view of the genocide of the Jews and Sinti and Roma for which Germans are responsible: To research the causes and motives, after the first discussion, there is about Guilt, victims and perpetrators still have many desiderata.

Genocide as an "excavation" and discourse field

Dealing with past genocide is primarily, but not exclusively, a matter for historians. Since the crime of 1915 it has been shown again and again that genocides are staged in a planned and cold-blooded manner, that they are the result of systematic planning. The patterns of action are also familiar: assignment of blame to an ethnic, religious, cultural minority, their persecution under the pretext that the majority has been provoked; This is followed by the "political solution", which is proclaimed as "ethnic cleansing", as resettlement, as a peacemaking measure and practiced in the forms of expulsion, deportation, robbery and murder. What causes and motives prompted the perpetrators to commit the crime, what strategies and methods were used with what aim? Who knew about it, who approved or condemned the genocide? Has the crime been atoned for? And: does it have a place in the nation's culture of remembrance? Then, this is still the task of science, it is of interest to find out whether there are indications that can be generalized, which could help to identify at an early stage whether a conflict or crisis is escalating somewhere in such a way that it threatens to lead to genocide .

Aghet and amnesia

After all, when it comes to the culture of remembrance, the media and politics are in demand. The genocide of the Armenians - invoked by a few writers, intellectuals and morally committed people as a metaphor of annihilation - sank all too quickly into the subconscious of those involved and those who were not involved.

In sharp contrast to the memory of the Holocaust, there is the loss of memory and the denial of reality in relation to the genocide of the Armenians during Ottoman rule, which the authors and their successors deny with considerable effort 100 years after the crime, but which is also denied by the majority in For a long time all civilized peoples have been pushed out of the memory and the dimensions of which have been deliberately ignored. The genocide of the Armenians - staged in the First World War by the government of the Ottoman Empire, carried out by the Turkish gendarmerie, the Turkish military and, as vicarious agents, Kurdish gangs - took place under the eyes of the world public.

The vast majority of Germans today accept the historical guilt for the murder of the Jews and the obligations that have arisen from it. Out of consideration for the citizens of the Federal Republic from Turkey, however, it took a long time for Germany to follow the example of Belgium, Greece, Sweden and France and publicly recognize the genocide of the Armenians as such. This had been refused for a long time and the reasoning with which a prominent member of the SPD parliamentary group dismissed the issue in February 2001 seems downright grotesque: After all, it was not the MPs who were asked, he said, but the historians. That's a strange understanding of things. Because historians have dealt long and thoroughly with the crimes against the Armenians, described the facts and called them by name: genocide.
An Armenian woman kneels by the body of her child, at the gates of Aleppo, Syria at the time of the Armenian genocide, 1915. (& copy picture alliance / CPA Media Co.)

The factuality of the events

The essence of genocide includes its publicity and the simultaneous indifference of those not affected. The genocide of the Armenians, like the Holocaust only two and a half decades later, happened under the eyes of the world. In comparison with the genocide that Nazi Germany planned and carried out against the Jews, the government of the Ottoman Empire even made little effort in the autumn of 1915 to conceal its intentions. The Minister of the Interior used an open language in decrees to subordinate authorities. On September 15, 1915 he decreed:

The Armenian Genocide on Trial

The Talaat Pasha Trial

"It has already been announced that the government has decided to completely exterminate all Armenians living in Turkey. Those who oppose this order and this decision lose their citizenship. Regardless of women, children and the sick, so tragic as the means of extermination may be, is to put an end to their existence without listening to the feelings of conscience. "[1]

  1. The Armenian Genocide on Trial. The Talaat Pascha Trial (Berlin 1921), new edition. Edited and introduced by Tessa Hofmann, Göttingen 1980, p. 133.
The fact of the planned will to annihilate and thus the genocide of the Armenian people is beyond any doubt. Both the evidence of the event in detail as well as its dimension of at least one and a half million dead, infinite cruelty against the victims, sadism, joy in the agony and destruction of the doomed - all of this is documented and secured. And it is also certain that the world took notice back then that there was literally talk of the "genocide" against the Armenians: there were journalists and writers who publicly made genocide an issue in word and in writing; the writer Armin T. Wegner, who as a German medical soldier had become an eyewitness to the massacre, tried to publicize the matter; Pastor Johannes Lepsius had collected witness reports in Armenia and was traveling through Germany in search of support for an aid organization.

First steps towards recognition of genocide

The Armenian genocide was not forgotten in the aftermath. In particular, the assassination attempt by the young Armenian Soghomon Tehlirjan on one of the main culprits of the genocide, the former interior minister of the Ottoman Empire Talaat Pascha, in Berlin on Hardenbergstrasse in March 1921, recalled what had happened. The second sensation was the acquittal of the confessed assassin after a two-day trial in June 1921 before the jury court of District Court III in Berlin. The assassin stated that at the age of 18 he lost his entire family and even survived a massacre lying under a mountain of corpses. Although this motive of personal trauma has recently been called into question [1] - the careful taking of evidence by the court had fundamentally dispelled any doubts about the reality of the genocide, its planning and its implementation.

The first genocide of the 20th century remained topical on a level other than political, namely in literature. Franz Werfel's novel "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh" was published in mid-1933, with the intention expressed in the preface "to wrest the incomprehensible fate of the Armenian people from the realm of the dead from everything that had happened". The book that established Werfel's world fame was a heroic epic and resistance epic for the Armenians and a memorial for the Germans, as far as they still wanted to and could take note of it.
Victim of genocide, Turkey / Armenia, approx. 1915. (& copy picture alliance / CPA Media Co. Ltd.)
The parallels between the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians and the National Socialist genocide of the Jews are not accidental. In the certainty that there would be no survivors, the guards and escort teams announced to their victims without make-up what had already happened and what intentions were still there. When asked by an Armenian clergyman who believed that only men were the objects of murder, a Turkish gendarmerie captain explained to him that if you only kill the men, then after 50 years there would be a few million Armenians again Kill children to death so that there will be no more internal or external unrest forever. "[2]

Twice the burden of the survivors

When Adolf Hitler summoned the military commanders on August 22, 1939 to inform them of the aims of the imminent war, he propagated the ideology of annihilation when he declared that the aim was the "elimination of the living forces" of Poland, not that Achievement of a certain strategic line. Hitler's address to the generals contained treacherous sentences about the real intentions of the impending war, in which the indifference of the world public was factored in: "Genghis Khan hunted millions of women and children to their deaths," said Hitler, only to ask: "Who is talking today still of the annihilation of the Armenians? "[3]

The survivors of the genocide and their descendants, in contrast to the Jewish people, have since been subject to a double trauma: the unpredictable burden of what they have suffered, as well as the additional burden of denying the crime. The claim that this genocide did not happen (as it was) experienced by the victims means an additional offense of the memory community. This is denied the perception and truthfulness of their collective memory, which also removes any prospect of relief from pain.
Genocide survivors gather in the barracks in Aleppo, around 1918. (& copy picture alliance / CPA Media Co. Ltd.)

Political responsibility towards historical knowledge

Public memory is part of the political culture of civilized societies. This also includes remembering unfortunate events and admitting historical guilt. Denial of the Holocaust is rightly punishable in Germany because it is understood as an offensive and aggressive act against the victims and their descendants. The successors of the long-gone Ottoman Empire refuse to admit the genocide to this day. In a surge of national passion, which is difficult to understand for us, the Turkish government, but also the media in Turkey, reacted to the fact that the French parliament decided in a late legislative act to recognize the genocide of the Armenians. This is just a statement of historical fact, nothing more. There are no legal claims based on it, which could result in disadvantages for Turkey. It is above all a symbolic act of justice and recognition towards the Armenians of French nationality. And it is a sign of the parliamentarians' sense of responsibility for historical knowledge.

Response pattern

But Turkey reacted as if war had been declared on it, the media and politics acted as if their very foundations were threatened. Head of State Abdullah Gül protested: "It is out of the question for us to accept this draft law, which denies the right to reject unfounded and unjust allegations against our people and our nation." Gül brought up the possible consequences of the ambassador's departure and the breakdown of bilateral relations with France. The Turkish rebellion against historical reality is reminiscent of the emotions in Germany with which reality was denied and nationalistic delusion was glorified after the First World War was lost. Both cases are more likely to be read as indications of a lack of self-confidence. In Germany, however, there is no reason for self-righteousness. The allied Ottoman Empire did not fall into the arms of the imperial German government in spite of the existing unease, knowledge about the genocide was subordinated to military and strategic alliance considerations.

German culture of debate

Silent march on the occasion of the centenary of the genocide on April 24, 2015 in Berlin. (& copy picture alliance / Pacific Press)
On April 21, 2005, the German Bundestag debated the agenda item "Commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the start of the expulsions and massacres of the Armenians on April 24, 1915" for 45 minutes. Germany must contribute to the reconciliation between Turks and Armenians, was the intention. The speakers were knowledgeable, they were well informed about the historical events. The MPs were also very satisfied with their actions, applauded the seriousness and dignity and their unanimity, but on June 16, 2005 unanimously passed a resolution that destroyed all "talk about the genocide" again: about the foreseeable violent ones To prevent reactions from Turkey, the resolution of "genocide" - as the planned, organized and ideologically justified extermination of an entire people - did not explicitly mention "expulsions" and "massacres". The Turkish government, which on the one hand wanted to teach a lesson in the culture of remembrance, but without offending it with painful truths, has not thanked it for taking it easy. Prime Minister Erdogan expressed himself insultingly about his German colleague Schröder, and in Berlin Turkish patriots loudly demonstrated their nationalistically charged understanding of history.

The turning point of 2015

On the same day, a Turkish counter-demonstration will also take place in Berlin. (& copy picture alliance / Pacific Press)
This threatened to repeat itself ten years later, when April 2015 marked the 100th anniversary of the genocide. Like the European Parliament before it, the Bundestag commemorated the fate of the Armenians. Out of consideration for German-Turkish relations, the Foreign Office had warned against the word "genocide" and the Federal Government had carried out diplomatic retouching of the resolution text as a precaution. After Pope Francis then branded the persecution of the Armenians as genocide, the European Parliament stated the same facts as in 1987 and Federal President Gauck spoke of the "genocide" at a service in memory of the murdered Armenians, the German Parliament also found its way in the form of the President of the Bundestag Norbert Lammert finally got the right words: "What happened in the middle of the First World War in the Ottoman Empire was genocide." The Turkish President, on the other hand, declared that it was "never possible for Turkey to acknowledge such a sin, such a guilt". And, never at a loss for drastic twists, Erdogan announced to the European Parliament, whichever decision it might make, it would go in one ear and out the other.

The long way to a common culture of remembrance

There is still a lot to learn on both sides. German politicians seem to have recognized that linguistic disguise of the facts is not helpful, and Turkish politicians will at some point have to realize that anger and indignation are not effective means against the historical truth. The attempt will also fail to hide behind terms such as "displacement" or "ethnic cleansing" for political reasons, or to gloss over the facts with terms such as "massacre" or "pogrom": genocide as an organized will to annihilate that follows an intention and is practiced according to a system, is the climax and the non-increasing sum of all these excesses from massacres or deportations, which in the context of a genocide are never based on chance. In other words, the genocide is carried out with the methods of massacre, execution, death march or impoverishment in the camp, but it cannot be downplayed by reducing it to one of its methods.


  • Wolfgang Gust, The Armenian Genocide.The tragedy of the oldest Christian people in the world, Munich 1993
  • Wolfgang Gust (ed.), The Armenian Genocide 1915/16. Documents from the Political Archive of the German Foreign Office, Springe 2005
  • Jürgen Gottschlich, aiding and abetting genocide. Germany's role in the extermination of the Armenians, Berlin 2015
  • Rolf Hosfeld, Death in the Desert. The Armenian Genocide, Munich 2015
  • Annette Schaefgen, Difficult Remembering: The Armenian Genocide, Berlin 2006