Massaging the Chancellor’s Spine Fleeing from guilt: Germans Turks and the genocide of the Armenia’s

By Mihran Dabag

Just as the commemorations of the sixtieth anniversary of liberation have been symbolically drawn to a close with the opening of the "Memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe" in Berlin–the remembrance of a quite different genocide is unexpectedly raising some general questions about forms of remembrance in Germany.

The genocide in question is that of the Armenia’s in the Ottoman Empire in 1915-16–for which 2005 marks the ninetieth anniversary. It is tightly interwoven with the history of Europe and in particular–that of Germany–for before the very eyes of the European public–this systematic genocide–committed in the shadow of the First World War–marked a turning point in the history of the twentieth century. With this genocide–it became apparent that the extermination of a whole population group is not only conceivable–but is also realizable.

Public discussion was triggered last year by the removal of the history of the Armenian genocide from the Federal state of Brandenburg’s school curriculum–and this–through the intervention of the diplomatic representation of Turkey in Germany.

In April–the Bundestag addressed this genocide for the first time–with a cross-party agreement that Turkey–which to this very day continues to emphatically refute the facts of the genocide–should be asked to finally face up to this issue. Specific mention was also made to Germany’s share of the responsibility–for as an ally of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War–Germany was informed early on about the extent and goal of the deportation measures. At the same time–the discussion also implied a way out–by establishing a Turkish-Armenian commission of historians to devote itself to this question.

And yet the Brandenburg schoolbook affair had only just demonstrated that Germany’s responsibility does not lie in initiating reconciliation between Turks and Armenia’s–irrespective of the fact that such a reconciliation would lend legitimacy to the German endorsement of Turkey’s entry into the EU–but rather in bringing an end to its own tolerance of the denial.

Finally–a Bundestag motion carried by all parties was accepted–which exerted a rhetoric of obeisance towards the victims.

However–this rhetoric was only tacit–as the motion passed without any debate in which regret–lament–and the call to recognize the act could have been articulated.

Nevertheless–the resolution of this motion–supported as it was by all parties–still incited Turkish unrest.

With a sea of Turkish flags yesterday in Berlin–the stance of Turkish politics–as rigid as they are resolute–was expressed. The Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan accused Chancellor Schroder of "spinelessness" and having "false and ugly politics." He himself–on the other hand–claimed to have politics "full of backbone," open to seeing a country’s work on its own perception of history as superfluous.

What is notable in this very context–however–is also the consensus of academics and intellectuals in Germany–who–with few exceptions–kept the issue grandly cloaked in secrecy. How can this silence be explained? Is there–quite simply–no need for intellectual discourse if "way back there in Turkey people are attacking each other?" Are we to think of the extermination of the Armenia’s as an event on the periphery–an Asian act that does not belong to the history of Germany–Europe–and the civilized world? Or could it be–perhaps–that the refusal to engage in a discussion of this genocide–which is challenged by the culture of remembrance in Germany–has something to do precisely with the specific forms of this remembrance–and its goals?

Nowadays–remembrance is preferably brought into play when the question is no longer of a specific inheritance–but rather of what history–experience–and identity have in common–and indeed of the common ground of globalizing societies. As a foundation of such a remembrance–designed to create identity–the "experiences of the totalitarian regime of the twentieth century" and the Holocaust are defined–as laid down in a joint article in May 2003 by Jrgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida on the future of Europe (FAZ–May 31–2003).

The focus in this regard is no longer first and foremost on the National Socialist policy of violence–but rather on the status of the Holocaust as a shared symbol for the whole of Europe. The goal is the constitution of a consensus memory–whose task is to lead to humanization: In a formula that is Holocaust–based–and a policy of remembrance that can be universally followed–the aim is for all experiences of violence to be put aside and future acts of violence to be prevented.

But what does such a universalization of the Holocaust actually mean? What does it mean for the future of remembrance; what does it mean for the remembrance of other experiences of violence; and above all: what does it entail for the remembrance of the Holocaust itself? Is there not a danger that in the process of universalization–the remembrance of the Holocaust will be removed from its own direct context–from its underlying experience–and thus ultimately drained? For with this universalization–a remembrance that is preserved through a dynamic–living process of reconstruction is replaced by a formulated commemoration.

Memory is always a narration founded on experiences–both direct and indirect. Memories are orientations–and they are always associated with identification. Memory is always tied to its bearers.

Commemoration–by contrast–follows settings of history and identity; it should not first and foremost

preserve–but rather integrate and harmonize under shared universal values. Memory as a whole cannot be universal–and a remembrance can only be universal when it is free of memories–when it removes itself from those experiences that are preserved in the narrations.

A generic–universal commemoration of the Holocaust–detached from the experiences of the victims and from those of the perpetrators and the following generations–would therefore have to be free from any experience and any ability to experience. As a universalized singularity–congealed to an abstract commemorative emblem for collective violence–this formula of Holocaust would refer solely to a moral imperative. In the vanishing point of this commemorative formula–which has surely also been cemented in the Berlin monument–one no longer finds the victims–nor even the perpetrators–but rather the act alone. Thus the universalization of a Holocaust free of victims and perpetrators could ultimately prove to be an empty formula–which is–however–well suited for the–intended–overcoming of the memory of the Holocaust itself.

It is this remembrance policy–urging as it does homogeneity of the contents of memory–that is today being destroyed by other experiences of persecutions–collective violence and extermination. And these experiences appear all the more disturbing the more closely they are linked with the contents of the official German remembrance itself. The intensive focus on the Holocaust and the exemplary way in which Germany came to terms with its own history has changed the view of Germany with lasting effect–and this surely applies both for Germany’s own self-image and for the perception of Germany held by others. The fact that the Federal Republic so explicitly placed itself into a position of historical responsibility has contributed to the emergence of a different Germany and has recently also legitimized a new role and a new strength for Germany in international politics.

Now–with the genocide of the Armenia’s forcing its way into the field of discussion–the challenge is on for Germans to once again unearth –finally laid to rest–its history–and to also put pressure on current politics.

Perhaps the German intellectual community’s reticence to discuss the place of the genocide of the Armenia’s in the European or global culture of remembrance can also be explained by a fear that the painstaking efforts to prove that Germany has faced up to its past may not be sufficient–and that one might once again be faced with the task of having to confront German guilt.

Up to now–it has been possible to use the word "guilty" without actually meaning it–because politics had ritualized and institutionalized an admission of guilt that acted as a basis of legitimization of a post-war Germany. After the building of the memorial in Berlin–the hope was that it would be possible to finally and comfortably use the word "guilty," without belonging to a generational cycle that bears historical responsibility for that history–the concern was now with a passing–concluded history–in the remembrance of which the Germans could finally include themselves (as victims).

Now Germany must confront the fact that once again a right of remembrance is being called for. And this new demand shows that remembrance can no longer be pushed away as a subjective–interest-fuelled notion; the question of the place of remembrance becomes a legitimate one directed at the current constructs of society.

For the question of remembrance is linked with the knowledge of present-day–global society–questions of concepts of community–minorities and tolerance. Thus the remembrance of the genocide of the Armenia’s also represents a challenge for current politics. Of course–Germany’s stance on the integration of Turkey into the European Union–is a considerable issue.

Can the Federal Republic really support the admittance of a Turkey that assumes an attitude towards its own history that is diametrically opposed to facing up to violence and crime–even though this has become mandatory in Germany and now also Europe in the remembrance of the Holocaust?

A policy under the postulate of linking one’s own interests with an action for a "future of Turkey" like that pursued from the 1890s by Wilhelmine Germany–appears to be continuing today.

Thus–other population groups in Turkey–in the past the Armenia’s and Aramaeans–today the Kurds–are either neglected or perceived as a mere disturbance.

Today–too–we are merely bargaining for a future that sacrifices the call of Armenia’s for their history to be recognized–for the interests and the future of the Europeanized nation states.

An intellectual discussion on the remembrance of the genocide of the Armenia’s would call for a reappraisal of the policy towards Turkey–a policy that finally takes into account a perspective of Europe that has been developed against the background of the experience of the Holocaust and the obligation of remembrance. Thus the appeal to allow this remembrance shows that remembering does not call for an identification with the victims–but rather accepts the victim as a victim: as a witness of persecution as well as a voice of the right to one’s own accepted position–an accepted political place in the world.

The meaning and workability of a European culture–and subsequent global one of remembrance will ultimately be gauged according to whether a plurality of remembrances is allowed–indeed whether one is prepared to base this remembrance on the plural nature of memories. The way in which the Armenian experience is dealt with will therefore also be a touchstone for whether discussions on remembrance–recollection and commemoration have been more than an academic exercise–more than a virtuoso piece of rhetoric on the politics of remembrance.

Mihran Dabag The author is the Director of the Institute for Diaspora and Genocide Research at the Ruhr University of Bochum.

Translated by Sarah Mannion

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