by Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
This year’s central commemoration of the Armenian genocide was held in the historic Paulskirche in Frankfurt, organized by the Diocese of the Armenian Church in Germany, the Central Council of Armenians in Germany, together with the Armenian Embassy in Berlin. St. Paul’s Church was the place where the first freely elected legislators convened in 1848 to deliberate on the first democratic constitution for the nascent German state, a site comparable to Independence Hall in Philadelphia for Americans. The war raging in Ukraine defined an extraordinary political context which impacted remarks offered by several participants.
Ani Smith-Dagesyan, from the Central Council of Armenians in Germany, opened the event and introduced the Ambassador of the Republic of Armenia in Germany. In his address, H.E. Viktor Yengibaryan referred to the resolution on the Armenian genocide passed by the Bundestag (Parliament) on June 2, 2016, which signaled Germany’s contribution to the international process of recognition and prevention of similar crimes against humanity. Ambassador Yengibaryan presented his country’s efforts to advance the international campaign to prevent genocide.
Representatives of the local and regional political bodies, Dr. Bastian Bergerhoff, Treasurer of the City of Frankfurt, and Karin Müller, Vice President of the Hessen State Legislature, drew attention to the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine, as well as Artsakh—a theme to be developed by the keynote speaker. Bishop Serovpé Isakhanyan, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian church, read the April 24 message by His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, and offered requiem prayers. The event was framed by musical selections from Komitas and J.S. Bach performed by the April String Quartet.
Democracy as Democratic Defense
Swiss historian Dr. Hans-Lukas Kieser is professor of Ottoman and Turkish history at the University of Zurich, currently a lecturer at the University of Newcastle, Australia, and the author of several scholarly studies on the genocide, including a biography of Talaat Pasha, “Father of Modern Turkey, Architect of Genocide.” In his keynote, Kieser explored the concept of true democracy, with critical reflections on the significance of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty.
Characterizing true democracy as the willingness to defend democracy, Kieser began in medias res, addressing the war in Ukraine. The Ukrainian people have been denied their dignity, rights and identity by Vladimir Putin, he stated, and drew a comparison to 1915, when denial of dignity and identity led to denial of the very right to life. Quotes from Young Turk officials, including War Minister Enver Pasha, documented their genocidal intentions. Comparing the ideological Pan-Turanism then to current imperial ambitions, Kieser issued harsh criticism of those nations—then and now—that sacrifice democratic movements and oppressed minorities on the altar of economic and financial interests with authoritarian regimes. “Up until the Ukraine war,” he said, “the European Union and Germany have hardly ever wielded the powerful economic and financial instruments they possess in the defence of justice,” and pointed to the horrendous human rights violations of both Russia and Turkey, exemplified by the latter’s persecution of Osman Kavala and Selahattin Demirtas. Thus, it was no surprise that “it took more than a century” for Germany to acknowledge the genocide, despite its involvement as the Ottomans’ wartime ally.
Kieser cited President Biden’s recognition of the Armenian genocide last year as an example of courage and lauded his assumption of leadership in the Ukraine crisis. In contrast, he recalled the Trump era when, in response to Azerbaijan’s 2020 aggression in Artsakh, there was “no pressure for sanctions or oil boycotts to force a ceasefire, and revive the Minsk process” to seek a viable solution. The West’s inaction in the face of that aggression, according to Freedom House’s latest report, served as an incentive for Putin’s recent aggression.
The Armenian Experience
“To suffer under passive impotence of Western democracies one orients to: that has been the Armenian experience since 1895 and World War I. No other people has had to go through such disappointments, repeatedly and archetypally, — and yet has not given up,” Kieser stated. In 1921, when Turkey and Russia divided the South Caucasus, they “made a mockery of Armenia as a miserable creature of the Paris peace treaties and the League of Nations.” The League of Nations failed to protect Armenia and in the same year, Stalin annexed Karabakh to Azerbaijan. Nor would Kurds, or Armenian genocide survivors in Dersim, be defended in 1937-8.
For Kieser it is unthinkable to commemorate the genocide without dealing with the Lausanne Conference and Treaty. This, the “sole remaining post World War I treaty still in force sealed an interest pact among powers” and “could never become the basis for peace among and for peoples.” In an effort to keep Turkey away from the USSR, the West at Lausanne “made the numerically small Armenian people into a victim par excellence of the 20th century.” Having lost everything, homeland, possessions, over a million lives in the genocide, they were denied their identity, an articulated history, for decades; they became a half-lame, wandering, closed circle of exiles, as in Tatul Sonentz-Papazian’s poem.
The Lausanne Treaty brought the new Republic of Turkey into Western diplomacy and, later, the Western alliance. Silence and “verbal acrobatics” reigned over the genocide. Kieser was not suggesting a revision of the treaty, but a reappraisal that denounces its assumptions and measures outright. For example, history books still present it as “a constructive treaty,” despite the forced migrations, or population transfers of Anatolian Christians and Muslims from northern Greece. The treaty signaled de facto the end of the League of Nations, by ignoring its charter and establishing the precedence of “might over right, violence over criminal prosecution.” Turkey abandoned the League of Nations’ clause on protection of minorities (Kurds and Yezidis). “Above all,” he said, “for us today, the Lausanne Conference made of the Armenians, their actual history, the genocide, the expulsions of survivors, their Anatolian homelands, the question of justice and accountability, the restitution of plunder, the destruction of Armenian cultural heritage and so forth,– into a taboo, or non-issue, a political quantité négligeable.” Genocide came to be considered a diplomatically acceptable means of extreme nationalist policies.
Commemoration therefore means intervening in defense of threatened peoples, in the Caucasus, Ukraine, Northern Syria, parts of Turkey, and rejecting appeasement. Kieser put forward three concrete demands: a German relationship to Armenia that treats its democracy “as an element of German and EU raison d’état (Reason of State),” (perhaps a reference to former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s definition of Israel’s security as a raison d’état for Germany); a “commitment in Artsakh to guarantee its inhabitants a future and a secure link to Armenia” and pursuit of an effective legitimate solution; and urgent initiatives to secure the freedom of Osman Kavala, Selahattin Demirtas, Aysel Tuğluk and others.