By Zahava Moerdler
On May 31, the German parliament voted almost unanimously on a resolution that recognized the killing of over 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey in 1915 as a genocide (one MP voted against and one abstained). The decision makes Germany one of only 26 countries, including Canada, France and Russia, to recognize the events as genocide. Turkey became so incensed with Germany’s decision that it recalled its ambassador to Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdoggen, President of Turkey, threatened further action against Germany while Turkish Nationalist protesters gathered outside the Germany embassy in Istanbul in protest.
Germany’s decision is interesting considering that Germany was an Ottoman ally during World War I, and many German officials witnessed the deportations and killings of the Armenian population. Many of those officials remained silent to the atrocity or were complicit, providing weapons and fighting alongside the Ottomans. Some have even argued that the Armenian genocide was the model for the Holocaust. The 2016 resolution acknowledging Germany’s complicity was championed by the co-leader of Germany’s Green Party, Cem Ozdemir, a man with strong Turkish roots, who advocates for Armenian-Turkish reconciliation.
Germany’s decision comes at a particularly tumultuous time in Europe. The United Kingdom’s vote on June 24 to leave the European Union. marks a turning point in the history of the E.U. Unfortunately, the rhetoric immediately preceding and right after the vote show growing trends of xenophobia, racism and extremism in Europe. In the U.K., hate crimes have increased 57 percent since the vote, including a racist demonstration outside a mosque and racist graffiti on the entrance to a Polish community center. In Hungary, France and Germany, rightwing nationalist groups have called for their own E.U. referendums. Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, has even expressly linked the migration crisis in Europe as a direct cause of the Brexit.
Now, more than ever, it is necessary to take lessons from the past so that history is not doomed to repeat itself. As Germany and other nations grapple with the Armenian genocide and their possible complicity in those atrocities, perhaps reflecting on the American genocide can be especially instructive. In 1915, the Young Turk government, a reformist movement against the former Turkish absolutist Sultan Abdul Hamid II, shifted its policy towards the Armenian population within Turkey. While there had been tensions between the Turks and Armenians for generations, the Young Turk government instituted a policy of deportation and premeditated mass extermination. The Ottoman government began transferring Armenian soldiers from the Turkish army into labor battalions where they were either killed or worked to death . On April 24, 1915 , 235 Armenian doctors, clergy, lawyers, politicians and teachers were arrested and murdered in Constantinople, leaving the Armenian community leaderless and vulnerable . Approximately 1.5 million people were deported over the course of eight months. One-half to three-quarters of the Armenian population living in the Ottoman Empire were murdered between 1915 and 1923.
The impetus for the genocide was both “Turkifying” the Ottoman Empire, which was fueled by nationalism and the defeats in the Caucuses in 1914 , which the Young Turks blamed on the Armenians in the area. The Young Turks began a campaign to portray the Armenians as a threat to the state. Although there were Armenian nationalists who had cooperated with the Russians during the conflict, the identification of the entire Armenian population as complicit in the acts of a few created a propaganda campaign that furthered hate and fear.
Dangerous speech is speech that increases the risk of violence targeting certain people because of their membership in a group, such as an ethnic, religious, or racial group. This includes incitement as well as speech that makes incitement possible by conditioning audiences to accept, condone and commit violence against people who belong to a targeted group. Dangerous speech created the 1915 Turkey, a country primed for genocide. Blaming the Armenians for wartime losses, targeting ethnic minorities as “other” and perpetuating narratives of fear and hate conditioned the Turkish population to act violently and hatefully against a specific group of people. These problematic trends continue today. The refugee crisis has been blamed for the economic instability and terrorism in European countries . As a result, many Europeans have become incensed. In June, the U.K. voted to leave the E.U., a vote that some of posited stems from these frustrations. This rhetoric has come from within the U.K. and abroad, most notably Prime Minister Orban in Hungary. Minorities continue to be “othered” in the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe, as evidenced by recent racist and xenophobic crimes. Finally, populist nationalist groups use narratives of fear and hate to promote their agendas, like other Leave campaigns throughout Europe, thereby stoking the flames of frustration and agitation.
Europe is once again at a crossroads, with dangerous speech pushing the continent towards violence, hate, racism and xenophobia. Brexit is merely a single case where racist rhetoric, tied to a national crisis, has yielded hate speech and crimes. What remains to be seen is how the U.K., Europe, the U.S. and the world writ large will respond to these increasingly troubling trends. This is not a British problem. It is not a European problem. It is a global problem. Unless dangerous speech is curbed through the promotion of counter-narratives, the lessons of the past will rear their ugly head. Do not forsake the lessons of the Armenian genocide, especially at a time when justice and recognition have made so much headway.
Zahava Moerdler is a 2016 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. She is interning with Human Rights First in Washington, DC.
Photo credit: mrsamisnow/Creative Commons
The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.