You'd think that the German parliament, of all parliaments, would be able to vote to commemorate a genocide without stirring up a controversy.
Yet Thursday morning, when the Bundestag passed a resolution labeling the 1915 slaughter of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire a "genocide," the Turkish government reacted with fury. Turkey recalled its ambassador from Berlin, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened to take more steps to punish Germany. "We will do whatever is necessary to resolve this issue," he warned ominously.
This issue could not be more fraught. Recognizing the Armenian genocide is, for Turks, a grave insult — essentially, it links their nation's creation to a crime of monumental proportions. They've embarked on a decades-long, surprisingly successful campaign to block the international community from recognizing it. Yet for Germans, recognizing the genocide is crucially important to coming to terms with their own history of mass slaughter.
The vote also comes at a critical time in German-Turkish relations, as the two countries are absolutely vital in resolving the Syrian refugee crisis. So this isn't just an academic dispute between the two countries; the stakes are real for the entire European continent.
Why the Armenian genocide is so controversial
To understand the German-Turkish controversy, you need to understand the Armenian genocide itself — and the political controversy that erupted in its aftermath.
In 1908, a military coup — led by the so-called "Young Turks" — took control of the Ottoman Empire, which at the time was reeling from a series of disastrous wars. Their goal was to revive the nation, partly through liberal reforms and partly through unifying the country around Islamo-Turkic ethnic nationalism.
"There was a policy of Turkification by the young Turks dating back to 1908," Hrach Gregorian, a practitioner in residence at American University, tells PBS. "The Armenians were viewed as a threat to Turkish identity and Turkish security."
So during World War I, when the Ottoman Empire was buckling even further under the pressure of the conflict, the Young Turks launched a campaign to rid the country of its 2.1 million Christian Armenians, who lived in the province of Anatolia.
"The genocide occurred when state authorities decided to remove the Armenians from eastern Anatolia in order to realize a number of strategic goals," University of Chicago historian Ronald Grigor Suny writes. It was "initiated at a moment of near imperial collapse when the Young Turks made a final, desperate effort at revival and expansion of the empire that they had reconceived as more Turkic and Islamic."
The scale of the slaughter, which took place over the course of two years, was horrific. "More than a million Armenians were exterminated through direct killing, starvation, torture, and forced death marches," the International Association of Genocide Scholars explains in a 2006 letter. "The rest of the Armenian population fled into permanent exile."
That this slaughter took place, and that it was a targeted campaign of genocide, has been established beyond any reasonable doubt. "The documentation on the Armenian Genocide is abundant and overwhelming," as the genocide scholars' letter puts it.
Yet the official policy of the Turkish government since basically forever has been to deny that the Armenian genocide happened. The government contends that it was a civil war between Turks and Armenians, and that the Armenians fled when the Turks emerged victorious.
"I think, for the Turkish government, there are three factors that prevent it from acknowledging and apologizing," Gregorian says. He continues:
The first is, it’s a shameful act and no government wants to admit to it. The second is, there is some concerned about reparations and land claims. And the third is, there are — there are substantial nationalists, right-wing nationalists in Turkey that are violently opposed to such acknowledgment.
The Turkish government doesn't just deny the genocide — it puts immense diplomatic pressure on other countries to avoid acknowledging the historical reality. And because strategically important Turkey wields more influence on world powers than does small, relatively unimportant Armenia, this strategy has basically worked.
A scant 20 countries formally recognize the Armenian genocide, with both Israel and the United States among the holdouts. When the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to recognize the genocide in 2010, the Obama administration successfully worked to block the resolution, arguing that it would imperil US-Turkish relations.
"The Obama administration strongly opposes the resolution that was passed by only one vote by the House committee and will work very hard to make sure it does not go to the House floor," then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
Why Germany voted — and why it matters right now
Given this context, a major power like Germany voting to recognize the Armenian genocide is a huge deal. But Germany matters more than most, owing to both its own dark history and the critical importance of German-Turkish relations.
The vote to recognize the genocide passed the Bundestag overwhelmingly. Modern Germany exists, in part, on a foundation of collective guilt: a sense of responsibility for the Holocaust and an understanding that Germany must acknowledge its own culpability to heal as a nation. Yet until now, Germans had not, collectively, owned up to their role in the Armenian genocide — which ultimately served as a source of inspiration for the Nazis.
"For many German politicians," reports the BBC's Damien McGuinness, Tuesday's vote "was about dealing with not just Turkey's difficult 20th century history, but also Germany's."
"At the time, the German empire was a military ally of the Ottomans, and is accused of knowing about the massacres and not doing anything to prevent them. So for many Germans this resolution is about facing up to German historical guilt — something modern Germany is founded upon," McGuinness writes.
Cem Özdemir, a German Green Party MP of Turkish descent and a fierce critic of Turkey's government, was the driving force behind the resolution. He initially tried to bring the issue to a vote on April 24, 2015 — exactly 100 years after the genocide began. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel kept delaying it out of fear of irritating Turkey, only buckling under a groundswell of pressure from inside her own ruling coalition earlier this year.
Ironically, Merkel's obstructionism may have ended up making the timing worse for her. Turkey is a key point of entry to Europe for refugees from countries like Syria, so Merkel and other European leaders need Turkish cooperation to address the crisis.
In March, Merkel successfully brokered a deal between the European Union and Turkey, in which Turkey would allow the EU to send refugees back to Turkey in exchange for $6.7 billion in aid payments and several other goodies, like waiving visa requirements for Turkish citizens.
Merkel, the de facto leader of Europe's response to the refugee crisis, needed this deal a lot more than Turkey's Erdoğan did. The refugee crisis is putting huge strains on European countries, dividing the EU and giving rise to dangerous levels of far-right extremism. Erdoğan has figured this out, and is using the deal as leverage to make the EU hostage to Turkish whims. He has routinely threatened to annul the agreement in order to quiet European criticism of his dangerous consolidation of power at home.
"Since the deal he has pressed ahead in his quest to become an autocrat, rejecting European criticisms with threats to scupper the refugee deal and let hundreds of thousands of refugees make their way to Greece again," the Economist writes. "This has exposed Mrs Merkel to criticism in Germany that she has sold out to a dictator."
Indeed, in April, Merkel agreed — at Erdoğan's request — to prosecute a German comedian who had read a poem criticizing Erdoğan. It's an illiberal prosecution that's borderline inconceivable in a world without the refugee crisis, which shows just how much influence Turkey wields in Berlin at present.
The Armenian genocide vote, then, is not just about history. It's also about German legislators telling Turkey to screw itself: that it doesn't wield a veto over German policy just because Germany needs its help with the refugee crisis.
The critical question, then, is how serious Turkey is about its threats against Germany. If Erdoğan doesn't cancel the refugee deal, his repeated threats to cancel it over lesser slights will increasingly be seen as mere bluffs. If he does cancel the deal, he'll lose all the benefits from the deal and kick off a diplomatic crisis with infuriated EU states.
The ball is in Erdoğan's court.