Germans, the World Experts in Atonement

The Bundestag's recognition of the Armenian genocide is an example other countries should follow.

Now it's Turkey's turn.

Photographer: Mehmet Kaman/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The German parliament's recognition of the 1915 genocide of Armenians in Turkey has predictably angered the Turkish government, which has even recalled its ambassador from Berlin. But more importantly, it raised the question of what constitutes sufficient atonement for the past sins of entire nations.

The Bundestag's resolution, which calls the 100-year-old events in the Ottoman empire a genocide, isn't mere symbolism. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who did her best to delay the vote so it wouldn't take place on the 100th anniversary of the mass killings, was conspicuously absent from parliament on Thursday as her own party, along with all the others, backed the document. To her, friendly relations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are critical because a deal with him has stopped the flood of undocumented Syrian immigrants to Germany.

Yet Erdogan is highly unpopular in Germany: 91 percent of Germans mistrust him, and even Turkish speakers who live in Germany -- its second-biggest immigrant community after Russian speakers -- didn't side with Erdogan in April when he demanded that a German comedian be prosecuted for insulting him. Despite its direct interest in keeping Erdogan happy, Germany has beaten the U.S. in recognizing the genocide (President Barack Obama promised to do this before he was elected president but has failed to deliver). As one of the resolution's sponsors, Cem Oezdemir, leader of the German Greens and an ethnic Turk, pointed out, "There is never a convenient moment to talk about genocide."

Erdogan and his ministers were in a predictable huff because of the use of the word "genocide" -- a label Turkey has fought for a century (the Turkish government's point of view can be found here). Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag commented caustically: "You burn Jews in the ovens and then you get up and you slanderously accuse the Turkish nation of genocide. Go take a look at your own history."

In a way, though, that's exactly what the German legislators did in voting for the resolution. It says of the more than a million Armenians who died during the Ottoman purges and forced resettlement to arid deserts:

Their fate exemplifies the history of mass destruction, ethnic cleansing, expulsions and yes, the genocides that distinguished the 20th century in such a horrible way. At the same time, we recognize the uniqueness of the Holocaust, for which Germany takes the blame and bears responsibility. The Bundestag deplores the inglorious role of the German Empire, which, as Turkey's military ally, had clear information from its diplomats and missionaries about the expulsion and annihilation of Armenians, but did not attempt to stop these crimes against humanity.

Thanks in part to the World War II victors who forced them to recognize what they had done, and in part to their own aversion to living in denial, Germans have established a kind of golden standard for recognizing historical guilt. It may seem easy to do today, but it's not, largely because it requires rewriting a historic narrative and changing the mythology that is wrapped up in national identity. That's why Turkey won't admit that the military government of a long-defunct empire had set out to destroy its Armenian population en masse. That's why Obama did not apologize to the Japanese people when he visited Hiroshima last month (his press secretary Josh Earnest said the devastation caused by the only wartime nuclear explosions in history was something for historians to argue about). And that's why Russian President Vladimir Putin, who recognizes that Josef Stalin's bloody purges were criminal, still praises his alleged role in industrializing Russia and winning World War II.

Whole nations don't tend to blame themselves for their forebears' crimes. Surges of reflexive, propaganda-induced patriotism are shameful and difficult to explain once the dust settles. This is a story a grandfather may have been reluctant to tell. While his grandson bears no responsibility for the crimes, he is responsible for ensuring that his children and grandchildren are less susceptible to the same virus. To achieve that, it's important to admit, apologize and see that the apologies are accepted as sincere.

The latter isn't easy, either. Chinese people do not appear to put much stock in modern Japanese leaders' repeated apologies for World War II-era genocidal episodes, in which at least 23 million Chinese were slaughtered. I have met many Jews who don't believe in the German repentance, but also many who do (especially the beneficiaries of the 1990s open-door policy for Jewish immigrants from post-Soviet states).

I believe in it myself. All the monuments, memorials, exhibitions and continuing discussions of the Hitler era cannot be meaningless. Nor can the current German system's intolerance toward any form of racism and its embrace of diversity.

Instead of throwing tantrums, Turkish leaders should admit the genocide of 1915 took place, apologize and atone for it so that Armenians -- many of whose ancestors died horrible deaths then -- believe them. Russia should unequivocally condemn Stalin, even if he ordered factories built and fought on the right side in World War II. The U.S. should apologize for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, regardless of whether the horror of the bombings helped win the war that was already rolling toward a conclusion. 

These atonements won't happen in the immediate future, because it would be damaging to patriotic feelings and detrimental to policy goals. After accepting blame for 1915, Turks might have less interest in Erdogan's brand of nationalism, reminiscent of the Young Turks who perpetrated the genocide. After finally equating Stalin to Hitler, Russians would think twice about adventures like the Crimea annexation. After recognizing the needless cruelty of Hiroshima, more Americans could question their country's other foreign wars. 

Germany's example, however, shows how a country that asks forgiveness before the world can be reborn to peaceful leadership. There's a pragmatic lesson in this, which Erdogan ignores in his predictable fury, and so do others.

(Corrects spelling of German lawmaker's name in third paragraph of article published June 3.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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