Human rights

Australia out of step as Germany 27th country to recognise Armenian Genocide

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The Turnbull Government is now out of step as Germany becomes the 27th country to recognise the Armenian Genocide in Turkey. Author of the book, Armenia, Australia and the Great War, Vicken Babkenian reports.

AT THE height of Ottoman Turkey’s attempt to annihilate its Armenian population in July 1915, the German ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Hans Von Wangenheim reported to his superiors in Germany that:

‘the [Ottoman] government is … pursuing its purpose of eradicating the Armenian race from the Turkish Empire.’

Germany was Turkey’s ally in the Great War. And Wangenheim’s report was confidential, intended for his superiors — not public consumption.

German military personnel, diplomats, railway engineers and businessmen stationed throughout the Ottoman Empire sent continual reports to the German embassy in Constantinople (now Istanbul) of Ottoman atrocities against Armenian civilians. They provided compelling, incontrovertible evidence that the Ottoman Turkish government had embarked on a policy of deliberate "race extermination". 

Despite these reports, the German government’s official position at the time was to refrain from "condemnation of an ally’" Germany’s principal concern was strategic, not humanitarian. Theobald Von Bethman Hollweg, Germany’s then chancellor, summed up his government’s official position in December 1915:

‘our sole object is to keep Turkey on our side until the end of the war, no matter if the Armenians perish over that or not.’

Fast forward a century to 2 June 2016 and the German parliament (Bundestag) officially recognising the Armenian Genocide. The parliamentary resolution stated that the fate of the Armenians exemplified

‘the mass exterminations, the ethnic cleansing, the expulsions and indeed the genocides that marked the 20th century in such a terrible way’.

The resolution also stated that the

 ‘German empire bears partial responsibility for the events’.

Germany is acutely conscious that it was once responsible for the century's greatest attempted genocide – of Europe's Jews – and it knows that denial is unsupportable. The German parliamentarians shrugged off earlier threats by the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that recognition of the genocide would harm

‘the diplomatic, economic, political, commercial and military ties between the two countries.’ 

What has this issue got to do with Australia? The perhaps surprising answer is that Australia has a great deal to do with this historical episode.

Australian troops serving on Gallipoli and in the Middle East became witnesses to the unfolding tragedy. On Gallipoli, and in Palestine, Armenians worked with the Australians as interpreters. Australian prisoners of the Turks were confined in “abandoned” Armenian homes and churches. At various points of their journey to Turkey’s interior, these Australian prisoners saw Armenians being abused and deported; one recorded in his diary that a million and a quarter Armenians had died, a figure close to the accepted number.

In Palestine, as the Australian Light Horse advanced northwards towards the Turkish border they came upon evidence of the atrocities, even rescuing Armenian refugees, survivors of massacre. In the remote reaches of northern Persia, Australians serving in “Dunsterforce” rescued thousands of Armenians from certain death.

During the war and its aftermath, Australians joined the massive international humanitarian campaign to alleviate the plight of the Armenian refugees. Nurses, doctors, and clergy travelled to Lebanon, Soviet Armenia, Greece and elsewhere in the region to bring relief to traumatised survivors. 

Australians sent ships loaded with food and supplies to the Middle East with the costs of freight borne by the Australian government. Australian donors even managed to establish and support an Australasian Orphanage for 1700 Armenian orphans in Lebanon for eight years. 

Australian women activists worked for the League of Nations, which tried to rescue women and children who had been abducted into Muslim households during the war. All this constituted Australia’s largest international humanitarian relief effort for that time. As a nation we can trace our characteristic generosity in the face of overseas calamities to what we did for the Armenians a century ago.

Australia’s involvement with the Armenian Genocide continued. From the 1960s, Armenians began to migrate to Australia. Many of them were the children and grandchildren of Genocide survivors. Now Australia has a community of tens of thousands of Armenian–Australians, most of them with family stories of the Genocide. 

Their stories are now part of Australia’s story and are told in our recently released book Armenia, Australia and the Great War published by NewSouth Publishing.

Despite Australia’s strong connection with the Armenian tragedy, the Australian Government’s official position on the issue, as expressed by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in 2014, is that it does ‘not … recognise these events as “genocide”’. In that statement, Bishop added that

‘Australia attaches great importance to its relationship with Turkey, which is underpinned by our shared history at Gallipoli, and by the recent cooperation in the G20’

It seems that our nation’s position on the Armenian Genocide resembles that of the Germany of 1915 and not the Germany of today.

[Editor's note: 

Germany is the 27th nation to officially recognised the Armenian genocide in Turkey over 100 years ago. In the USA, 43 of 50 state governments have recognised the genocide. Two of Australia’s six state parliaments: New South Wales and South Australia also do. Recognition has also come from the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the World Council of Churches and the International Association of Genocide Scholars.]

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