German foreign minister rejects Armenia 'genocide' label

BERLIN, Germany – German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he would not call the mass murder of Armenians that began 100 years ago Friday, April 24, a "genocide", one day after the German president used the controversial label.

Steinmeier said that adopting the term "genocide" to describe the slaughter of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman forces in 1915 could play into the hands of those who sought to minimize the Holocaust.

"I am sick of the debates in which I am expected to jump through a hoop held up for me although everyone knows – those asking the questions and those answering – that complex memories can seldom be reduced to a label," he told news weekly Der Spiegel in an interview to be published on April 25.

German President Joachim Gauck at a memorial ceremony on Thursday condemned the Armenian massacre a century ago as a "genocide," adding that Germany, an ally of the Ottomans at the time, bore partial blame for the bloodletting.

It marked the first time that a German head of state used the word to describe the killings. The speaker of the German parliament, Norbert Lammert, and the head of Germany's more than 200,000-strong Jewish community also spoke of an Armenian "genocide." 

Steinmeier said German foreign policy aimed to encourage "reconciliation between the affected nations" and that "reducing the issue to the use of the word genocide" would not help overcome "the silence between Turks and Armenians".

He said the word was particularly loaded for Germany.

"We must be careful in Germany that we do not end up giving justification to those pursuing their own political agenda and claiming the Holocaust actually began before 1933," he said.

Adolf Hitler took power in 1933 and by the end of World War II in 1945 the Nazis had slaughtered six million Jews.

Frank reckoning

The Central Council of Jews in Germany called on Turkey to face up to a dark chapter of its past "openly and honestly".

"What happened 100 years ago in the Ottoman Empire, the deportation and murder of more than one million Armenians, was a genocide," its president, Josef Schuster, told the daily Passauer Neuen Presse.

Gauck, a Protestant pastor and former East German dissident, serves as a kind of moral arbiter for the nation.

In his speech at Berlin Cathedral, Gauck said that particularly given Germany's responsibility for the Holocaust, it must offer a frank reckoning of the Armenian mass murders and its own role in them as an ally of the Ottoman Empire.

A foreign ministry spokesman had earlier declined to comment on Gauck's speech, citing respect for the independence of his office.

Gauck's statement was expected to draw an angry reaction from Ankara, which has close defence and trade ties with Berlin. Germany also has the largest ethnic Turkish community outside Turkey.

More than 20 nations – including France and Russia but not the United States – have so far recognised the mass murder of Armenians a century ago as genocide, a definition supported by numerous historians but vehemently opposed by Turkey.