German President Joachim Gauck said the alleged death of 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians during a civil war in eastern Anatolia in 1915 was a “genocide.”
His speech on Thursday came on the 100th anniversary since the incidents, which saw scores of ethnic Armenians lose their lives in the context of a war with ethnic Turks, who also suffered countless massacres at the hands of Russian-backed Armenian militias.
The Republic of Turkey, which was born out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire after its collapse in 1923, has refused to define the events a genocide, while acknowledging and expressing grief over the death of Armenians a century ago.
Although many Western scholars and governments have given into pressure by Armenian lobbies and used the word “genocide” to explain the incidents, Turkey has called on Armenia to conduct a joint investigation to come to a factual understanding of what took place.
Armenia, however, is yet to accept the Turkish government’s invitation.
Gauck also said Germany carried some of the responsibility for the killings, as Germany was an ally of the Ottoman Empire at the time.
"In this case, we Germans must still come to terms with the past, as to whether there is in fact a shared responsibility, possibly even complicity, in the genocide of the Armenians," said Gauck.
His use of the word “genocide” marks a change in the German stance on the incidents, as Germany, which hosts a population of 3.5 million ethnic Turks, has long refrained from the use of such language in the past.
Gauck’s speech enters his country in the growing list of nations who have used similar terms to describe the 1915 events, including the Vatican’s Pope Francis and neighbouring Austria, which recognised the “genocide” this week.
The European Parliament also voted to recognise the “genocide” earlier this month, while the Greek Cypriot administration outlawed the denial of the “Armenian Genocide” with a penalty that could carry a five-year prison sentence plus a €10,000 fine.
The German parliament is debating a motion over the usage of the term “genocide” on Friday after the president’s speech, a motion Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a phone call on Tuesday, slammed as "unacceptable."
Thousands of Turks in Germany are expected to protest against the motion in Berlin on Saturday.