Turkey and Armenia:<br>Is There Any Other Solution Than Dialogue?
Dialogue Across an International
Divide: Essays Towards a Turkish
By Taner Akcam
Zoryan Institute 2001
“It is absolutely necessary to eliminate the Armenian people in its entirety, so that there is no further Armenian on this earth and the very concept of Armenia is extinguished.”
—Turkish Committee of Union and Progress, 1915
Dialogue Across an International Divide: Essays Towards a Turkish Armenian Dialogue, by Taner Akcam, is a ground-breaking document. A Turkish academic, Akcam speaks openly about the Armenian genocide, something that few of his colleagues are prepared to do. He presents, in a series of short essays, the reasons for Turkish amnesia regarding the past and recalcitrance in the present, and points the way toward a future resolution—nothing less than an end to the hostility that plagues this troubled and complicated relationship.
Terror and Denial
Why did Adolf Hitler believe that his plan for the annihilation of the Jews and Roma might succeed? Where was the precedent? Strong circumstantial evidence suggests that the massacre of the Armenians in 1915—the attempted elimination and deportation of an entire population to the barren deserts of Syria—provided the necessary impetus. Hitler’s infamous speech in 1939, prior to the invasion of Poland, in which he reportedly asked, “Who, today, remembers the extermination of the Armenians?” haunts the families of survivors. Germany’s Vice Consul in Erzerum, Max von Scheubner-Richter (a colleague and friend of Hitler’s) had reported on the indifference shown by the world to the fate of the Armenians: “It takes 100 people to kill each child in a genocide: one to pull the trigger and 99 to shrug their shoulders.”1
The unleashing of terror and destruction in Armenia was the first genocide of the 20th century. Initially, Armenians’ goods were requisitioned on the orders of the Young Turks.2 Women were then molested and, on April 24, 1915, the killings began—starting with Armenian political, religious, educational, and intellectual leaders, and then the general population. Within a short period, more than 1.5 million Armenians from the length and breadth of the Ottoman Empire were exterminated.
Today, the international border between Armenia and Turkey is closed. Diplomatic dialogue in search of a rapprochement is superficial. Prejudice and hatred characterizes the relationship. Turkey’s official position remains unchanged: There was no Armenian genocide and there is no reason to apologize. Rather, the Turkish government says that 300,000 Armenian men, women, and children died during simultaneous wars against imperialists, corrupt Ottoman rulers, and Fifth Column “terrorists”—but not at the government’s command. Furthermore, Turkey says the culprits who perpetrated the massacres of Armenians were arrested, and many were sentenced to death.
The lines of demarcation are clearly drawn; considerable literature from both Turks and Armenians provides “conclusive” evidence of the other country’s inherent guilt and ultimate responsibility. Turks accuse Armenians who pursue a formal admission of wrongdoing of fraudulently concealing their terrorist past (the so-called “myth of innocence”), willfully exaggerating their claims, and seeking excessive financial reparations. But Armenians in exile in Egypt, Syria, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, the United States, France, Russia, and so on, know only too well the circumstances that led to the killing of their family members, the theft of property, and their ultimate humiliation and dispersal. No one was unscathed.
World War I was in full swing during the Armenian genocide and Allied troops were poised at the entrance to the Dardenelles. Armenians, who had long hoped to set up an independent Christian Armenian state, staked their future on a French and English victory. They stood to inherit all of Anatolia. And because the better-educated, more Westernized Armenians were considered to be in cahoots with the Russians, the Turks took their revenge on this largely defenseless population with an unequaled viciousness. In some places, like the Black Sea port of Trebizond, the so-called “money-lending Jews of the Orient” were loaded into boats, taken to sea, and thrown overboard. In Van, where the Armenians had put up a successful defense for a short while, the slaughter was also complete. As Alan Moorehead writes, “It was customary, once an Armenian village had been quelled, to torture the men so that they would reveal where their arms and money were hidden, then to take them out into the country, tied together in batches of four, and shoot them dead. The remainder … were put on the roads to the Mesopotamian deserts in the south. Very few of them arrived.”3 Survivors of the long journey were herded into concentration camps where they were starved and brutally killed by guards—a process overseen by German officials.
When independent Turkey was born at the end of World War I, it had no place for rival nationalities like Christian Armenians. All citizens were Turks, including the so-called “mountainous Turks,” or Kurds. Pan-Turkism was a policy that was to link all the Turkish-speaking peoples from Istanbul to the Caucasus and Central Asia. In a Pan-Islamic drive, the Ottomans before them had consigned all things Turkish to oblivion.
Turkey’s new rulers had to look back 600 years to reestablish the idea of their Turkishness. To facilitate the historical “cleansing” process that ushered in the new Turkish republic, all talk of the Armenian genocide was forbidden. The official line was (and is) that Turkey emerged from a period of upheaval from which a “new personality was created from nothing.” The Latin alphabet was introduced in 1928 and future generations were thus barred from easy access to the testimony of the past that was written in a completely different script. The result is that Turkey now lacks a historical consciousness. No memory exists of the atrocities of 1915, or even of similar massacres that occurred in the 1890s. The contemporary Turkish citizen arguing against the case of the Armenians dwells only upon supposed Armenian wealth and duplicity, and the enduring terrorist threat, as evidenced in places such as Nagorno Karabagh in 1988, when 800,000 Azeri (“Turk”) refugees fled and 30,000 died at the hands of Armenians during the campaign to return the province to the hands of the majority Armenians.
In the opening chapter of his book, Akcam argues that Turkey must stop viewing its neighbor’s citizens as enemies. But this task is no easy matter. Turkey had wanted Armenian Fifth Column “war criminals” from 1915 to be punished, but the government has since chosen to put the past behind them and have called on Armenians to do the same—the supposed “terrorists” are still regarded as national heroes within the Armenian community. Also making reconciliation more difficult are the “revenge killings” of 42 Turkish diplomats since the 1970s by terrorist groups such as the Armenian Justice Genocide Commandos (JGCA) and the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA).
Fortunately, no incidents have occurred since the breakup of the former Soviet Union and the establishment of an independent Armenian Republic in the Caucasus.
Akcam suggests that momentum is gathering to unlock the secrets of Turkey’s greatest taboo. Scholarly symposia dealing with the genocide are being held more frequently, and Akcam believes that it is in the country’s best interests to reconsider their decades-long refusal to examine the past. The histories of both peoples are intimately intertwined.4 Indeed, Akcam considers it impossible to write a history of pre-Republican Turkey without reference to its Armenian citizens in all areas, including the arts, literature, education, and social life. Even a post-Republic history would be hard to imagine without considering the contribution of Armenians. And yet, this common history has been banished from the memory of the average Turk and Armenian alike.
What would it take for Turks to embrace the bitter truth that their modern republic was built upon the genocide of Armenians? The Ittihat ve Terakki Party, who carried out the massacres, were quite explicit regarding their intent in 1915, saying, “If we had not cleaned up the eastern provinces of Armenian militia who were cooperating with the Russians, there would have been no possibility of founding our national state.” But for the sake of Pan-Turkish unity and national identity it has always been far easier to deny the genocide completely and obscure the past and hope it goes away.
Akcam acknowledges how painful the task will be of re-imagining Turkey’s national heroes and saviors as murderers and thieves. But he argues that Turks must lift the national taboo on speaking about the genocide or their chances of creating a new order remain tenuous. “A society that erects taboos against a discussion of historical events … cannot have a democratic future,” Akham declares. There is, of course, a fear that the Turks’ faith in themselves will disappear during this process. A discussion of the Armenian genocide will surely reveal that the establishment of a Turkish state was not the end result of a just war fought against imperial powers, but, on the contrary, was a product of an unjust war against national minorities. Such detailed self-examination would, of course, also uncover the fact that many members of the National Forces were genocidaires. Newly wealthy from the spoils of oppressed Armenians, they took leading positions in the government of Mustafa Kemal in Ankara.
In his conclusion, Akcam describes the steps that need to be taken to advance the cause of reconciliation. The problem has four dimensions: the relationship between the Turkish and Armenian states; Turkey’s relationship with its Armenian minority; the Armenian Diaspora’s relationship with Turkey and Armenia; and finally, the Turkish Diaspora’s relationship with these two countries. Essentially, there is a need to make a detailed analysis of the impediments to a Turkish-Armenian dialogue at all these levels, and to develop projects that will lead to the creation of a common language and historical perspective. A new mindset which values memory must emerge, and both countries should create a program to translate objective historical accounts. The onus is on Turkey to open up those places that are holy to Armenians, and to begin a program of restoration of monuments demolished during the genocidal rampage. That the central sacred symbol for Armenians, Mt Ararat, lies on Turkey’s eastern frontier, remains an enduring sore spot, but as Akcam says, “Is there any other solution than dialogue?”
Articulating and highlighting the histories of those Turks who saved Armenians may be an important starting point in facilitating a new mode of remembering that inspires and drives a search for justice. While accepting their dark past, Turks may also draw upon a positive history that shows that some of their number actually risked their lives protecting, sheltering, and rescuing Armenians. The condemned leaders of Ittihat ve Terakki were found guilty mainly on the basis of the testimony provided by average Ottoman citizens—army commanders, officials, religious leaders, and so on.
Remember the Holocaust. Remember the first genocide of the 20th century. The price for amnesia, for forgetting on a national scale, is too high. Turkey’s present-day genocidal policy toward its minority Kurdish population is a product of this “denial mentality.” Political pressure applied by the European Union and members of the international community regarding Turkey’s human rights record and its position on the “Kurdish Question” is indirectly keeping the “Armenian Question” alive. Who, today, remembers the extermination of the Armenians? The Armenians and the Kurds certainly do, and with the publication of Akcam’s book, perhaps the Turks will begin to remember also. Here, for perhaps the first time, we have, from the Turkish side, the beginnings of a prescription on how to advance the situation beyond the present unstable impasse.
1. Loftus, J. (1992). Genocide and Human Rights
2. The Young Turks were a group that had emerged in reaction to the absolutist rule of Sultan Abdul-Hamid (Abdulhamit) II (1876-1909)
3. Moorehead, A. (1985). Galipoli
4. Leo the Armenian was one of three Armenian Byzantine Emperors. Armenians are credited with the building of the great Hagia Sofia (St. Sophia) in Istanbul and were highly esteemed architects and builders in the Ottoman Empire.
Ian S. McIntosh is senior editor for Cultural Survival.