The Armenian shadow over Turkey’s democratisation

Turkish acceptance of the fate of the Armenians in 1915 would unlock a society steeped in denial of its own historical experience, says Gunes Murat Tezcur.


October 13, 2005
Source: Open Democracy (London)

By Gunes Murat Tezcur

"Every society experiences defeat in its own way", observes Wolfgang Schivelbusch in his book The Culture of Defeat: On National Mourning, Trauma and Recovery, "but the varieties of response within vanquished nations conform to a recognisable set of patterns that recur across time and national boundaries."

Turkish responses to the Ottoman defeat in the "great war" of 1914-18 have been idiosyncratic. After all, that ignominious defeat gave birth to ultimate victory under the nationalist leadership of General Mustafa Kemal, who succeeded in creating a homeland for the Turks and, as Kemal Atatűrk, led the country until his death in 1938. Perhaps as a result, almost ninety years since the greatest debacle ever to have befallen the Turkish people, a collective amnesia of the disaster prevails. History textbooks do not even tell young Turkish citizens that the Ottoman empire was defeated in the war.

For the ultimate surrender of the empire, they blame the failure of the Germans and the allies; for the loss of the Arab territories, they perpetuate the myth of an "Arab stab in the back." This denial of defeat has been accompanied by a denial of any responsibility for the fate of the empire’s Armenian subjects. And that tragic fate of the Armenians still haunts Turkey’s prospects for democratisation today.

Debates on the fate of the Armenians living under the Ottoman empire have intensified in recent years. Armenian communities in the west have long been active in publicising the Armenian genocide and in urging western parliaments and governments to recognise it. On 28 September 2005, the European parliament passed a resolution that calls on Turkey "to recognise the genocide of the Armenians" and considers this act as a "prerequisite to accession to the European Union." Meanwhile, an Istanbul conference organised by Turkish scholars who challenge the official Turkish line stirred a major controversy after various attempts to prevent it from convening it proved futile.

Still, Turkish public opinion remains very sensitive to the claims that Armenians were deliberately annihilated in a policy of ethnic cleansing. Not just the Turkish state, but large segments of Turkish society remain defensive. Dissidents have a hard time swaying public opinion; they feel compelled to state that they are not "traitors."

How to make sense of the current state of Turkish public opinion? What can it tell us about the power of national imaginations vis-à-vis the past on the future of democracy?

Four elements of denial

The denial of Turkey’s defeat in the first world war translates into sympathy for the Ottoman rulers who perpetrated the acts of genocide against the Armenians. Mehmet Talat Pasha, the wartime grand vizier who ordered the mass deportation of Armenians in 1915, was assassinated in Berlin by an Armenian survivor, Sogomon Teleyran [Soghomon Tehlirian], in 1921. His remains were brought to Turkey from Germany in 1943 and reburied on the "hill of liberty" in Istanbul along with those of the formidable war minister, Enver Pasha.

Talat, Enver, and their accomplices brought about the demise of six centuries of empire in pursuit of hollow, grandiose designs; they were men who sent millions to their deaths with impunity. Yet they still enjoy the status of heroes in contemporary Turkey. Despite the fact that the Young Turks lost the war, their crimes are long forgotten if not forgiven by Turkish nationalists.

There are four reasons why Turkish public opinion cannot swallow the term "genocide".

First, Turks do not believe that the "Turkish nation" is capable of committing such unspeakable atrocities.

Second, the extermination of the Armenians has been shrouded in the claims of a civil war: “if we killed some of them, they also killed many of us” is the usual reaction of ordinary Turks. It is not uncommon for the Turkish media to show newly discovered mass graves full of Turks killed by Armenian militias in eastern Turkey, or to publish memoirs of old Turks who witnessed Armenian atrocities. Turkish public opinion is stirred up by the perception that Armenians exclusively monopolise the status of victim.

Third, it is an open secret that without the annihilation of Armenians, Turkey’s eastern borders would look quite different.

Fourth, the extreme politicisation of the issue in the international arena and western pressure on the Turkish government to recognise the Armenian genocide have strongly contribute to widespread Turkish feelings of unfairness, exploitation, and inferiority vis-à-vis the west. In this connection, the passivity of western governments during the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, to cite the most recent cases, hardly helps their claims to serve as arbiters of justice.

For all these reasons, discussions of the fate of the Armenians in contemporary Turkey are largely deprived of moral concerns and sensitivities.

New past, new future

An unfettered and open discussion of the fate of the Armenians would lead to greater public awareness of the perils of absolute state power, as it would buttress democratic and accommodative approaches to dealing with Kurdish nationalism.

It would be naïve, however, to expect that the emergence of the Armenian issue as a major factor in negotiations between the European Union and Turkey would tame the chauvinistic tendencies in Turkish nationalism. It would more likely play into the hands of isolationists and ultra-nationalists who insist that Europe is insincere and seeks to "betray" Turkey over and over again.

How the defeats of the past are articulated in national memory inevitably affects how nations behave in the conflicts of the present. Crimes committed in times of national desperation or decadence can occasion healing only when all of their justifications are categorically rejected by present generations. Then, the culture of impunity unravels.

In the case of Turkey, this entails a self-critical and unflinching examination of its greatest defeat, the first world war, as well as its subsequent victory in the war of independence of 1919-22. A more open and ethical understanding of the fate of the Armenians is absolutely essential for Turkey’s democratic future.