Europe diary: Historical guilt

BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell talks to Armenians in Turkey and asks why a massacre that took place nearly a century ago, and the question whether it was genocide, is such a sensitive issue in Turkey today.


October 2, 2006
Source: BBC News (London)

By Mark Mardell, BBC Europe editor

AWKWARD QUESTION

Luckily the last remaining Armenian village in Turkey does not rely on the mut berry for its living. It's plucked from the hedgerow and offered to me by two village women. It smells fantastic, a heady aroma a bit like rosemary. But it tastes of nothing and puckers the mouth. Instead it's the nectarine, turning from green to orange on the trees running down the hillside, that makes the village of Vakif its money. The mayor, Berc Kartun, is more interested in talking about how his village's unique status attracts tourists, and the economic benefit of going organic, than discussing how his parents and grandparents died. "We are all rather tired of this question. We should let the historians settle it once and for all so it comes to a stop and you won't be asking our children the same thing." My question of course is: "Was it genocide?"

NATIONAL LIBEL

Why is modern-day democratic Turkey so sensitive about something that happened nearly 100 years ago in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire? A BBC radio programme wants me to probe the delicate question of what the state's official attitude to the killings says about present-day Turkey. Nobody seriously disputes that many thousands of Armenians died in what is now eastern Turkey between 1914 and 1918. Some Turkish historians say 200,000 died, some Armenian historians say it was two million. Turkish writers are still prosecuted for calling it "genocide". But the French parliament has caused outrage in Turkey by voting to make denial that these killings were genocide a crime on a par with holocaust denial. My first reaction to the programme's request was, "It's obvious". If Britain was asked to acknowledge guilt for something in the past, say the Irish potato famine, there would be fury in some quarters. If the government was pressed by its EU partners to officially label it "genocide" there might be an explosion of incandescent rage in certain papers. But the key is "some quarters" and "certain papers". There would be a lively debate, because many British liberals do feel guilt for the country's colonial past. Certainly Martin Amis and Iain Banks wouldn't find themselves on trial for agreeing with the foreigners. Yet in Turkey top novelists do find themselves on trial for libelling their country - although the actual law says "insulting the Turkish republic", so I don't quite see how insulting the Ottoman Empire qualifies.

YOUR HELP PLEASE

One of the things I value most about writing this diary is your comments. Even the rants, re-statements of obvious positions, and questioning of my intelligence, ability and motives interest me. But the majority of comments are both thoughtful and thought-provoking. They often give me a new perspective and a greater understanding of the stories I am covering. So help me now. I'm not asking for a rehash of the old arguments, but why it is such a sensitive subject for Turks 90 years after the killings took place?

MOUNT MOSES

The village of Vakif (also known as Vakifli Koyu) was once one of several Armenian Christian villages dotting the hillside leading up to Mount Moses (Musa Dagh in Turkish, Musa Ler in Armenian) very near the Syrian border. In 1915, because of their ideal tactical position, the Christian villages were able to repulse the Ottoman attackers long enough to appeal to fellow Christians. They were rescued by a French warship and taken to safety, but later made their way home. The international boundary fluctuated over the years. When the area again became Turkish in 1939, many of the villagers decided to go to Lebanon or Syria, but those that remained grouped together in Vakif.

HEART AND SOUL

Inside the single-room cafe men play cards and drink small glasses of tea as the rain lashes the citrus trees outside. When I talk to the mayor of oranges and selling laurel berry soap to tourists they chat noisily among themselves in Armenian. But when I ask about the past, the room falls silent. They stare intently at the mayor as though willing him not to say the wrong thing. It turns out that one of the men is just back to visit his father-in-law, the oldest man in the village. Canik Capar was once a villager, but he is now a tourist. He says he once had a good job in a bank but was sacked when they found he was an Armenian and a Christian. He re-trained as a teacher in the 1970s but says the government didn't want Armenian teachers in the region at the time. He told me the atmosphere was often tense, and knowing what had happened in the past, he was always worried that things might turn nasty again. So he left for Berlin, where he has lived ever since, and is now a German citizen. He tells us the obvious, that his friends have to be careful what they say. So, would he call what happened in 1915 genocide? "I don't care what they call it, the important thing is they admit what was done." And as an EU citizen now, does he think Turkey should be allowed to join? "Like my [Armenian] patriarch in Istanbul, my heart and soul say No, but with my head I say Yes, because if they don't, they will turn towards the Middle East and that could lead to something happening to our people again."

HISTORICAL GUILT

The whole question of historical guilt is an interesting one. Should I bear any guilt for the sins the British committed in Africa, if they were sins, any more than I do for the crimes of Jack the Ripper committed around the same time? And if I and my government do bear this burden, should we feel similar guilt for the evil committed by Elizabeth I against Catholics or Mary I against Protestants? Should we apologise to the French for the 100 Years War, and they to us for 1066? Thinking about it, weren't the "Normans" actually "Norsemen"? So should an apology be forthcoming from Denmark, Norway and Sweden?

PRICKLY NATIONALISM

I'm not going to speculate further about Turkey, but if it was Britain I suspect part of the problem would be a certain kind of nationalism. It seems to me that nationalism comes in two distinct types. One is fiercely proud of the achievements of the country, its history and language. The other is prickly, always looking out for insult and offence and its main motivation seems to be not pride, or even prejudice, but nursing old wounds. Let's call it stabinthebackism, in memory of the Weimar Republic. Any gentle poking of fun, questioning of values or tradition is seen as the latest sign that the barbarian hordes are already inside the gates. It was, I believe, Spike Milligan who used to say that he enjoyed kicking the backs of people's chairs when they didn't rise for the national anthem at the end of a theatre performance or film in the cinema (as was once routine). He said he did it not because he cared much about the national anthem but because it was a good excuse for kicking people. There are those still with us who have a similar motivation, without the irony.