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April 25, 2005
 

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TURKEY'S MEMORY LAPSE

Armenian Genocide Plagues Ankara 90 Years On

By Bernhard Zand

This weekend, Armenians commemorated the 90th anniversary of the genocide of 1915. But Turkey has yet to recognize the crime -- the first genocide of the 20th century. By refusing to use the word "genocide," Turkey could complicate its efforts to join the European Union.

Genocide in Armenia: Many Turks view the perpetrators as their fathers.
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AFP

Genocide in Armenia: Many Turks view the perpetrators as their fathers.

Typhoid, the Russians, imperialism and Kaiser Wilhelm II in far away Berlin -- all were responsible for the mass deaths of Anatolian Armenians. At least that's the case if you read the official Turkish history books. According to the Turkish version, the only group that didn't bear any responsibility were the Ottomans, the great-grandfathers of modern-day Turkey, which is now on the cusp of joining the European Union.

On Sunday, Armenians all around the world remembered the 90th anniversary of the start of the genocide. This year brought the last decennial memorial in which survivors of the crime, one of the worst of the past century, will still be alive to attend. Never before has the international pressure on Turkey as stronger as it is now for Turkey to address its own history. And Ankara's political elites have never been more steadfast in their efforts to defend the myths Turkey has used to explain the crime or to stamp critics as traitors.

The assertion that what happened to the Armenians was genocide is "categorically unacceptable," said Yüksel Söylemez, the chairman of a group of former Turkish ambassadors who are seeking to promote the official Turkish version of events abroad. Turkish president Ahmet Necdet Sezer said the accusations are baseless and "upset and hurt the feelings of the Turkish nation." It is wrong, he added, for our European friends to press Turkey on this issue."

At least one of the arguments of the modern apologists evokes the same motives of those which led to the order to deport the Armenians: the leaders of the declining Ottomon Empire saw themselves in 1915 as surrounded by enemies on all sides and created a case for the self-defense of the state. It's an argument that is still used by modern Turkish defenders today. Be it the Kurds, the Armenians, Greece, Europe or even the US -- inside, like outside, the country has nothing but opponents, they claim. "From the first day of its existence," Ankara Chamber of Commerce chief Sinan Aygün said, time and time again people have tried to "unsettle and destroy" Turkey.

The fact that Ankara as an EU candidate won't be able to use this line of argumentation for much longer is only gradually dawning on representatives of the Turkish government.

Victims of the 1915 massacre: Finding out the truth about the Armenian genocide is an uphill battle."
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AP/ Armenian National Archives

Victims of the 1915 massacre: Finding out the truth about the Armenian genocide is an uphill battle."

Confronted with more and more Armenia resolutions in European parliaments, opinion is growing among some that Ankara's position on the Armenian issue could ultimately endanger its prospects for EU membership. Although there is no formal requirement that Ankara recognize the murder of the Armenians as "genocide," politicians including French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier have made clear comments in that direction. "I believe that when the time comes, Turkey should come to terms with its past, be reconciled with its own history and recognize this tragedy," he said. "This is an issue that we will raise during the negotiation process. We will have about 10 years to do so and the Turks will have about 10 years to ponder their answer." Recently, Germany's conservative Christian Democratic Union, filed a resolution on the Turkey-Armenia issue in its own parliament, the Bundestag, where it will be discussed this week and voted on in June.

In an effort to counter the pressure coming from Europe on the 90th anniversary, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and opposition leader Deniz Baykal agreed to a common position at the beginning of March. Turkey is prepared, Erdogan said, to address its past. He added that the state archives in Ankara and Istanbul are open to everyone and that he could imagine an independent entity -- like UNESCO -- participating in an historical fact-finding mission.

Two opposition members of the Republican People's Party, former ambassadors Onur Öymen and Sükrü Elekdagi, conceived the idea. The fact that the action originated from the pair has created its own set of problems, since they are both outspoken hardliners on the Armenian issue. Their aim is to prove that the deportation and massacre during World War I can in no way be compared to a genocide, that the number of victims was considerably lower than the Armenians claim, and that Anatolya's Muslims were actually the ones who suffered the most from the tragic events.

Why is it so hard for modern Turks to deal with this part of their history? The crimes of 1915 were committed by the then-government of the Ottoman Empire -- a government from whose leading members Mustafa Kemel clearly distanced himself from when he became the founding father of the Turkish Republic.

Kemal, who later became known as Atatürk, broke with all of the traditions of the Ottoman times when he took power in the 1920s. He did away with the sultanate, the caliphate and sharia law. He added the Latin alphabet, a European legal system and introduced the Christian Sunday as one of the weekly public holidays. In addition, he had a very tense relationship with the three young Turkish leaders of the Ottoman Empire -- Talaat, Cemel and Enver Pasha. He didn't want to include a single one of the three, who were considered the primary culprits of the deportation of the Armenians, as part of the Turkish national movement after the war. He considered Envers to be especially dangerous because he saw in his pan-Turkish expansionist agenda a suicide adventure.

Decapitated heads of Armenians: Why is it so difficult for modern Turkey to deal with its past?
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AFP

Decapitated heads of Armenians: Why is it so difficult for modern Turkey to deal with its past?

Many of the accomplices to the Ottoman war crimes nevertheless fared well in the Turkish Republic, founded in 1923. Surprisingly, Atatürk himself, spoke with such openness about the crimes that his comments could be enough to land him behind bars today. In 1920, in parliament, he condemned the genocide of the Armenians as an "abomination of the past" and pledged to dole out severe punishments to the culprits.

Repeatedly, representatives of Armenia have offered to accept the version of events as told by Atatürk. In vain. When historian Halil Berktay of Istanbul made similar statements earlier this month, he was attacked. It was not unlike the way the nation's best-known author Orhan Pamuk was vilified after he told a Swiss newspaper in February that, "one million Armenians were killed in Turkey." Since then, Berktay has refused to make any statements about the Armenian issue.

Historians like Berktay are unfit to participate in the process of historical fact-finding, said Onur Öymen, who was Turkey's ambassador to Germany and is now the deputy opposition chief and one of the two initiators of the Turkish parliamentary offensive. They claim the historians have been susceptible to prejudices spread by the "Armenian propaganda machine." However, the two do endorse the version of events proffered by the American historian Justin McCarthy, who spoke in March before the Turkish National Assembly and later in a round with scientists and foreign diplomats.

Diplomats viewed McCarthy's presentation skeptically, but Turks welcomed it jubilantly. First, he said, the number of victims claimed by the Armenians (1.5 million) is based on falsified census figures: Only 1.1 million people could have lived in the Eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire affected by the deportations, he said. Of these, close to 40 percent died and of those deaths, 80 percent were from natural causes.

The Turks are fighting a tough battle, says McCarthy, who teaches in Louisville, Kentucky, and has been largely unknown in his field until now. "They're fighting against prejudice, and their opponents are politically strong, but the truth is on their side," he told the crowd.

"Would you admit to the crimes of your grandfathers, if these crimes didn't really happen?" asked ambassador Öymen. But the problem lies precisely in this question, says Hirant Dink, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Istanbul-based Armenian weekly Agos. Turkey's bureaucratic elite have never really shed themselves of the Ottoman tradition -- in the perpetrators, they see their fathers, whose honor they seek to defend.

Turkish soldiers stand next to Armenians who have been hanged: Today Atatürk would wind up behind bars for his criticism of the crimes against the Armenians.
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AFP

Turkish soldiers stand next to Armenians who have been hanged: Today Atatürk would wind up behind bars for his criticism of the crimes against the Armenians.

This tradition instils a sense of identity in Turkish nationalists -- both from the left and the right, and it is passed on from generation to generation through the school system. This tradition also requires an antipole against which it could define itself. Since the times of the Ottoman Empire, religious minorities have been pushed into this role.

At the beginning of April, Dink was invited along with other representatives of the approximately 60,000 members of the Armenian minority in Turkey to appear before the parliament's EU Committee. He came with a passionate appeal for reconciliation. He also had some sharp-tongued words for Germany's main opposition, which recently took up the issue of the Armenian genocide in parliament. "Ms. (Angela) Merkel (of the Christian Democratic Union), isn't bringing this instance up in the German parliament because she likes black eyebrowed Armenians," he said. "She's playing this card because she's against EU membership for Turkey."

Turkish-Armenian journalist and sociologist Etyen Mahcupyan also wants to see the rhetoric toned down in this war of words. Whatever the historical truth, he said, "The term genocide is only of use to extremists. I would have nothing against it if this word wasn't used." Rarely in recent decades, says Hirant Dink, have the opportunities for an improvement in Turkish-Armenian relations been as good as they are today. Erdogan's government, dominated by Muslims, is far less a product of the nationalist spirit of the Turkish bureaucracy than its predecessors. And that's something Europe should seek to exploit.

Germany, especially, which as a former ally of the Ottoman Empire also carries its share of blame in the tragedy, would be well advised against writing any resolutions. Instead, it should make concrete proposals: "Why don't the Germans challenge Eriwan to make the old nuclear reactor in Metsarot safer or put pressure on Ankara to reopen its borders to Armenia?" Berlin could help economically and diplomatically and support the moderates who exist on both sides, Dink said. "Truly, the possibilities are endless."



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