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Monday, December 26, 2005


The Historian, the Philologist, the Minister, and the Traitors

Thoughts from Turkey on a Historical Conference

The following essay was first published, in a significantly different form, in the Greek journal Synchrona Themata in September of this year (number 90). Because we thought it was important that it be made available to as large a readership as possible, and outside a strictly academic environment, decided to translate it into English and update it for our current edition. We will be publishing a follow-up essay in our next edition.

If, during the first six months of 2004, the Cyprus problem dominated Turkey’s political landscape, the first six months of 2005 were practically monopolized by the Armenian issue. As this year marked the ninetieth anniversary of the tragedy of 1915, which cost the lives of several hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the Ottoman empire, discussions, and the ensuing recriminations, surrounding the extent and interpretation of the event have proliferated.

The two versions of history
The official Turkish version of events consists of the following main points:

• The clashes in the southern and eastern provinces of the Asia Minor peninsula had already broken out by the late nineteenth century when armed bands, under the guidance of the Hunchak and Dashnaktsutiun organizations, terrorized not only the Ottoman authorities but also the native Muslim populations. The violence ultimately spread to the capital where, following events such as the bombing of the Ottoman Bank in 1896, it led to reprisals against Armenians throughout the empire. The argument, therefore, is that Armenian separatists were first to begin exterminating Muslims and then simply faced the consequences of their actions.

• During the First World War, a large segment of Armenians living in the provinces bordering on the Russian empire collaborated with the advancing Russian troops against the Armenians’ own homeland. For this reason, and as a preventive measure of military security, it was decided that, temporarily and for as long as existing conditions so necessitated, the entire Armenian population of a large area would be “relocated” and resettled in safer territories. In the process, it is claimed, miscalculations may have been made; certain cadres of the security forces or the army may have proved overzealous; and, along the way, the deportees may have fallen victim to attacks by Kurds enraged by the criminal activities of Armenian separatists. Be that as it may, the central government had—as much as possible, especially considering wartime conditions—taken measures for the safe transport and resettlement of the population. In other words, not only was there no organized plan of extermination, but the Ottoman state tried, as it always had, to protect its subjects. In any event, the archives are open and whoever wishes can study the relevant documents. Whoever can read Ottoman Turkish and can thus form an opinion will see that no decision, or order, for the mass extermination of the Armenians exists. Everything else is wild speculation.

• Following the Second World War, and the adoption of a specific legal formula by international law that describes the act of genocide, the Armenians of the diaspora, many of whom had settled in the US and France, began to mobilize with the aim of securing recognition for their nation equivalent to that won by the Jews. A central role in this process was played by the Armenian Church, which—faced with the embarrassing fact that its faithful were of diverse ethnic origins and had a different culture, and seeing the urgent need for a unifying national myth that would provide this heterogeneous flock with a common identity—“discovered” the “genocide.”

• Today, when Turkey is well on its way to joining the European Union, those who oppose its accession have in their arsenal and proceed to exploit a series of obstacles that will finally force Turkey’s political leadership to exhaust its compliance and abandon its effort. First, it was the Cyprus problem; then, it was minority rights; now, it is the Armenian issue; tomorrow, it will be the Aegean, and so on. This ploy swells the wave of discontent against Europe as well as a sense on the part of Turks of being unfairly treated because they are not Christians.

Broadly speaking, these are the official Turkish views. Indeed, their most extreme advocates among academics, diplomats, bureaucrats, journalists, and politicians—mainly from the opposition parties but also in government circles—go so far as to claim that there is a conspiracy against Turkey’s sovereignty, and that the sooner the Turkish people and its government realize this, the better. However, in recent years, another perspective has emerged, supported by academics, intellectuals, and journalists who belong either to the broader left or are liberal democrats. Although some may dissociate themselves from others within the group, according to this view:

• The separatist activity of the Armenians never took on the mass character attributed to it, while there are some who even doubt whether its aim was autonomy or simply the implementation of reforms and certain rights of self-government, since its instigators knew very well that Armenians did not constitute a majority in any of Anatolia’s vilayets.

• The decision for expulsion described by the Turkish word tehcir did not refer only to strategically sensitive areas. Armenian populations were also expelled from the regions of İzmit and Edirne, which were very far from any war zone. Moreover, those who masterminded the plan were aware of the fact that survival was impossible in the regions to which the Armenians were expelled—in effect, the Syrian deserts—and that, therefore, expulsion equaled death. It is believed that Talat Paşa, the empire’s interior minister at the time and a member of the Young Turk triumvirate that included Enver Paşa and Cemal Paşa, was the mastermind of the plan. It is claimed that an apparatus that Talat kept at his home transmitted the orders sent by telegram to the local authorities in Anatolia. Actually, as early as the Balkan wars, the Young Turks had put together a secret group, the Teşkilatı Mahsusa (Special Organization), a precursor of today’s MİT, which was in charge of “security”—whatever that entailed—and undertook all manner of what would, in the Cold War, be called “special operations.” The persecution of Christians, mainly Greeks living on the Asia Minor coast and in Eastern Thrace, had already begun prior to 1914. These measures were deemed necessary as reprisals for the violent uprooting of hundreds of thousands of Muslims during the Balkan wars. But the First World War gave the Young Turks the opportunity they sought to do away with the Armenians, who were a constant source of annoyance, at the moment when the Western powers had their attention turned elsewhere. There are many cases of military commanders who refused to collaborate in these activities because they felt that these actions would tarnish the honor of the Ottoman army. As for the argument that no documentation of a plan has been found, it is obvious that the official orders included in the archives are very different from the secret orders that were received by the local authorities. No one expects to find written orders by Hitler commanding his generals to exterminate the Jews. But that doesn’t mean that the Holocaust didn’t happen.

• The crimes against the Armenians were acknowledged in the trials against the Young Turks following the Ottoman empire’s defeat and collapse, but also by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself, who allegedly mocked former comrades that, instead of fighting at the front as their duty demanded, stayed behind the lines slaughtering women and children. Furthermore, when Atatürk set out to win the support of the local elders of Anatolia’s vilayets during Turkey’s war of independence, one of the first things he had to promise was that seized Armenian fortunes would henceforth belong by right to those who had seized them—assuming that Turks won the war, of course.

• One cannot ignore all these crimes, but that does not mean that the Turkish people or republic should be held responsible. Although the latter has utterly appropriated the Ottoman past, the fact is that all these events occurred within the context of an empire that was breathing its last and against which the Turks themselves finally won their independence. Therefore, political leaders and the academic world should express their regrets over these tragic events, but that should be the end of it. What is more important is ending the mentality that led to these crimes and might still exist among nationalist circles, thus contributing to the repression of minorities as well as preventing the full democratization of Turkish society.

• As regards the term “genocide,” most of the advocates of this view accept it unconditionally, while others claim that it doesn’t really matter in the end whether one uses it or not as long as everyone agrees on the magnitude of the disaster. This concern derives from the sad realization that the term has become a catch-all phrase to describe every crime carried out in recent years (from Srebrenica to Rwanda), while it has also become the banner of the Armenian diaspora, which is cultivating a typically diasporic nationalism combined with a deep anti-Turkism whose only aim is to see the enemy on its knees. Thus, we find ourselves in the crossfire between Turkish statist nationalism and Armenian diasporic nationalism.

The ongoing intellectual battle
The new round of controversy began in October 2000 when the historian Halil Berktay gave an interview to the liberal newspaper, Radikal, that caused a storm of protest. It had been preceded in March of that year by a meeting behind closed doors between Armenian and Turkish historians in Chicago organized by the sociologist Fatma Müge Göçek and the historians Gerard Libaridian and Ronald Suny that was denounced equally by both Turkish and Armenian hardliners, including the historian Richard Hovannisian, who declared that he would never sit at the same table with the Turks. As it turned out, that meeting was not only attended by many important scholars, who adopted an “alternative” approach to the issue, but, in June, at Bosphorus University and within the framework of the eleventh conference of the International Oral History Association, a workshop dedicated to the Armenian genocide included Richard Hovannisian himself. It was this workshop that prompted Turkey’s Economic and Social History Foundation, the Tarih Vakfı, to withdraw as the conference’s co-organizer, following pressure by the Turkish government. The conditions, therefore, had been prepared, and alliances formed.

Although Halil Berktay did not use the word “genocide” in his interview to Radikal, he highlighted the role of the Young Turks’ Committee of Union and Progress, and specifically of the Teşkilatı Mahsusa, in the persecution of Armenians and Greeks in the bleak climate following the Balkan wars. The interview led to Berktay becoming the target of attacks by various nationalist groups. Pressure was put on Sabancı University, where he teaches, to dismiss him. Soon afterward, on January 22, 2001, in a message posted in a chat room, Faruk Alpkaya, a young political scientist at the University of Ankara, claimed that what had happened in 1915 absolutely corresponds to the definition of genocide used by the United Nations in 1948. A month later, calling in to populist/nationalist journalist Hulki Cevizoğlu’s television program, the historian Taner Akçam said that not only had there been a genocide but that Turkey should apologize for it. Akçam lives and teaches in the US, and his book, Türk ulusal kimliği ve Ermeni sorunu (as well as its English translation, From empire to republic: Turkish nationalism and the Armenian genocide), also became the target of Turkish nationalist circles. On March 8-11, 2002, the second in a series of Turkish-Armenian workshops (“Contextualizing the Armenian Experience in the Ottoman Empire: From the Balkan Wars to the New Turkish Republic”) was held in Michigan, with roughly the same participants as in Chicago. Back in Istanbul, a meeting was held on June 29-30 on “Civil Approaches in Turkish Armenian Dialogue” on the initiative of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly—Turkey. In the same year, Hüseyin Çelik, today Turkey’s education minister, published a book entitled, The Armenian problem in Turkey: Taking responsibility/solutions. In it, he rejects the term “genocide” but argues that the governments of the Turkish republic should take responsibility for their actions. On March 27-30, 2003, the third Turkish-Armenian workshop (“Vectors of Violence: War, Revolution, and Genocide”) was held in Minnesota. On May 29 of the same year, in a lecture in Istanbul, the historian Stefanos Gerasimou, who passed away recently and unexpectedly at the age of 63, claimed that the issue’s legal questions should be separated from its historical ones, and that those who move in the field of legal responsibility should not selectively use archival material that belongs exclusively to historians in order to prove their point. In October 2004, a conference was held in Venice entitled, “In History and Beyond History—Armenians and Turks: A Thousand Years of Relations.” Finally, in April 15-17, 2005, the fourth Turkish-Armenian workshop (“Ideologies of Revolution, Nation, and Empire: Political Ideas, Parties, and Practices at the End of the Ottoman Empire, 1878-1922”) was held in Salzburg, Austria. (Most of the information in this paragraph is cited in Mete Tunçay, “Çağdaş Türkiye son beş yılda Ermeni sorununu nasıl tartıştı—Tarihsel bellek ve aydınlar” [“How modern Turkey has discussed the Armenian problem over the last five years: Historical memory and intellectuals”], Toplumsal Tarih, March 2005, excerpted in Agos, No. 470, April 1, 2005, p. 9.)

This short list of activities includes only those that promoted an “alternative” view. Of course, at the same time, books were published and meetings were held with the exactly opposite aim. It is worth noting the minor thrillers that unfolded both around the suit filed a few months ago by a Swiss court against Yusuf Halaçoğlu, head of the Turkish History Foundation, and, later, the arrest of Doğu Perincek, leader of Turkey’s Workers Party. In both cases, the charge was denial of the Armenian genocide. These actions provoked various expressions of solidarity in the form of articles and petitions. Like France, Switzerland considers this denial to be a criminal offense, leading one to doubt the two countries’ sincerity in disconnecting historical research from political expediency and petty politics. (At this point, I would like to make clear that I do not adhere to the view that historical research and politics are two different things. All historical research is political, and legitimately so, so long as one is aware of this fact, states one’s intentions, and makes the basic distinction between politics and petty politics.)

This, finally, brings us to the conference that was supposed to have been held in May at Bosphorus University in conjunction with Bilgi and Sabancı universities. Although the organizing committee decided that the conference would not be open to all and its participants would be exclusively academics, intellectuals, and journalists from Turkey, a fierce debate had already begun in the media two months earlier. Interviews with Halil Berktay in Milliyet and Taner Akçam in Radikal, in which both referred to genocide, had touched off the controversy, whereas the historian Selim Deringil had pointed to the ambiguous character of the archival material in an interview to the Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos. The debate was joined by two more leading figures from either side. The well-known historian and newly elected director of the Topkapı museum, İlber Ortaylı, accused the participants of not having carried out any specific research on the topic; he also charged that many did not even read Ottoman, and that others, such as the intellectual Murat Belge (who had studied English literature as an undergraduate) were not even historians. Belge counterattacked with a series of articles in Radikal in which, as a “philologist,” he criticized Ortaylı’s closed-guild elitism and statist perceptions, while defending his own right, and that of many others who do not read Ottoman, to express opinions publicly on the historical and political issues involved. In the end, one week prior to the conference, its program—which had been kept secret until then—was published. The storm was not long in breaking. On the eve of the conference and following a question submitted in parliament by Şükrü Elekdağ, the former diplomat and member of parliament for the Republican People’s Party, Justice Minister Cemil Çiçek accused the organizers of “stabbing the Turkish nation in the back with a view of the Bosphorus,” adding that “if it were within my jurisdiction, I would begin prosecution procedures immediately” and that, in any event, those responsible for the conference were all “traitors.” Given that Istanbul’s security director did not offer any guarantees for the university’s safety; that the city’s supreme public prosecutor had already requested copies of the papers to be presented in order to establish possible grounds for criminal prosecution; and that it was common knowledge that various hotheaded and extreme nationalists were preparing to raid the conference in busloads, the university authorities decided to postpone it.

Of course, this caused a scandal that tainted Turkey’s image around the world at a very critical juncture—just when the country is trying to show that it has begun to consolidate recent reforms, and that democracy and political freedoms in Turkey are no longer violated. Damning comments and protests in the media and on the Internet put the Turkish government in a very embarrassing position. At once, both Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül stated that they had no problem with the conference and that, indeed, it had to take place. Over the summer, emotions calmed down, which gave the organizers the opportunity to regroup and readdress the issue, this time with government support. When a brief announcement in the press made it known that the conference was scheduled for September 23-25, and that in fact Abdullah Gül himself would open it, people took heart. Since then, however, and despite the fact that very little had been written in the press, clouds once again began to gather over the Bosphorus. Nationalists mobilized; the foreign minister stated that he would not be attending the conference after all; the Association of Retired Officers threatened to parade in front of the university’s gates; and it was made clear that security measures would be draconian. It was hoped that this conference would finally take place, and that we would soon be able to present its proceedings, as opposed to the backstage activities that had accompanied it until now.

Vangelis Kechriotis teaches history at Boğaziçi University.
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