The long-standing dispute over the Armenian Genocide was recently fuelled once again, when the German parliament officially recognised the massacres of 1915 as genocide on June 2. The Turkish government, consistently refuting the label of genocide, immediately recalled its ambassador in Berlin. President Recep T. Erdoğan, sadly one of the oft-featured figures of this blog, said that ‘the Armenian issue’ was used to blackmail his country. Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, for his part, called the German motion ‘a ridiculous vote’ and ‘a historical mistake’, referring to the massacres as ‘one of many ordinary events that can happen in any country, in any society under the conditions of World War I.’ ‘We know’, he added, ‘that those who want Turkey to pay the bill for it do not have good intentions.’ Historians, not politicians, he concluded, should be the judges of the 1915 events.
What do historians say?
There are chiefly two opposing views on the 1915 Armenian massacres, each comprising a large heap of literature. A growing number of historians argue that about one and a half million Armenians died during World War I as a result of deportation and mass killings. These were, to borrow from the 1948 Convention, ‘deliberate acts of destroying, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group’. Or, in short, genocide. As I have discussed in a recent article, Djavid Bey, a leading member of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) that was ruling the Ottoman Empire during the war, wrote in his diaries in the summer of 1915 that the massacres were an attempt ‘to annihilate the existence’ of the entire Armenian nation. Djavid wrote with ostensible pain that those killings would remain ‘an irremovable stain’ on the CUP government. Yet in the aftermath of the war, when all leading figures of the CUP were charged with war crimes, he changed his position and took a defensive stance.
Djavid Bey’s arguments after this reversal are very much akin to what about 91% of people in Turkey, the Turkish government and most Turkish or Turcophile historians believe today. In this view, the events that took place in 1915 were nothing but reciprocal wartime killings between Armenians and Muslims in which around five hundred thousand people died on each side. Archival sources suggest that while the Ottomans were fighting the Russians in Eastern Anatolia during the war, Muslims also became subject to mass killings by Armenians. Mark Sykes, one of the architects of the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement, wrote in a letter on July 14, 1915, that no Muslims in the city of Van survived the Armenian attacks. However, the Ottoman response to these killings was systematic depopulation of a much larger scale.
The Turkish government insists that it would be keeping moral double standards to look at one side of the coin only. It instead suggests that a joint-commission of Turkish and Armenian historians investigate the nature of the mass killings. For most Armenians, there is little need to argue the toss at this stage. In twenty-seven countries today, the events are already recognised as genocide and fact of history.
The spell of nationalism
These days, it is almost an impossible task to make the government of Turkey and large portions of its society accept the 1915 massacres as genocide. The current political conditions in the country and the lasting legacy of the exclusionary nationalism that inspired Turkey’s founding elites are serious complicating factors here. Much like in other countries, the Turkish education system has long whitewashed the history of the massacres by omitting these dark moments from standard textbooks. Moreover, Erdogan’s increasing embrace of nationalism after the elections last year, when he sought to maintain power by means of sweeping far-right votes, have created a new societal climate that is much less democratic and much more exclusionary.
Democrats in Turkey who have run several ‘I apologise’ campaigns in the past decade (particularly after the assassination of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink) have been increasingly marginalised in this climate. At a large number of Turkish universities, speaking of the history of mass killings of Armenians or Kurds has become a taboo more than ever before. In this setting, the motion in the German parliament only bolstered nationalist feelings and helped rally support behind Erdoğan. Several commentators have rightly argued that the German vote on the Armenian genocide, albeit necessary, was not well timed and thus largely counterproductive. That said, Cem Ozdemir, the co-chair of the German Green Party, is of the opinion that there is ‘never a favourable time to speak about something as dreadful as genocide.’
Democracy of pain
It occurs to me that unless democratic voices on all sides of the debate gain the upper hand, the dispute will continue to boil the ocean. The discordant noise is very much amplified by historical pains, nationalist passions and, should Turkey accept the genocide, the question of potential financial repercussions. Pragmatic and nationalist discourses put forward by both sides as well as a lack of compassion repeatedly bring the dispute to a dead-end. These lead only to short-term gains and further polarisation at the expense of future compromise.
A few years ago, I spent two days in Talas and Kayseri in Central Anatolia, which had had a considerable Armenian population before the war. While walking around the abandoned houses and streets of Talas, listening to the stories of the only remaining Armenian in the town, and while sitting in the lonely and deserted Armenian Church in Kayseri, amidst the silence of its tall walls I came to think that so few in the dispute seem willing to use the art of constructive apology. That is, the art of creating a calm and fruitful interaction, of fostering a dialogue from below – not by means of politicised historical scholarship, lectures and conferences only. But also through actual human touch: by organising joint activities involving Turks, Kurds and Armenians, bringing them all to the very silence of those abandoned buildings and streets in order to share their pains and stories instead of accusing each other. These shared pains can, I feel, be the solid basis of inclusive and functioning democracies as coming to terms with a shared past would be the most solid way to build a peaceful and prosperous future.