The Cost of Turkey’s Genocide Denial

“The fire hurts where it hits,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then Turkey’s prime minister, said last year on the eve of an anniversary that he and his government would prefer to forget. Mr. Erdogan was using a popular saying to refer obliquely to the mass deportations and massacres of hundreds of thousands of Armenians and Assyrians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915.

In Turkey, the debate over what most scholars acknowledge as a genocide remains a festering concern for Mr. Erdogan, now Turkey’s president. His government’s policy is to deny it.

According to the official Turkish view, maintaining national security and a loyal population during World War I required harsh measures — including ethnic cleansing, forced assimilation and brutal reprisals against rebellious Armenians.

Mr. Erdogan has offered his condolences to the descendants of those massacred, thus shifting the state’s narrative from condemnation of treacherous rebels to sorrow for victims of war, both Christian and Muslim. “The incidents of the First World War are our shared pain,” he said last year, without distinguishing between battle deaths and those deliberately murdered by the Ottoman government and its agents.

David Doran
David Doran

Mr. Erdogan’s small but significant shift lags far behind the progressive forces in Turkey who speak openly about the mass killings that accompanied the end of the Ottoman Empire. Many of the millions of Kurdish citizens of Turkey, some of whom are descendants of perpetrators of anti-Armenian violence, have apologized for the genocide in which their forefathers participated. The Kurds have themselves been victims of Turkish state violence in the last century and now tell Armenians, “They had you for breakfast and will have us for dinner.”

Turkey, like many other nations, celebrates its founding moments as a heroic struggle against internal and external enemies. The perpetrators of atrocities imagine themselves instead to be victims.

After Pope Francis reminded the world that the centenary of the greatest atrocity of World War I was approaching and the European Parliament condemned Turkey’s continued efforts to conceal, distort and evade the facts, Mr. Erdogan responded by claiming that the Turks had experienced “far more suffering than what the Armenians went through,” while his prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, accused European lawmakers of anti-Turkish racism.

Such obstinate refusal to come to terms with history’s darker chapters is not unique to Turkey. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has refused to acknowledge and apologize for what Imperial Japan did during its colonial annexation of Korea or in China in the 1930s and during World War II. Russians agonize over but repeatedly temper their assessments of Stalin’s crimes; Poles and Ukrainians turn away from the brutalities of the anti-Semitic pogroms before and during World War II.

Americans, Australians and Israelis shy away from confronting the foundational crimes that were committed against those living on the territory that they coveted but which they wanted emptied of indigenous people. It is often forgotten that former victims can easily become perpetrators in their drive to make a nation.

There are examples of straightforward recognition and public repentance. After the Holocaust and much soul-searching, a democratic Germany acknowledged what the Nazis had done. The record of fascist atrocities is now taught in schools and memorialized throughout the country without relativizing the horrors by referring to what Germany’s enemies did.

As Pope Francis put it, “Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.” Courageous Turkish and Kurdish historians have long realized this, and they have defied the government by challenging the traditional nationalist account that blames Armenians for their own destruction.

These historians have sought to reconstruct what happened in 1915 and examine why the Young Turks convinced themselves that Armenians were an existential threat to the future of their empire. Their thankless but necessary task is to lay the groundwork for honest scholarship that involves the uncovering of the pain that governments would prefer to bury forever.

Historical truths are complex and difficult to conceal. Memory persists — in lost monuments, ruined landscapes and the stories that survivors tell. And reality eventually bites back. Untended wounds often have pathological consequences, which can include vicious acts of retaliation, like the Armenian terrorist attacks against Turkish targets during the 1970s and 1980s, or the murder of those who have raised their voices in protest — like the heroic Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who was assassinated by a young Turkish nationalist in 2007.

President Barack Obama, who acknowledged the genocide before his election and has made it clear that his opinion has not changed, has nevertheless refused to use the inflammatory “G” word as a matter of policy. He prefers “meds yeghern,” the Armenian for “great crime” or “catastrophe,” which is akin to using the Hebrew word “shoah,” to describe the Holocaust.

Realpolitik usually trumps historical truth and morality — and this case is no different. The United States government has simply made a strategic choice to appease a needed partner. Language is being used to conceal what is inconvenient to state openly.

But governments that fail to accept and confront the harsh consequences of historical truth are giving comfort to ultranationalist and anti-democratic forces that threaten liberty and democracy in Turkey.

The Armenian issue has become the symbol around which the most enlightened and democratic forces in Turkey have rallied in recent years while also resisting a growing storm of authoritarianism and repression. The grand cover-up of 1915 allows Turkey’s security apparatus, or “deep state,” to continue its violence against dissenting groups in the country — from the Gezi Park demonstrators of 2013, to journalists exposing governmental corruption, to the Kurds of the southeast who demand basic rights and a degree of political autonomy.

It is well known that each nation feels its own pain and has difficulty feeling that of others. Yet reconciliation of Armenians, Kurds and Turks — who are fated to live next to each other — will require both an acceptance of their shared history and mutual suffering and a hard look backward in order to move forward.

Acknowledging who set the fire and directed it against the most vulnerable population must be part of the healing.

Ronald Grigor Suny is a professor of history and political science at the University of Michigan, and the author of They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else: A History of the Armenian Genocide.

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