From Opening to Armenia to the Opening of the Memory

Published in Taraf by Ayse Hur, September 6, 2009

Translated by Arutun Maranci


           While the wave of excitement for the steps taken by the government for a 'Kurdish Opening' continues an ' Armenian Opening' initiative started. In my view the most interesting headline concerning these two protocols, neither of which is yet in force, are the plans for the establishment of a Historical Commission. The commission is supposed to investigate claims of genocide termed 'alleged' by the newspapers. We read in Taraf on September 4, 2009 Taner Akcam's views concerning this subject. Answering Yildiray Ogur's questions, Akcam said that it is necessary to separate the 'Normalizing of the Relations' from the questions of 'reconciliation' based on historical sources.

The Historical Commission

In the same article, Akcam indicated that he does not believe a state that for years insisted there were no such thing as Kurds, only some people who made weird sounds as they traveled in the mountains, could establish a commission to search for a truthful answer to the question 'whether in 1915 there had been a genocide or not'. Akcam, also argues that nothing remains on this subject that the scholars don't already know. The scholars may already 'know', nevertheless I want to add my views about this 'Historical Commission' as yet to be established. In this pages on August 31, 2008, I had presented a summary of the Turkish-Armenian relations from 19 hundreds to 1990. I continue from where I had left there.


From the beginning of the Republic to this day history was disseminated as a project to develop national identity and the authoritarian state model was understood to be in a 'natural' relationship with the said national identity, constituting a logical extension of it. The first requirement for the dissemination of history was that it be a 'clean and honorable' history. For that purpose the myth of a Turkish race was created that had remained pure throughout the Anatolian history despite the wholesale assimilation of other races. However on this subject there were two different periods. In the period prior to the 1975-1985 ASALA terrorism and the parliamentary genocide resolutions of 1980's, the school books would briefly mention Armenians as subjects in the distant past without making disparaging remarks.

Owning Anatolia

For example, the capture by the Seljuks of Ani, the capital city of the Armenian Bagratid Kingdom and the wars between the Seljuks and the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia which existed in the Adana region during the 12th -14th centuries was sometimes presented in belittling terms, sometimes ignored and sometimes treated as if there had been no conflict. In some cases these kingdoms were displayed to be tiny and in others, the territory of the kingdom was made ambiguous. In some cases the territories were stated to be lying outside of Anatolia and in others, the lands where the Armenians lived was said to be inhabited earlier by Oguz, Pechenek and Kipchak tribes. In this way it was implied that the Armenians had no historical claims in Anatolia.

An interesting phenomenon that shows the cohesive force of the Armenian taboo among the intellectual class was the 'Blue Anatolia' movement led by Sabahattin Eyuboglu, Azra Erhat and 'The Fisherman of Halicarnassus' Cevat Shakir. A new breath was given by the movement to the slogan 'Anatolia is ours, not because we conquered it, but it is ours because it was ours' and thereby the pagan, Christian and Moslem history of Anatolia was offered as an evolutionary state of a collective. Accordingly, Turkish was the final stage of the 72 languages spoken earlier and Turkishness was a version of the Humanistic thought. However, the name of Armenians was absent among these people and civilizations that constituted us at present. (The same tendency was shown by Yashar Kemal in 1992. In a speech about Cilicia, he discusses the Hittite and Byzantine past of the city of Anavarza but omits its Armenian past, whereas Anavarza was the capital city of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia from 1100s to 1375 and it is impossible that Yashar Kemal did not know this).

The Book of Esat Uras

Beginning with 1980 a radical change took place and the subject of 'Armenian Question' entered the school books. The text was based on a 1953 book: 'The Armenian Question: Nine questions, Nine Answers' published by Ahmet Esat Uras, who had participated in the Unionist movement and had played an active role in the 1915 Deportations. The subject book had been of great interest to the Foreign Ministry on its publication, it had been reprinted several times and had been translated to foreign languages. According to the book, Armenians who had merged with Turkish culture and had lived a 'happy' life in the Ottoman period, had suddenly taken a hostile attitude to the Turks. After offering the 1894-1896 Urfa and Sassoun and the 1909 Adana events as examples of this enmity, the Armenian Deportations of 1915-1917 were characterized to be in defense to these events. Later, the views of Esat Uras inspired other writers and new books were published. Finally the 'official view' was put in history books.

Support from National Education Curriculum

On June 14, 2002 the Training and Education Committee of the Ministry of National Education decided to train the teachers on curriculum. The decision was announced in the newspapers in August 9, 2002 under the heading : ' The position of the state regarding the allegations of an Armenian Genocide, the Establishment of a Pontus Greek State and the Genocide of Christian Assyrians will be given in school books'. The implementation of the decision was to begin in 2002-2003 school year.

Later, the same committee published a curriculum for the teachers. The important point in the curriculum was the requirement for all the students in the country to compete in an essay on 'The Armenian Revolt and the Activities of the Armenians during the First World War'. The apparent purpose of the competition was to have the students recount the atrocities perpetrated by the Armenians on Turks. The sad part of the initiative was that the Armenian students living in Turkey were also required to write the essay.

Support from Criminal Law

Another important development in this field came from the Article 305 of the Turkish Criminal Code passed by the Parliament on September 26, 2004 as part of a required framework by the European Union. Hailed by several European Union leaders as an important step towards Union membership, this article specified a 10 year prison sentence for ' acting against the interests of the State and thereby directly or indirectly obtain aid from foreign individuals or foundations'. In the justification section of this article the examples given for acting contrary to the national interests are: 'To demand the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Cyprus' or ' assert the occurrence of the Armenian Genocide during the First World War'. Despite pressure from the European Union this article is yet to be changed.

The Blue Book of the Parliamentarians

In March 1, 2005 (CHP) the Republican People's Party started a campaign under the heading of 'Genocide Attack'. In a letter prepared to be sent to the Members of the British Parliament and the House of Lords it was asked that 'the book titled 'The treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915-16' prepared by the Bureau of British War Propaganda based in the Wellington House during the First World War, be declared as propaganda material and that the information therein concerning the revolt of the Ottoman Armenians and the steps taken by the Ottoman State to be without foundation and be unreliable'. The letter was signed by the Prime Minister Recep Tayyit Erdogan, the Head of CHP, Deniz Bayakal in the General Committee Room of the Turkish Parliament and was mailed to the recipients.

However, the aftermath was never learned, because all the newspapers who had greeted the campaign with headlines (except Zaman) of “Avenging the 90 Years”, “International Attack against the Blue Book” and “Challenge to the Genocide”, did not feel the need to report the response given to the letter. The claims made in the letter were discussed in the Human Rights Group of the British Parliament and were answered in a letter signed by 23 British Parliamentarians. The response begins with the statement; 'The central thesis of the Blue Book was the argument that starting in 1915 Armenians were subjected to a policy of mass annihilation in the Ottoman Empire” and after explaining why the Blue Book is a reliable document, invites the Turkish Parliamentarians to a round table discussion with academic consultants and expresses the hope that from this exercise a joint declaration on the historical facts could result. In the light of this response, it finishes by calling the withdrawal of the letter sent to the British Parliament. Of course, our representatives who were sure of their thesis saw no need to accept the invitation to a round table.

The Myth of Backstabbing

A conference organized by a group of scholars for May 25, 2006 titled “Ottoman Armenians During the Collapse of the Empire: Scientific Responsibility and Questions of Democracy” was canceled when the Minister of Justice, Cemil Cicek, characterized the organizers as having 'stabbed us in the back'. With this the insincerity of the calls to 'leave the subject to the historians' was demonstrated.

There is a resemblance between the blaming of the intellectuals by the Minister and the blaming of a handful of Marxists and Jewish politicians for the defeat of Germany in the First World War. In the period following the 1919 Versaille Treaty they were called 'internal enemies' and the 'myth of backstabbing' (Dochstosslegende) was created. Actually, in the official Turkish history this term was frequently used as 'the Arabs stabbed us in the back' to characterize Arab nationalists which had joined the British during the First World War in their struggle for independence, however the way it was used by the Minister of Justice was so filled with hatred as to cause shivers in many. Later, similar expressions were frequently used to describe those saying 'Turkey needs to face history,' those wanting to promote relations with the European Union and those for asking compliance with international standards. Especially, the 'debating of allegations of Armenian genocide' by the intellectuals without citing the examples of crimes committed by France in Algeria, by U.S.A. In Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq and by Italy in Africa, was sufficient reason for them to be labeled 'enemies of the homeland and the nation'.

Armenians, the 'absolute other' of the Turks

What do all these things mean? We know that the processes of 'remembering' and 'forgetting' play an important role in the formation of a national identity. What is peculiar about the Turkish identity is that it is able to exist only by denying the events of 1915-1917. It is known that the Ottoman Empire, spreading over three continents had in its last 150 years entered a period of decline. Unending wars, defeats and large number of losses in men, had created serious concerns about the future of the empire.

During this period when every initiative ended with failure, the leading elite was inclined to hold the imperialist powers and the 'minorities', who collaborated with them, responsible. During those years, the governing class of the Empire believed that they were being pushed out from the historical narrative being developed by the West and becoming 'a nobody' and that they were facing the total destruction of the Empire. Only by thinking that this condition had come about principally because of the treachery of the nations they were lording over that they could find a measure of consolation.

The Example of the Emerald Phoenix

The perpetrators, who during the National Struggle period felt themselves freed from the pressure of international public opinion, proceeded to finish their half complete business. Kemalist Turkish nationalists allied with the Kurds, who were considered to be 'less other' because of their shared Islamic religion, expelled the remainder of the 'real other', the Christian Armenians and Greeks, to the remotest places in Anatolia and then started dealing with the Kurds. The extremely bloody nature of this action helped to provide a good opportunity to erase from communal memory what was done to the Armenians. (What was done to the Greeks had almost acquired legitimacy because of the errors committed by Greece). During this period, not only the Kemalist elites who were organizationally or ideologically related to the Unionists but also all those who had looted the properties of the deported Armenians, had adopted or become foster parents to the Armenian children, local prominent or common people who had added Armenian girls to their harems, the commercial bourgeoisie whose capital was formed from confiscated Armenian wealth, the craftsmen for whom a market was created in the fields emptied of Armenians, needed to wipe clean their memory. As a result a consensus arose among different segments of the society: first to forget what was done to the Armenians and then actually to forget them.

The leaders of the new republican order to create a Turkish identity, attempted to differentiate themselves from their Ottoman past which represented the 'old', the 'superstitious' and the 'East' and by characterizing the old Ottoman subjects as 'cosmopolitan', 'mixed' and 'murky', launched an initiative to free itself from the Ottoman identity to bring about a 'citizenry' which is 'ethnically pure' and in its world view 'secular'. During this nation building period, the Armenian identity became a perfect 'other' for the nationalists as well as for the left, for the religious and the secular, for the intellectual and the ordinary people, for being a 'barbarian' and 'terrorist' people, fanatically religious non-Moslems and for being a diaspora group rooted in the international arena.

'Internal Enemy', more dangerous than the External Enemy

During this period of 'otherness', the attribution of the slogan ' internal enemy' to the Armenians naturally required an 'external enemy'. However, in the mind of Turkish nationalism the entity defined as 'internal enemy' was seen as an insidious element which ate away at the social structure, and compared to the relatively visible 'external enemy' it was much more dangerous. Especially if this enemy had resulted from a great many elements who were the 'other' of the Moslem-Turkish identity. Consequently, the struggle against Armenians continued without a break. The success of the project to neutralize the Armenians as 'the other' from the community and world opinion depended on the close cooperation of the state and the society. This cooperation was guaranteed in large measure by tyrannical policies.

At the end, the people came to believe that it was their duty to accept the historical narrative imposed on them by the state. During this period the state became an instrument for shaping ideology and also its guarantor. To make its guarantor role quickly acceptable it was necessary for the state to underscore the dangers 'facing the society'. In this respect theories of plots against the state like: 'the resuscitation of Sevre', 'the establishment of Pontus', 'the revival of Byzantium in the Fener district' and ' land purchase of Israel in the South Eastern Anatolia Project (GAP) area' were put forward. At the same time the idea was put forth that the Armenian Diaspora with its 3R strategy (Recognition of genocide, Restitution of property and land, and finally Reconciliation) would revive the plans of imperialist powers to divide Turkey.

Fear of the return of confiscated property

An attempt was made to convince people that 'a people who 90 years ago were able to break up a huge empire, given the present day relations between nations, could certainly break up Turkey which was small'. However, the real worry was not the break-up of the country or Turks being labeled 'genocidal', it was the fear of demands for the return of or the compensation for the confiscated wealth of the deported Armenians. Clues that this was the reason are shown by the strict prohibition placed on access to the records of property deeds from the Ottoman era and by the criticism and obstructionism shown during the enactment of the February 2008 Law of Foundations.

As a matter of fact we could have continued this unhealthy spiritual condition, except for the persistence of the Armenians and because the 20th Century has become an era of apologizing by individuals and states, commercial enterprises and religious organizations for political, economic, cultural and social faults. In our days facing history has become almost a 'moral norm'. There are some exceptions and questionable cases, however this approach, which can be summarized as: 'societies who do not face their history do not have the right to be a member of the international community' may help close the schizophrenic split created in the Turkish society by 1915. In this respect 'opening to Armenia' appears to be very important. Provided the opening is in accord with universal norms of jurisprudence and ethics.


Published in Taraf by Ayse Hur, September 6, 2009

Translated by Arutun Maranci