Joined: 25 Oct 2003
| Posted: Fri Nov 03, 2006 10:15 am Post subject: BBC: Historical guilt (Armenian Genocide, Turkish Denial)
Europe diary: Historical guilt
2 November 2006
BBC Europe News Online
BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell talks to Armenians in Turkey and asks why a massacre that took place nearly a century ago, and the question whether it was genocide, is such a sensitive issue in Turkey today.
Luckily the last remaining Armenian village in Turkey does not rely on the mut berry for its living. It's plucked from the hedgerow and offered to me by two village women. It smells fantastic, a heady aroma a bit like rosemary. But it tastes of nothing and puckers the mouth. Instead it's the nectarine, turning from green to orange on the trees running down the hillside, that makes the village of Vakif its money.
The mayor, Berc Kartun, is more interested in talking about how his village's unique status attracts tourists, and the economic benefit of going organic, than discussing how his parents and grandparents died. "We are all rather tired of this question. We should let the historians settle it once and for all so it comes to a stop and you won't be asking our children the same thing."
My question of course is: "Was it genocide?"
Why is modern-day democratic Turkey so sensitive about something that happened nearly 100 years ago in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire? A BBC radio programme wants me to probe the delicate question of what the state's official attitude to the killings says about present-day Turkey.
Q&A: Armenian 'genocide'
Nobody seriously disputes that many thousands of Armenians died in what is now eastern Turkey between 1914 and 1918. Some Turkish historians say 200,000 died, some Armenian historians say it was two million. Turkish writers are still prosecuted for calling it "genocide". But the French parliament has caused outrage in Turkey by voting to make denial that these killings were genocide a crime on a par with holocaust denial.
My first reaction to the programme's request was, "It's obvious". If Britain was asked to acknowledge guilt for something in the past, say the Irish potato famine, there would be fury in some quarters. If the government was pressed by its EU partners to officially label it "genocide" there might be an explosion of incandescent rage in certain papers. But the key is "some quarters" and "certain papers". There would be a lively debate, because many British liberals do feel guilt for the country's colonial past.
Certainly Martin Amis and Iain Banks wouldn't find themselves on trial for agreeing with the foreigners. Yet in Turkey top novelists do find themselves on trial for libelling their country - although the actual law says "insulting the Turkish republic", so I don't quite see how insulting the Ottoman Empire qualifies.
YOUR HELP PLEASE
One of the things I value most about writing this diary is your comments. Even the rants, re-statements of obvious positions, and questioning of my intelligence, ability and motives interest me. But the majority of comments are both thoughtful and thought-provoking.
They often give me a new perspective and a greater understanding of the stories I am covering. So help me now. I'm not asking for a rehash of the old arguments, but why it is such a sensitive subject for Turks 90 years after the killings took place?
The village of Vakif (also known as Vakifli Koyu) was once one of several Armenian Christian villages dotting the hillside leading up to Mount Moses (Musa Dagh in Turkish, Musa Ler in Armenian) very near the Syrian border.
French warship, the Guichen
A French warship, the Guichen, came to the Armenians' rescue
In 1915, because of their ideal tactical position, the Christian villages were able to repulse the Ottoman attackers long enough to appeal to fellow Christians. They were rescued by a French warship and taken to safety, but later made their way home.
The international boundary fluctuated over the years. When the area again became Turkish in 1939, many of the villagers decided to go to Lebanon or Syria, but those that remained grouped together in Vakif.
HEART AND SOUL
Inside the single-room cafe men play cards and drink small glasses of tea as the rain lashes the citrus trees outside. When I talk to the mayor of oranges and selling laurel berry soap to tourists they chat noisily among themselves in Armenian. But when I ask about the past, the room falls silent. They stare intently at the mayor as though willing him not to say the wrong thing.
Body of Armenian girl
Admission of what happened is as important for some as the G-word
It turns out that one of the men is just back to visit his father-in-law, the oldest man in the village. Canik Capar was once a villager, but he is now a tourist. He says he once had a good job in a bank but was sacked when they found he was an Armenian and a Christian. He re-trained as a teacher in the 1970s but says the government didn't want Armenian teachers in the region at the time. He told me the atmosphere was often tense, and knowing what had happened in the past, he was always worried that things might turn nasty again.
So he left for Berlin, where he has lived ever since, and is now a German citizen. He tells us the obvious, that his friends have to be careful what they say. So, would he call what happened in 1915 genocide?
"I don't care what they call it, the important thing is they admit what was done."
And as an EU citizen now, does he think Turkey should be allowed to join?
"Like my [Armenian] patriarch in Istanbul, my heart and soul say No, but with my head I say Yes, because if they don't, they will turn towards the Middle East and that could lead to something happening to our people again."
The whole question of historical guilt is an interesting one. Should I bear any guilt for the sins the British committed in Africa, if they were sins, any more than I do for the crimes of Jack the Ripper committed around the same time?
Man killed during Mau Mau rebellion
Britons are learning about atrocities committed in colonial Kenya
And if I and my government do bear this burden, should we feel similar guilt for the evil committed by Elizabeth I against Catholics or Mary I against Protestants? Should we apologise to the French for the 100 Years War, and they to us for 1066? Thinking about it, weren't the "Normans" actually "Norsemen"? So should an apology be forthcoming from Denmark, Norway and Sweden?
I'm not going to speculate further about Turkey, but if it was Britain I suspect part of the problem would be a certain kind of nationalism.
It seems to me that nationalism comes in two distinct types. One is fiercely proud of the achievements of the country, its history and language. The other is prickly, always looking out for insult and offence and its main motivation seems to be not pride, or even prejudice, but nursing old wounds.
Let's call it stabinthebackism, in memory of the Weimar Republic. Any gentle poking of fun, questioning of values or tradition is seen as the latest sign that the barbarian hordes are already inside the gates.
It was, I believe, Spike Milligan who used to say that he enjoyed kicking the backs of people's chairs when they didn't rise for the national anthem at the end of a theatre performance or film in the cinema (as was once routine). He said he did it not because he cared much about the national anthem but because it was a good excuse for kicking people. There are those still with us who have a similar motivation, without the irony.
Please use the post form below to comment on any of the issues raised in the diary.
Page 1 of your comments
The Turkish government needs to grow up, accept the criticism like most other western governments, and it will all go away except as an interesting academic problem.
Kenzo, Toronto, Canada
People can debate the particulars, but the pain of admitting to the dark side of humanity may be too much for some to bear. I do beleive though it is a positive step for healing and not just in this case, but in all conflicts, inner and outer.
Alex Terzian, Ann Arbor, USA
For an excellent study of the reasons behind Turkish denial of the Armenian Genocide see Turkish scholar Taner Akcam┐s new history, ┐A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility┐, reviewed in this week's The New Yorker magazine. Akcams shows that the founders of the modern Turkish Republic were so close to those that committed the acts that admitting to it would be admitting that modern Turkey country was founded by war criminals.
Richard Elliott, Montreal, Canada
I grew up listening to my grand-grandmother's horror stories fleeing from massacres committed by Armenian. She lost two sisters, two brothers, and her father when they were immigrating from Erzurum to Amasya during WWI. They lost all their belongings on the way, and arrived their final destination in starvation. This is all because Armenian militia (backed by the French and Russian Army) attacked women, children and elderly Turks that Turkish soldiers left at home when they went for war fronts in the East, West, North and South. Only a small fraction of Turkish National Archives are posted on the internet and I can trace the real stories of ancestors (via my surname), and the pain and suffering they've gone through under Armenian attacks. I am sorry for the losses that Armenian immigrants on their way to Syria, but otherwise we would be mourning of a wiped out Turkish population in the Eastern Anatolia today. And, it is not only the Armenian who lost thousands of people in this war, but also the Turks. Let the historians speak before using this as a political yoke on modern Turkey.
In my time living in Europe, The USA and parts or Asia, I noted that countries that were once "Great Powers" have a much more "Prickly" form of Nationalism and I think Turkey with it's Ottoman legacy fits into this camp. The roots of the Armenian question and how the Turkish State has dealt with it are complicated by Turkey's need to see it's self as living up to it's historical greatness. The "great power" legacy that Turkey sees itself as part of prohibits any real ability for the Turkey to climb down from it's moral high ground. Put another way, I can imagine the US at some point banning certain types of behavior for "insulting American values" ( think of the flag burning debate) but I have a very hard time imagining a Brazilian or a Canadian law that would prosecute people for offences to the National identity... after all what identity would you insult?... perhaps the character of the football or ice hockey teams? I think it would be invaluable for Mr Mardell to develop this concept of "Wounded National Identity" tied to "Great Power" status and it's role in perpetuating old conficts and creating new ones.
Mike, Minneapolis, USA
It is about time Turkey faces her atrocities towards the Armenian people. I am not saying they should be put through the same insane guilt-trip the world (especially the State of Israel) and even worse German politicians put us Germans still through. But the Turkish government has to admit that the genocide against the Armenian people happened - even if this crime was committed by a predecessor regime - the Osman Empire.
Tom, Berlin, Germany
One distinction of the Armenian situation from other atrocities is that it clearly was a defensive measure gone awry. If the Armenians were not attacking Turks or consorting with Russia in their aspirations for an independent nation, there would have been no order to evacuate them. This is in sharp contrast to the holocaust. Western nations practice imperialism throughout their history with impunity. Turkey is not a Christian nation and politically weaker than the Europe or America; therefore it poses an easy target. Condemning this moderate Muslim country makes it vulnerable to exploitation by fanatical Islam or western hegemony and undermines the influence of the Turkish moderates who want to believe in Europe┐s progressive agenda. What is better for today┐s Armenians, allowing them to relish in their revenge, or helping Turkey develop into a modern country which gives them full protection and equal rights under the law?
deniz kiral, Chicago, USA
Why does Turkey doesn't want to recognize the Armenian Genocide? Because as part of the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, they will also have to compensate Armenians with the return of the stolen lands, properties and money. The sum is so large that the Turkish economy may collapse and their federal buget will go bankrupt.
Grigor Hakobyan, Phoenix, Arizona (USA)
Oscar Wilde once wrote: "Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious." Just look around the world today and you will clearly see this in effect. You really don't need to look too far from Canada to see this happening. This is present in other Turkish laws, example "insult to Turkishness" meaning your not allowed to critize your own goverment or their handeling's of subjects/events. This is the goverments way of dealing with their peoples critics. Repress with fear of reprisal. No Goverment was ever perfect, and no goverment will be. To bring light to the past is the only way to understand history, and if you cannot learn from 200,000 - 2,000,000 murders, why proceed to the future as history has a tendency of repeating itself, Armenian or not! "Our true nationality is mankind." H.G. Wells
Casey Hendriks, Toronto Canada
David Whitman wrote: "Much of Turkish music, architecture, cuisine and art have Armenian roots. If the Turks admit to the Armenian Genocide, they fear to lose a large part of what they believe is Turkish identity" This comment is a perfect example of the condescending westerner attitude that drives Turks like myself into burning rage and prevents the Turkish-Armenian issue from being discussed in a healthy manner. This non-ending desire to degrade, insult and undermine the Turkish culture and history, and employing lies and exaggeration to do so must STOP! Saying that much of Turkish culture is rooted in Armenian culture and that our identity fear is the reason of denial is malicious! FYI Armenians still call many of their musical instruments and dishes by their original Turkish names. Now, how can anyone blame Turks for swaying into "prickly" nationalism?
Ceylan Yuksel, Istanbul, Turkey
When the term genocide was coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1943, the purpose was to describe what had happened to the Armenians in Turkey. So please do not put the word genocide in quotation marks when you refer to the Armenian Genocide.
Alexander Nazarian, Indianapolis, USA
I feel that the main reason that Turkey is rejecting the word ''genocide'' is because of the fact that many sources show that similar number of Turks were slayn by Armenians and Russians in the region during the same period. I grew up in Turkey, and when the subject came up and there were elderly people from the south eastern parts of Turkey in the room; stories were told about the dozens of relatives that were killed and torched in front of their eyes and bodies piled up and and spat on by Armenian rebels used to be their friendly neihgbours not so long ago. The incidents in the period are furthermore not excepted as genocide because most Turks feel that they were stabbed in the back by the Armenians who turned to Russia and France as soon as they saw weakness. Afterall the two people lived side by side in harmony for hundreds of years and the ethnic Armenians had even better social and economic status in the old Ottoman empires eastern anatolia than the poor Turkish farmers. I am in no way denying the claim that a large number of Armenians were brutally slaughtered by the Ottomans but I find it peculiar that the Turkish request to let historians from both countries put their documents on the table and start a debate is firmly blocked by the Armenians.
Rauf Berent, Lund, Sweden
Turkey is proof positive of the George Santayana quote: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
Heidi, Washington, DC
As an American, I would compare this to slavery or the treatment of American Indians. Those were certainly morally reproachable and reprehensible acts. But I had nothing to do with them. I like to think that if I had lived during those times that I would have been on the side of right, rallying against the oppressors. As such, I do not feel that expecting modern day people, so far removed from the events themselves, to feel guilt about something they had no part in and no control over is ridiculous. The world should always recognize! the atrocities of the past in an effort to move on to a time in which similar situations do not exist, but no one should be made to feel guilty for the sins of their ancestors.
Nick Hussong, Chicago, United States of America
Turkey should not be allowed to join the EU until it admits and apologizes it committed a genocide, and it pays restitution to the victims, just as Germany did to the Jews.
S.Dastan, Tehran, Iran
I wonder whether acknowledging the wrongs done in the past opens up the question of the way Armenians are treated now. I also wonder if it calls into question a sense of Turkish identiy as a Moslem nation with a secular government. Where would the Armenians fit?
Elizabeth, New Jersey, USA
I don't blame young generation of Turks not knowing the truth about that time. They surely have been raised with the propaganda that the massacre was all Armenians make. I myself was raised in the Soviet Union and up to the breack up of USSR strongly believed that it was the best system in the world. Yet, with all the abilities that Internet has to offer there are thousands ways to dig in to archives and find out the truth on what really happened in 1915. Unless the truth is revealed and accepted the dark past of that era will always hunt Turkey and won't let move on.Laura Kirakosian, USA
To agree with many posters and with the author, I would also cite fierce, proud nationalism as the cause of Turkey's reluctance to admit to what happened between 1914 and 1918. Perhaps Turkey fears that admitting to this will reduce its chances of becoming an EU member. However, I see a much larger problem with admitting a country into the EU which denies key historical facts, detrimental or not to the social and opaque construct that is its nationalistic pride. The persecution of any people by any country should be admitted and researched, NOT to point a finger of blame, but to realize our mistakes, and work towards progress in the future.
Maria Stavropoulos, NYC, USA
I think most countries have something they d like to forget.there are too many to mention. so lets not be too hard on the turks.
ursula foster, gretna, va usa
It's probably best not to take the French position of somewhat needlessly antagonizing the Turkish on this issue. Certainly Turkey committed a campaign to drive out the Armenians in the first 20 years or so of the last century. However, there is plenty of blood to go around. Just before that same time, Belgium and France were killing millions of Central Africans in a quest for ivory and rubber. In some parts of the British Empire and Commonwealth there were bounties being paid for dead natives. Russia was committing pogroms against its Jewish population. The U.S. was crushing the last American Indian resistance to the colonization of the Wild West. Japan was ruthlessly expanding in China and Korea. And within countries that were the victims of Western colonization, there was a tolerance of local/tribal/clan depredations against other local groups. The truth that nobody wants to admit is that just about all the nations we live in were built and had their borders, religions and ethnicities built by conflict with other nations and peoples. Being an American I am surrounded by the ancestors of people who were forced out of their home countries and ended up coming here. I think that the best we can do is to try to accept that a lot of bad things happened in the past and try to be more civilized in the future.
Steven Kraft, San Jose, CA
The reason why Turkish people do not accept it is because they do not believe that it was genocide. If you know that you are not a thieve, would you accept being one? If there is compelling evidence that it happended, why is then international community (including Armenia)is so much against an international team of historians to investigate? After all, would you convict one party on the say so of the other only, without looking at all the evidence? What is that people supporting the Armenian view of point so afraid of?
Yusuf Kaya, Glasgow/UK
Europe's history as we know it is full of genocides. France, Germany, Britain, Serbia, etc. have all been involved in horrible crimes. Forcing Turkey to admit to something which is not yet proven will make Europeans feel better about themselves. Why not allow free debate and go to the Ottoman, Turkish, Armenian and Russian archives? Turkey opened its archives, but why Armenia or Russia haven't? Who is hiding what?
Pelin Cos, England
Historical guilt, whether acknowledged or not, is pretty much an irrelevance. What is important is whether we learn any lessons from the past and looking at world events during the past 100 years it would seem that we have not. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Rwanda, The Balkans Saddam Hussein and today's Iraq, Somalia, Indonesia, Palestine, the list of places where unjustified killings has been done as a result of differing ethnicity, differing views is endless. All it proves is that man is a violent, irrational and unfeeling species.
Dave, London, Ontario
The historical record does not clean the hands of Turks, but it certainly dirties the hands of Armenians sufficiently as to scare them away from taking any part in actual scholarly examination. Turkey is being blackmailed with the denialist tag to accept a denialist claim. Turks and Kurds were massacred too. Will Armenia recognise this?
Levent, Mersin Turkey
The story shared about Canik Capur itself, once villager now tourist, suggests that the situation in Turkey goes beyond questions about historical guilt. Is it any surprise that Armenians want public acknowledgment of the wrongs done against them, when the moral and spiritual significance of the killings is exacerbated by modern day discrimination? What does Turkey have to lose by granting public aknowledgment? As the author indicates, it seems that nationalistic pride has clouded the vision of many countries in this position. A good dose of humility and compassion, from the leadership on down, would be refreshing.
Alec Smith, Wheaton, IL - USA
Well, before France goes pointing fingers at otehrs, it should apologize for colonialism, and algerian "massacres". That is not to say that turkey should not acknowledge whatever happened, but first we have to establish what happened and then have them acknowledge it. I think you will probably find that atrocities were committd on both sides. An objective look into the matter will perhaps yeild a solution that satisfies both parties and nobody should try to influence the proceedings with a stupid law like a France is trying to do.
zafeerah, chicago, USA
How convenient that as Turkey gets closer to becoming a part of the EU, we remember what happened over a century ago. There are far more important issues at hand, in the world today, that are far more pressing than the admittance of guilt to something that happened nearly a century ago. Get over it. What's happened has happened. Every group of people has been persecuted, and all those same groups have done, or will do persecuting of their own. Historical-Guilt is a ridiculous notion, and a digusting one as it is conjured up for political reasons only!!
Ezra, Toronto, Canada
Once reconciliation between Armenians and Turks starts, we will hear more loudly about so many Turkish people who actually endangered their lives to save Armenians. Please understand, the wound for all Armenians is too deep to let it go - will you expect someone with broken legs to run? True reconciliation of two peoples is necessary to heal those wounds. And in this case that should start with honest facing of the past and not denying it.
Mike Arazyan, Toronto, Canada
Why is Europeans so concerned with events of 100 years ago that they legislate and enforce opinion yet are unable to reach any form of consensus on Rawanda/Kosovo/Darfur? Living in the past?
Mike, Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Ottoman courts sentenced and punished some of Ottoman citizen by reason violence against some armenians during their leave of Anatolia.They were thinking revenge and this was unacceptable.Ottoman courts sentenced to some turkish people.Because some events was not undercontrol of Ottoman State after Armenian gangs massacres.
Could we even imagine European integration with Germany if Germany refused to accept its responsability in the Shoa? Why should it be different with Turkey?
Pedro Bensa˙de, Ponta Delgada, Azores, Portugal[url]