Two Views on… 1915
With Arus Yumul and Alev Kılıç
April 24 marks the centenary of mass killings of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. Armenians describe the events as genocide and demand its recognition. Ankara claims events should be understood in the context of World War I. Is reconciliation possible? And how? Prof. Arus Yumul of İstanbul Bilgi University and former Turkish diplomat and head of the Ankara-based Center for Eurasian Studies (AVİM) Alev Kılıç offer their perspectives TURKISH REVIEW: It has been in the news that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has invited world leaders, including Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, to commemoration events for the Battle of Gallipoli on April 24. What are your thoughts on this development? ARUS YUMUL: My first reaction to this invitation was to ask, “Has Turkey missed an opportunity to comprehensively confront the past yet again?” What we are witnessing is an increasing tendency to relativize historical suffering, to treat all victims of the war equally with allusions to a shared past of loss and suffering. Remember that in his unprecedented statement of condolence to Armenians Mr. Erdoğan said that “millions of people of all religions and ethnicities lost their lives in World War I.” What figures prominently in this discourse is the suffering of the Turks: “Turks were victims of war like Armenians” or “The Turks are the victims.” When the Germans resorted to the same line of argument after World War II -- in their “search for a usable past” as Robert G. Moeller put it -- with appeals to Germans to remember their losses, this was interpreted as an attempt to allow Germans to evade guilt and responsibility by equating German suffering with German crimes. Karl Jaspers, in “The Question of German Guilt,” which was written immediately after World War II, says: “Virtually everyone has lost close relatives and friends, but how he lost them -- in front-line combat, in bombings, in concentration camps or in the mass murders of the régime -- results in greatly divergent inner attitudes.” Today, we know from Ayhan Aktar’s research that a similar view was expressed in 1918 by Matyos Nalbantyan, the Armenian deputy of Kozan, in his response to discourses paralleling Armenian losses with Turkish losses in the Ottoman Parliament. TR: Would you elaborate on Nalbantyan’s idea? What did he try to express? AY: After acknowledging the victimhood of the Turks during the war, Nalbantyan explained that there was a difference of kind between the deaths of Armenians and those of Turks. Whereas Turks had died heroically fighting for their country, ignominy was involved in the killing of Armenians. This resurgent memory of Turkish suffering, which seems to echo with average citizens, not only produces a less emphatic portrait of the extermination of Armenians but it also tries to minimize
WHAT WE ARE WITNESSING IS AN INCREASING TENDENCY TO RELATIVIZE HISTORICAL SUFFERING
the emphasis on the victimization of Armenians while maximizing the focus on the victimization of Turks. While acknowledging the distress of Germans, Jaspers notes that they “also bear the greatest responsibility for the course of events until 1945.” For that reason, he adds, Germans “should not be so quick to feel innocent,” “should not pity” themselves “as victims of an evil fate” and “should not expect to be praised for suffering.” Instead they should question themselves, “Where did I feel wrongly, think wrongly, act wrongly” and they should, as far as possible, “look for guilt” within themselves, “not in things, nor in the others.” TR: Were there different approaches in this regard? AY: There were different courses of action taken by certain Ottoman elites. In an interview he gave to The Associated Press on Nov. 27, 1918, then-Crown Prince Abdülmecid Efendi (the last caliph) said, “I am more ashamed of the Armenian atrocities committed during the war than of anything in our history.” These words are different from current acts, which are labeled “gestures of goodwill” by the mainstream. Unlike the latter, his words did not turn a blind eye to the difference between perpetrators and victims. He was not mourning the death of soldiers killed during the war but the deaths of innocent people. His statement also contained a gesture of remorse with respect to the victims killed.
We have to take into consideration the ethical implications and other consequences of different courses of action. We have to keep in mind Theodor Adorno’s warning to the Germans: The failure to acknowledge and integrate the horror of the Holocaust and German responsibility for it could open up the possibility of a return of the past in the present. TR: As you will recall, when Erdoğan was prime minister he called for the establishment of a joint historical commission between Turkey and Armenia to research the 1915 events. What do you think this type of research could achieve? AY: As the saying goes, if you don’t want to solve a problem, set up a committee to deal with it. It seems that a more progressive regime of memory and a critical engagement with the past is needed
which requires not historians but critical intellectuals -- like [the late Turkish-Armenian journalist] Hrant Dink -- to call into question society’s approach to its difficult past, revealing the public’s failure to come to terms with and acknowledge the atrociousness of the crimes, wrongdoings and grave injustices that were committed in its name. TR: In 2008, there was the ‘I Apologize Campaign,’ launched in Turkey by numerous journalists, politicians and professors that called for an apology for what they termed the ‘Great Catastrophe’ that Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. The signature campaign was signed by 5,000 people in the first 24 hours of its publication and had 30,000 signatories by January 2009. Can you evaluate the results of this campaign in Turkish society? AY: Notwithstanding its limitations -- mainly its shying away from using the term “genocide,” the text’s vague language and the attempts of some of its authors to instrumentalize the apology -- it was a courageous move. It had its supporters, opponents and protestors. One important achievement was to show to the public that a wrong had been committed in the past that demands an apology. TR: Has there been any research in Turkey about how average Turks evaluate the events of 1915 with regard to what happened to Armenians? AY: According to a survey conducted by EDAM in 2014, only 9.1 percent of the public thinks Turkey should apologize for the loss of Armenian lives in 1915 and admits that it was genocide. Another 9.1 percent stated that Turkey should apologize but take no other steps, while 12 percent wants Turkey to
THE COLLECTIVE MEMORY OF VIOLENCE DURING THE TURKISH REPUBLIC’S INSTALLATION IS BEING RECOVERED
express regrets for Armenians without apologizing. Some 23.5 percent agreed with the statement that Turkey should say that not only Armenians died in 1915 and express regret for all Ottoman citizens who perished. A total of 21.3 percent believe that Turkey should not take any steps, while 25 percent did not express any opinion or declined to respond. TR: As a sociologist, what are your observations about Turks’ readiness to reconcile with Armenians? AY: Today, Turkish society -- or at least part of it -- has a different relationship with history. The collective memory of violence during the Turkish Republic’s installation is being recovered and dominant historical narratives and nationalist discourses are being challenged in the name of repressed groups. This renascent memory, however, especially with respect to the Armenian genocide, is not filling a vacuum of forgetting but rather has to compete with an already conquered territory of official memory complete with extensive supporting formations and countless advocates. The above-mentioned research demonstrates that only 9 percent of the population is ready to properly reconcile with Armenians. TR: AY: The way for reconciliation is clear. The question is whether if Turkey is ready for a proper reconciliation, ready to engage critically with its past and ready to acknowledge its responsibility, or will Turkey content itself with serving old wine in new bottles, namely to postpone any definitive action and prolong the status quo with moves governed by instrumental reasons and uncompromising strategic thinking. If this is the case, the opportunity to reconcile will be lost, and a perpetual cycle of recycled discourses, discussions, accusations and counter-accusations will continue to burden the relationship. *** TR: It has been in the news that President Erdoğan has invited world leaders, including Armenian President Sargsyan, to commemoration events for the Battle of Gallipoli on April 24. What are your thoughts on this development? ALEV KILIÇ: The Battle of Gallipoli was a turning point in the Eastern Front in World War I. The Allied shelling started on April 23, 1915, and the first landings were on April 25, 1915. The final result was a conclusive victory for the Turkish side. This was the theater in which
HISTORICAL FACTS CANNOT BE BUILT UPON EMOTIONS OR SUBJECTIVE MEMORIES OR PARLIAMENTARY POLITICAL DECLARATIONS
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk came to prominence as a young colonel in the Ottoman army. Turkey has been commemorating the Gallipoli campaign without interruption ever since. Australia and New Zealand also take part regularly in these commemorations. So there can be no dispute or misunderstanding in the dates of those commemorations, be it April 23, 24 or 25. This is also a good reminder to the average man in the street to understand what the Ottoman government and Turks were focused on: Life or death, the survival of a country, a struggle at the gates of their capital city, İstanbul. The decision for the resettlement of the Armenian population from the war zones to less strategic parts of the empire in the south was promulgated by the law of May 27, 2015, following which only a part of the Armenian population was moved from their homes to new settlements. Hence, the decision to commemorate the Gallipoli Campaign on April 24 fits the historical chronology and as such cannot be considered as being pitted against the Armenian concoction of a date. TR: What about the date April 24, 1915, the day the Ottoman authorities rounded up and arrested some 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in İstanbul? AK: The official and correct number of Armenian public and political figures arrested in the capital city of İstanbul on April 24, 1915, is 235. Among them were extensions of the ARF-Dashnaksutyun Party that were involved in uprisings in the eastern regions of the Ottoman Empire. These people were sent on temporary exile to Çankırı and Ayaş (Ankara). After a short detention, almost all of them returned to their homes. TR: As you know, Armenians consider April 24 as Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, which commemorates both the deportation of Armenian intellectuals (known to be executed) and victims of the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 by the Ottoman Turkish government. Are you saying that there was no forced deportation and mass killings of Armenians at that time? AK: The word “deportation” connotes banishment to a
foreign country. Therefore, using the word deportation in this case is wrong. Except for those who left the Ottoman country for Russia voluntarily with the withdrawing Russian army, none of the Armenians were sent away to another country. These people were relocated according to the temporary Law of Relocation and Settlement to the southern part of the Ottoman realm, present-day Syria. Ottoman Syria was one of the less vulnerable parts of the country during the war. They were not relocated to deserts or any other uninhabitable regions. Also, none of the Armenians living in western parts of the country were subjected to this law; only those in the warzone and on logistic routes were relocated. Were they forced? Yes, it was not voluntary. It was necessitated by the security concerns engendered by insurgency, acts of terrorism and aiding and abetting the enemy. One should not neglect also the consideration of the safety of the Armenians in moving them from the theater of war. TR: Would you explain the significance of 2015 from Turkey’s point of view; what does it represent? AK: The Ottoman Empire entered World War I in September 1914. Turks fought against the allies on four major fronts: the East, in the Caucasus, against Tsarist Russia aided by Armenian insurgents and terrorists; the West, at Gallipoli against a joint allied fleet; the South, at the Suez Canal, Palestine and Syria; the Southeast, in Iraq; and, on a minor fifth front, in the Northwest in the Galician theater. In the year 2015 we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli Campaign, the victory that enabled the resurrection of the Republic of Turkey from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. TR: As you will recall, when Erdoğan was prime minister he called for the establishment of a joint historical commission between Turkey and Armenia to research the 1915 events. What do you think this type of research could achieve? AK: Historical facts cannot be built upon emotions or subjective memories or parliamentary political declarations. History is based on historical documents that are kept in archives. To come to a common, mutual understanding of history, there is no other way but to establish a joint historical commission between Turkey and Armenia for scientific research on the 1915 events. TR: In 2008, there was the ‘I Apologize Campaign,’ launched in Turkey by numerous journalists, politicians and professors that called for an apology for what they termed the ‘Great Catastrophe’ that Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. The signature campaign was signed by 5,000 people in the first 24 hours of its publication and had 30,000 signatories by January 2009. Can you evaluate the results of this campaign in Turkish society? AK: As a think tank, we support freedom of speech and freedom of expression. As such, the “I Apologize Campaign” is a manifestation of the existence of such freedom in Turkey. What is regrettable is the total lack of a comparable freedom in Armenia and the strict censorship of any views that are considered pro-Turkish. TR: Do you think Turkey truly has freedom of expression on the issue? A film shot by Fatih Akın (‘The Cut,’ about the events of 1915) was not well received in Turkey and even before it was shown in movie theaters, both Akın and Agos (the Armenian-Turkish weekly that interviewed Akın about the film) were openly threatened by several ultranationalist organizations… AK: “The Cut” by Fatih Akın has already been shown in Turkey. It is not correct that there was any censorship or obstacles to showing the film. It’s another thing whether the film is well received or not in Turkey. Just like in any society, there can be criticism of or negative reactions against a movie, but there were no limitations imposed on this movie. It is a fact that many Turks do not agree with the one-sided presentation of the Armenian tragedy. In this context, a comparison in terms of attitudes to movies would be relevant and well-placed. The very recent motion picture inspired by the Battle of Gallipoli and the Western Front in Anatolia during World War I, “The Water Diviner” by Russell Crowe, deserves to be mentioned. The negative, racist and discriminatory reaction against this epochal film, not having any chance of being shown in Armenia, is better situated to be a topic of question and concern. TR: What types of efforts are needed for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation? AK: Dialogue between the parties, at any and all levels, is a prerequisite for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation. Reconciliation will be possible only when both sides come to an understanding of the mutual suffering and grievances of the past. TR: Do you think there is enough dialogue? AK: No, I don’t. TR: Do you think textbooks in both countries should be
THE QUESTION IS WHETHER IF TURKEY IS READY FOR A PROPER RECONCILIATION, READY TO ENGAGE CRITICALLY WITH ITS PAST
reviewed to excise expressions that breed hatred between Turks and Armenians? AK: It is very important that young minds are taught truths and not onesided, biased historical memories. Textbooks should be based on historical facts and should promote reconciliation and humanism. TR: AK: We at AVİM are not in a position to evaluate the Turkish government’s point of view. The year 2015 is a very significant year for Turkey, due to the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gallipoli on the historical side and the chairmanship of the G-20 organization including a summit of world leaders in Antalya in November testifying to the current standing of Turkey. As regards the Armenian controversy, we trust that the legal and judicial verdict of Dec. 17, 2013, of the European Court of Human Rights (EctHR) in Strasbourg, which was reviewed again on Jan. 28, 2015, will provide an adequate answer. TR: Would you elaborate on this? You are referring to the appeal hearing on Jan. 28 in the ECtHR case Perinçek v. Switzerland, with regard to a fine and prison sentence given to the Turkish political figure Doğu Perinçek under Swiss law for saying that the ‘Armenian genocide is an international lie.’ Why do you think the result of this case is important? AK: The decision of Dec. 17, 2013, by the ECtHR represents a breaking point for Armenian propaganda because in this court verdict, three major Armenian (and Swiss) allegations -- in other words, propaganda trump cards -- were internationally refuted. First, it is unambiguously stated that there is no general consensus, especially in the academic community, concerning the legal characterization of the events. Second, it is pointed out that only about 20 states out of the 190 in the world have officially recognized the “Armenian Genocide” and that such recognition had not necessarily come from the governments of those states but from parliaments or one of their chambers and therefore were not legally binding. Finally, the “Armenian Genocide” was distinguished from those concerning the negation of the crimes of the Holocaust and it was underlined that there was no international court decision or convincing evidence proving that there was a genocide in this case, unlike the Holocaust. This decision is also important because it emphasizes the importance of freedom of expression and it opens the “Armenian Genocide” claim for discussion, instead of branding differing views as “denialist.” The court now is in the process of reviewing the verdict of Dec. 17, 2013 upon the application of the Swiss government.
IT IS A FACT THAT MANY TURKS DO NOT AGREE WITH THE ONE-SIDED PRESENTATION OF THE ARMENIAN TRAGEDY
Turkey is holding a ceremony on April 24, 2015, to mark the centenary of the Battle of Gallipoli.
The last Ottoman emperor, Abdülmecid II, expressed remorse over ‘the Armenian atrocities
committed during the war.’
PHOTO: ZAMAN ARCHIVE
Doğu Perinçek at the European Court of Human Rights appealing a Swiss police court’s verdict.