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The Future of the Past

This date in late September represented the second attempt to stage the conference on this historic issue, which in Turkey, as we all know, is the subject of bitter dispute. In Turkey a debate on ‘Ottoman Armenians during the Demise of the Empire’ means nothing less than the long-awaited beginning of a re-evaluation of one of the darkest chapters in the country’s history. It means raising once again the question of what happened to the Armenian population during the First World War and the final days of the Ottoman Empire. It means shedding new light on the events of 1915-16, the massacres and the death marches. It also involves, however, the more far-reaching question of how citizens of Turkish and Armenian origin lived together at the time – and also how they live together today.

Obstacles from the outset

The forced cancellation of the conference in May, following massive public pressure on the organisers, had already hinted that things would not run smoothly this time either. Sure enough, the attempt to prevent this meeting of experts from Turkey and abroad came right on time – namely the day before the conference was originally due to start. An administrative court banned the conference at Boðaziçi University, on the flimsiest of grounds. However, the ban was not intended merely to prevent a reappraisal of history in this specific case. The hardliners and nationalists in the judicial system were much more afraid that this event would send out a signal which would lead to a fundamental reassessment of the country’s history and might call into question some of the myths surrounding the founding of modern Turkey.

At the time of the previous cancellation in May, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoðan limited himself to expressing criticism of his own Justice Minister, who had denounced the organisers as enemies of the State. This time, Mr Erdoðan did not mince his words: he sharply criticised the court’s decision and demanded, as did his Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gül, that the conference should go ahead.

The conference: new ground for Turkey

Thanks to rapid telephone diplomacy and with the clear support of the Government in the background, a ‘creative’ interpretation of the order banning the conference was found, and Bilgi University, which was not expressly referred to in the court order, was selected as the new venue. Thus the conference was able to take place after all, albeit a day late. The original scope of the programme was retained, however, so that all the topics could be discussed as planned.

For this we are very grateful not only to the organisers, led by Professor Halil Berktay, but also to the academics Murat Belge, Hrant Dink and Etyen Mahçupyan, and to the speakers and delegates. In spite of all the resistance, they had the courage to give the ‘other’ Turkey both a voice and a platform. This historic event would in itself have been reason enough to justify a live broadcast on Turkish television, so that the public could participate, but Turkey has probably not come that far yet. The conference was not just an academic event: many contributions were also emotionally charged. Hrant Dink’s story moved the audience to tears, as did the confession of former Health Minister Cevdet Aykan, who admitted that he was attending the conference ‘in order to pay a debt of conscience’ and who gave a warning about the dangers of becoming isolated from the rest of the world.

When we reappraise the role of the ruling party at the time, the ‘Ittihad ve Terakki Cemiyet’ (Committee of Union and Progress), led by such figures as Talaat, Djemal and Enver Pasha and Dr Nazim, we find that our knowledge is still very limited. In 1919 some of these leaders of the movement known as the ‘Young Turks’ were prosecuted by courts martial under the Sultan’s Government on account of having lost the war. Certain proven mass murderers escaped the death penalty by fleeing to Europe.

This makes our present-day research into literature and biographies from the first few years following the mass murder all the more exciting. Yet one thing is already clear: one of the reasons why the crime was denied for decades was that many Turkish people had become rich as a result of the expulsion and annihilation of the Armenians. Former neighbours who had appropriated Armenian property wanted to draw the mantle of silence over what they had done.

The signal and its consequences

Without a doubt the most important signal sent out by the conference is the fact that it took place at all. Many EU citizens do not understand that this debate also represents for Turkey a new and painful examination of its own conception of itself. This decidedly academic beginning was a success. The discussions were very concentrated, covering subjects such as the concept of genocide and its legal implications, the traumatic effects on society, the significance of eye-witness accounts in the assessment process and the demonising role of the media.

A start has been made, and more and more pieces of the jigsaw are falling into place. An exhibition of postcards (supported by the Heinrich Böll Foundation) showing scenes from Armenian life in the Ottoman Empire presents a normality which comes as a surprise to many young people in Turkey. Not long ago there was also an exhibition which for the first time tackled the subject of the pogrom of 6-7 September 1955 against the Greek and Jewish inhabitants of Istanbul. Although this exhibition was attacked and damaged by ultranationalists, the curator is already working on follow-up exhibitions in other European cities, for example in Greece.

In biographies, people are acknowledging their Armenian descent and examining their individual family histories. The popular Hürriyet journalist Bekir Coþkun recently wrote in his column a piece about his Armenian grandmother, which brought in a flood of readers’ letters.

Armenian life and culture, including the culture of memory, is still finding it difficult to hold its ground in the face of both Turkish and Armenian ultranationalists. These factions find it extremely inconvenient to retain objectivity in their accounts of history. Even the fact that Turkey has more Armenian inhabitants (or inhabitants of Armenian origin) than the official figure of 70 000 is irritating to both Turkish and Armenian hardliners. Previously untold stories of Turks who hid Armenians during the years of persecution in order to protect them from being killed or, conversely, of those Turks who raped Armenian girls and women, do not fit into the picture of ‘peaceful resettlement’ in the middle of a world war, as painted by Turkish nationalists, or the contrasting picture of a ‘holocaust’ against all Armenians, as claimed by Armenian nationalists.

Yet there is also some sympathy for Turkish suffering. Many of today’s inhabitants of Turkey are themselves the victims, or descendants of the victims, of expulsion. They originate from the Balkans, from Greece or from the Caucasus, and they too were driven from their homes and lost everything they possessed. Their suffering too was not allowed a mention after the founding of the Republic, because the sole historical root of ‘modern’ Turkey was supposed to lie in an imaginary ‘Turkishness’.

On the basis of this historical doctrine, many Turkish people regard the accusation of genocide against the Armenians as an attempt to take away from them their new identity as Turks and at the same time their ‘new home’, i.e. Turkey. In this context we should also remember the 42 Turkish diplomats who were assassinated by the Armenian terrorist organisation ASALA (Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia), whose declared aim was revenge for the suffering of the Armenians.

In the past, intolerance and nationalism have caused the greatest suffering to Turkey and its various ethnic groups. This poison has spread even to the present day. To denounce and combat nationalism is to take a step forward into the future.

Developing the culture of memory

The European Union can support this examination process and use its expertise to help, where such help is desirable. However, it is Turkey itself which has to overcome the problem, and the Turkish people have to find their own way of doing this. Only in this way can a lasting reconciliation be achieved. Many of the debates in the European popular press are reminiscent of an academic ‘dry run’ and are consequently lacking in any understanding of the true situation in Turkey.

The debate has begun, and already we can see that cracks are appearing in the hardened attitudes of those who dismiss any analysis as ‘Armenian propaganda’ or ‘an imperialist strategy to weaken Turkey’. The seeds of doubt have been sown, and the interpretative sovereignty of the official version of Turkish history is no longer valid. The strategy used by official historians up to now, which underestimates the dead of the ‘opposing side’ and reinterprets them as the victims of gang violence and disease, and which by contrast exaggerates the number of Turkish victims, can no longer be maintained today.

There is yet another reason for the heatedness of the debate over the ‘Armenian question’. On 25 September in the newspaper Zaman, Elif Shafak described the mechanism which operates within the Turkish State. ‘There is’, she wrote, ‘a reactionary line against every endeavour that might disturb the status quo. Challenging the official historiography is a struggle and it is not an easy one. Nevertheless, thank God, things are not as black and white as Westerners tend to think sometimes; there are other shades in Turkish civil society’.

It is now up to those of us in the EU to decide whether we want to support this difficult departure towards new democratic shores – against Turkish nationalists in the judicial system, in uniform and in bureaucracy. Anyone who wishes to help those who are willing to dedicate themselves to the dark areas of Turkish and Ottoman history must argue quite clearly in favour of fairer accession negotiations. Only that will help our Turkish and Armenian friends, the reformers who are in favour of a truly modern Turkey.

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