The Search for Truth and the Historical Context

Questions about the young Turkish Republic and the Armenians are still causing waves ninety years later. Now historians who are trying to reconstruct the historical context are increasingly being paid heed. Jürgen Gottschlich reports

photo: AP
History is in the eye of the beholder: 90 years after the incident, Turks and Armenians still violently differ over what happened to whom

​​Was it genocide? Turkish officials in Germany complain that only one question gets repeated over and over again concerning Armenia: "Was it genocide?" "If you answer no," says the speaker for the Turkish Embassy, Necmettin Altuntas, "no one wants to hear why. That's enough for them, you've already denounced yourself as a genocide denier."

In fact, official Turkish politicians have since isolated themselves worldwide with their stubborn insistence that nothing happened in the years 1915 to 1917–of course, there were deaths, they say, but it was a war.

In fact, Turkey's stubborn insistence is why outside of Turkey almost no one listens when people with integrity question the genocide thesis. And this is also why no one understands why even the current Turkish government insists so vehemently on their position, just like all the other Turkish governments before them did.

A historical context for genocide

For those who want to understand their position, the impressive and important book From Empire to Republic: Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide by Taner Akcam will bring you one step further.

Taner Akcam is one of the few Turkish historians who characterize the expulsions and massacres of a large part of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire as genocide.

But Taner Akcam does not live or work in Turkey, having arrived in Germany as a political refugee in the early 1980s. He was trained at the Reetsma Institute in Hamburg and now teaches at a university in the US.

No hasty conclusions

Akcam therefore does not represent the state of the debate in Turkey. Nonetheless he has tried, unlike most Armenian historians, to explain how the genocide happened. This means reconstructing the events in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War and the perpetrators' motives within their historical context.

The decisive discrepancy between the Armenian - Western European - American perspective and that of the Turks is their different representations and a different emphasis within the historical course of events. For this reason, Akcam warns his readers against drawing hasty conclusions. He calls on his Armenian colleagues to seriously engage in the debates on the "genocide lie."

"In this case you cannot proceed as with the Nazi crimes and the Ausschwitz lie, which have been resolved historically and juridically. Concerning the Turkish-Armenian relationship, we are far away from this kind of situation," he writes in the book's forward.

Taner Akcam's book is divided into two parts. In the first part he describes the history leading up to the genocide, the rise of the young Turkish nationalist movement as a reaction to the ethnic movements of the other peoples in the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire. He describes why the leadership of the young Turkish movement saw in the Armenian people a threat and an obstacle to their plans to found a Turkish republic and therefore understood the murder and expulsion of the Armenian population in the eastern provinces of Anatolia as a solution to the "Armenian question."

The Istanbul War Crimes Tribunal

On the other hand Taner Akcam draws attention to a mostly forgotten chapter in the efforts to clarify the question of responsibility. He examines the war crimes tribunal carried out in Istanbul in 1919-1921 after the defeat of the Ottomans.

Although the victors, as occupiers, had a strong hand in making sure that the trials against those responsible for the Armenian massacre were undertaken in the first place, the jury was in fact a Turkish military jury elected by the Sultan.

The history of these trials–which led to many death sentences, three of which were carried out–and the parallel strengthening of the Turkish independence movement in opposition to the occupying powers are what led to the current Turkish position on the Armenia tragedy.

The role of the Armenian nationalist movement

The parallel unfolding of the trials and the war of independence serve as a constitutive element in the position of the Turkish state today. This is what makes it so hard for the Turks to gain a neutral perspective on the events back then. The Allied victors used the Armenian national movement both before and after the war as a political trump card against the Turks.

Initially the Sultan and the government were given hope that by condemning the massacre of the Armenians they could expect milder conditions under in the peace treaty. But when the Treaty of Sevres was drafted, not only the European and Arabic areas under possession of the Ottoman Empire but also the core of Anatolia were almost completely divided up among the victors. Immediately the independence movement felt they had been vindicated. Many of those responsible for the massacre of the Armenians were already fighting among the ranks of the independence movement.

After their victory in the war of independence, they were all the less willing to admit to the crimes. Instead, their fight to keep Anatolia as the core of the new Turkish state seemed like a belated justification for the prior expulsion and massacre of the Armenians.

A territorial struggle between two nationalist movements

Taner Akcam does not justify the Turkish position–to the contrary, he insists that the young Turk nationalists planned and carried out the murder of the Armenians and the expulsion of their population from Anatolia–but he does takes pains to explain how it came to this. Unlike the Holocaust perpetrated against the Jews, the murder of the Armenians was part of the war waged by one nationalist movement against another in a struggle over a particular territory.

This aspect is, of course, heavily emphasized in Turkey. The Turks argue that the empire governed by the triumvirate of Talat, Enver and Cemal Pashas was merely responding to the Armenian uprising. Perhaps they over-reacted, perhaps they were disproportionately brutal, but from their perspective they had good reason. This righteousness, however, is increasingly being questioned today in Turkey.

One prominent dissident is the author Orhan Pamuk, who was the target of vehement protests following a statement he made in an interview with a Swiss newspaper acknowledging that a million Armenians were murdered. Nationalist associations loudly objected, and one district administrator even ordered his books removed from public libraries in his district–only to discover that not a single copy of Pamuk's books were available there anyway.

On the other hand, there is the largest daily newspaper, "Hürriyet," which is currently running a series of articles titled "What happened in 1915?" in which both apologists for the official position and its most famous critics are both given voice. Professor Halil Berktay, from the renowned Sabance University, explained in a long interview why the massacre was not an act of self-defense on the part of the Ottoman Empire, but rather a planned action to expel and annihilate the Armenians of eastern Anatolia. Halil Berktay, however, used the term "ethnic cleansing" and not genocide.

Both terms were first shaped and defined long after the murder of the Armenians in Anatolia. It would be tragic if in the struggle to find the right terminology initial attempts such as this to come to an understanding of the events were to be simply abandoned.

Jürgen Gottschlich

© 2005

Translation from German: Christina White

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