June 29th, 2005

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] What's with Turkey and the Armenian genocide?

It was a very bad public-relations move for the leadership of the Turkish diaspora in Berlin to respond to the Bundestag's recognition of the Armenian genocide with protests not in front of the Bundestag, but in front of the Armenian Embassy. Turkey as a whole seems to have done a very bad job indeed of responding to the 90th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, coming off not as a country seeking to defend its honour against unjustified claims, but rather, as a country that's creepily attacking a much weaker nation and gratuitously insulting governments and individuals which recognize historical facts as ignorant racists. I shudder to imagine how Turkey would react to a recognition of the Armenian genocide by the United States Congress, given the reactions to French and German (and European and Argentine and Swiss and Belgian) recognitions.

Let's start by taking the Armenian genocide as fact. Certain things remain unclear, particularly the numbers of people killed. There's still more than enough evidence to support the argument that the government of Ottoman Turkey responded to unrest among Armenians living on the frontier with Russia by engaging in indiscriminate mass deportations and killings which resulted in the decimation of the Armenians living in what is now Turkey, and contributed to the modern-day dispersal of the Armenians from their homeland. Was this genocide? A quick perusal of the text of the 1948 "Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide" suggests that it was, even if the convention obviously wasn't in force in the 1915-1918 period. The Armenian genocide is a sad reality.

Why is Turkey so hostile to the recognition of this genocide? It was perpetrated ninety years ago, after all, it was organized by the Ottoman empire, a political regime overthrown by the modern republic. Recognizing that the Armenian genocide happened no more means that one thinks the Turks are inherently genocidal than recognizing the Holocaust means that one thinks that the Germans are inherently genocidal. The arguments that I keep reading, suggesting that recognizing the Armenian genocide will threaten individual Turks and Turkey as a whole, are nonsense. If anything, the current approach of aggressive historical negationism will do more to undermine Turkey's image than any recognition possibly could. Last December, when I discovered that a brief essay I'd written encouraged someone to write a fisking nine thousand words long. That kind of detailed attention is flattering, in a way; it's also rather obsessive and a bit creepy. Obsessive and creepy is not the image that Turkey wants to be communicating, particularly as Turkey is trying to secure its eventual membership in the European Union.

These behaviours could lead one to conclude that Turkey is denying the Armenian genocide because it wishes that it had finished the job, that the denial is a sort of sick humour at the expense of the survivors and that the modern-day Turkish-Azerbaijani alliance against Armenia is a prelude to a recurrence. I reject this idea, not only because the idea of a country hoping to join the European Union that's poised to commit genocide is alarming, but because that doesn't fit with the (English- and French-language) negationist rhetoric I've seen. The language that's used isn't one that denies the humanity of the Armenians and their sufferings, by and large; rather, it's one that asks the outside world to pay attention to Turkish sufferings.

On the 18th, Jonathan Edelstein made a remarkable post examining the policies and mentalities held in common by states run by peoples who had suffered genocides. Israel, Rwanda, and Armenia were his ideal cases; Serbia, Haiti, and a uchronical Biafra also fit his descriptions to greater or lesser extents. All of these states shared five characteristics in common.

  • A very strong idea of homeland and sanctuary.

  • An ethic of self-protection.

  • Attachment to a protector.

  • Trouble with the neighbors.

  • An extreme unwillingness to trust.

Turkey, it seems to me, should also belong on this list. As soon as Ottoman power began to fade--on the Black Sea littoral, in the Balkans, in the Caucasus--the aggressive Russian empire and the new nation-states of southeastern Europe began to expel their Muslim subjects en masse, out of a desire to purify these regained territories of Muslim intruders. Abkhaz, Azerbaijani Sunnis, Crimean Tatars, Circassians, and Chechens were driven from the Caucasus and the Black Sea area, while Albanians, Bosniaks, and Turks were expelled from the Balkans. This massive influx of desperate refugees contributed to the desperate mood of early 20th century Ottoman Anatolia, as aptly described by Andrew Mango in his biography Atatürk.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the ruling Muslim community of the Ottoman empire was gripped by anxiety. Every time a province was lost, waves of Muslim refugees poured into the sultan's remaining possessions. In the Balkans, the first mass flight of Muslims followed the Greek rising of 1821 and the establishment of the Greek kingdom under European protection in 1830. This migration of Muslims was dwarfed by the influx of refugees during and after the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-8. Muslims flooded in from Bulgaria, which became independent in all but name. They came from Thessaly, which was ceded to Greece, a country not involved in the war, but deemed by the European great powers to deserve compensation for the gains achieved by countries which had been.

Even more refugees had come from the lands conquered by Russia in its advance on the south. Although most of these lands had been under Ottoman suzerainty only briefly, their inhabitants saw in the Ottoman state their protector and their refuge. First came hundreds of thousands of Turkic-speaking Tartars from the Crimea and the surrounding steppes, then the majority of Circassians and Abkhazians from the western Caucasus, and large numbers of Chechens from the northern slopes of the Caucasus, of Lezgis and other Dagestanis from its eastern slopes, of Muslim Georgians from Transcaucasia.

Everywhere, Muslims were haunted by the thought that they were losing the state (devlet elden gidiyor, "the state is slipping from our hands," or in the case of Turks who had adopted the terminology of the French Revolution, vatan elden gidiyor, "the fatherland is slipping from our hands"). "How can the state be saved?" was the question Muslims asked themselves (Mango 10-11).

The immediate human consequences of these migrations were noted by Turkish sociologist Kemal H. Karpat in his 1976 paper "The Genesis of the Gecekondu: Rural Migration and Urbanization"

[I]n my early youth [. . .] I witnessed the abrupt departure of most of my relatives and friends from Dobruja to Turkey. I was haunted by the empty houses and the howling dogs that after following the migrants’ caravan, returned to their masters’ empty houses to die of grief. The sudden silence of the streets on which emigrants’ children had played and many other disheartening events created in me both a revulsion and curiosity towards migration. The revulsion was a subconscious reaction against the forces that had compelled my departing relatives and friends to leave their homes and a way of life that I had thought was permanent and unchangeable. The curiosity about migration was rather imperceptible at the beginning but grew stronger after I realized the complexity of the process and it effects.

From the outset, everybody knew that the departing migrants were young and relatively poor but dreamed of receiving the land, houses, oxen, etc. supposedly promised by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) if they settled in Turkey under a series of migration agreements Turkey had signed with the governments of Romania and Bulgaria in the 1930s. Years later when I also had to migrate to Turkey, I visited many relatives settled in Central Anatolian, Aegean and Thracian villages whose land, climate, and work conditions seemed to be worse than those in the ‘memleket’ as they fondly referred to their old village in Dobruja. (Torn by nostalgia many embraced me in order to ‘memleket kokusunu alayım’ to inhale the scent of the old country which as a latecomer I presumably retained.)

The Ottoman Empire was a state facing a grim future, beset on all sides by nationalists and foreign states hostile to Turks. Greeks, Serbs, Romanians, and Bulgarians had established their own religiously pure and militarily aggressive nation-states. Worse still, the aggressive Russian Empire had resettled its portion of the Black Sea shoreline with Slavic Christians, placed Georgia under its control, and was steadily advancing into geographical Armenia. Turkey was running out of land to abandon by the time that the First World War had begun; indeed, if the post-War Treaty of Sèvres is anything to go by, the Ottoman Empire might have been reduced to a barely viable Anatolian core surrounded by its engorged revanchist neighbours. It's easy to imagine a Turkey that lacked an Atatürk and was left to be dissected at will by its neighbours. It's difficult to imagine this Turkey as anything but a nightmare for the Turks. Certainly civilian death tolls exclusive of the Armenians were appalling high as is.

This insight doesn't resolve the question of Turkish historical negationism, unfortunately. Yes, Turks in the First World War often suffered at the hands of Armenian individuals or organizations, but this Turkish suffering no more disproves the Armenian genocide than German suffering at the hands of Polish individuals and organizations at the end of the Second World War disproves Germany's efforts to commit genocide against Poland. What this does mean is that Turkish historical negationism is understandable, even somewhat forgiveable, coming in the main not from malicious anti-Armenian hatred but from a desire that Turkish sufferings be recognized. How this recognition can possibly be achieved I leave to others to imagine. It might well be impossible to recognize it in a meaningful way, in which case Turkey's image might continue to suffer. Even so, there may be some hope yet that things can be worked through.
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