The Armenian Genocide: 'Turkey's denial defines its present'

This is the text of a speech to mark the anniversary of the 1915 Armenian genocide that was delivered to the Swedish parliament on Tuesday by Turkish historian Taner Akçam, chair in Armenian Genocide Studies at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University:

This invitation to address the Swedish Parliament carries symbolic meaning not only on an individual level; but the fact that a Turk was invited to speak to you here today conveys a meaningful message. 

Taking a stand defines who we are. Speaking out about historical crimes, especially genocide, is the responsibility of all humanity. This is not an issue for Armenians and Turks or Jews and Germans, alone.

The central issues that Turks must confront, is our inability or refusal to acknowledge the violence we have perpetrated, especially, the massacres and genocide carried out against our fellow Christian citizens – the Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks. 

While mass violence is not unique to Turkey, it is a major feature of the turmoil that characterizes the Middle East.

It is difficult to determine the beginning- and end-dates for historical processes; however, between the 1878 Berlin Congress and the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the Ottoman-Turkish lands experienced waves of upheaval, an earthquake comprised of a series of massacres that constitute a genocidal process. The 1894-6 massacres of Armenians and Assyrians; the 1904 Sasun and 1908 Adana massacres of Armenians; the 1913-4 ethnic cleansing and massacres of Greeks; the 1915-18 genocide of Armenians and Assyrians; and the 1921-22 Pontus genocide represent the most significant tremors of this earthquake. 

The 45-year long (1878-1923) earthquake, which can be characterized as the Ottoman genocide of Christians, continued during the Republican era at various intervals. The Jewish affair in 1934 in Trace; the 1937-38 Dersim genocide; the 1942 Property Tax; the pogrom of 6-7 September 1955; the slaughter of intellectual youth during 1960, 71 and 80 military coups; and the never ending suppressions of the Kurds, including their systematic torture and killings in the 1990s and 2015 represent some examples of this continuation. 

If, today, Turkey struggles to establish a regime that respects human rights and continues to face significant hurdles in its democratization, it is due to the refusal to confront and face the crimes committed in the past. Moreover, the challenges are not limited to Turkey’s internal affairs, but also extend to the wider region. The military operations in Syria and the war with the Kurds are also manifestations of this inability to face the past. 

This state of affairs raises a central question: why must we face our history? Why must we memorialize and remember past crimes? Allow me to present five fundamental and interconnected reasons: 

  • The first important reason why we should remember and commemorate past atrocities is because we have to remember the victims, pay our respects to their memory and Re-humanize them. Dehumanization is essential to the perpetration of mass atrocities. The most effective way to inspire perpetrators to kill is to make their victims inhuman. This is how individuals overcome their normal human revulsion toward murder. Nazis classified the Jews as bacteria or microbe/germs; in Rwanda, the Hutus called the Tutsis cockroaches. The Ottoman Turkish rulers described Armenians as a tumour in the Turkish body that had to be excised. By depriving the victim group of its humanity, perpetrators pave the way for mass-atrocities. Commemoration is, if nothing else, an act of protest against this repulsive phenomenon. Re-humanizing the victims by honouring them and restoring their dignity is one of the most important steps in denouncing the perpetrator.
  • The second reason for remembrance is that it creates the foundations for co-existence. Communities that have experienced a painful past filled with violent acts, can only reconcile and live together peacefully if they “talk” about this common past with each other. Failing to do so, they will continue to regard each other with doubt and suspicion and ultimately get crushed under the burdens of the past. If Turks cannot engage in an honest reckoning of their crimes, enter into serious dialogue with Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians, and listen to the deeply painful histories of these communities, the victim groups will never feel any measure of trust for Turks. The only way for Turks to achieve peaceful coexistence at home, and with their neighbours, is for the Turkish government and its people (including Turks, Kurds, Alevites, Sunnis, etc.) to acknowledge historic wrongs honestly and to accept responsibility for their actions. Without genuinely confronting and accepting this painful history, a common future will never be constructed.
  • The third reason why we must face our history is as follows: We remember the past and commemorate mass atrocities because this is a basic prerequisite for a democratic society. In order to establish a democracy that respects human rights, it is essential to first confront human rights violations. Failure to do so, and impunity for past crimes, inhibit a nation’s commitment to respect present day human rights. How you view and regard your past will also determine how you construct your future... Recognition of historic injustices is essential to establishing a democratic environment that values human rights.
  • The fourth important reason for remembering and honouring the past is to raise our voices to say, “Never again!” In order to avoid mass atrocities, we must remember! But remembering, alone, may not be enough to prevent the repetition of past injustices; however, it is an important pre-condition. Denying historic wrongs leaves the door wide open for the potential risk of repeating the same crimes, the same mistakes over again. Denying massacres and crimes, Turkey sends the message that it would perpetrate the same crimes again, if threatened. For this reason, it is not an exaggeration to claim that Turkey represents a potential threat to the entire region.
  • The last important reason to commemorate past atrocities is to fight denial and overcome obstructions in the quest for truth and justice. This core principle is crucial, for it effectively demonstrates that acknowledging a historic crime is not limited to remembering an event of the past, but that it constitutes a prerequisite for the consolidation of peace, security and stability today.

There are two basic misunderstandings regarding genocide denial and, especially, Turkish denial. Firstly, denialism is often regarded as a mistaken but tolerable ideological attitude toward mass atrocities. The second misunderstanding is related to the first and assumes that confronting denial is about establishing a “moral” attitude towards a single crime that remains forgotten in the pages of history. 

Any connection with the present is effectively walled off.

Both of these misperceptions are a logical consequence of what I call temporal compartmentalization: namely, the tendency to place the past and present into different boxes and to ignore their interconnectedness. It is enormously problematic to sever the ties between denial and contemporary political problems. Denial is not only about an ideological attitude towards the past and the demand for recognition of historical crimes is not confined to a moral conviction [or conduction Sunday Church service] regarding past events. 

Denialism is a structure that cannot be simply relegated to past atrocities. The denialist structure produced and continues to produce policies in the present day. In this regard, it would be appropriate and reasonable to compare Turkish denialism with the racist apartheid regime of South Africa. The system, mindset and institutions of apartheid were constructed upon racial differences; denial of the Armenian genocide has similar roots. It was manufactured upon the discrimination and exclusion of ethnic-religious minorities and considers the democratic demands of these groups a national security threat that has to be eliminated.

In the past, the emergence of the so-called “Armenian question” was the result of Armenian demands for equality and social reform, which arguably would have led to a better and stronger Ottoman society. 

Nevertheless, their demands and the Armenians themselves were considered a security threat, which caused them to become targets for massacres and deportations. Denying this truth constitutes the foundation of the Turkish concept of security, which is not only based on the denial of crimes but also on the perception that the promotion of basic democratic rights, such as equality under the law, social reform and freedom of speech threaten national security.

The irony is that denying genocide and criminalizing demands for a more democratic and just society because of national security are the real obstacles to democracy. 

The violent Turkish response to calls for human rights is counterproductive. In fact, they lead directly to real security problems. 

This “self-fulfilling prophecy” was a root cause of the Armenian genocide and it shapes the Kurdish problem today. 

Instead of solving Kurdish problems by seeking solutions that would lead to a more democratic society, institutionalized denial resurrects the same security concept and declares that Kurdish demands are an essential security problem for the nation. This is the short story of the invasion of Syria by the Turkish Army. 

The picture is very clear: by denying what happened in 1915, Turkey reproduces the institutions, social relations, and mindset that created the events of 1915 in the first place. 

Denial is not simply a defence of an old regime (Ottoman Empire). Denial also fuels the politics of continuing aggression, both inside and outside Turkey today.

It isn’t hard to show the strong interconnection between Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide and Turkey’s domestic and regional policies today. 

Without addressing in detail the ongoing dark developments in Turkey today, particularly since the attempted coup of July 2016, allow me to express the current situation in numbers.

Currently, more than 10 parliamentary representatives and close to 150 journalists are incarcerated; approximately 4,000 academic intellectuals have been forced to step down from the university positions, and Kurdish cities have been destroyed and burned to the ground. According to a report published by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human rights in 2017, a total of 158 media companies have been closed down; these include 45 newspapers, 60 TV and radio stations, 19 periodicals, 29 publishing houses and 5 press agencies. 

In addition to these realities, Turkey is experiencing a mass exodus of its intellectual elite – perhaps the largest one in its history. 

More than 1,000 academics, journalists, and literary intellectuals have already fled to Europe. 

Turkey is galloping towards – if it has not already arrived at – a totalitarian regime.

Turkish Government used the coup attempt as an excuse to crash the democratic opposition and their primary argument in support of these policies is that the demand for more democracy and respect for human rights is a threat to its national security and must be crushed before it spreads.

Aggression towards Syria is another part of this Turkish national security policy. Perceiving Kurdish demands for a democratic structure in Syria or in Turkey as a national security treat, Turkey invaded Syria. 

Ziya Gökalp, one of the ideologues of the Young Turks and an architect of late Ottoman policies, described Ottoman aggression towards the East during the First World War through the analogy of the “Red Apple.” 

The “Red Apple” exemplifies a belief that dates back to old Turkish lore and is meant to reflect Turkish sovereignty over the universe. When talking about battles and victory, Ottoman Turks would characterize their triumph as having reached the “Red Apple” and the “Red Apple” has come to symbolize the idea of pan-Turkism, the uniting of all Turkish peoples. 

Knowledge of this mythology is crucial to understanding the Armenian genocide. It is extremely revealing that Tayyip Erdoğan referenced this legendary symbol just before the 2018 Afrin operation in Syria. 

In a speech delivered on January 22, 2018, Erdoğan answered the question “Where are we going?” with the response “Towards the Red Apple…. yes, towards the Red Apple”. 

All of these policies are conceptualized, decided, and implemented by the highest constitutional institution in Turkey: The National Security Council. 

In 2001, this supreme constitutional authority established a “Coordinating Committee for the Fight Against Baseless Claims of Genocide.” All of the important ministries, including the Armed Forces, are represented on this committee, which is chaired by the Vice Prime Minister. The sole mission of this institution is to fight those who demand recognition of mass-atrocities, including the Armenian genocide, committed by successive Ottoman-Turkish governments in the past. It is not a coincidence that it is the same institution that considers the democratic demands of Kurds, Alevites and other minorities and regional developments in Syria to be a national security threat.

The picture is clear: as long as Turkey continues to regard facing historic injustice with honesty and acknowledgment of wrongdoings as a national security threat and refuses to come to terms with its past for national security reasons, further security problems will ensue.

Recognition of the Armenian genocide is not a thing of the past that can be forgotten when confronted with the seemingly more pressing issues of today. On the contrary, it is the key to solving contemporary security problems.

As I illustrated in the Turkish case, and as recent developments clearly demonstrate, there is a strong interconnection between security, democracy and facing history in the Middle East. Even a passing glance at the region makes it clear that historical injustices and the persistent denial of these injustices by one or another state or ethnic-religious group is a major stumbling block, not only for the democratization of the region, but also for the establishment of stable relations between different ethnic and religious groups. 

You cannot solve any problem in the Middle East today without addressing historic wrongs because history is not something in the past; in the Middle East, the past IS the present.

Putting it another way, one of the main problems in the region is the insecurity felt by different groups and states towards each other as a result of events that have occurred in history. When persistent denial of these pain-filled acts is fundamental to your security policy, feelings of insecurity towards the other become inevitable. This is what we call the security dilemma: What one does to enhance one’s own security causes a reaction that, in the end, can make one even less secure. For this reason, any security concept, any policies of realpolitik in and for the region that obfuscates past atrocities and ignores addressing these historic wrongs is doomed to fail in the end.

We must cease this senseless distinction and compartmentalization between the recognition of 1915 and contemporary realpolitik. Until today, the West has either failed to recognize 1915 for reasons of “security” and “national interest” or, even in cases where it adopted some affectatious parliamentary decisions, continued to carry out policies that gave support and political cover to Turkey. If democracy, peace and security is the objective – the end-goal – of the policy of the West towards Middle East, this type of behaviour must be terminated. 

For it is this attitude and behaviour of the West that emboldens Turkey to continue its denial of 1915 and encourages it to persist with its policies that threaten democracy, peace and security in the region today.

Let us not forget – denialism is not a problem exclusive to Turkey and its history. It is the collective and fundamental problem of Europe with regard to its future and regional peace and security. If we do not place the struggle to face our past and fight against denialism at the centre of our politics, we fail not only today, but we also risk losing our future. There is no difference between fighting Turkish denialism and fighting the South African Apartheid regime. Apartheid didn’t collapse from internal pressure alone. The support of the international community was also extremely important. I appeal to you from this podium today to end this detrimental compartmentalization between past and present and to grasp the severity and magnitude of denialism’s impact.

If we want to respect the dignity of victims; to establish justice, to create democracy, peace and stability in the region and to stop mass-atrocities in the future, we must fight denialism not only as an attitude towards a past crime but also as a crime against human dignity today.