James Robins, an award-winning journalist and historian. His forthcoming book is ‘When We Dead Awaken: Australia, New Zealand, and the Armenian Genocide’
The United States Sente voted without dissent in December to ratify the House of Representatives’ vote in October that officially recognised the Armenian Genocide. This was a milestone. Since 1965, the fiftieth anniversary of the annihilation of the Armenians of Anatolia by the declining Ottoman Empire under the carapace of the First World War, Armenians have taken their grievances—their open wounds—to the parliaments of the world, insisting that some form of justice be done. While nations like Argentina, Canada, Lebanon, Germany, and Russia affirm the genocide, and others like France and Greece criminalise denial of it, attempts to pass motions through the United States’ highest bodies have always failed.
Indeed, US institutions have been the principal battleground for Armenian Genocide recognition. In 1965, the governors of Maine and Massachusetts were the first state heads to recognise the genocide, followed over the years by 47 others. But motions and resolutions approaching a full vote in the House have always been quickly suppressed (in 1984, 1989, 1990, 1995, 2000, and 2010), usually after intense pressure, including threats and diplomatic blackmail, from the Turkish government.
Many Armenians, overwhelmingly those in the diaspora, consider recognition to be, first, an act of healing: a vital and necessary salve for the wounds and trauma of the period. Secondly, it is the chief strategy of combatting Turkish denialism; a policy of repudiation that insists, in its most sedate form, that while Armenians suffered during the collapsing hours of the Ottoman Empire, their treatment was not systematic or deliberate. In its most extreme form, sometimes coexisting curiously alongside the denial that the Armenians were wilfully massacred by the state, is a historiography that says the Ottoman Armenians deserved to be wiped out for collaborating with foreign enemies during wartime.
Since the Armenians first adopted this strategy of pursuing genocide recognition, the character of the Turkish response has barely shifted. Although the tone and tactics of its policy have morphed and bent to the temper of the age, little has fundamentally changed. All of this must leave the Armenian diaspora, even as it has achieved its greatest victory yet, questioning its goals. After decades of successful motions, after years of effort and anguish, they have achieved little if their true goal is change the mind of Turkish citizens.
Turkish Genocide Denialism: Then and Now
Broadly, Turkish denial has moved through a series of phases.
A phase of silence was implemented during the formative authoritarian period following the War of Independence, which itself saw additional, widespread “cleansing operations” of non-Muslims from Anatolia. Under the direction of Mustafa Kemal, the genocide was not mentioned or even alluded to. Books imported into the country which dared to probe the subject were rigorously censored. Only once, during the 1930s, did the Turkish state break this mould, directly pressuring the US State Department to kill MGM’s film adaptation of Franz Werfel’s epic romantic novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.
It wasn’t until the 1970s, in the wake of the fiftieth anniversary marked by angry protests in Yerevan against their Soviet overlords, and the later emergence of a bloody terror campaign of shooting and bombing directed against the Turkish diplomats and institutions by Armenian radical nationalists, that the Turkish state begin to shift its approach to formulating an alternative official narrative.
As the political scientist Jennifer Dixon has shown, in 1980, the military junta under Kenan Evren (specifically the National Security Council’s Intelligence Department) responded to the Armenian terror campaign by formulating, imposing, and propagandising a coherent form of denial. Retired Turkish diplomats were encouraged to scour (pre-selected and pre-approved) archival material and publish works contesting the “Armenian narrative.” These books created a veneer of academic respectability and authority for the government’s policy, and furthermore influenced new textbooks for Turkish secondary and tertiary students. The number of official and semi-official ‘histories’ in this manner rose sharply, from one book published on the subject between 1976 and 1980, to twenty-one books between 1981 and 1985.
By ‘opening’ the archives, the regime could claim it was taking positive steps in search of the ‘truth’, even as the Foreign Minister of the day Mesut Yılmaz explicitly stated that their goal was “primarily to render ineffective the claims of Armenian genocide.”
From then on, instead of merely tolerating recognition calls with a kind of stressed, tight-lipped grimace, the military junta and subsequent civilian governments began to fight back: with more rigorously enforced forms of denial, threats of diplomatic sanction, and even warnings against the lives of foreigners within Turkey. In 2000, for example, when a motion of recognition was heading for the US House, Ankara sent a delegation of National Assembly members to Washington, warning that lucrative defence contracts would be cancelled, and Turkish airbases closed to American bombers. The House vote was finally killed when the State Department claimed that Turkey “could not guarantee the safety of American citizens … in light of unforeseen violence.”
Activism for Genocide Recognition in Turkey
It was this context of unbending denialism and extreme retaliation that the Turkish-Armenian intellectual Hrant Dink sought to change. As editor of the bold, undaunted tri-lingual weekly magazine Agos, and as a prominent commentator in print and on television, Dink insisted that the diaspora’s strategy of lobbying for recognition motions was useless without an accompanying emphasis on building democracy in Turkey. “The fundamental issue,” Dink said, “is for society in Turkey to become aware of the historical reality. And this can only be possible via the development of the struggle for democracy in Turkey.”
Dink argued that a broad and deep fear of Armenians was pervasive in Turkish society—a holdover from the paranoia and siege mentality of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) and Kemalist periods. Paranoia and fear of Armenians, Dink wrote in Two Close Peoples, Two Distant Neighbours, was the “fundamental mortar in the construction of the Turkish national identity. Remove that mortar, that hatred of the other, and the identity may collapse.” To this day, in Turkish, Ermeni is often deployed as a common slur.
What diaspora Armenians were doing each time they lobbied and achieved every new recognition motion was to reaffirm that pervasive Turkish fear that Armenians—as a whole—were implacably opposed to Turkey’s existence, that they would soon demand monetary reparations, that one day they would return to claim the land of Eastern Anatolia (sometimes called Western Armenia), or that there might be another spree of terror.
Dink’s position made him unpopular among much of the Armenian diaspora, despite the fact that as a Turkish-speaking Armenian in Istanbul—one of those desperate few Armenians still remaining in the lands of their birth—he was more closely tied to the society, and could observe its tensions and contradictions. “When you attempt to implement [recognition] in societies where knowledge is not free, the real paradox appears of its own accord,” he argued:
In societies where the right to know cannot be sufficiently exercised, if people talk about and argue only for knowledge they have access to, how will you then assess that as a crime? Having defined it as a crime, will you have manged to include the perpetrator on your side in the struggle against genocide? If the man only knows that much, and acts according to the mentality he has formed on the basis of that knowledge, what kind of change will your law bring about in his mentality? … In the end, it is not that Turkish society knows the truth but still denies it, it is defending what it knows to be the truth.
Hrant Dink’s moment of fame (and notoriety) coincided with a glimmer of optimism for Turkish democrats, the years in which Turkey embarked on the process of joining the European Union. Even as a hardcore of agitators continued their attacks, and even as the Justice Ministry was pressured to bring prosecutions for “denigrating Turkishness” against esteemed writers like Orhan Pamuk, Elif Şafak, and Murat Belge under the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, a widening of opinion was taking place.
A conference on ‘Ottoman Armenians during the Era of Imperial Decline’, held at Bilgi University in Istanbul in September 2005, demonstrated that liberal Turkish academics and their foreign counterparts could debate the history of the genocide earnestly and sincerely, that incremental progress was possible—even if those academics had to conduct their debate behind steel fences erected by Istanbul police to protect them from egg-throwing nationalists.
Two years later, however, in 2007, Hrant Dink was assassinated on the doorstep of Agos. His murder was a catalyst: an outpouring of grief, in Istanbul especially, and a sudden realisation of contrition from diaspora intellectuals who had previously sneered at him. But Dink’s death too coincided with the end of Turkey’s liberalisation.
The Current Context
The long process of talks and summits between Turkey and the Armenian Republic between 2007 and 2009 on the tense subject of their shared border and normalised diplomatic relations fell apart at the eleventh hour. The Armenian government was prepared to hive off the genocide question—the price of securing a peaceful existence—until Turkish officials doubled-down on their support for Azerbaijan in their dispute over the territory of Nagorno-Karabagh.
The European Union led the Turkish Republic on, extracting greater and greater concessions even as the hope of Turkish accession was withdrawn, until finally Ankara gave up entirely, lessening the pressure to democratise its institutions. As a result, the Turkish position on the Armenian Genocide, which had been softening in the mid-2000s, grew firm and immovable once again.
Contrast President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s statements in the space of two years. In 2014 he could speak of “shared pain” and “the duty to humanity to … remember the suffering experienced” during the First World War. But by 2016, after Germany’s recognition of the genocide, Erdoğan was insisting that his government’s position “on the Armenian issue is clear from the beginning. We will never accept the accusations of genocide.”
And this is where Turkish policy remains, with the government’s stance even more recalcitrant and impermeable than before, and with hopes of a revival in Turkish democracy looking dimmer every day. After the US House vote in October, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu described its passage as a form of “revenge,” a “shameful decision” by those “exploiting history,” a decision that was “null [and] void for our government and people.”
In this light, Hrant Dink’s warning to the Armenian diaspora of more than ten years ago ought to be revisited. “Real success can only be achieved,” he maintained, “not with court decisions or restrictive laws, but with the establishment of environments of debate that will create a change in mentality. … Denial, or recognition, without comprehension will benefit no one.”