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From Atatrk to Agos: Modern Turkish Remembrance of the Armenian Genocide

By Nick Rossi

Turkish Youth! Your primary duty is to ever preserve and defend National independence, the Turkish Republic. That is the only basis of your existence and your future. This basis contains your most precious treasure. In the future, too, there will be ill-will, both in the country itself and abroad, which will try to tear this treasure from youTurkish child of future generations! It is your duty to save the independence, the Turkish Republic - Mustafa Kemal Atatrk, Speech, October 19271

The basic foundation of the nationalist narrative of the Turkish Republic finds itself deeply rooted in Mustafa Kemal Atatrks thirty-six hour speech given to the Grand National Assembly of Turkey over six days in October of 1927. By beginning his narrative on the nineteenth of May, 1919, Atatrk allowed himself to neatly separate the official history of the Turkish Republic from the horrible violence witnessed by Turks as well as other Ottoman communities during the course of World War I. However, the exclusion of reference to the acts of minority suppression that had occurred under Turkish supervision both during World War I and the Turkish War of Independence that had successfully marginalized minority groups and, consequently, allowed for the establishment of the Turkish Republic as such in 1924, would prove to be the most crucial omission from the collective Turkish memory, especially that of the deportation and massacring of Anatolian Armenians in 1915.2 While the Republic of Turkey has undergone social, economic, and political changes since its inception, the official denial of responsibility for the near annihilation of Armenian population in the region as well as the refusal to acknowledge the events as a genocide by the Turkish government remained constant throughout the twentieth century and have persisted into the beginning of the twenty-first. Since

Ghazi Mustapha Kemal, A Speech Delivered by Ghazi Mustapha Kemal, President of the Turkish Republic, October 1927 (Leipzig: K.F. Koehler,1929), 723-724.

Fatma Mge Gek, "Turkish Historiography and the Unbearable Weight of 1915," The Armenian Genocide, ed. Richard Hovannisian (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2007), 340.

the neo-liberalization of the Turkish economy, media, and communications in the 1980s and the fall of Soviet Russia in 1991, Turkish perceptions of the events of 1915 have become more diverse; however, this diversification of knowledge and opinion about the Armenian genocide still continues to be resisted by the Turkish government and portions of the Turkish population to the present day.3 The purpose of the present essay is to analyze modern Turkish remembrance, or lack thereof, of the Armenian genocide by establishing the basic tenets of Turkish denial of the genocide as well suggesting the beginnings of a shift in Turkish collective memory away from tinted history that emerged from Mustafa Kemal Atatrks long perpetuated nationalist narrative towards a more objective view of the violent events that unfolded beginning in 1915. Before analysis of the continued denial of the Armenian genocide in the Turkish collective memory can be undertaken properly, the origins and implications of the term genocide need to be considered. Coined by Polish lawyer Rafael Lemkin during World War II in an attempt to describe the actions taken against the various groups victim to Nazism (literally meaning killing of a race) and legally established by Article II of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948, genocide is defined as acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.4 This definition seems to clearly imply a structured plan for the either the partial or complete destruction of one group of people by a another group of people, of which that latter has largely been translated into the government or military of a adversarial nation in the twentieth century. As may be seen, Lemkins literal coinage relates more to the results of actions taken against a group of people without necessarily questioning the ideologies behind those actions, while the UN created and, thus, assumedly international
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Gek, The Armenian Genocide, 352. Gijs M. de Vries, "Genocide: An Agenda for Action," Looking Backward, Moving Forward, ed. Richard

accepted definition, clearly identifies intent as a factor in the labeling of actions as genocide. This question of intent becomes vital in the Armenian case because the key issue in the present Turkish lack of recognition of the disarmament, deportation and massacres as a genocide is not the extent of Armenian suffering, but rather the question of premeditation: that is whether the Young Turk regime during the First World War intentionally organized the massacres that took place.5 This suggests that the Turkish government does not completely refuse to acknowledge the deportation and death experienced by Anatolian Armenians during World War I (although magnitude of Armenian losses is heavily contested), but rather takes issue with the assertion that the Turkish government engaged in deportation activities and massacres as a means to destroy the Armenian people. Consequently, Turkish refusal to acknowledge the deportations and massacres as a genocide largely emerges because the use of the term suggests the ultimate goal of the Turks actions against Armenians beginning in 1915 were based in premeditated elimination of the Armenian presence in what would eventually become the Republic of Turkey, which threatens the image of modern Turkey both among its own citizens as well as in the international community.6 In order to justify denial of the genocide, the treatment of Armenians has been largely contextualized historically as necessitated by the conditions of World War I, especially as result of tensions with Russia in the east. The common Turkish justification for deportation of Armenians rests in the threat of Armenian revolutionaries either actively joining the Russian forces on the eastern front or Armenians being swallowed into Russian ranks as Soviet forces

Hovannisian (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2003), 9. 5 Guenter Lewy, The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide , (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005), ix. 6 Recent Turkish reactions to genocide recognition in France and Slovakia serve as examples of Turkish concern over their image in the international community being tarnished by the recognition of Armenian genocide. See "Turkey Condemns French Senate's Genocide Vote." Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 24, 2012. accessed

moved over Anatolia en route for Turkey. Turkish fears were firmly grounded in the 1914 cooperation between Armenian and Soviet troops in the Caucaus regions as well as in the repulsion of Turkish forces by Armenians in Van on April 20, 1915 that resulted in the deaths of eighteen Turks.7 The possibility of an internal enemy possibly acting in Russian interests served as a catalyst for deportation measures to be taken against Armenians, first in along identified strategic routes known as the Baghdad Railway and eventually in the whole of Anatolia and Turkey.8 The motivation of this perceived security threat coupled with the recent memory of the success of Young Turk Revolution on government sponsored deportation efforts can be seen in the alleged comments of Turkish military commander Ismail Enver Pasha to United States ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, in reference to Armenians in 1915: We have therefore deliberately adopted the plan of scattering them so that they can do us no harm.9 This comment reflects the common explanation for deportations during World War I and, as a result, modern Turkish denial can be justified by the rationalization of government coordinated deportation programs as purely national security measures necessary to defending the Turks in a time of total war. Commonly, Turkish denial cites the losses of Muslim Turks during this era as evidence that the losses incurred by the Armenians were not unusual and boil down to the unfortunate consequence of war. However, the version the Armenian calamity perpetuated in Turkish memory fails to account for elements of Young Turk deportations that undermine the assertion that the deportations were enacted as a purely defensive measure against revolutionary Armenians living

April 21, 2012) 7 Jay Winter, "Under Cover of War: The Armenian Genocide in the Context of Total War." The Spector of Genocide, ed. Robert Gellately and Ben Kiernan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 207. 8 Hilmar Kaiser, "The Baghdad Rialway and the Genocide," Remembrance and Denial, ed. Richard G. Hovannisian (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1999), 70-75. 9 Ronald Grigor Suny, Looking toward Ararat: Armenia in Modern History , (Bloomington: Indiana University

in the northeastern portion of the Ottoman Empire. Primarily, popular and official Turkish memory tends to forget the night of April 24th, 1915. Using the aforementioned Armenian repulsion of Turkish forces at Van as a loose justification, Turkish forces removed several hundred Armenians men, largely intellectuals, journalists, businessmen and clergymen, from their homes and executed them.10 Sometimes cited as the beginning of the shift towards genocidal policy by the Young Turk government, these nocturnal murders specifically targeted at influential members of Armenian community suggest that Turkish actions in Anatolia were no longer limited to deportation and neutralization of possible Armenian revolutionary detractors as of late April 1915, but rather included the permanent removal of civilian leadership figures within the Armenian community. Those massacred presented no immediate military threat to Turkish security, but they did provide economic and social stability to the Armenian community in northeast Turkey and the Caucasus region; thus, an acknowledgement of premeditated nature of the Turkish measures taken on April 24th, 1915 to eliminate vital members of Armenian population provides evidence that contradicts the assertion that Armenian deaths were simply an unfortunate and unintended consequences of necessary wartime security measures and, inversely, indicates the beginnings of an concerted effort to nullify the Armenian population as a factor in Turkey. In addition to metaphorical decapitation of Armenian social body, the inclusion of the women and children in deportation efforts suggests that Turkish intent surpassed wartime security and extended to cultural annihilation. After strategic removal of select members of Armenian had given way to wholesale deportation of Anatolian populations, Armenian men were largely massacred while Armenian woman and children were transported away from the

Press, 1993), 113. 10 Winter, Spector, 206.

Caucasus region towards the deserts of modern day Syria and Iraq to the south and westward into Turkey.11 Displaced and disconnected, Armenian women often found themselves forced in prostitution or living as domestic servants in Turkish homes, often forced to convert to Islam so that their children and themselves could be accepted, although marginally, into Turkish society.12 This subordination and social conformation of Armenian women and children allowed to survive by Young Turk deportation policies suggests a Turkification of Armenian deportees that equates to an act of genocide since the ultimate aim seems to have been complete destruction of Armenian culture in Turkey. The crippling of Armenian social structures through the removal of foundational members of the Armenian community and the assimilation of Armenian women and children into Turkish society is largely ignored by Turkish memory of the Armenian calamity and, thus, allows for a denial of the events as a genocide since the broader cultural impacts of Turkish actions are disregarded. Alternatively, Turkish sociologist and historian Fatma Mge Gek has recently suggested that Svres Syndrome, which refers to a strong fear of dismemberment of lands perceived as rightfully Turkish that were proposed as part of Treaty of Svres between the Allies and the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I may have an impact on Turkish remembrance of the Armenian genocide. Gek suggests that radical nationalists have historicized the fear of reduction of Turkish land by foreign powers and distrust of outside influence has contributed to Turkish paranoia at pressures from forces outside of Turkey to recognize the Armenian genocide.13 While Turkish denial of the genocide may seem to result from willful ignorance of the
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Winter, Spector, 210-212. Grandmas Tattoos. Directed by Suzanne Khardalian. Sweden: HB PeA Holmquist Film, 2011. 13 Fatma Mge Gek, The Transformation of Turkey: Redefining State and Society from the Ottoman Empire to the Modern Era, (London: Tauris Academic Studies, 2011), 99-100.

Turkish population and intentional limitation of scope of its collective memory, the demonization of Turks as an entire people found in some pro-Armenian literature is largely unfounded. Armenian firsthand accounts often include stories of Turkish neighbors providing shelter and protection for Armenian families in danger of deportation, often referring to them as Good Turks in both oral histories of survivors and recent Armenian genocide historiography.14 While other factors of Turkish history and society factor into the lack of acknowledgement of the Armenian genocide, the sterilization of contemporary Turkish memory can in large part be attributed to the legacy of Kemalism in modern Turkey. Established by Mustafa Kemal Atatrk and continued under his successor Ismet Inn, Kemalist policy emphasized, among other ideas, the creation of a uniform Turkish national identity through a manufactured memory of Turkey that glorified, and in some cases fabricated, Turkish achievements by excluding the negative aspects of Turkish history, leaving little to no room for cultural pluralism in Turkish republicanism and certainly no room for acknowledgement of genocide perpetration.15 This collective myth permeated Turkish society through the centralized mass education system established under Kemalist reforms and, consequently, has survived to shape Turkish collective consciousness to the present day.16 In addition to a desire to retain a strong sense of national pride, the strict denial of the Armenian genocide by Turkish governmental officials may also hinge on the possible legal consequences of recognition. For instance, the land claims made in Turkey by Armenian Diaspora will undoubtedly be hard to


Donald E. Miller, and Lorna Touryan Miller, Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide, (Berkley: University of California Press, 1993), 4. 15 William L. Cleveland, and Martin Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East, (Philadelphia: Westview Press, 2009), 182-183. 16 Fatma Mge Gek, "Reading Genocide: Turkish Historiography on 1915," A Question of Genocide, ed. Ronald Grigor Suny, Fatma Mge Gek and Norman M. Naimark (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 44.

ignore or deny if modern Turkey assumes responsibility for the deportations and massacres. 17 Therefore, the plausible legal claims that could be leveled at the Turkish government with acceptance of responsibility for the Armenian genocide may influence the decision to continue to officially deny responsibility for the genocide in the present day. Apart from historical domestic motivation for Turkish denial, modern refusal to acknowledge responsibility for the Armenian genocide has played a major part in Turkeys attempts to cultivate their international image, specifically in relation to entrance into the European Union. Attempts to model elements of Turkish social structures after Western styles were established with Atatrks policies, but Turkey has still struggled to be gain acceptance as a truly European largely due to human rights limitations, especially in conflict with France over lack of Turkish recognition of the Armenian genocide.18 While Turkey has accepted other reforms mandated by the European Union in order to help secure entrance, the continued refusal to acknowledge the Armenian genocide seems to suggest a concerted effort on the part of Turkish officials to uphold a blemish free portrait of the Turkey in the European arena and, in doing so, paradoxically perpetuating one of the main elements of its national identity that bars Turkey full acceptance into the European community. Conclusively, current denial of the Armenian genocide by the Turkish government stems from foundational domestic efforts to build a strong national identity upon a nationalist collective conscience as well as the creation of an attractive faade for use in foreign policy, especially in attempts to enter fully into the European economic landscape. While no change has been witnessed in the governmental refusal of Armenian genocide


Vigen Guroian, Collective Responsibility and Official Excuse Making: The Case of the Turkish Genocide of the Armenians, The Armenian Genocide in Perspective, ed. Richard Hovnanian (New Brunswick: Transcation, Inc, 1986), 150. 18 Anthony Manduca, Turkeys Long EU March, The Sunday Times, April 22, 2012. Accessed April 23, 2012.

acknowledgement in Turkey in recent years, a slow yet possibly substantial shift in Turkish remembrance of the genocide has begun to emerge among sectors of Turkish society since the 1990s and especially in the last decade, particularly among journalists and scholars. Notably, the life and death of Turkish-Armenian journalist for bilingual newspaper Agos, Hrant Dink, has emerged as a flagship case for the discussion of popular Turkish remembrance of the Armenian genocide. Charged and convicted of insulting Turkishness under the infamous Article 301 penal code, Hrant Dink existed as a rare proponent of Armenian genocide acknowledgement within Turkey. On January 19th, 2007, Hrant Dink was murdered by a 17-year-old Turkish nationalist in front of his office, resulting in an unprecedented act public mourning for a notable supporter of genocide recognition that culminated in a march of over a hundred thousand protestors on the street in Istanbul where Dink was killed;19 however, the public outpouring of emotion honoring Dinks legacy was juxtaposed by the widely circulated photographs of Turkish police proudly posing with the young assassin while holding the Turkish flag as well as a increasingly hard-line denial of the Armenian genocide by the Turkish government.20 The apposition of these images reveals both a large undercurrent of desire for social justice and freedom of expression in Turkish society as well as an acknowledgement of the strong strand of Turkish nationalism that still dominates opinion among authority figures in Turkish society; thus, these contrasting reactions to Hrant Dinks assassination appear to reveal a growth in modern Turkish support for proponents of Armenian genocide awareness and remembrance, but still highlights a continuing nationalist conviction to disregard and, in some cases, disrespect Armenian history in the region. 19 BBC News, "Fury in Turkey at editors murder" Last modified January 19, 2007. Accessed April 4, 2012. 20 CNN World, Turkish murder suspect: No ties Last modified January 22, 2007. Accessed April 4, 2012.


Historiographically, the forum for discussion among Turkish scholars involved in studying the Turkish Republic, both in published work and public discourse, has strengthened immensely in last several decades. During the 1980s, the burgeoning field of genocidal studies began to include the Armenian genocide in its scope of interest; however, the scholarship invariably centered around the question whether the events of 1915 should be considered a genocide. Deniers saw no need to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Armenian case based in a belief in the provocation thesis, while Armenian sympathizers tended to avoid critical explanation that placed any accountability on the Armenians in fear that explanation is rationalization and rationalization is justification.21 Since the 1980s, scholastic coverage of the Armenian genocide has progressed immensely and has grown to include Turkish and Armenian scholars, although largely engaging in conferences and producing works from outside the country. Notably, the Workshop for Armenian/Turkish Scholarship (WATS) functioned as a major forum for discussion between Armenian, Turkish, and international scholars attempting to construct an accepted history of the events surrounding the Armenian deportations of 1915 since 2000. The conferences survived while the efforts of Track II diplomacy between Turkish and Armenian governments withered, attesting to the increased sustainability in the academic community compared to the political arena.22 In 2011, A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire (appropriately dedicated to Hrant Dink) emerged as the tangible culmination of this series of conferences held at various universities. Progressively, WATS scholars acknowledge the reality that Armenians and Turks remain embedded in their 21 Ronald Grigor Suny, Writing Genocide: The Fate of the Ottoman Armenians," A Question of Genocide, ed. Ronald Grigor Suny, Fatma Mge Gek and Norman M. Naimark (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 24. 22 Ronald Grigor Suny and Fatma Mge Gek, Introduction: Leaving It to the Historians," A Question of Genocide, ed. Ronald Grigor Suny, Fatma Mge Gek and Norman M. Naimark (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 7.


respective nationalist master narratives constructed by past historiography and, accordingly, present their work as an effort in replacing those works with shared, subversive narratives that move us beyond nationalism toward truer understanding.23 While the conferences themselves showed a remarkable maturity among scholars, resistance was mounted against Turkish scholars attempting to hold their own conference at leading universities in Istanbul in May 2005. Organizers were forced to postpone the conference once because of threats and were greeted by around a hundred protestors when the conference finally opened, some who threw eggs and tomatoes at participants. The Turkish minister of justice at the time, Cemil iek equated the organization of the conference to stabbing Turkey in the back and regretted his decision to renounce the ability to open criminal cases as justice master.24 While the desire to engage in dialogue about the Armenian genocide among Turkish scholars exhibited by the organization of the conference in Istanbul exhibits shift in the academic landscape towards recognition of the Armenian genocide, the resistance from both Turkish citizens and authority suggests that a need to deny responsibility for the genocide in the Turkish collective memory still persists in the modern republic. In the end, while the socio-political motivations for a Turkish denial of the Armenian genocide have changed over the greater part of the past century, the reality remains that foundational national narrative and the resulting collective memory that denies the Armenian genocide still remains in a position of hegemony to other views on the subject present in modern Turkey. However, a push from the Turkish media and a post-nationalist approach to the Armenian genocide developed by Turkish scholars since the early 1990s reflects a growing desire for reconciliation of the nearly century old Turkish-Armenian conflict over the events of
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Suny and Gek, Question, 11. Suny and Gek, Question, 7.


1915. While the Turkish government continues to deny the reality and responsibility of an Armenian genocide, the emergence of an interest by intellectuals and sectors of civilian Turkey in constructing a critical, complicated and, ideally, more complete picture of the history of the events identified as a genocide by Armenians and their supporters provides hope that resolution to the political conflict and realization of shared origins Turkish-Armenian histories lies in the not too distant future.