Monday, May 23, 2005


Recently the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, replying to questions by journalists from European Union countries called for an unbiased study of the “allegations” as he called them, that one million Armenians have been killed by Ottoman troops during World War One as the result of a planned genocide. “We want to open our archives to those persons who allege that a genocide took place. If the other countries were truly genuine they would do the same thing. Teams of historians from both sides can research the archives so that the truth can be told. We do not want successive generations to live under the shadow of continuous hatred.”
At first instance, these sentiments seem laudable. It is the first time within living history that a Turkish leader has spoken publicly about the issue of genocide without issuing a blatant denial or hurling invective at those who state that it did occur. This has caused great optimism within certain circles that maintain that closer ties with the European Union are responsible for this ‘spring’ and that increased ties will lead to the development of a ‘mature’ Turkey, able to cast aside the fetters of nationalist myth-construction and view the past objectively.
Even more tantalising to scholars is the promise of opening up the archives. Much of the Ottoman archives have remained closed to public viewing ever since the formation of the Turkish state, a little while after an International Tribunal in the early twenties was able to examine some of these and on their basis, along with that of witnesses, to conclude that the Ottoman regime was in fact guilty of genocide. Since that time however, the archives have remained closed and western scholarship on the genocide has basically been restricted to research of the contemporary documents and dispatches used by consular authorities of Western Powers, operating in Turkey. Henry Morgenthau’s eyewitness account of the horrors of the Armenian genocide is extra-ordinarily moving and persuasive evidence while Bill Balakian’s recent book ‘Burning Tigris’ is also an interesting account of how the Armenian genocide was perceived by Americans in Turkey and America and how government policy towards it has shifted since.
When one looks past the smokescreen of Erdoğan’s attestations of friendliness and abjuring of hatred, a few key words stand out. These are ‘alleged genocide,’ underlying the contention that the Turkish policy of denial still remains, although if there is a shift, it is that it is now a policy of ‘denial until proven guilty,’ and the proposition that if Turkey is guilty of withholding evidence about the genocide, then other countries are also complicit in this, thus shifting the onus of proof from Turkey to a broader base. Conversely, if in fact millions of Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians around the world are in fact misguided, as are their ancestors who survived the ‘holocaust,’ in that the genocide never occurred, this is due to the Western Powers deliberately withholding information that would prove Turkey’s innocence.
The Ottoman archive card was a clever hand to play. The official language of the Ottoman Empire differs greatly from the Turkish of today. Firstly it is written in a modified form of the Arabic script, no longer in use since 1927. Secondly, the modern Turkish language has been ‘purged’ of all ‘foreign’ Arabic and Persian loanwords and grammatical constructions by the Kemalist regime, rendering a reading of these archives impossible to but a few Ottoman scholars. Further, it is interesting to note that by linking the opening of the archives to a similar gesture by the unspecified West, Erdoğan has made no clear commitment as to when these valuable archives, relevant not only to the genocide but to the study of the fascinating Ottoman Empire in general, will be made available to international scholarship.
Indeed it is difficult to reconcile Erdoğan’s statement with the climate that currently prevails in Turkish society vis a vis the Armenian genocide. Recently the Turkish author Orhan Pamuk was called a traitor by the governor of his home province who in an act reminiscent of 1933 Nazi Germany, ordered the removal of his books from the public libraries and bookstores and staged a public burning, just because he had the temerity to comment to a German newspaper that one million Armenians were killed in Turkey. Taner Akçam, the leftist scholar imprisoned for his non-conformist views of Turkish history is currently hiding out in Germany where he not only bravely confronts what he deems to be the undeniability of the Armenian genocide by wading through available Turkish material but also analyses with great sensitivity the reason why Turks are unwilling or reluctant to delve into this matter:
“Turkey has not yet been able to fully digest the problematic aspects associated with the transition from Empire to Republic. It is utterly unwilling to accept the political transformation from a mighty Empire straddling three continents to a republic squeezed between two continents. Herein lies the problem. If Turkey had indeed reconciled itself to what it has arrived as a result of the collapse and dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, it would not have had to create taboos with regard to its own history, nor would it display the hysterical-neurotic reactions that it does. Basically, Turkey desires to be at the highest position it believes it had in its past and does not accept where it is today. This is the primary reason for Turkey’s emotional reaction to history.”
Gündüz Aktan in the newspaper Radikal writes frankly that: “Such bitterness and sorrow lie in our past that we desire not to study them but to forget them entirely. We simply don’t have the strength to face this much grief. Because others have accused us of having caused their suffering, the claim of the genocide incites us – who have struggled to forget our own grief – to indignation and rebellion.”
Life for Turks who decide to take an alternative to the ‘official’ view of history experience great hardships in Turkey. If Erdoğan is genuine about studying the genocide then the pre-requisite step surely is to make the discussion of history free and unfettered within Turkish society, something that it currently is not. Only then will it be understood that Western countries rarely make history the cause for political strife but rather a catalyst for healing.
As the youth group of Pontiaki Estia once more held its remarkable both in variety and scope Workshop on the Pontian Genocide over the past two weeks, a few thoughts came into my mind which are important when we discuss such issues.
Firstly, the Turkish people are not our enemies. We have the tendency, when our souls are crying out at the enormity of the genocide to sometimes express ourselves in extreme or unfair terms. The fact that many Turkish scholars actually put their lives at risk to ‘set the record straight’ proves that the genocide is a historical issue, which should not and must not affect our relations with the Turkish people. While it may be hurtful for many of us to hear people deny the genocide, the way forward is through increased communication and consensus, something that is admittedly difficult but necessary.
Secondly, our own scholarship and activism on the Pontian Genocide is poor compared to that of the Armenians. Through sheer willpower and passion, the Armenian diaspora have had France recognize the Armenian Genocide officially and recently the governor of California Arnold Schwarzeneger has also instituted an official day of commemoration. We tend to view the Pontian Genocide as something pertaining only to Pontians. It seems not to have affected non-Pontians to any great level and this is proven by the almost total lack of Greek community interest in what occurred, let alone the events commemorating it or seeking worldwide recognition of it. Further such scholarship as is advanced to prove or delineate the events of the Pontian Genocide is of a raw and unsophisticated level compared to that of the Armenians and we have failed to attract foreign scholarship to this issue.
Which brings me to my next point. It is the height of folly to refer to a Pontian Genocide, an Armenian Genocide or an Assyrian Genocide. The fact of the matter is that a considerable population of all these three nations was simultaneously dispossessed of its homeland and life. We need to start thinking in collective terms. No one owns the term genocide and if we as Greeks are to advance a position on the issue, we cannot do so other than in consort with the other aggrieved parties. To date this has not been done with the result that the Pontian (or rather Greek) and Assyrian genocides are relatively unknown as an issue. In this, the youth of Pontiaki Estia are to be applauded in inviting the participation of our Armenian community in the Workshop this year and participating in their commemorative events. This marks one of the rare historic moments in Australia where our community has been able to transcend its shell and embrace others and we need to work in consort if we are to place the issue in the wider Australian consciousness.
Last year when I wrote about the Genocide, I received a considerable number of abusive and threatening emails from persons identifying themselves as Turks. Some of these threatened to cause violence to my family, others referred to me and Pontiaki Estia as terrorists. This signifies that the road to reconciliation or acceptance of alternate versions of facts is a long and rocky one but it must be traversed. I for one, prefer to recall the words of Fatme Hanım, my landlady in Aksaray, Turkey who once told me: “Whatever happened in the past is past. As long as you are before my eyes, you will be my son and my son’s brother.”

First published in NKEE on 23 May 2005