How (Not) to Conclude the Debate on the Armenian Genocide

You hear the story every year around this time: Turks massacred hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the early 1900s. The modern state of Turkey claims that the crumbling Ottoman state did not premeditate or direct the killings, noting that the Turks suffered as many deaths as the Armenians. Armenians, for their part, want the episode recognized as genocide, and they blame the international community for its inattention and hypocrisy. It sounds like one of those debates that will go on for eternity. The likelihood of outside intervention appeasing either side seems hopelessly low, the prospects of revealing any historical “truth” decisively grim. Yet in the 90-year history of this debate, this is perhaps the worst time to lose interest. Last October, the lower house of the French parliament passed a law that would criminalize denying that the massacres of 1915 amounted to genocide. The approval of the bill by the French cabinet seems unlikely but the attempt strained Turkish-French relations and added to the rising nationalist tensions in Turkey. The French move was also criticized by many Turkish and European liberals as an attack against freedom of speech and was seen as a populist attempt to woo the large Armenian minority living in France. In response to the bill, journalist and editor Hrant Dink, a member of the small Armenian minority left in Turkey and an outspoken critic of the Turkish government's repressive stance on the Armenian issue, said: “If the French cabinet approves this law, I swear I will go over there and say ‘No, it wasn't genocide.’ Then I will come back here and say ‘Yes, it was genocide’ and I’ll just wait and see which country arrests me first.”

Three months later, Dink was assassinated in Istanbul. That a figure as conciliatory as Dink could be targeted by fanatic nationalists shocked the country. Thousands marched at his funeral with banners proclaiming, “We are all Armenian,” expressing solidarity with the tiny Armenian community in Turkey. Still, a nationalist backlash was quick to emerge— some thought the shows of sympathy had “gone too far.”

“[The assassination] marks a turning point. Dink's funeral showed how deeply the country is divided,” said Taner Akcam, a Turkish historian at the University of Minnesota, who was one of the first Turkish academics to openly call the events of 1915 “genocide.” What Akcam calls the “deep divide” is not limited to the debate over the Armenian genocide. As Turkey continues to shed its authoritarian past, moving toward a more democratic state and EU membership, the vanguard ideologies of the old system—fanatic republicanism, nationalism, and a belief in the military as the only reliable protector of the regime—have experienced an upsurge.

Dink was criticized not only by Turkish nationalists, but also by most Armenian activists living in the diaspora. Dink saw political pressure from the US and European states as insincere and counterproductive and he called on Armenians living abroad to focus on building ties with their Armenian homeland instead of expending all their energy on pressuring Turkey to accept the genocide. “If a national identity is in need of an enemy to keep itself alive, then that is a sickly identity,” he said.

Akcam, on the other hand, sees the question of foreign intervention in the debate in a different light: “To argue for ‘no intervention’ is still an argument for a specific foreign attitude towards the issue, and it’s a part of a nationalist resistance that has a long history in Turkey,” he said.

“To say that this is a part of a greater problem of democratization which Turkey should be left alone to resolve is a joke,” he added. “There is not a single civil initiative in Turkey [that tries to deal with the debate].”

Even if foreign intervention does help, however, getting the Turkish state to shift from complete denial to formal apology would not be an easy task, and the ultimate value of such an attempt is debatable. Pushing for the unquestioned acceptance of the term “genocide” does nothing but polarize opinions and create an environment where the whole debate revolves around a binary answer. Denial of the genocide is seen by many in Turkey as a litmus test for patriotism, and changing that attitude requires the ability to look critically at the very foundation of the Turkish identity and state. “The image of the Armenian as ‘the evil other’ is critical in our ‘national foundation myth,’ and how a favorable historical image could develop out of that… I don’t know, it’s very hard,” says Akcam.

Our understanding of history is rarely in black and white. There is ongoing research about the events of 1915, and while a sizeable majority of historians would agree that you could label the events as genocide, it would be wrong-headed simply to dismiss as invalid or illegitimate the process of questioning the historical dimensions of the massacres. But what is perhaps most unfortunate is that the debate about the Armenian genocide has evolved into a fight over naming instead of an effort to understand what happened and why. Asking the latter questions is perhaps more important and productive than forcing Turkey to accept guilt and offer apologies.

“Many Turks who deny that a genocide took place do so not because they know it for a fact, but because they think of it as an act so horrid that they cannot believe their ancestors could commit it,” Dink said in an interview shortly before he was murdered. He argued that time was needed for people “to question and understand the past” before being forced to pick sides in an increasingly polarized debate.

To create the environment for mutual understanding and sympathy, nothing is more critical than strengthening ties between Turkey and Armenia. The border between the two countries has been closed since 1993 and restoring full diplomatic relations would relieve some of the pressure of these debates about history. The second step, Akcam suggests, is to make it a state policy to preserve what remains of Armenian culture in Turkey. Only then will the tension surrounding the debate begin to subside. The US and Europe—beginning with France—should help reconciliation efforts rather than throw salt in the wound.

“People's understanding of history is not static, and understanding each other better today may ease the way we look into the past,” Akcam believes. There is much that can be done to cope with and reconsider the past. Insisting on the pressure-and-resistance dynamic that has come to embody the debate on the Armenian genocide, however, does nothing but dishonor the victims of 1915.