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Turkish Historian Taner Akçam: Some Aspects of the Armenian Genocide and Silence of the Turks

Turkish Historian Taner Akçam: Some Aspects of the Armenian Genocide and Silence of the Turks

Chapter 1 - Taner Akçam about the Turkish National "I" and Some of Its Specifics

Racism Ideology and "Lack of Convictions" in the Genocide

There are quite a few works the authors of which draw a parallel between the Armenian and the Jewish genocide and as a rule tend to identify these events.  This is preconditioned not only by the denial of Turkey to accept the genocide but also the approach of Europe towards the problem. Specifically, some factors that have played a pivotal role in the European history are being attempted to be tracked down in the Armenian genocide.  To the best of my belief it is impossible to comprehend the format and specifics of the genocide in such a way.

What is the role of the racism in the Armenian genocide?  Some claim that the Turkish racism has been the determining factor for the genocide. I am on the other side of the fence.  It is difficult to find theory in Turkey that would stipulate the annihilation of Armenians as a nation, as it was with Jews. Starting 1880's despite the development of ideological traditions typical to anti-Semitism, the idea of annihilating Armenians as an ethnic group has not become the mindset of the whole society.  

For decades Armenian and Turkish opposition were on the same warpath, together they implemented and celebrated the revolution in 1908.  Even before the WWI despite the tension and the problems, the relationship between the Young Turks and the Armenian organizations were on such a level that there was no racism issue.  

Racism was not the defining attribute of the Ottoman leadership either; hence it is useless to waste time on searching documents indicating the plans to annihilate the Armenian nation. At least this is proved by the fact that not all the Armenians were evicted during the deportations, that in some regions Armenians were forcibly Islamized, and some Armenians yet survived and after the war negotiations were held with them about the interstate borders.

The massacre of the Armenians was not intended to eradicate the Armenian nation; the main goal was to minimize the number of Armenian people so that it could no longer threaten the Turkish state and save the remaining territory.  As to the religious factor, it was used to mobilize the Muslim population against the Armenians.

The main difference between the Turkish nationalists and the German ones is their uttermost pragmatism. The impelling factor of the Turkish authorities was the principle «lack of ideology».  The main reason for the ideological variance was the state philosophy peculiar to the descendants of the rulers of 600-year-old great empire: the criterion for any ideology was its usefulness and depending on the situation the authorities changed the ideology for the sake of their interests.  For centuries the ruling elite recognized only one principle:  to prolong subsistence of the empire at any sacrifice.

Using the expression of Weber one can talk about the existence of technocratic, «rational» elite.  One of the main reasons for the formation of such managerial thinking was the Ottoman social structure, where there was a huge gap between the people and the state.  In the minds of the authorities people were just crowds of subject-slaves therefore they did not tend to fill the gap with mass ideology.  The ruling elite treated the ideology utterly rational: they recognized the ideology that would do good for the state.  For example, the godfather of the Turkish nationalism Yusuf Akchur in his work «Three Types of Politics» defends the Pan-Turkism doctrine namely for its «usefulness to the state».

Genocide and the Tradition of Using Written Documents

One of the interesting aspects of the managerial philosophy of the Ottoman-Turkish leaders was their attitude towards the written documents. The Western and Armenian researchers, who were not familiar with the mindset of the Ottoman statesmen, got caught up in a trap.  By trying to set direct relation between the events and the written documents, the Western researchers wasted time on searching for plans and orders about extermination of Armenians and after meeting with failure they set out leads about the deliberate annulment of documents.   Even some of them do not shun publishing documents which authenticity is disputable. 

Their main mistake is that they proceed from the logic of direct relation of public life from the written documents.  Logically, if the genocide was committed then it should have been confirmed with written orders.  In fact the Ottoman society used the written documents not only to affirm the real events but also as a means to manipulate these events.  This “bureaucratic worldview” the main goal of which is «to sacrifice the reality as it is for the sake of making everything look good and proper on paper».   Usually at first the decisions were made verbally and then the events were made «formal».   In the meantime even after making a decision to start the deportations, in the instructions to their ambassadors the Turkish authorities continued to persistently insist that the rumors about deportations are pure blackwash». Hence the government without any hesitation deceived even its ambassadors.

That is why the researchers, who hope to find documents in the Turkish archives confirming the fact of the genocide, will be shocked to discover the investigative file of state officials that had mistreated the Armenians.   A committee was formed under the Military Ministry investigating the facts of abuse and lawless actions during the deportations of Armenians and it remained in force until the end of 1918.   The total number of the alleged offenders was 1397 people and many of them either were handed a sentence or put to death. 

Therefore one can make many mistakes if referring to the documents as we are palling around with the Ottoman-Turkish world where it was not common to reflect the reality as it is in the documents. On the contrary, the documents were backdated and were fabricated as needed.  That is why the document retrieval confirming the fact of organizing the Armenian genocide will lead nowhere.  It is more important to show the psyche of people who had executed it. It requires a new approach to study and evaluate the documents.

The Result of the Genocide –Turkification of Anatolia

Generally it is conventional to talk about the irrationality of mass extermination.  Especially when we talk about the Jewish holocaust there are many arguments about the lack of any rational «interests» or «benefits».   Indeed, the mass extermination of Jews hardly brought any economic or political benefit to the German people. In the case of the Armenian genocide the situation is quite different.  This action offered the Turks certain benefits.  As a result of this action the Turks would score important advantage. In other words, the Armenian genocide was not committed for the abstract ideology but for getting quite tangible benefits.  This is not only about the new social group of rich people who had made a fortune through plundering the property of Armenians, but also the economic collapse after the genocide.  Together with the Armenians and the Greeks, liveliness and prosperity left Anatolia for a long time.

The state greatly benefited from the genocide: it was given a free hand to establish a state on the territory of Anatolia.  All the rulers of the Ottoman empire and the government of the Young Turks were mostly afraid that the Christian minorities would take over Anatolia one day. So cleaning up the region from the Christians was not limited only to Armenians and it was being done before the WWI, and the turkification of Anatolia became the central policy of the government especially after the Balkan war. 

If there was a talk of cleaning up Anatolia from the Christians and its complete turkification, the Armenian genocide must be reviewed through the same lens. We have to answer the question: why was the turkification process in Western Anatolia implemented without massive exterminations, although there were individual cases of exterminations but in the east of the country we committed genocide?  

First of all it is explained by the fact that there was no war back then yet, and the outside forces controlled the situation: both the western powers and Russia despite the disagreements between them pursued coherent policy when it came to Christian minorities.  Once the war broke out the threat of external intervention lost its relevance: the turkification of Anatolia could be done easily and quietly.  There is a common rule: war always builds up breeding ground for large-scale massacres.

The second important reason that dissuaded the Turkish leaders from large-scale massacres during the turkification of Western Anatolia was their belief that all is not lost; some of them had their heads in the clouds and cherished a hope of re-establishing the Great Empire.     The opposite picture was the execution of the Armenian genocide: back then the society was consumed with deep pessimism and everyone was waiting for the end to approach.  Now there was talk of not the turkification of a certain region but of the existence of the Turkish nation.   Too little time had passed between the nascence and evanescence of illusions in regard to implementing the idea of the Great Turan. 

Following the permanent territorial losses in Europe and blow to hopes to set up the Great Turan, only the Anatolian lands remained in the hands of the Turks.  And now the Turks could lose their last nook, the last sliver of the Turkish homeland: Anatolia. The constant flow of refugees from the Balkan to Anatolia and boost of national consciousness among the Armenian and Greek population in Anatolia forced the government to change its policy towards this territory and in the course of time «the idea of creating Turkish Anatolia arose».

As a matter of fact after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the WWI the first issue on the agenda was supposed to be the reforms in the Armenian vilayets which were removed from the agenda owing to the war. The implementation of the reform program would have meant the end of centuries-long rule of the Turks.  Back in the 80's of the XIX century sultan Abdul Hamid furiously resisted the implementation of reforms in the Armenian regions stipulated by the article 61 of the Berlin Treaty.   According to sultan it would have meant the beginning of a mass extermination of the Turks. There was, of course, another radical decision: mass extermination of Armenians.

Everything was meticulously considered. The success of the massive national resistance in Anatolia would be possible if the population of the region was homogeneous.  The task was to minimize the number of the Armenian population. Various telegrams of those times show that the policy to confine the number of the Armenian population was implemented quite scrupulously.  The policy to minimize the Armenian population remained in force even when the latter surrender their religion. At first the Armenians were forcibly converted to Islam, and those that agreed to convert were not deported. But over the time the number of people that had accepted Islam had reached menacing sizes, which frustrated the plans of the government, therefore the decision was made to exile all the people of Armenian origin regardless of their religion.  An encrypted instruction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs dated July 1, 1915 stated: «Some Armenians convert to Islam individually or in groups not to leave their homeland. They should be exiled as well».

Participation of the Civilian Population in the Genocide

The distinctive feature of the Armenian genocide is the participation of civilian population in it.  While the Jewish holocaust was entirely the product of the bureaucratic apparatus; it was planned meticulously down to the last detail and implemented by the state.

From the very beginning the civilian population took an active part in the extermination of Armenians.  Their main goal was wealth accumulation.  We can comment in different ways on the reasons for mass participation of population in the genocide but I would like to touch upon one aspect.

There was no ideological unity between the people and the state, which was present during the Jewish holocaust. The state considered the people as a concourse of slaves, who need to be ruled, therefore they did not deem necessary to establish an ideological bridge with people.     Thereafter the masses of people did not support the movement of the Young Turks. The Young Turks were the representatives of semi military-semi civil intellectuals brought up in the spirit of the Western civilization and under the influence of modern science.  They tried to prove that chosenness of people based on the biological dominance is not heritable but a feature obtained through brain functions.  This elite-totalitarian thinking defined their views on people.  People were a spiritual community waiting for salvation and its salvation was a scientific need, a mission. The only problem of people was that they did not know how to save themselves.

The Ottoman society consisted of peasants whose religious consciousness prevailed over the national one; therefore the modern nationalism propаgated by the Young Turks was strange for them. As a result Pan-Turkism became the ideology of the young officers and bureaucrats only. This deprived the Young Turks from the wide public support.

The Armenian genocide was the result of long-lasting disease of the society where there was no alliance between the state and people.  The ruling elite was constantly in fear whether their initiative would seek support among the population and was looking for new ways to attract them to participate in the attended crime.  The state appealed to the personal interests of people and urged them to rob the property of Armenians.  And in those regions where the Muslim population implemented the mentioned crime without the order from the above, the authorities did not interfere in their affairs.  As a result the criminal complicity was implemented amid the personal interests; plunder of property.  This way not only the state shifted part of the responsibilities onto the shoulders of common Muslims, but also secured itself with the support of the population to some extent. 

The law, navigated through Majlis on September 13, 1915 clearly demonstrated the purpose of the government.  It is called «Time law on property, debts and real estate of persons relocated to other areas».  The meaning of the law was that all the movable and immovable assets of the deportees were subject to be sold so that they could not settle in their native lands even if they returned.   It meant legalization of robbery and sale of the property of Armenians following it. 

Perception of Genocide

There is quite an interesting feature that attracts one's attention in the way the society perceives the Armenian genocide. In Germany the Jewish holocaust is officially recognized and is openly discussed, however people are prone to dissociate themselves from the crime: the old generation of Germans says that they did not know anything about it.   In Turkey the picture is different: the official Turkey steadfastly refuses to accept the Armenian genocide and forbids discussions on this topic, but almost all the ordinary citizens accept the fact of the crime and the stories about the details of the genocide are passed from one generation into another.  But at the same time the society is indifferent and treats the position of the authorities without criticism.  There are many reasons behind this, but I would like to turn your attention to two of them which in my opinion are more important.

There was a «dualism» in the Ottoman-Turkish society; division of society into «officials» and «civilians».   On the one weighing pan was the official society with its rules and mindset which was not disputed by anyone, on the other pan was the civilian, unofficial society, which topics and standards of conducts were forbidden at the highest levels.  Very few people took the interdictions of the highest levels seriously.   An excellent example of the abovementioned is the fact that even when the Kurds were not recognized as a separate ethnic group, the Kurdish language was spoken in the state institutions of Kurdistan.

The roots of this phenomenon should be sought in the gap existing between the legal system and management practice. The right remote from life remained on the paper and it became a tradition: the state lived on its own and people lived per se. People perceived the state as something abstract that they had to obey in order not to reap a harvest of trouble, but it was not particularly interested in people's fate.  The less they contacted with them, the better it would was.  

In the perception of the Armenian genocide the mentioned psychology played no small part.  The official standpoint regarding this problem did not meet with resistance across the track.  Everybody was aware of the inconsistency of this approach with the reality, but they preferred not to intervene.  And this is a completely unhealthy approach that hinders the recognition of the genocide.  

The second critical moment is that the society does not feel responsible for the genocide. The fact that the genocide is not the result of certain ideology has a role in it.  People across the track were not ready to take part of the accountability, as the genocide «was their (the highest level) doing».  Hence the participation of crowds in the actions is limited to those individuals who had been directly involved in the massacres and plunders. After all there is no ideological solidarity between those that have become partners in a crime and those that maintained aloofness.   And the collective responsibility is out of the question.  Therewith the disconnect of the state from people allows the latter to dissociate themselves from the policy of the government, that way freeing themselves of the sense of guilt.  

The other critical moment for the lack of sense of guilt for the genocide is its perception as «the act of retaliation».  There is a common version that the Armenians have committed a number of crimes for which they were punished. This statement prevails in the remarks of almost all the public figures who do not deny the Armenian genocide.  The spirit of «retaliation» and «punishment» also dominated in the official version. 

Here we are dealing with a rather serious problem.  They try to distill the problem of mass killings down to the ordinary categories of «crime» and «punishment».  And not only have those that try to justify the genocide follow this logic. Far worse is when a similar approach is evidenced in the works that criticize the genocide; they try to prove that Armenians were not guilty and only for this reason the genocide should not have taken place.   Following this logic we may come to a conclusion that if there is a significant reason behind it, then number of problems may be solved through committing genocide no matter how terrible it may sound.    We need to break off causal link between the genocide and the behavior of the victim following it.  Until we do not leave behind this logic chain it will be difficult for us to build up healthy ground to condemn crimes against humanity. It is almost the same as dependence of tolerating or not tolerating tortures from a person who was put to the rack. And if it so, then there is always a reason to justify the tortures and prove their imminence. 

Why Genocide is not Recognized and People Avoid Discussions On This Topic 

I would like to submit some of the mentioned reasons to the approval of the reader in thesis form being fully aware that it is still a raw material.

Forgetfulness is our common illness.

The Turkish society is ill and the illness is called forgetfulness. It is one of the main obstacles on the way to discuss the Armenian genocide. We can also talk about the lack of historical consciousness.   Not only have the events of WWI and after it sunk into oblivion for us but also the 60’ and the 70's.  For example, the last military coup (September 12, 1980) that caused us so many sufferings and destructions has been forgotten.  Here we talk about massive «loss of memory».  The psychology teaches us that the illness called forgetfulness usually has to do with the desire to forget the sad events of the past. 

Apparently one of the main causes of the illness is the lack of historical memory. The founders of our republic destroyed our ties with the historical past. Any state seeks to ensure a legal ground, historical roots for itself on which the country is build up. In this matter the Kemalists encountered some difficulties.  Throughout the history of the Ottoman empire Islam eradicated and erased from the memory of people all the Turkic.  For this reason the leaders of new Turkey could not connect the historical roots of the nation-state with the Ottoman Empire.  They were looking for a new, pure Turkish history.   They had to leapfrog into the past and look for their roots from 600 years ago, when the Ottoman Empire did not exist yet.

One of the consequences of the research for their own history was the hostile attitude towards everything Ottoman.  The generation of the Republicans were to stand upon their rights through mudslinging and criticizing the Ottomans.  The result was declaring war to the history from 600 years ago, to its Islamic features that ruined everything Turkish.  With the view of reviving the «demonized and forgotten» history of the Turks, new historical theses were prepared, the history was written anew. 

In 1918 the Arabic alphabet was replaced with the Latin alphabet that led to the loss of cultural ties of future generations with the precedent period. And clearing off the Turkish language from the foreign elements led to the fact that today the Turks do not understand the written and verbal language of 30's and 40's.  The connection of the society with the historical past was carried out through some official historians and lecturers.  It smoothened things down for developing official historical doctrine.  Imagine a society for which their own history (what is more from sixty years ago) is a secret under lock and key, who is happy with whatever presented; a society that cannot read even the written documents left by their parents.  How we can talk about the historical consciousness of such a society and expect an objective approach to history from them?

To the lack of historical memory we can also add such social factors like the immense complexity of problems we face, the average statistical age of the population (our society is too young), the historical nomad traditions of the Turks and so on.  I think there is no need to demonstrate how the historical blindness affects the perception of the Armenian genocide.  

And yet, the lack of the historic memory is more a shared issue, and the fear to discuss the Armenian genocide has more specific reasons.  What will be the reaction of the patient who was miraculously cured from terminal illness, if he is told that the illness could come back? Probably the oversensitivity towards the Armenian issue is explained the same way.  We do not want to think of the past that was humiliating for us and we do not allow others to remind us of it.  But it is the whole issue.  If we are really healthy and have got rid of nightmares then let's talk out.   To the best of my belief, we are still ill and until we openly discuss the Armenian genocide, we have few chances «to recover».

Liberation War – A Civil War against Armenians and Greeks

We avoid serious discussions on the Armenian genocide fearing to lose faith in ourselves.   There is a real danger that such discussions may throw discredit on the values the verity of which was never disputed. And most of all we are frightened to lose the national image that we had created.  The Turkish republic is the symbol of national renascence for us, a phoenix raised from the ashes.  Anti-imperialism has become the integral part of our nationalism.  All the political forces of the society whether left or right, have a positive attitude towards the creation of own national state.  But if we treat our history from the standpoint of the Armenian genocide, then it will emerge that our national image is way too problematic.  

We have a conventional image that «Liberation War» was against the imperialism, against the foreign powers seeking to divide Turkey between themselves. However the critical approach to the available sources leaves no doubt that the war was against not the invaders, but against the national minorities.    

It is commonly known that the driving force of the Turkish Liberation war was «Rights Protection Society» (Mudafaa-i hukuk dernekleri).  Even a peek into the history of the societies demonstrates that they were built in the regions where there was a real threat from the Armenians and the Greeks. The Turks were forced to do so due to the danger of Greek intervention and creation of Armenian state, as well as the fear of inevitable retaliation for their actions once the Armenians returned.  The societies sent delegations to the European capitals to prove that in the areas controlled by them the Turks constitute the majority of the population.  The purpose was clear: to convince the imperialist powers to drop the plans of dividing Anatolia between the Armenians, Greeks and Turks and win their support. 

Throughout the Liberation war the idea to become a mandated state remained an important alternative.  Particularly intensive efforts were put to gain the auspices of the USA.  The war was the result of fear in front of minorities. Long story short, the dialectic activities snapped into the action, the presence of the Greeks in the West and the Armenians in the East of Anatolia moulded «the salvation of Anatolia from these harmful elements» into high-priority task.


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