Facing History: Denial and Turkish National History
Dr. Taner Akçam, Visiting Associate Professor, Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of Minnesota

January 17, 2008
In his introduction, John Sitilides, set the background for the event by pointing out that the numerous Southeast Europe Project presentations on Turkey have generally assessed that the political leadership in Ankara has tended to favor the realist approach to foreign policy. As a consequence, Ankara views the region through the prism of Turkey being a key player that steadfastly seeks durable security and national gains, whereas diplomatic relations have been defective in many aspects.

However, he also pointed to two alternative views presented – Dr. Haldun Gulap, in May 2006, speculated that Turkey's foreign policy has been shaped by Turkey's "multiple Islams," while in March 2007, Dr. Pinar Bilgin saw globalization as having a turbulent impact on Turkish society and national identity. As Turkey, in recent years, has accelerated the consolidation of democratic institutions, there have been upward pressures from the society on foreign policy making. This warrants special attention because of the uniqueness of Turkish society and its political system. CIA and US State Department statistics show that Turkey, a country of 73 million people, is 99.8 percent Muslim (mostly Sunni), with up to 20 percent of Turkish citizens being ethnic Kurds. In spite of this, the surprise lies in the fact that there is strong political support for secularism. The State Department's assessment is that Kemalism combines secularism, statism, strong nationalism and, to some degree, a western orientation. Not surprisingly, this leads to lively debates in Turkish politics. However, the State Department points out that the current AK Party challenges principles that symbolize Kemalism.

Dr. Taner Akçam, sociologist and historian at the University of Minnesota, has yet another approach positing that Turkey's perception about social (and ethnic) homogeneity is rather decisive in shaping Turkish foreign policy. Dr. Akçam's main point of discussion was the connection between Turkey's struggle to face its history of ethnic tension and the concept of national security. He pointed out that, in September 2005, a few Turkish intellectuals who questioned the Turkish state policy on the Armenia issue gathered for a conference in Istanbul while outside demonstrators protested the conference itself by holding placards touting "not genocide, but defense of the fatherland." Two convictions are at work here – one referring to the past; the other to the present. Both the events of 1915 and the denial policy today, nine decades later, are framed by the government as Turkish self-defense.

Dr Akçam argued that the demands for Turkey to face its past are vehemently rejected and denounced by many in the political arena as a cowardly move in a master plan to partition the country. Facing history is seen by some as a threat to national security. The Turkish Constitutional Court, by passing Article 301, decided that any discussion about genocide, whether in Turkey or abroad, unfavorably affects Turkish national interests. Claiming that genocide happened, the Court argued, is but a means to the aim of changing Turkey's geographical frontiers and a campaign to demolish its physical and legal structure. Further pointing out that, Turkey is under a diplomatic siege of genocide resolutions that may lead in the future to questioning the sovereignty right that Turkey has over the lands where these events have occurred.

Dr. Akçam believes that this self-defense mechanism has its roots in the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, a process that gave birth to divergent and mutually-exclusive historical accounts. From late Ottoman times, there has been a tension between the state's concern for secure borders and society's needs to come to terms with abuses of human rights.

Dr. Akçam pointed out that until recently, the dominating narrative has been the story of the partitioning of the Empire among the great powers that ended with the empire disintegrating. This narrative scarcely mentioned the minorities living in the empire and has scant references to Greeks, Armenians and others as contributors to Ottoman social, political and cultural life, let alone as victims of massacres and other human rights violations. In Turkish historiography, Christian communities are painted as seditious agents of the imperialist great powers infringing against the Turkish state.

The ethnic and religious communities on the other hand centered themselves within a narrative of persecutions, massacres and annihilation by Ottoman rulers as in the case of the Armenians, Dr. Akçam continued. The controversies about the events in 1915 can thus be understood as the deployment of two apparently contradictory historical narratives against one another.

According to Dr. Akçam, there is evidence to show that the two narratives are not contradictory, but sides of the same coin. Both have to be taken into account in order to grasp the ambiguities of Ottoman Turkish history and the ramifications to national security interests today. National security interests and human rights were at times inseparably intertwined after the end of WWI, especially between 1918 and 1923. In working out a settlement, political decision makers grappled with two issues: the territorial integrity of the Ottoman state and the wartime atrocities committed against the Armenian ethnics by the leading political party at the time, the Party of Union and Progress (PUP).

Dr. Akçam reminded the audience that the permeating questions at the time centered on letting the Ottoman state keep its sovereignty and redrawing borders to allow for new states to arise on its territory. These questions led to two different movements: a nationalist movement under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, favoring continued Turkish sovereignty; and a movement of the Allied Powers along with the ethnic and religious minorities, which favored the establishment of new states in the territory.

Dr. Akçam pointed out that the treaties of Sèvres (1920) and Lausanne (1923) reflected these divergent points of view. The understanding in modern Turkey is that as legitimate successors of the Ottoman Empire, Turks at the time defended their remaining territory against Armenians, Greeks, Kurds and others, who were trying to carve up Anatolia into nation states with the help of Britain, France and Italy. The Sèvres Treaty is seen as having favored these minorities and is a black mark in Turkish history. It was an unprecedented opportunity for non-Turkish nationalities on the territory of the Ottoman Empire. The Lausanne Treaty, on the other hand, gave Turkey sovereignty and dominance over Anatolia – a validation of the continued Turkish existence, and is seen by the non-Turks as a great historical injustice.

In Dr. Akçam's view, the Allied powers took the position that the Turks organized the massacres and it was therefore necessary to punish the Turks collectively in order to rescue the other ethnicities from Turkish domination. This punishment was to be accomplished in two phases: first, members of the Ottoman government and other officials would be tried for the crimes and second, the Empire would be rendered to a smaller, weaker state by partitioning it.

Post-war Turkey was governed from two political centers – Istanbul, seen as the seat of the Ottoman government and Ankara, the center of the Turkish Nationalist Movement led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Both cities acknowledged the massacre of the Armenians and agreed with the Allied Powers that they should get their trials. Ankara and Istanbul both opposed, however, the punitive partition of Anatolia. Both agreed that the re-awakening of the PUP would be undesirable and dangerous and signed a protocol in 1919 calling for the election of an Ottoman Parliament.

Kemal Atatürk, before the Parliament in 1920, called the atrocities a shameful act. He believed that the wartime trials were the price, the alternative for national sovereignty. This move would have successfully impressed the foreign elements, he once declared. In exchange for this concession, he expected that Turkey would get a more favorable peace settlement, without any significant loss of territory. Dr. Akçam conjectured that this strategy failed as evident in the 1920 Sèvres Agreement which mandated the partitioning of the Turkish territory. Further, under foreign pressure, the perpetrators were court-martialed in Istanbul and almost all were sentenced to death in absentia. When the nationalists realized that their popularity and support would not prevent the partitioning of Anatolia, their attitude drastically changed.

Dr. Akçam pointed out that the court-martialing in Istanbul is seen as a symbol of two interwoven strands of Turkish history – territory and sovereignty on one side and human rights on the other side. As sovereignty became paramount to Turkey, the human rights issue was consigned to oblivion. This is one major reason why, in modern Turkey, the human rights aspect of history, including the Armenian genocide, has been suppressed and any discussion on the matter is perceived as a threat to national security. He further stated that had national sovereignty for Turkey been secured in exchange for trials in case of crimes against humanity, we would be talking about a different history today.

Reintegrating human rights into Turkish history reveals important new perspectives for a concept of Turkish national security today. Atatürk's condemnation of the Armenian massacre is diametrically opposed to the current government's views. Atatürk's position during the war years could be a positive starting point for a resolution and Turkey must confront this dark chapter of its history if it wants to become a truly democratic state. Dr. Akçam explained that, the Armenian-Turkish conflict should be repositioned within the new paradigm of transitional justice; make it a part of the democratization effort. He further stated that the question of human rights should be disentangled from the question of territory and national security. The latter has been resolved already and should remain closed. The question of human rights is unresolved and must be re-opened for a democratic Turkey.

Dr. Akçam cautioned that intellectuals that attempt to tackle the debate are considered traitors by the government and tried under the infamous Article 301. One such example is Arat Sakizian. Turkey should not criminalize historical inquiries for national security reasons. Further stipulating that, the Armenia problem was a problem of political rights and social reform. It is the same today in the case of the ethnic Kurds. Prime Minister Erdogan rejected the idea of making the Kurdish language a selective language in school curricula, invoking national security as a concern.

Dr. Akçam stressed that Turkey should strive to heal relations with its neighbors. Stating that, "if Turkey refuses to come to terms with its past, further problems could be created and true democratization delayed both in Turkey and in the region." Human rights and historical wrongdoing have to be addressed in order to have national security. The lack of this inclusion is the main reason for countries to distrust each other and see the other as the enemy.