Nation-making Amnesia

It is hard for Americans to imagine a topic almost a century old that remains so wounding that writers risk their lives merely for raising it. Yet in Turkey, the nightmarish events of 1915–16, when upwards of a million Armenians may have perished at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, remain so bitterly contested that even using the word “genocide” can get you into trouble. Recently an organization of Turkish nationalist lawyers brought charges against the novelist Elif Shafak-citing a 2005 law against “insulting Turkish identity”-for having an Armenian character in her novel The Bastard of Istanbul condemn the “Turkish butchers” who killed his ancestors. The same organization had earlier succeeded in getting the novelist Orhan Pamuk (who in October received the Nobel Prize for literature) indicted under the same law. Both cases attracted international attention, embarrassing the Turkish government, which, unlike the nationalists, wants to join the European Union (EU). Charges against Pamuk were eventually dropped, and Shafak was acquitted. Hrant Dink, editor of the bilinguial Armenian-Turkish weekly Agos (circulation 6,000) was not so lucky. Dink had written against French efforts to make recognition of the Armenian genocide a precondition for Turkey’s entry into the EU, arguing that when democracy and free speech came to Turkey, the truth about 1915 would prevail. He was convicted under Article 301 for insulting Turkishness. Although his sentence was suspended, future persecutions were in the offing. On January 19, Hrant Dink was gunned down in front of his Istanbul office by a seventeen-year-old stranger who shouted, “I have killed an Armenian.”

The great French historian Ernest Renan once observed that in the creating of nations, the act of forgetting is as important as remembering. For citizens of Turkey, nation-making amnesia has meant obliterating the memory of a group that inhabited their country before they did, only to vanish at the close of the Ottoman Empire in a genocide engineered by the fathers of the modern Turkish Republic. For almost a century now, Turkey has been busy forgetting the Armenians. No longer. Following the assassination of Hrant Dink, tens of thousands of Turks converged on the crime scene, shouting, “We are all Hrant! We are all Armenians.” More than a hundred thousand mourners carrying his picture crowded into the streets at his funeral. They knew why he was killed; some carried posters reading “Hrant Dink 2007–1915.”

Taner Akçam, who like Pamuk, Shafak, and Dink, has also received death threats from his countrymen, has also made forgetting impossible. The exiled Turkish historian’s new book, A Shameful Act, was published simultaneously in Turkey. Unlike Holocaust scholarship, in which the study of the perpetrators has drawn on the huge set of records captured with their defeat, research on the Armenian genocide, whose architects were victorious, has been based almost entirely on the accounts of survivors and of foreign observers. Akçam has now reversed that perspective. Through assiduous sleuthing in long-forgotten memoirs and Ottoman documents, Akçam has laid bare the motives and mindset of those who planned and executed the destruction. He shows us not only what happened in Turkey during the horror years of 1915–16 but why.

Akçam begins with religion. He shares none of that nostalgia for the old Ottoman Empire offered by popular writers who depict it as a haven of peaceful diversity. True, Islamic pluralism ensured that peoples conquered by the Turks would not be forcibly converted to Islam, and it left their distinctive ecclesiastical structures intact, allowing non-Muslims to develop forms of self-government and exempting them from conscription. But it also erected powerful barriers to the integration and homogenization that would have enabled the six-hundred-year-old empire to develop that essential ingredient of modern citizenship, equality before the law. Ottoman pluralism came with a thousand inequalities. For Christians and Jews, they ranged from small daily humiliations and inconveniences to heavy tax burdens, and to the absence of any legal recourse against violence and theft committed by Muslim neighbors.

Yet the Ottoman Armenians’ ultimate fate was determined not by Muslim strength but by Muslim weakness—vis-à-vis Christian Europe. Beginning in 1821, a proliferation of new Christian nation-states had burst forth from the Ottoman Empire, often aided by the intervention of one or more of the Great Powers. Between 1878 and 1918, the Incredible Shrinking Empire lost 80 percent of its territory and 75 percent of its population. With each successive Christian triumph, the belief grew among the remaining Ottoman peoples—among Christians with hope, among Muslims with increasing anger and anxiety—that their own nation would be next. As Christian peoples within the empire began to demand the rights they saw enjoyed by nations to their west, a cycle of repression, rebellion, and massacre ensued.

For the Armenians, Western intervention created a date of destiny in February 1914, when the Great Powers forced the Ottomans to entrust two European “commissioners” with the task of introducing equality—biconfessional structures of governance—in their northeastern provinces, the area of historic Armenia. For the Turks, these reforms clearly pointed toward a final partition of what was left of their empire. As Akçam shows so compellingly, it was not the alleged Armenian treason of 1915, when Armenians were accused of aiding Russian troops advancing on the Turks, but the very real “treachery” before the war, when they enlisted European aid, that legitimated the genocide in the eyes of Turkey’s rulers and much of its public.

From there things slid steadily toward nightmare. In 1913, the Committee of Union and Progress, the extreme current within the Young Turk movement, had seized control of the Ottoman state. Aggressivley anti-Western, Unionists were nevertheless in thrall to the Western model of power, which envisioned a centralized government ruling a homogenized population. They saw themselves as “doctors” of a sick society. While pan-Islamic ideology was the placebo they prescribed for its Bosnians, Kurds, and Arabs, the treatment they gave Christian populations (one determined in secret sessions before the war) was transplant and cauterization.

The “cleansing”—the Unionists’ own term—began with massacres of the Greeks on the Aegean Coast in the spring of 1914. Violence against Armenian communities on the Russian border began the following fall and moved into high gear after Ottoman forces lost eighty thousand men in a failed invasion of the Caucasus in January 1915. The Allied assault on the Gallipoli peninsula in March triggered the “strategic” deportation of Armenian communities to the interior, ostensibly to prevent them from aiding Christian invaders. The crucial escalation to genocide came in May 1915, when news arrived in Istanbul that the Armenian residents of Van, near the Iranian frontier, had taken over the city. Although the rebellion was an act of self-defense, intended to avert the threat facing their fellow Armenians on all sides, Van’s Armenians slaughtered the city’s Muslim minority in the process. At this point the caravans of Armenian deportees making their way toward the interior were ordered back and re-directed to the Syrian desert—a harsh region, uninhabitable save for a scattering of Bedouin nomads (and one actually closer to the fighting, despite the Turkish claim that the army needed to keep Armenians away from the front). It was here that most of those Armenians who had not already met their deaths through firing squad, massacre, drowning, starvation, and exposure, eked out their days, until starvation or disease put an end to their suffering. All told, the victims numbered between six hundred thousand and 1.5 million.

The final years of the Ottoman Empire produced two competing narratives of suffering. One is told by Turks. For them, World War I is the last chapter in the old story of European Christian rapacity: of hundreds of thousands of destitute Muslim refugees who flooded into Anatolia, especially after the Balkan Wars of 1912–13, where they joined their Turkish coreligionists in the struggle against Christian predators bent on their destruction. The other narrative, of course, is one of massacre and genocide, told by Armenians and the empire’s other Christians. Both stories are true; and it is Akçam’s great achievement to bring these two narratives together in a convincing and readable way. A Shameful Act chronicles a subject full of poignant and searing human stories. Akçam shows how conversion, initially a way out for the Armenians, provided no safety once the numbers grew too high for the Unionists’ demographic goals. Some Armenians (usually women and children) managed to survive the genocide by being taken into Muslim homes as concubines or wageless laborers. Others became wives and family members, while still others remained hidden until they could find a way to escape the country. Akçam gives an honor roll of Muslim governors and prefects who resisted sending innocents to their deaths and paid for this with their lives; he dedicates his book to the memory of a devout Muslim who saved an Armenian family.

A Shameful Act also energetically engages the larger political story. Akçam makes quick work of the official Turkish excuse that Armenian guerrillas—whose maximum numbers he puts at four thousand—posed an existential threat to Turkish survival. Yet it is clear that the genocide of the Armenians, together with the massacres of the smaller Christian communities (Nestorians, Jacobites, Syrian Catholics, and Chaldeans) and the postwar expulsion of the Greek Orthodox, established the conditions necessary for a Turkish nation-state. Renan knew that the homogenization of diverse populations underlying every nation-state was “always effected by brutality,” and thought it well that his own countrymen had forgotten such atrocities as St. Bartholomew’s Day and the century of “massacres and terror” that led to Languedoc’s absorption into France. Akçam, who knows what it is to be a refugee, thinks otherwise. When his student journalism in Turkey in the mid-1970s landed him a ten-year jail sentence and adoption as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, Akçam sought asylum in Germany. (He now teaches at the University of Minnesota.) Through his fearlessness and personal modesty, as well as a steady stream of scholarship, Akçam has proved an inspiration to colleagues, not least in his homeland, where his example has spurred others to begin the first public discussion of the genocide since 1919.

“Progress in historical studies,” Renan warned, “often constitutes a danger to nationality.” Will Akçam’s exposures, and others that are sure to follow, pose a danger to Turkey, a country that still has significant—and restless—minorities? Partly because Turkey has the second largest army in NATO and a population that will soon exceed that of the largest country in Europe, its answer to these questions is important to us all.

Published in the 2007-02-23 issue: 

Margaret Lavinia Anderson teaches history at the University of California, Berkeley.

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