Facing Historical Truth: A Turkey Historian’s Perspective on Genocide


By Erik-Jan Zürcher

On the occasion of the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, someone like me, who sees himself as a historian of Turkey in the 20th century, has to speak out.

In the first place there are moral and ethical reasons why this is so. Historians of the late Ottoman Empire and Turkey in the 20th century have a special responsibility. We cannot allow a situation to continue such as I knew it when I was a student and a young university teacher in the 1970s and 1980s, when – despite the fact that outside of our field, the Genocide had been an object of historical research for 50 years – we were barely aware of what had happened in 1915. Our textbooks only mentioned it as a footnote to history, if at all, and never defined it as “a genocide.” Our teachers never discussed it.
It is not just a moral issue, however. Historians of Turkey also have something specific to offer. Now that the outlines and many of the details of the Genocide have been so well established by historical research based on original documents and eyewitness accounts, there are, I think, two areas where historians of Turkey can contribute significantly to a better understanding of it, on the basis of Turkish sources. The first area is that of the causes and motives. At this point in time we have come to recognize that both longer-term developments (the popularity of social Darwinism, militarism, the issue of reforms and land disputes, mass migration of Muslim refugees) and short-term ones (the Ottoman loss of the Balkan War, the outbreak of World War I, the Ottoman defeat at Sarıkamış, the British landings at Gallipoli and the rebellion at Van) played a role.
Looking for causes and motives is important because it helps us to better understand what happened. It does not affect the issue of Genocide. What is important for the definition of Genocide is intent, the intent to destroy an ethnic or religious group wholly or in part. The motive behind this intent is not relevant, that is why the denialist argument that what happened in 1915 cannot be Genocide because the Armenians formed a threat is nonsense, even if this contention were founded in fact.
The other issue is the way in which modern Turkey, as it emerged after World War I, was shaped by the Armenian Genocide. I have looked at the personal and ideological continuities between the Committee of Union and Progress and the Kemalist republic, which are considerable. But the issues that now require attention (and increasingly are also getting it, in Turkey as well) are the transfer (or theft) of Armenian property and the conversion of Ottoman Armenians. The first, together with the more regulated takeover of Greek properties, laid the basis for the emergence of a Turkish bourgeoisie during the republic. The conversion to Islam of large numbers of Armenians during World War I means that many Turks today have some Armenian roots. Rediscovering these roots has become popular among progressive Turks in recent years. In other words: the Republic of Turkey not only carries the legacy that it was founded and ruled to a considerable extent by people who had been involved in the genocide, it also carries a material and a personal legacy of the Armenians themselves.
I am happy to say that not only in the world of Turkish studies in general, but also among Turkish historians in Turkey, the number of those who are genuinely interested in finding the truth and discussing it openly is increasing constantly. Both the ground-breaking conference at Bilgi University in 2005 and the demonstrations following the murder of Hrant Dink in 2007 have been milestones.
This new openness is a hopeful sign that reconciliation between Turks and Armenians is a possibility. That reconciliation cannot be built on denial, that is obvious, but it also cannot be built on compromise. Compromise is a politician’s tool and it serves to solve current issues, but it has nothing to do with an enquiry into historical truth. People cannot be slightly murdered. Nor can reconciliation be built on the notion, heavily promoted by the current Turkish government, that all those who suffered in the horrible years of World War I in Turkey should be commemorated together. Many more Germans died in World War II than Jews (although some of the Germans were Jews and some of the Jews Germans) but Chancellor Angela Merkel would not dream of claiming that these should be remembered equally as victims of their time and circumstances.
Acceptance of the historical truth will take time, even though the circle of Turkish historians actively promoting it is increasing. Younger generations of Turks (which means the vast majority of them as this is a young country), having been exposed to nationalist state rhetoric in school, during military service and in the media, are genuinely convinced that the story of the Genocide is a lie. Unlike the first generation of the republic they no longer consciously deny a truth they know only too well. That makes the task of re-educating the Turkish public and opening up the debate huge. But the door has been opened and it cannot be closed. Among Kurdish intellectuals, too, we see a completely new readiness to discuss the events of 1915 with an open mind. A broader realization in Turkey and beyond that Genocide is a personal crime, in other words: that persons can be accused and convicted of Genocide, but not nations or states, might also make the discussion easier. The current Turkish state and society can rightfully be accused of denying the Genocide, but not of the crime itself. Its perpetrators are long dead.
Recognition is important not just for the Armenians, but also for Turkey itself. As Taner Akçam has argued long ago, the Genocide needs to be faced if Turkey is to develop into a more relaxed, more democratic, more humanist society. It can act as a catalyst to remove the blanket of narrow and increasingly religiously tainted nationalism that lies over this society. So, let us hope that the centenary is the opening of a new page in the story of facing the historical truth, in the interest of Turks as well as Armenians.
Erik-Jan Zürcher is a professor of Turkish Studies at Leiden University and an affiliate professor of Turkish studies at Stockholm University. He defines himself primarily as a historian who is informed by social science theory and able to access Turkish primary sources. 
A longer version of this article was first published in the Turkish Studies at Leiden University Facebook group
Display type: