Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Seminar in Germany focuses on inner-Turkish debate of 1915
Potsdam, Germany - Why does Turkey have such difficulty in dealing with its historical past? Why can the Turkish authorities not acknowledge that in 1915 the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire was the victim of genocide? If the German post-war political elite was capable of facing up to the Holocaust and establishing relations with the Jewish people, in Israel and elsewhere, why cannot the Turkish leadership do as much?
The question was raised during a seminar in Potsdam, Germany on November 5, on "The Inner Turkish Discussion of 1915/1916" (Die innert├╝rkische Diskussion ├╝ber 1915/16 in German). Other issues discussed were the history of Turkish denial and how Turkish publications have attempted to deal with this, as well as subjects related to the genocide itself, the fate of the survivors, and how Armenians have been struggling with their traumatic past.
What made this gathering sponsored by the Lepsiushaus ( and held at Potsdam University quite special was the list of guest speakers, almost all of them prominent Turkish intellectuals, most of them from Turkey. Their task was to present the current status of the discussion process inside the country regarding 1915/1916.
The title of the event itself is symptomatic of the problem: instead of referring to the Armenian genocide, it cited "1915/1916," perhaps to protect those Turkish participants from being subjected to punitive measures from state authorities on their return home.
In fact, one planned guest speaker, Ragip Zarakolu, a prominent publisher who has issued books on the Armenian question, was prevented from attending the conference by an arrest on October 28, when he, along with 48 others, were detained in a crackdown on suspected sympathizers of the plight of Turkey's Kurds.
Thus, the Potsdam gathering was a special event, because the themes addressed and the personalities involved constituted a challenge to the current Turkish establishment, albeit neither political nor militant, but nonetheless a challenge on the intellectual and psychological level.
Policy of the Turkish republic
The comparison to the German treatment of the Holocaust was historically relevant and instructive. In answer to the question, why Turkey has such difficulties in dealing with its past, some suggest that they fear demands by the Republic of Armenia and/or the Diaspora for territorial concessions and reparations, the latter on the German model of compensation to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and to the state of Israel.
But there is more. Elke Hartmann, an Ottoman expert from Berlin, explained that Turkey, unlike Germany, was neither defeated nor occupied. To be sure, the Ottoman Empire lost in World War I, but the Turkish Republic emerged victorious from its struggle for national sovereignty and independence.
In post-war Germany, it was the occupying powers who organized the Nuremberg trials which tried, convicted, and executed leading Nazis for crimes against humanity. In subsequent years, especially in the 1960s, historians worked through the Nazi experience, and the broader German public was educated about the reality of the Nazi regime.
In Turkey, immediately after the Ottoman defeat, trials were also held and leading Young Turk officials, who had not managed to flee the country, were put on the dock, convicted, and in some cases executed. Others, including the leading figures Talaat Pasha and Djemal Pasha, were hunted down in their exile and assassinated by Armenian vigilantes.
But after the establishment of the Republic in 1923, Mustafa Kemal declared the assassinated Turks to be martyrs, and, where possible, had their remains returned to Turkey for heroes' burials. To grasp the import of this act, one should reflect on a hypothetical rehabilitation of Nazi leaders by Germany's post-WWII leader Konrad Adenauer.
As Rober Koptas, the new editor in chief of Agos, Hrant Dink's newspaper, explained, the 1919 trials had been made possible because an opposition government had come into power after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and the flight of the leading Young Turks. One could write about it, discuss it openly, and Turks heard a lot about the atrocities against Armenians in 1919.
But with the establishment of the Turkish Republic under Mustafa Kemal, that changed radically. Kemal arranged for CUP members on trial by Allied powers in Malta to be freed, and redefined the perpetrators as martyrs. Thus, the policy of "forgetting" began with the establishment of the Republic.
The phases of denial
The history of the Turkish Republic's handling of 1915/1916, was summarized by Elke Hartmann, who stepped in for Prof. Dr. Halil Berktay from Sabanci University on short notice. In a paper on "1915 and Scientific Reappraisals since the founding of the Turkish Republic: Between State Guidelines and Freedom of Research," Berktay showed how at the time of the events, the perpetrators knew exactly what they were doing, and demonstrated it in their memoirs, for example, those of Talaat, which were full of justifications for what had occurred. After Turkey's war of independence, the policy was one of silence and forgetting. Attempts from the outside to address the genocide, as in making of the film on Musa Dagh in the 1930s, were blocked by Turkish political pressure.
Although the dramatic revelations of the dimensions of the Holocaust after World War II overshadowed discussion of the Armenian genocide, in 1965, when Armenians in Armenia and elsewhere demonstrated to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their tragedy, and began to erect monuments, the issue was again on the political agenda.
A turning point occurred in 1973, when the first Turkish diplomats were assassinated by 78-year-old genocide survivor Gourgen Yanikian, which inaugurated the wave of revenge killings. This led to a policy change in Turkey, in that the Turkish authorities decided to present their own version of events. As Koptas put it, after the assassinations began, Turkey realized that "they had a 1915 problem."

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