INTERVIEW: ‘Turks and Armenians should escape vicious circle of assertion and denial’

INTERVIEW: ‘Turks and Armenians should escape vicious circle of assertion and denial’

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: ‘Turks and Armenians should escape vicious circle of assertion and denial’

Commemorations are held every year on the anniversary of Hrant Dink’s death on Jan. 17, outside the Istanbul office of the Armenian-Turkish newspaper Agos, where he was killed in 2007. AA photo

Pope Francis’ remarks over the weekend put the question of the fate of the Ottoman Armenians back under the international spotlight, ahead of the official centennial commemorations of 1915. April 24 will be especially strained this year, after Turkey rearranged the international Gallipoli campaign remembrance service to coincide with the genocide commemorations in the Armenian capital Yerevan on the same day - just the latest example of the narrative war still raging over 1915.

Stepping onto this minefield is Carnegie Endowment scholar Thomas de Waal, whose new book “Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide” (reviewed here last week) examines the last 100 years of bitterness, violence and missed opportunities between the two sides.

De Waal spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about his work and the prospects for the future of ties between Ankara and Yerevan - as well as between ordinary Turks and Armenians on the ground.
Let’s start broadly. What in particular did you want to achieve when you set out to write this book?

My original intention was to write a book about the last 20 years, during which a lot has changed in Turkey and in Armenian-Turkish relations. But I quickly realized it would be impossible to do that without looking at the whole aftermath of 1915 – in particular looking at how what Armenians called the “Meds Yeghern,” or “Great Catastrophe,” came to be known as the “Armenian Genocide.” The story is about how the word genocide has come to define the issue of what happened in 1915, even though the term postdated the events by 30 years. 

It seemed to me that there was a gap in the literature for an “Armenian/Turkish book” that would look at how what happened to the Armenians in 1915 was reconceptualized through the generations, and why it’s still such a live political issue today. Of course there is a literature already out there, but I thought there was plenty still to explore.

What in particular did you learn over the course of the research? What did you realize about the issue that you weren’t aware of before starting out?

I had worked in the Caucasus for more than 20 years. I had spent a lot of time in Armenia and the issue of 1915 looms over the Armenians in the region a bit like Mount Ararat looming over the horizon in Yerevan. But I’d always been put off tackling the issue because of the intense politics around it. But when I talked to elderly Armenians suddenly it was like a lightbulb going on, and the human story really struck me. There was an awful human story there – the worst atrocity of the First World War – but it has been overlaid by so much politics that it’s hard to get back to the human story. 

I should make something clear about the “g-word.” I started out fairly agnostically about whether I would use the term, but pretty soon I realized that it was right to do so. I also met many people in Turkey who now use it. The term is very problematic, politicized, and not very helpful in many ways, but I made the decision that I’d rather be on the side of those who use the phrase “Armenian Genocide” than on the side of those who don’t. 

Another fascinating thing was going to eastern Turkey, particularly the Kurdish parts of the country, and discovering just how long memories are in that part of the world. People remember everything. Maybe they put a spin on it, but they remember the essential facts. What happened to the Armenians is known among ordinary people in the region where it happened. I had a number of extraordinary encounters with some Armenians there, people who had Armenian relatives, who were ready to talk about the history of their families. There are many Islamized Armenians – people who have Muslim names but Armenian origins. So the history is still alive and a lot of people with Armenian roots are still there on the ground, coming out of the shadows.

You talk about how it wasn’t until the 1960s that the angry public debate over the term Armenian Genocide really developed. Could you go into a little detail about how this happened?

The term “genocide” was invented in the 1940s by Raphael Lemkin, chiefly with reference to the Holocaust but also with reference to other mass atrocities, including what happened to the Armenians in 1915. There was a moment of great humanitarian consensus of “Never Again” at the end of the Second World War, and in that spirit the United Nations adopted the Genocide Convention in 1948. The convention is on the prevention of future genocides, it’s a forward-looking convention rather than a backward-looking one. But unfortunately the word was already getting politicized as the Cold War began. The United States and the Soviet Union threw the term back and forth at each other, cheapening it. I quote a speech in 1955 by Herbert Lehman, who was the Senator from New York, to an Armenian national Independence Day commemoration, in which he said: “The Armenians are a victim of genocide by the Soviet Union.” It was the Cold War and Lehman used the word “genocide” in reference to the Armenians and the Soviet Union, without mentioning the Turks, which is extraordinary.

What’s more, in the 1960s we see the rise of identity politics, the civil rights movement, and the conception that it is OK to be a victim. Younger Armenians were also looking for a rallying point for their own identity. And there was the 50th anniversary of 1915. All of that comes together at the same time. So 1965 is the point at which it becomes a public issue again, and the “Meds Yeghern” became the “Armenian Genocide.”

INTERVIEW: ‘Turks and Armenians should escape vicious circle of assertion and denial’

Carnegie Endowment Scholar Thomas
de Waal, the author of 'Great
Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks
in the Shadow of Genocide'

Throughout this time in Turkey there was basically a narrative of silence. The Armenian issue was completely suppressed. Only one book was published on it in more than 40 years. The Armenians were forgotten. Maybe on the folk level there was a kind of prejudice, but that’s just about it. What reawakened Turkish public consciousness about the issue was the wave of Armenian terrorism in the 1970s, from young radical Armenians of ASALA [the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia] based in Beirut, some of whom were actually inspired by the Palestinians. Innocent people died, but another unfortunate effect was that it led to a new Turkish counter-narrative. If anything this counter-narrative was much more radical than the simple Turkish narrative of the 1920s about the Armenians as traitors and enemies. From that point on there was a cycle of assertion and denial, in very black and white terms, which had an incredibly negative effect for good history of what happened. It made assertion and denial of genocide the two core positions, and everyone was asked to take one side or the other. This was not very helpful.

One of the most fascinating sections of the book was about secret official talks for Turkish-Armenian rapprochement in Zurich in 1977, which actually took place at the start of the ASALA campaign. Most people will have no idea that these talks even took place. Could you go into detail about what was behind them, and whether they ever had any prospect of success? 

That is a fascinating episode and a really unfortunate missed opportunity. The elderly foreign minister of Turkey, İhsan Sabri Çağlayangil, reached out to diaspora Armenians and set up these secret talks, which eventually took place in Zurich between himself and the leaders of the three diaspora political parties. It was quite a courageous step. They met for a whole morning in Zurich, but unfortunately they were talking past each other. For Çağlayangil the main issue was the terrorism and whether the Armenian leaders could use their influence to stop it. The Armenians wanted to talk about 1915, about justice, and even raised the issue of territories. So the two sides were making impossible demands on each other. They had an interesting and spirited conversation but unfortunately Çağlayangil was reshuffled a few months later. He had actually warned the Armenians that he was an old man and his successor may not be as ready to talk to them as he was. He was quite right. 

In Turkey nobody knew about this meeting. It was written about in a few Armenian memoirs, so there were a few Armenian sources in which I could read about it. I was also able to track down a man called Oktay Aksoy, who was the Turkish foreign minister’s aide in 1977. He is retired and still living in Ankara, and is the only person of the five in the room during the meeting who is still alive today. I was able to track him down and went to see him in Ankara. He said, “Ah I was wondering when someone would ask me about that meeting all those years ago,” and recalled what he knew for me. This was confirmation from the Turkish side that this meeting had indeed taken place.

One of the major causes of the breakdown of those talks was the issue of territorial reparations. This is still a major cause of Turkish defensiveness today, with the Turks paranoid that recognizing the genocide will trigger territorial demands from the Armenians.

In the book I quote Hrant Dink, who for me was an oracle on this issue. He said, “Both the Armenians and the Turks have clinical conditions. For the Armenians it’s trauma, for the Turks it’s paranoia.” For me that really encapsulates the issue. When it comes to Turkish paranoia, clearly there is this “Sevres syndrome” going back to the 1920s, which is the idea that the Armenians are just the advance guard of the Great Powers who want to break up Turkey and make territorial claims on it. 

But I don’t think this is a serious issue. I think it’s really an issue in the psyche of the Turkish state and the Dashnaktsutyun Party, the Armenian nationalist party that makes these claims. I don’t think anyone else seriously believes it is possible. If we’re talking about territory, there has not been a recognizable Armenian state in that part of the world for more than a thousand years; Armenian rulers were essentially proxy rulers for bigger empires. I also don’t think legal reparations would be easy to prove. There are a lot of Armenians who know the house that their family came from in eastern Turkey, and even have documents, but in the First World War millions of people were displaced in this part of the world: Armenians of course, but also Muslims - Kurds, Turks, Azerbaijanis. If you’re talking about legal claims or property claims it should really be a level playing field. You’re basically talking about relitigating the whole of the First World War, which I think is impossible.

In the last 10 years there has been considerable progress in the civil sphere between the two sides. If diplomatic progress is made in the coming years, would it be right to say it will be the result of civil and academic initiatives?

There are two things to talk about here. On the high political level of relations between Ankara and Yerevan, everything is still stuck. The failure of the protocols process in 2010 made things worse. There’s also the whole Azerbaijan factor, which is still very strong. Azerbaijan has a lot of influence in Turkey and it has successfully exercised a veto on the normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia. This hasn’t actually been to the benefit of Azerbaijan, but that’s the position Baku has taken. Unfortunately, I don’t foresee any progress on that front any time soon. 

When it comes to the societies and the more general historical trend, I think we can be more optimistic. Turkey has changed a lot over the last 10 or 15 years. Many Armenians are going back to Turkey to visit, Armenian cultural monuments are now being recognized, histories are being written, and a lot of good Turkish historians and scholars are writing well about this issue. The genie is out of the bottle and denial is no longer possible. Up to 2 million Armenians “went missing” from Anatolia during the First World War; it’s no longer possible to deny that. Turkey is beginning to face up to that black period in its history, like many other countries have done with their own history. But it’s a long process and it’s only just beginning. It is mainly concentrated in two social groups in Turkey: The urban middle class in Istanbul and other cities, and the Kurdish areas of the country, where for their own political reasons the Kurds have moved a long way on this issue. They have restored the Armenian Apostolic church in Diyarbakır and apologized to the Armenians. 

Overall it will be long and uneven, but the process of Turkey owning up to the dark pages of its past, like other countries, has begun. The biggest of those crimes is the one committed against the Armenians.

So you would say that you’re optimistic about the future?

Generally, yes. Obviously we also have to say that Armenia itself is unfortunately a rather closed post-Soviet society, without many democratic instincts. So the constituency there who want to reach out to Turks is not as big as it could be. As someone who wants this process to work I’m still frustrated, but surely there’s no turning back.

Ahead of April 24 this year, the centenary commemorations are going to be much more visible. What direction do you think events will take?

It is frustrating to see two steps forward and one step back. Last year, then Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan issued a landmark statement of condolences to the Armenians. As far as many Armenians are concerned it was a bit wishy-washy, but it was actually very significant as it was the first time a Turkish leader had ever expressed condolences and regret. 

Unfortunately, maybe in the context of Turkey’s upcoming elections, Erdoğan then made a retrograde step this year by scheduling the international Gallipoli commemorations on April 24, to deliberately clash with the commemorations in Yerevan. In the past, the two dates when Gallipoli was commemorated were March 18 and April 25, so there was absolutely no reason to change it to April 24 this year. This has set up a rather ugly clash of narratives. Both the Armenian and the Turkish side will be watching who goes to Yerevan and who goes to Gallipoli. Everyone will also be watching what Barack Obama says in his April 24 message, though personally I wish people would focus more on the Turkey-Armenia bilateral relationship, rather than looking to the United States. Unfortunately, April 24 is going to be very awkward this year.