Cracking the wall of forgetfulness
Pax Ottomanica was based on the might of the Ottoman army. For most of the time during the Empire’s rule, the tribes in eastern Anatolia, or Arab sheiks of the southern deserts, knew that if they challenged Istanbul, men with guns would come knocking on their door. So once the Army was not strong enough to guarantee peace, all hell broke loose. That was World War I. Bad things happen when empires crumble, and this was an especially big one. Other than Kurds and Palestinians, every Ottoman group carved out a state of their own. Turks today are still awkward about what happened. For us, it was the end of a glorious era, and following a strange rupture, the start of a Republic.
While Pax Ottomanica was based on military might, Pax Turcica in Anatolia has been based on forgetfulness. It was too painful and too complicated for the would-be nation builders in Ankara to deal with the memory of a massive empire.
That is where, as a veteran citizen of Turkey, I identify with Beatrice and Axl, the protagonists of “The Buried Giant,” Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel. “Be merciful and leave this country,” one of the protagonists says to the other, “Leave this country to rest in forgetfulness.” The other answers vehemently, “Foolishness, sir. How can old wounds heal while maggots linger so richly? Or a peace hold forever built on slaughter…?” That makes for a good starting point for a discussion on the ethnic engineering policies of late Ottoman governments. Ethnic engineering did not just happen in 1915. We did it before and afterwards, too, in Anatolia and elsewhere. The legacy of World War I however, is that the late Ottoman governments were trying to create a nation state for Turks in Asia Minor. They succeeded, but only at an immense cost.
The nation-state they created was built upon forgetfulness. Why did it take us around 90 years to start remembering the past? We must admit that at the root of forgetting lie the fears of our fathers. It was not really a cowardly fear, but rather the fear one has for one’s children, fear that comes with the shame of one’s own weakness. Today, the weak shout from the rooftops for help from the “international community.” It was not like that in the early 20th century. The weaker our fathers were, the stronger their urge to forget old enmities. They found themselves steeped in the blood and guts of their times and they wanted something better for their children.
That is how forgetfulness became policy. It worked for a while. Today’s Turkey is nothing like the Ottoman Empire of a hundred years ago. We are an industrialized country with a per capita GDP of $10,000, a member of NATO and the G-20 and a fairly functional democracy. But it seems now that if we want to continue to grow, we need to come to terms with our geography and history. Turkey is now ready to acknowledge that its social capital was irreparably damaged when it lost its vast non-Muslim population.
The Protocols for the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations were the first crack in the wall of forgetfulness. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s remarks last year about how he felt the agony of Ottoman citizens during World War I widened that crack. This year, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s remarks about how he felt the agony of the Ottoman Armenians put a hole in the wall. All are signs of remembrance. Turkey is overcoming forgetfulness, finally coming of age.
If nothing else, Davutoğlu’s comments about the fate of Ottoman Armenians tell us that forgetfulness is no longer official policy. Remembering will take time, but like growing up, it is inevitable.