Commentary: Profiling ‘Righteous Turks’


By Edmond Y. Azadian

The Jews have come up with the definition of the “Righteous Gentile” to honor those non-Jews who have saved Jews during the Holocaust. One such towering person was Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish humanitarian, stationed at the Swedish embassy in Hungary, who extended protection to hundreds of thousands of Jews marked to be dispatched to the concentration camps in Auschwitz, and thus he saved tens of thousands among them.

He became the pre-eminent “Righteous Gentile,” who ended his life in a Soviet concentration camp, after being captured by the Soviet troops occupying Hungary at the end of World War II. By the way, 2012 marks the centennial of Wallenberg’s birth, which is being celebrated worldwide.

Has the time arrived for Armenians to profile “Righteous Turks” who have helped some Armenians to survive during the Genocide? Is it time to honor Turkish scholars, journalists and political activists who have been struggling courageously for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by Turkey?

Many apologists and some credulous Armenians rush to the conclusion that Armenians have to recognize these acts of courage by individual Turks.

The Genocide was planned to devastate the Armenian nation, to scatter the survivors around the world and desecrate its historic homeland. After almost a century, Armenia’s survival remains a big question mark and Turkey’s continual blockade is nothing but its age-old genocidal policy implemented by successive regimes in Turkey.

Humanitarian acts were rather the exception than the rule, as the entire Turkish nation participated in the perpetration of the Genocide motivated by greed.

Therefore, only a careful analysis of history, of Armenian-Turkish relations may provide the answer whether it is time to profile the “Righteous Turk” while we are still licking our wounds as a nation.

Turkish society is undergoing a tremendous transformation for its own good. The Armenian Genocide has become a topic of national discourse and many publications are promoting the awareness of bloody Turkish history. The emergence of scholars and journalists — seeking the objective truth in Armenian-Turkish relations — have become a compelling reason for Armenians to revise their views of Turks and Turkey.

Taner Akçam was the first Turkish historian to challenge the government-sanctioned official view of the Armenian Genocide in many of his books, especially, A Shameful Act, and recently compiling and translating with Vahakn Dadrian, a seminal legal documentation titled Judgment at Istanbul, on the major indictments and verdicts of the Turkish military tribunals on the crimes perpetrated against the Armenians during World War I. Kemal Yalcin published two volumes interviewing the survivors and their families. Muge Goçek co-authored with Prof. Ronald Grigor Suny, A Question of Genocide.

Journalist Hassan Jemal, grandson of Jemal Pasha made a visit to the Genocide Memorial in Armenia. Halil Berktay, Murat Belge and many scholars have published authoritative volumes, undermining Yusuf Halacoglu’s  official view (i.e. distortion) of the Genocide. Publisher Recep Zarakolu is still in jail for having published incriminating books on the Genocide, including Turkish translations by Dadrian and Akçam.

Scholars aside, Kemal Yalçin and Hassan Jemal were reaching out to the Armenians on a human level to build bridges of understanding between the two nations at odds.

Most recently, Ahmet Altan has joined the chorus. Altan, the editor of the liberal paper, Taraf, made an emotional plea during an appearance in Boston: “Something has changed in Turkey and I hope and wish that Turkey would accept and apologize for what happened” he appealed to his mostly Armenian audience, and he continued: “Turks have hearts and consciences, believe me… If we confess our great sin, we could become a better race, a better people.”

The thrust of this entire movement is in the last sentence. Turkey and the Turks would like to join the civilized family of nations, and in order to achieve that goal they have to face their history. And in this process Armenians become the unintended beneficiary, because the major concern of the patriotic Turks is to cleanse their history from its bloody past.

Armenian-Turkish relations have been very complex and continue to be so. There have been many cycles, when relations seemed to be improving but they have also deteriorated precipitously, with devastating results. To begin with, the Ottoman constitution of 1876, engineered by Mithad Pasha, was intended to limit Sultan Abdulhamid II’s absolute rule. But it lasted only two years, and Mithad Pasha became its sacrificial lamb, being executed by the Sultan.

For many years the Armenian National Constitution was in the works through the efforts of Krikor Odian. It was adopted in 1860 and was ratified by the Sultan in 1863. The Armenian community (millet) was governed by that constitution until 1914, but the rights conceded by the Superior Port did not prevent Sultan Abdulhamid from organizing the massacres of 1894-96, claiming 300,000 Armenian lives.

The period from 1908 to 1914 seemed an idyllic period in Armenian-Turkish relations, marred only be the Adana massacres of 1909. Armenian culture flourished and the Ittihadist government encouraged Armenian representatives to be elected to the parliament, deceiving them into surrendering their arms. The motto of the day was, “We are all Ottomans.” The only political realist was General Antranik, who insisted that “Turks cannot be trusted” and he had a fall-out with the Dashnak party. And, indeed, Talaat Pasha, after spending an intimate evening dinner with the parliamentarian Krikor Zohrab, the next day had sent him on his death march with 250 prominent Armenian intellectuals.

Mustafa Kemal began his Milli movement, enlisting many Ittihadist criminals in his government and became the father of modern Turkish Republic. Since the founding of the Republic in 1923, when Ataturk was hailed as a reformer both by the West and the East, many instances of mass killing have occurred. In 1937 the Kurds in the city of Dersim were massacred, the Armenian community in the country was decimated and the minorities that were not out-and-out killed, saw their communities crushed under the wealth tax. The 1960s enjoyed some liberalization, but the price was paid by its architect Adnan Menderes on the gallows, while his friend and only Armenian member of the Turkish parliament, Mugurdich Shellefian, ended his life in exile.

Gen. Kenan Evren staged a coup in 1980 executing all the politicians who pretended to introduce democracy and liberalism in Turkey.

Today, Erdogan’s rise to power has brought prominence to Turkey, but its policies are contradictory, complex and full of duplicity. While shedding tears for Gaza victims, Erdogan’s government continues murdering Kurds. While blaming France for muzzling freedom of speech for making denial of the Armenian Genocide a punishable offense, he maintains Article 301 of the penal code, keeping more than 100 journalists in jail.

These are certainly tremendous changes in Turkey.

That is what Hrant Dink wanted the world to believe but his mission was cut short by an assassin’s bullet.

In response to Mr. Altan’s insistence that the Turks also have a heart, I have to offer my mother’s eyewitness story: there was a blind Turkish beggar at the entrance of the Adana Armenian Church. The parishioners always gave food and money in return for the blessings of the blind beggar. But during the 1909 Adana Massacres, this blind beggar was pleading the murderers to bring one gavour to him, so that he could slit his throat and gain entry to heaven. My mother was not a statesman, but her story corroborates General Antranik’s policy.

Turkey has certainly undergone a transformation. The journalists, scholars, activists are sincere in their struggle to have the Armenian Genocide recognized, but this time, that drive remains still self serving.

As to the question of whether we should begin honoring “Righteous Turks,” the answer is: only time will tell. As they say, the proof of the pudding is in its eating.