By Aram Arkun
AMSTERDAM — Ugur Ümit Üngör is one of a new generation of scholars emerging from Turkey who deal forthrightly with the Armenian Genocide. Assistant professor at the Department of History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and researcher at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam, his main interest is the historical sociology of mass violence and nationalism. He has recently published three books dealing with the Armenian Genocide and related issues.
Üngör studied at the Universities of Groningen, Utrecht, Toronto and Amsterdam. After obtaining his master’s degree in 2005 at the latter university he continued his studies until defending his doctorate there in 2009. He lectured at the University of Sheffield in England from 2008-09 and served as a post-doctoral research fellow at the Centre for War Studies of University College Dublin (Ireland) from 2009 to 2010.
According to a September 17, 2009 interview with Vahram Emiyan published in the Beirut Armenian newspaper Aztag, Üngör was led to his interest in the Armenian Genocide by reading about the Holocaust, and in particular, a book by Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust. Bauer made comparisons with other genocides, including the Armenian one. Despite his own family origins in the same region as this genocide, Üngör said, “I had never heard about such an event and it sparked my curiosity. When I did my research, I was amazed by the difference between the denial of official histories in Turkey versus what the ordinary population in Eastern Turkey knew about the Genocide. I traveled around Eastern Turkey and did many interviews with old people, who openly spoke about the Armenians as having been massacred by the government.”
In 2007 Üngör published his first book, Vervolging, Onteigening en Vernietiging: De Deportatie van Ottomaanse Armeniërs tijdens de Eerste Wereldoorlog, a short volume in Dutch which provides an overview of the Armenian Genocide. It also includes a sociological analysis of identity conflict. In the Armenian-Turkish conflict, as Üngör later summarized, “Armenians want to remember a history that Turks want to forget.” Since their “constructed memories are a prime component of group identity, both Armenians and Turks experience any deviation from that memory as a direct attack on their very identity. For Turks most of this also relates to a guilty conscience, a so-called ‘perpetrator trauma’: facing the full reality of the genocide is simply too painful and shameful.”
A few years later, Üngör published his doctoral thesis as The Making of Modern Turkey: Nation and State in Eastern Anatolia, 1913-1950 (Oxford University Press, 2011). Here he examined the process of social engineering the Young Turks and their Republican successors engaged in to unsuccessfully create a homogeneous Turkey, including the use of mass violence and genocide against Armenians and Kurds. Üngör focused on events in the province of Diyarbekir to illustrate the process of state and nation formation. He used Turkish and Western sources, along with some Armenian works in translation, and conducted oral history interviews of people originally from Diyarbekir. His thesis won a number of Dutch prizes in 2010 and 2011.
His most recent volume, Confiscation and Destruction: The Young Turk Seizure of Armenian Property (London: Continuum, 2011), was cowritten with Mehmet Polatel. It examines how Turkish economic nationalism led to the confiscation of Armenian wealth and property, and how the proceeds were distributed. Again, general conditions are illustrated with detailed provincial studies, in this case of Adana in addition to Diyarbekir. The role of local elites and their relationship with the central authorities, and the participation of ordinary Turks in the plunder and distribution are shown.
Üngör explained to the Mirror how he ended up doing a collaborative work: “I got in touch with Mehmet when I was in Istanbul one summer and heard he had written a master’s thesis on the spoliation of Armenian property. Coincidentally, I was sitting on a chapter on Armenian property I had wanted to include in my PhD thesis, but the text had become too long for a book chapter. So I contacted him and we sat down to discuss possible collaboration. It turned out we could easily forge the two texts into a book, so we did. We are fairly happy with the final result; Turkish and Spanish translations are underway.”
Üngör and Polatel ended the book on a pessimistic note concerning the possibility of a solution to the issue of restitution, but pointed to other modern cases as potential guideposts. Üngör revealed that one of the cases he was thinking about before the book was published was that of Ukrainian-Polish relations. In 1994 scholars from the two nations convened a conference to discuss the violence openly, but the problem is the much greater asymmetry in violence in the Turkish-Armenian case. However, Üngör continued, “My views on this changed after Confiscation and Destruction, which was a deeply frustrating and depressing book to write. Perhaps for the first time ever, the enormity of the crime became apparent to me. When I finished writing, I was convinced that the injustice was of such magnitude that it would be impossible to reverse or repair. In essence, this is the nature of genocide: irreversible and irredeemable destruction.”
Turkish and Kurdish reactions to Üngör’s books, ranging “between vitriol and praise,” have on the average been “ambivalent.” Üngör explained: “Nationalist Turks have placed me firmly on their treachery radar and have threatened me in various ways, whereas liberal Turks have encouraged and praised me for their own reasons. Nothing surprising there, but some reactions have surprised me. Some family members have attacked me without having read a single sentence from any of my publications. But then, some Turks have contacted me privately and explained that they grew up with stories from the Genocide. Since I never lived in Turkey, do not have a degree specifically in Turkish history and therefore do not consider myself a ‘Turkologist,’ I am rather unknown in and isolated from the Turkish academic community. That might change because my books are currently being translated into Turkish.”
Armenians, on the other hand, have generally welcomed and supported Üngör’s research. Most of the emails he has received have been from interested Armenian readers, though the situation changes when he critically tackles historical taboos or national myths. Üngör said, “Some nationalist Armenians find that unsettling and question why a ‘Turk’ should be digging around in ‘their’ history. At those moments, suspicion can take over about my intentions and loyalties.”
Üngör’s research has been facilitated by his background. His family members were largely peasants from village south of the town of Erzincan. He can trace his family back five generations. He feels that “the regional culture of Erzincan, i.e. Anatolian peasant/village life, has strongly affected my childhood (think Balakian growing up in Diyarbekir Armenian culture). And that culture overlaps significantly with Ottoman Armenian culture, which I consider my own as well.”
Historically, Üngör said, “Armenians, Turks and Kurds lived in ethnically mixed villages whose names I used to hear in the family.” Culturally, he was brought into contact with the Armenians of Erzincan through the literary works of Hagop Mntzuri, which were published in Turkish translation by Aras Publishing House in Istanbul. Üngör came to understand the similarity between the different peoples of the region even more through his first personal encounters with Armenians originating there. He said, “I had another eye-opener when I met Ms. Haygan Mardikyan at a Genocide commemoration in Holland. She is the granddaughter of the late Hayganas Cordikoglu (Djordikian), a woman from the Erzincan village of Zimara (which is in our documentary), who survived the Genocide and passed away a few years ago. Haygan was the first ‘Yerznkatsi’ Armenian I ever met, and it felt like looking into a mirror: she talked, gesticulated, and cooked just like any Erzincan woman in my family. It sounds naïve and obvious, but back then it felt like a revelation to me. It also conjured questions: why were these people, who were so similar to us, excluded from this society?”
His family background helped provide him with useful linguistic skills. Üngör speaks several Western languages and of course knows Turkish fluently. Furthermore, he said, “I consider both Zazaki and Kurmanci mother tongues because both languages are spoken in my family, though my Zazaki is better than my Kurmanci.”
Üngör has made an effort to learn the Armenian alphabet and can understand a little conversationally. However, he is not yet able to use it for research and relied on friends and colleagues for access to Armenian sources. He added that “In principle, I am very motivated to learn Armenian, but whether I actually will depends on future research plans, which in turn depends on employment opportunities.”
Üngör’s ability to study the region is enhanced, he feels, by a combination of inside knowledge and a certain degree of personal detachment or distance which can add objectivity: “I often characterize myself as a ‘local outsider’: I was born in Turkey but raised in the Netherlands. My background facilitated the research a lot. My family provided the personal contacts I used to delve deep into the local memories. Being educated abroad then provided me with a sense of immunity from the dense moral and political field in which most of this research is embedded.”
He has evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of the state of Armenian Genocide studies in a number of places, including a chapter in New Directions in Genocide Research ((http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415495974/). While he feels that the “dedication of its scholars, the quantity and quality of Armenian memoirs, and the relatively well-researched and well-documented international context” are its strong points, Ottoman operative documents, a thorough analysis of the workings of the Young Turk regime from 1913-18, and local or regional histories showing how genocide was perpetrated by ordinary soldiers, gendarmes and others are lacking. Üngör is convinced that an exploration of the Ottoman land registry archives (Tapu Kadastro), the military archives (ATASE), the General Security Directorate (Emniyet-i Umumiye Müdüriyeti) of both the Ottoman and Republican periods and the Foreign Ministry archives would lead to major discoveries, yet, he concludes, access will not be freely given in the near future because “just as the Turkish government is afraid of its own population’s collective memory, so it is of its own archives.”
Placing Armenian Genocide in a comparative context helps show that a search for the document proving “intent” is fruitless as no such document exists in any genocide, while “what makes the Armenian genocide genocidal is simply that Ottoman Armenians were targeted for an abstract category of group identity: all Armenians, loyal or disloyal, secular or religious, rural or urban, working class or intelligentsia, were deported and massacred.” Furthermore, genocide is more than just mass murder: “It is a delusional attempt to destroy a hated collective identity, for example through destruction of material culture (long after the victims are dead), and forced identity change (such as conversion to Islam, or change of place names).”
Making his work on Armenians, Kurds and Turks accessible to people of other backgrounds has been a challenge. At present, he said, “I teach mostly middle-class Dutch students who come from similar backgrounds and have hardly heard of Armenians, let alone their history. They struggle trying to imagine and make sense of a society 100 years and 4,000 kilometers away. In the UK the problem was comparable, but with in-depth reading and plenty visual material in an intensive history course the kids could reach a reasonably high level of sophisticated knowledge.” It is not all that much different in broader historical circles, as the Armenian Genocide has only very recently begun to be integrated into broader histories such as those of World War I.
Üngör was featured in a documentary which aired on Dutch public television on April 24, 2008 called “The Country of Our Grandparents,” in which he and Armenian scenario writer Alexander Geokjian (also co-director of this film) travel together to the sites of their respective ancestors’ origins in Turkey. Geokjian’s family was originally from Sis or Kozan in Cilicia. The film was awarded the prize of Best Documentary by the Pomegranate Film Festival in Toronto in 2008.
Üngör himself would “love to make” a documentary using oral histories of ordinary people in Turkey who are children or grandchildren of eyewitnesses to the Armenian Genocide. He already has conducted many such interviews in 2002 and 2004-7, and may also write an article based on them. He points out that “Elderly Turks and Kurds often remember vivid anecdotes from family members or villagers who had witnessed or even participated in the massacres.” He does not have the resources himself to transcribe and publish these interviews and others but he feels that this would be a great project to launch with the goal of publishing in 2015. Its value, he said, is that “it would undoubtedly prove that there is a clash between official state memory and popular social memory: the Turkish government is denying a genocide that its own population remembers.”
Üngör is currently occupied with a variety of new projects. He is writing a comparison of the Armenian Genocide with the Soviet deportation of Chechens and Crimean Tatars in 1944, as the study of the former can also help us understand the nature of deportations, or “forced migration.” Having already published an article on Kurdish collaboration in the Genocide and already having used new Kurdish materials, he is curious to learn more about what the Kurdish intelligentsia wrote about in this period. He is working with a close friend on authoring the history of the Kurdophone Shirnak Armenians, who survived due to the protection of a major Kurdish tribe of that region.
As far as upcoming books go, Üngör is shifting to larger-scale studies, such as a book on genocidal violence in the Hapsburg, Ottoman and Russian Empires. Üngör said, “Currently I’m broadening my intellectual horizon. So far my research and teaching have focused on nation formation and ethnic conflict during the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, including the Armenian Genocide. I would still like to keep one foot anchored in this field, but also reach out the other foot to the global problem of mass violence in general. After all, I came into Armenian Genocide studies through Holocaust studies, and have also worked on Rwanda and the Balkans.” He also is in the early phase of writing a more general book on mass violence.