By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
“Especially as 2015 approaches, the pressure will increase. Turkey will, as it has done before, react harshly. It will utter threats, but they will remain ineffective.
“Do you know why? It is because the Armenians have gotten a significant part of the world to accept their claims of genocide.”
Who is speaking here? Is it a Diaspora Armenian bragging about progress towards Turkish recognition of the 1915 Genocide? That might seem most likely. But, no, these are the words of a Turkish journalist writing in the pages of the daily, Hurriyet. The article, titled, “We are surrendering ourselves to ‘genocide,’” appeared in the April 28 edition of the paper. Although Hurriyet is generally considered rather nationalistic, the commentator, Mehmet Ali Birand, is known as a liberal. He is not bragging. Quite the contrary: he raises the alarm that as the centenary of the Genocide looms, Turkey may finally be forced to acknowledge its occurrence.
The reason for concern he identifies in the circulation of a new book in Turkish, a hefty 1,000-pages-long, which presents irrefutable evidence of genocide. The book, issued on January 12, 2012 by Belge Publishing House, whose owner, Ragip Zarakolu, was recently put on trial on trumped-up charges, contains translations “into an extremely comprehensible and beautiful Turkish” of documents from the German Foreign Ministry archives during World War I. Wolfgang Gust, “the famous German journalist and writer,” put it together; first published in German in 2005, Birand tells us that it also exists in other languages. It is titled, Alman Belgeleri: Ermeni Soykirimi 1915-1916 (German Documents: Armenian Genocide 1915- 1916).
His assessment of the power of the documents is straightforward. “Without going into detail,” he writes, “if you read the book and look at the documents, if you are a person who is introduced to the subject through this book, then there is no way that you would not believe in the genocide and justify the Armenians. Even if you are an expert on the subject,” he adds, “or have researched what went on from the Turkish side, again, you will be confused. You will have many questions.”
Birand concludes his somewhat agitated report with a challenge directed to the leaders of his nation. “Now, I want to ask all Turkish officials: In the last 50 years, have you done such a study? Have you researched international sources and, however biased or one-sided it may be, have you been able to publish such a book? What kind of study have you made, moving outside our own sources that would convince the international public? Were you limited to or satisfied with using only Turkish archives because you could not find plausible documents or evidence?” And his conclusion is brutal. “Let us not deceive each other: If you can give answers to these questions, then you will be able to clarify some very key facts for us.” But will they do so? Birand’s view: “I know you will be silent.”
The Turkish edition of Gust’s monumental compilation of historical records has indeed shaken the fragile edifice of lies and distortions which constitute the official Turkish denial of events. It is one thing if historical records on the Genocide from Armenian sources — or American or British archives — are published, because denialists can shrug them off as “propaganda” by Turkey’s wartime adversaries. It is quite another matter when detailed accounts of the atrocities and official discussions about the extermination policy originate from the archives of Turkey’s wartime ally Germany, and that they now appear in Turkish translation.
In October 2011, another book containing much of the same documentation had appeared in Turkish, translated and with a lengthy introduction by Serdar Dincer. This book, titled Alman-Turk Silah Arkadasligi ve Ermeniler, was published by Iletisim Yayinevi publishing house and was reviewed, among other places, in Agos, the Istanbul-based paper of the late Hrant Dink. Dincer, who lives in Berlin, drew his material from the same archives and stressed the role of German militarism in his analysis. In addition to positive reviews in Agos and Radikal, several Turkish journalists picked up the themes without directly citing the source, possibly because they objected to left-leaning references in the introduction; others, seeking to deny that genocide occurred, picked out isolated references to argue that the Armenians had been “terrorists” and deserved to be deported, etc. Prior to the appearance of Dincer’s book, other volumes claiming to deal with the German documents had appeared, among them one whose leitmotif was that the “Armenians are lying.”
Blame It on the Germans
The more serious writers who attempt to blunt the impact of the documents as Gust presented them seize on the German connection and distort it. Umit Kardas, a retired military judge, published a major piece in Today’s Zaman, a leading Turkish daily on May 20, in which he tried to twist the facts. Titled, “German militarism’s connivance with Committee of Union and Progress,” the article identifies the book issued by Gust and his wife Sigrid explicitly, then proceeds to argue that it was German militarism which was ultimately responsible for the Genocide.
Kardas writes that the Germans “perceived the region as an area of interest as a German colony,” and, through their military alliance with Turkey, “meddled with the political affairs of the CUP.” He claims that, “non-Muslim groups living in the Ottoman Empire posed an obstacle to Germany’s economic and ideological aspirations in the East” and “Thus began the connivance of German militarism with the [Committee of Union and Progress] CUP for inhumane practices against non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire.” The author states that “Germany’s policies had overlapped with the CUP’s policy of homogenizing the country,” i.e. turning it into a Turkish Muslim state. He quotes a passage from one of the documents which refers to those Turks and Arabs who disapproved of the massacres and who held the Germans responsible “as Turkey’s schoolmaster” during the war. Kardas ends with this assertion: “The conclusion confirmed by the documents published by Gust is that German military officers as agents of German militarism endorsed the forced relocation, and they found military justifications for it. And the CUP leaders violently implemented its Turkification and Islamification policies with support and connivance from Germany.”
Kardas’s review grossly misrepresented the work by Wolfgang Gust. The German scholar set the record straight in a Letter to the Editor of Groong Armenian News Network on May 21. In it, Gust explicitly stated his thesis as follows: “The Armenian Genocide was genuinely a project of the CUP and the Germans accepted it more or less. Some of them protested against the extermination of the Armenians, others even recommended the deportations, two German officers actively participated in the assassinations. But the Armenian Genocide was never a German project, what the Turks at the time often tried to propagate.” He added that “other conclusions of the author [Kardas] are not based on my documents.” In sum, “the Armenian Genocide in the First World War was a Turkish undertaking with despicable German assistance.”
With the exception of some crude falsifications committed by die-hard denialists in Turkey, the debate sparked by the circulation of the German Foreign Ministry archive material represents an attempt to deal with the factual documentation of an atrocity, which Turkey, since its founding as a modern state, has categorically denied. To “deal with” the matter is psychologically complicated because acknowledging the Genocide is tantamount to under- mining the identity of Turkey and Turkish citizens. It is no coincidence that the legal code’s infamous Article 301, which penalizes discussion of the Genocide, did so under the rubric of protecting “Turkishness.” Orhan Kemal Cengiz, writing in Today’s Zaman on November 24, 2011, explained the difficulty in discussing the Armenian issue with “the fact that ‘modern Turkey’ and the ‘Turkish identity’ are founded upon a sort of ‘exclusiveness,’ meaning that the founders of Turkey were “those who were not the non-Muslims.” And, since some of those responsible for 1915 were also the fathers of the Republic, it follows that to acknowledge the genocide would mean “that we may lose our founding ‘heroes’ and have
them turned into a series of ‘murderers’ to be embarrassed about instead.” He went on to state: “It is now clear that we in Turkey have constructed an identity on top of this whole denial mechanism.” And he urged his compatriots to face up to the past.
The psychological pressure placed on commentators by this complex inevitably erupts in their writings. Thus, Kardas ends his article confessing that “Reading the details of the documents Gust has managed to retrieve has left me in utter shame and gripped my soul.” Referring to Germany’s “tradition of offering official apologies about such periods of shame”, i.e. the Holocaust — Kardas concludes: “If German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan together condemn the atrocities and massacres their ancestors performed, the souls of the victims, squeezed somewhere, will turn into doves. Does conscience tell us to spare our words from the oppressed?”
Significantly, this is not the first time Kardas has addressed the issue. Back in May 2010, he published a lengthy commentary titled, “Do we have to defend the actions of the Committee of Union and Progress?” in Today’s Zaman. Summarizing the history of the concept of genocide as shaped by Raphael Lemkin and embodied in the UN Genocide Convention in 1948, Kardas reviewed the Ottoman persecutions of Armenians and other Christians up to the 1890s, then presented the CUP’s “homogenization” campaign of ethnic cleansing through deportations and massacres. He offered the following reflections:
“A regime that hinges upon concealing and denying the truth will make the state and the society sick and decadent. The politicians, academics, journalists, historians and clerical officials in Turkey should try to ensure that the society can face the truth. To face the truth is to become free. We can derive no honor or dignity from defending our ancestors who were responsible for these tragedies. It is not a humane or ethical stance to support and defend the actions of Abdulhamit II and senior CUP members and their affiliated groups, gangs and marauders. Turkey should declare to the world that it accepts said atrocities and massacres and that in connection with this, it advocates the highest human values of truth, justice and humanism while condemning the mentality and actions of those who committed them in the past.”
He concluded with the proposal that Turkey should invite all Diaspora Armenians to return to their former homeland and become citizens. This “may serve to abate their sorrow, which has now translated into anger.” Furthermore, he urged the opening of the border to Turkey. Through such actions, “Turkey will become free by getting rid of its fears, complexes and worries by soothing the sorrows of Armenians.”
Breaking the Floodgates
Three years remain to the centenary of the Armenian Genocide. During this period, the discussion process inside Turkey will only accelerate, hopefully culminating in the psychological- political breakthrough of which these and other Turkish intellectuals are harbingers: official recognition of the genocide. The publication in Turkish of documents from the German archives has turned a simmering debate into an explosion. Yet more documents from the archive have recently been posted on Gust’s website, dealing with Germany’s Orient policy during the war years. Although available only in German thus far, the new material has attracted widespread attention. Of the almost 8 million visits to the site, a large and growing number are from Turkey. Articles like those by Kardas have provoked a stream of comments on the internet and the trend will only intensify. The floodgates have been broken, and Birand was right in saying, “This process is like a Chinese torture. Especially as 2015 approaches,” he added, “the pressure will increase.”
(Muriel Mirak-Weissbach is the author of Through the Wall of Fire: Armenia, Iraq, Palestine: From Wrath to Reconciliation (edition fischer, Frankfurt). Her new book, Madness at the Helm: Pathology and Politics in the Arab Spring (Ithaca/Garnet, London), will be released soon.)