Turkey did not always deny the mass killing of Armenians. As the US House of Representatives prepares to vote on recognising the 1915 massacres as genocide, journalist and historian Bruce Clark looks at how and why Turkish attitudes have changed over the past 90 years.
"The more foreign parliaments insist that our forebears committed crimes against humanity, the less likely anybody in Turkey is to face up to the hardest moments in history."
That, roughly speaking, is the message being delivered by Turkey’s hard-pressed intelligentsia as the legislators in one country after another vote for resolutions which insist that the killing of hundreds of thousands of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 amounted to genocide.
"Will the adoption [of a resolution] help to inform the Turkish public... on the great tragedy which befell the Ottoman Armenians ?
"No, it can hardly be expected to... broaden the debate on the history of the Ottoman Empire’s final period."
So writes Sahin Alpay, a liberal-minded Turkish academic, in a recent column in Zaman newspaper.
What such appeals reflect, of course, is an elementary fact of human psychology : the phenomenon of individual and collective defensiveness.
When people feel completely secure, and among friends, they can be very frank about misdeeds which they, or people close to them, have committed.
But hackles will go up again as soon as they become insecure, because they feel their accusers are acting in bad faith, or that accepting their accusations will have bad consequences.
On the defensive
In recent years, liberal Turkish scholars have expressed the hope that membership, or even prospective membership of the European Union, will give the country enough confidence to discuss the Armenian tragedy without threatening those who use the "g-word" with prosecution.
Sceptics may retort that in recent years, things have been moving in the opposite direction : the revised Turkish penal code and its preamble, adopted in 2005, make even more explicit the principle that people may be prosecuted if they "insult Turkishness" - a crime which, as the preamble makes clear, includes the assertion that the Ottoman Armenians suffered genocide.
It is certainly true that Turkish defensiveness - the sort of defensiveness which can treat open discussion as verging on treachery - has been running high since the 1960s when the Armenians round the world began lobbying for an explicit acceptance, by governments and parliaments, that their people suffered genocide in 1915.
A campaign of violence launched by Armenian militants in the 1970s, who mainly attacked Turkish diplomatic targets and claimed over 50 lives, raised hackles even higher.
All that raises a question : has there ever been a moment, since the events of 1915, when the Turkish authorities might, conceivably, have acknowledged or even freely discussed the view that almost every Armenians regards as self-evident : the view that in addition to relocating the entire ethnic Armenian population of eastern Anatolia, the "Committee of Union and Progress" (CUP) which wielded effective power in the Ottoman empire also gave secret orders to make sure that as few as possible of the deportees survived the experience ?
In fact, there was such a moment : the immediate aftermath of World War I.
Tried and executed
At that time the Ottoman government was intact but dependent for its survival on the good graces of the victorious British Empire.
The sultan’s regime was desperately trying to distance itself from the actions of the CUP, the "state within a state" which in 1915 had masterminded the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Armenians - and is alleged to have given secret "extermination" orders at the same time.
During the early months of 1919, few people in Anatolia publicly doubted that Armenians had suffered atrocities that were egregious even by the standards of a terrible war.
The sultan and his foreign minister were at pains to reassure the British of their determination to punish the perpetrators of these atrocities, and they held four big and revealing trials whose proceedings were published in the government gazette.
In April 1919 a local governor, Mehmed Kemal, was found guilty and hanged for the mass killing of Armenians in the Ankara district.
But the climate shifted rapidly after May 1919, when Greek troops were authorised by the victorious Entente powers to occupy the Aegean port of Izmir and, in another part of Anatolia, Mustafa Kemal - later known as Ataturk - began his campaign to make the Turks masters in their own land.
Turkish rage over the Greek landing lent fuel to the Kemalist cause, and discredited the Ottoman government.
With every passing month, the British government’s leverage over the Ottoman authorities waned, and so did British enthusiasm for the conduct of war crimes trials.
In 1921, the British government made a pragmatic deal to release a group of Turkish prisoners it had been holding in Malta on suspicion (among other things) of crimes against the Armenians.
They were freed in exchange for Britons being held by the Turks.
In Turkish lore, this release is held up as proof that no serious evidence against the captives existed.
What it certainly proves is that British zeal for investigating the past was waning, even as the Kemalist cause gained strength and the British-influenced Ottoman regime faded into oblivion.
In any case, the officially cherished version of the Turkish state’s beginnings now insists since the empire’s British adversaries and occupiers were the main promoters of war crimes trials, those trials themselves must have been worthless or malicious.
A new state
But in the midst of all this nationalist discourse, something rather important is often obscured, and there are just a few Turkish historians who dare to point this out.
The atrocities against the Armenians were committed by an Ottoman government, albeit a shadowy sub-section of that government.
There is no logical reason why a new republican administration, established in October 1923 in an act of revolutionary defiance of Ottoman power, should consider itself responsible for things done under the previous regime.
In fact, when the nationalist movement was founded in 1919, the climate of revulsion over the sufferings of the Armenians was so general that even the neo-nationalists were keen to distinguish themselves from the CUP.
Some see significance in the fact that the nationalist movement chose to rally round an army officer, Mustafa Kemal, who had never been anywhere near the places where the Armenians met their fate.
The very fact that the Turkish republic bears no formal responsibility for eliminating the Armenian presence in eastern Anatolia (for the simple reason that the republic did not exist when the atrocities occurred) has given some Turkish historians a flicker of hope : one day, the leaders of the republic will be able to face up to history’s toughest questions about the Armenians, without feeling that to do so would undermine the very existence of their state.
Fatma Muge Gocek, a Turkish-born sociologist who now works as professor in America, has said there are - or will be - three phases in her country’s attitude to the fate of the Armenians : a spirit of "investigation" in the final Ottoman years, a spirit of defensiveness under the Turkish republic, and a new, post-nationalist attitude to history that will prevail if and when Turkey secures a places in Europe.
That makes perfect psychological sense, even if the immediate prospects for a move from phase two to phase three do not look very bright.
Bruce Clark is international news editor of the Economist newspaper.
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