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This Conduct Was a Crime Against Humanity : An Evaluation of the Initiative to Apologize to the Armenians -Ahmet Insel


"This Conduct Was a Crime Against Humanity” : An Evaluation of the Initiative to Apologize to the Armenians Ahmet İnsel

Birikim, 20 February 2009

“My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and for my share, empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers and sisters. I apologize to them.”

As of January 21, 2009, 28 thousand citizens of the Republic of Turkey had signed this statement. Joining in this entirely personal undertaking, listening to the voice of their own consciences, assessing the situation for themselves, persons have signed and continue to sign this “apology” text. This signature campaign constitutes an important step of the attempts, which have been in existence for over ten years, to confront the Armenian question. The apology initiative connotes not only the great human tragedy caused by the mass deportation and chastising of the Ottoman Armenians in 1915, but more than that, it connotes the collective reaction which accumulated in response to the trivialization, even the denial and or inversion of this utmost serious event.

Before the signature campaign-thanks especially to Taner Akçam’s pioneering writings and books, the studies of many historians questioning our recent history, perseverance of Belge Publications in translating and publishing in Turkish studies on the Armenian question in foreign languages, presentations delivered at the conference at Bilgi University in 2005-an opposing voice that could countervail the official historiography’s approach to the Armenian question, which has increasingly taken the form of a systematic denial, had begun to gain strength in Turkey. Many valuable studies undertaken in the last twenty five-thirty years on the subject of the formation and development of nationalism in Turkey have fed into this. Studies illustrating how being a minority in Turkey means to live in a constant state of anxiety as well as ostracization have proliferated and diversified in the last twenty years. A series of historic events that an average resident of Turkey had not hitherto heard of were given voice, their documents published and, even if restrictedly, debated. Certain manifestations of Turkish nationalism, which, from time to time, goes beyond ordinary nationalism and turns into expressions of hatred or even eradicative actions with blatant racist characteristics, have begun to be exposed in a bolder fashion.

Against this backdrop, upon publication of allegations regarding Sabiha Gökçen’s Armenian origins in Agos newspaper, the death trap that had been set and working irreversibly against Hrant Dink reached its aim on January 19, 2007. At the same time, however, a public reaction, which was not anticipated by those who had set this death trap, erupted in Turkey. Those who thought that only a handful of people would mourn the death of an Armenian journalist and the incident would go by the wayside as “an isolated case due to grievous provocation” like the murder of priest Santoro, were this time mistaken. The massive crowd that gathered at Hrant’s funeral and walked for kilometers behind his casket in Istanbul showed that some things had changed in Turkish society. Tens of thousands of men and women of all ages, who shouted the words “We are all Hrant, we are all Armenian”, who wore them as pins and carried them as banners came as quite a surprise to the fierce Turkish nationalists and racists. It was perhaps this development that altered the preset course of the Hrant Dink’s murder trial.

At the end of 2008 it is, in a nutshell, these developments that brought about the private apology initiative of the Turkish people, whose consciences do not accept the trivialization and the denial of the human tragedy that took place during the mass deportations a century ago and the crime against humanity committed thereby.

Surely, everyone signed this statement based on their own conscientious assessment. Therefore, it would perhaps be most accurate to say that there are as many motives for signing on as the number of signatures. These motives, which could not be reduced to a general purpose, which are meaningful in their plurality and dissimilarity, and which complement each other in their differences, convey a need that increasingly makes its weight felt in Turkey. This is the need to face our history without having to bow to any taboo, ban or pressure. Those who get hung up on the apology part of the text and state that they are content with “sharing the pain” and therefore refrain from signing are in essence expressing the same need to confront [the history]. So do those who note that an apology is not the responsibility of individuals, but of the persons who are liable for this crime against humanity along with the state authorities who bring the ethnic cleansing to completion by means of a cultural cleansing.

The apology intiative, simultaneously and more explicitly, revealed in Turkey a very powerful fear as well as the hatred that feeds from this fear. Part of the opposition to the private apology initiative arose from not knowing past events or knowing them solely from their versions in official historiography. There is hope that, in time, the violent outbursts displayed by those people may give way to a more cool-headed state of listening and understanding as the information sources diversify. Hopeless is the case of those who purposely try to incite a backlash in society against this initiative by distorting the text of the statement. Those who try and present a text that does not feature the term ‘genocide’ as “recognizing and apologizing for genocide” and who accuse the signers of being traitors, are fulfilling their duties as the guardians-of-the-taboos with heart and soul.

Since the term “genocide” was coined in 1944, it could not have been used by those who lived through the deportations of 1915 and mass massacres that followed. They called it “tehcir” [deportation], called it “kafile”[procession, convoy], called it “kıyım” [slaughter]. Later on “Great Catastrophe” caught on. The term “Great Catastrophe” truly reflected, with all its weight, the virtually total obliteration of the Armenians that were one of the ancient constituents of Anatolia.

During the days the First World War came to an end with a disastrous defeat, there was a strong consensus among a sizeable portion of the Ottoman intellectuals, except for those who were implicated in the crimes and the fanatic Turkish nationalists, regarding the evaluation of the ethnic cleansing that was conducted by the Union and Progress government. Deportation was “taktil-i nüfus,” i.e. mass murder. Field Marshal Izzet Fuat Pasha said : “As there is no other way but to admit to the occurrence of the undeniable ‘Unionist’ acts against humanity, the most urgent duty today is to proclaim it as such honorably, nobly and unhesitantly, as befitting the repute of a great people [kavim]”. The situation was crystal clear for Halide Edip in 1918 : “We slaughtered the innocent Armenian population... We tried to extinguish the Armenians through methods that belong to the medieval times”. For many writers and journalists, “The Union and Progress gang [had] destroyed the entire constituents [anasır]”. Historian Ahmet Refik wrote the following on September 20, 1915 in Eskisehir, where he witnessed the deportations firsthand :

“It was being said that the most distressing tragedies occurred in Bursa and Ankara ; houses were ransacked, hundreds of Armenian families were put into cars and hurled into streams. Many women went insane in the face of such awful murders. Houses of wealthy Armenians were bought, but the payments were recovered by fiat upon transfer of title. This conduct was a murder against humanity. No government, in any age, had brought about a murder this cruel.”

On October 1, 1918, Ahmed Riza stressed in the Senate that the Armenians were annihilated as an outcome of an official policy that was carried out by the hand of the state. Minister of Internal Affairs Mustafa Arif expressed on December 1918 that the leaders of the martial period had carried out the deportation activities “in a manner that exceeded even what the most sanguinary gangs are capable of”, that they had “decided to exterminate the Armenians” and that they had “exterminated” them.

In short, it was, “a massacre that started in the name of deportation” and a repugnant act that was “organized in the Union and Progress headquarters with the intention of uprooting certain constituents, executed by civil servants and some army officials along with some of the population”. The charges were clear in the indictment of the suit filed against the Union and Progress executives at the Court of War Crimes : “mass murder, pillaging of money and goods, burning of buildings and bodies, burning of villages, rape, torture and shameless acts of cruelty”. “Consequent massacre and extermination of a group of people and plundering of their property” was highlighted in the indictments, and it was expressed that what was expected of the court was “justice’ in the name of the rights of the humanity”.

The prevailing mood in Turkey between November 1918 and March 1919 was to recognize what had been done to the Armenians as “taktil” [mass murder], to reprobate these crimes and to demand the punishment of those who had committed them. “Crimes committed against the humanitarian code”, “deportation and chastising”, “murder and extermination”, “crime against humanity”. These and other similar phrases used by Muslim Ottoman politicians, by man of law and by journalists to define what had been done were tantamount in weight to the term “Great Catastrophe” used in the apology statement. While using such terms, Ottoman Muslims were paying special attention to not implicate the Ottoman Empire, the Muslims or the Turkish nation and pointed to the local executives and headquarters of the Committee of Union and Progress along with the Special Organization [Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa] as the main offenders.

However, owing to factors (such as the execution of Bogazliyan district’s governor Mehmed Kemal on April 1919, which was the first instance of an execution of a state official, who was both a Muslim and a Turk, for murders committed against non-Muslims ; the invasion of the shoreline between Izmir and Ayvalik along with the Cesme peninsula by the Greek Army on May 15 ; the turning of the Central Powers into an invasion force and their use of the Armenian massacre as grounds for their territorial carve up) the escalating nationalist sentiment began to repress the outcry against the perpetrators of deportation and the general sense of victimization that took over the society overshadowed the demand for punishment. In spite of this [backlash], Mustafa Kemal on April 20th 1920 was still characterizing what had been done during the deportation of Armenians as “fazahat”, that is, shamelessness and ignominy. Nevertheless, six months later, on December 1920, TBMM (Grand National Assembly of Turkey) which was presided by Mustafa Kemal, was not only going to allot retirement pension to the families of Mehmed Kemal and Mehmed Nusret who were executed for massacres against Armenians, but was going to declare these two state officials “National Martyr”. In between these two dates, Treaty of Sevres was signed on August 1920. Sevres reinforced the becoming of Armenian question a national taboo. Once the Turkish national identity coalesced-essentially against non-Muslims and particularly against Armenians-the attitude of the state executives and the opinion makers toward the Armenian question changed completely.

After 1921 critical approaches to the deportations were rapidly effaced from the collective memory in Turkey. A long era of silence on this issue commenced. Demands for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide as well as assassinations by the ASALA of Turkish diplomats and eventually THY (Turkish Airlines) passengers strengthened the negative perception of the Armenian question in Turkish society. Afterwards, with the surge of the new wave of nationalism in the last twenty years, the dominant attitude towards the human tragedy the Armenians were subjected to shifted from trivializing it through construing what had occurred as mutual violence [mukatele] to denial. In fact, completely turning the hierarchy of responsibility upside down, it reached the point of alluding to a genocide that was occasionally carried out by Armenians against Turks, as was the case with the officially named Armenian Atrocities Monument that was erected by state verdict in Igdır. The number of the massacred Ottoman Armenians that was estimated by the [Ottoman] Senate to be around 800 thousand was reduced to 300 thousand in 1980 by Kamuran Gürün, and in early 2000s further diminished to 50 thousand with the efforts of then-president of the Turkish Historical Society Yusuf Halaçoglu.

The insensitivity and denial alluded to in the apology statement and the injustice therein are essentially directed at the condition outlined above. The conspiracy theorists, who have become a classic in Turkey, immediately got down to work as part of the [counter] campaign that was launched without even waiting for the statement to be opened for signatures over the internet. Being the expert text interpreters they are, ex-ambassadors, immediately recognized that ‘genocide’ was implied by the term ‘Great Catastrophe’ in the text and exposed it as such. They declared ‘Great Catastrophe’ as synonymous with ‘Genocide’. However, a number of people who defined the deportation of the Armenians as genocide, had not signed the statement precisely because it did not include the word “genocide”. Others who believed it to be genocide, have signed the statement nonetheless, saying it is better than nothing. Similarly, there were those who did not hold back from signing due to the importance they ascribed to the launching of such a signature campaign in itself , even though they thought such an apology is not the responsibility of persons, but of the state.

Besides, it was not a crime in Turkey to claim that the Armenians were subjected to genocide. So there was no legal barrier against the explicit expression of it. At least this was generally asserted to be the case by the very same ex-ambassadors abroad. Consequently, the skill of misunderstanding what is read or not understanding it at all, one of the significant characteristics inculcated by the Turkish education system, had shown its effect again, this time in the reading of “Great Catastrophe” as genocide. However, the situation needs to be evaluated differently when those, whom we cannot but assume to understand what they read, come to this conclusion. What is at work here is deliberate distortion, insinuation of ulterior motives, identification of the internal enemy and the designation of the axis of treachery. As a matter of fact, the document/evidence manufacturers who allege that a number of the signatories were paid by the EU or the Armenians rolled up their sleeves right away. Such statements roaming the Internet found their way to the media through journalists whose raison d’etre is to produce these kinds of false reports. Once again, the launch button for “traitors and defectors amidst us nurtured by our enemies” campaign was pressed. There is an urgent need in Turkey for an analysis of the psychological motives behind the popularity of the “sell-out traitors” theme in nationalistic spheres, along with the reasons why people believe and distribute, with exhilaration, such information, which any rational human being should recognize to be false at first sight. Could this be, in addition to the perennial psyche of self-victimization and egocentric perception of events characteristic of the pre-adult phase, a case of “it takes one to know one” ? We cannot substantiate the above in the lack of such psychological analysis.

The common expectation of all those who launched this apology initiative, those who supported and signed it, those fewer than 10 signatories who later had to withdraw out of heavy societal pressure [mahalle baskısı], those who couldn’t bring themselves to sign although they genuinely wanted to or because they were not in a position to do so, was obviously not that the issue would be solved with a single signature. The objective of the signature initiative was to open the channels of communication, and to take the first necessary step in order to be able to commiserate. The apology, in a way, was for the lack of apology by those who actually should apologize. People apologized because of their inability to forestall the expressions of denial, falsehood and hatred in Turkey, because they were powerless to render those to be the expressions of a fanatical minority. They continue to insist on the apology for they have a prime minister who declares : “they must have committed such genocide to be apologizing. The Republic of Turkey does not have such a problem. That is to say, if there is such a crime, those who committed it can apologize. But not I, nor my country or my people have such a problem”. They recognize that it is all the more pressing to apologize in the face of a “social democrat” party leader who says : “these intellectuals are having an outpouring of conscience. We are in a position to assess what/who is lurking behind them”. Turkey’s card-carrying racists and radical nationalists staged a reaction that is staged by all racists and radical nationalists of the world in similar situations. This, in a way, was natural. Apology, however, is a true necessity born out of embarrassment for the hand in glove opposition of the leaders of the two biggest political parties in contemporary Turkey to the private apology initiative.

The apology campaign revealed, in the context of yet another issue, that the authoritarian statist reflex continues to be extremely powerful in Turkey. The signature initiative was an initiative of the free people with no regard for any foreign policy development, nor any intention to intervene in such developments in any way. It paid heed to neither the Turkey-Armenia relations, nor the attempts of any state to recognize/not recognize the “Armenian Genocide”. Thousands of people in Turkey had decided to utter, here and now, an uneasiness in their conscience. Now this could not be tolerated by the authoritarian stateist mentality. Only state is to decide to do what, when and how. In fact, not even the state, but the guardians of the state are to decide. The apology initiative was undermining a monopoly in this respect, which the guardians of the state have always endeavored to hold onto. Besides, the fact that all the strata of the state hierarchy set their quarrels aside on this issue in a more or less uniform opposition illustrates how the archaic authoritarian state reflex is alive and kicking.

It is too soon to say that the apology initiative has shattered a powerful taboo in Turkey. Nonetheless, it certainly rendered this taboo more visible, and therefore more questionable. That a number of the Armenians that reside in Europe and North America responded to the apology with a text of gratitude, and that the initiative was welcomed in Armenia even though the text in Turkey did not mention the term ‘genocide’ go to show that a different taboo has also become questionable among the other interlocutors of the Armenian question. In his famous words, which the high judiciary in Turkey insisted on misconstruing despite all the expert opinions and earned him a prison sentence, Hrant was pointing exactly to the importance of this mutual shattering of taboos.

Today, there are those who demand for the expansion of the apology initiative to include all state-victimized segments [of the society]. Also, there are those who demand the reciprocation of the apology, and assert the prerequisite that Armenians apologize from the Turks as well.

The first request, which on the face of it sounds somewhat reasonable, conflates issues that are positioned today at very dissimilar levels. The actual designation of the first condition is the cruelties, discriminations, murders, pogroms, exiles and prohibitions Kurds have been subjected to. Today in Turkey, there is a struggle against such exclusions and oppressions within the society. The main characteristic that renders the Kurdish question different from the Armenian question is that today, in Turkey, a solution to the Kurdish question through democratic means and the punishment of those who have committed crimes against the Kurds in the recent past and are still alive, is possible. Therefore, not a demand for apology, but demands for solution and punishment ought to be on the agenda regarding the Kurdish question. However, what we have in the case of the Armenian question is a great destruction [yıkım] that is utterly irredeemable. Hence, apologizing is the first and essential thing to do about the purposeful and nearly complete physical wiping out of one of Anatolia’s ancient and significant peoples from the Anatolian geography, the similarly vast and purposeful removal of the traces of their cultural existence, and the decades of taciturnity regarding it.

On the other hand, demanding reciprocation of the apology comes to homogenize, and thus ascribe equal responsibility to the massacres, cruelties, exiles that happened in different times, places and to different groups of people. There is a fundamental difference between the insurgency of Armenian gangs in Van and the mass deportations aimed at the ethnic cleansing of, causing the deaths of as well as the plundering of the property of all the Armenian Ottoman citizens through a temporary legislation which was in clear violation of the constitution that was in force in May 1915. Just as a major difference can be found between the massacres that were later on carried out by the Armenian gangs joining the Russian invasion forces essentially to avenge the great carnage during the deportations and a year and a half long Armenian deportation that was enacted through the use of the official state force by a certain segment of the Ottoman civil and military officials, deputies of the Ottoman government and the party in power at the time along with the members of the secret organization that was run by it. Difference being, the perpetrators of the massacres were gangs, on one side, and state agents, on the other. To make a comparison between the local acts of violence by an illegal entity such as a gang towards the segments of the public deemed enemies and a state’s execution of an ethnic cleansing operation against a certain segment [of the population] on the grounds of distinctions of language, religion, ethnicity, is tantamount putting the state in question on a par with a gang, at best. In fact, this is mainly the thesis put forth by the non-Unionist Ottomans between 1918-19 : Armenian massacre is the deed of the Unionist gang and there is more to the gang’s crimes than that. They had also led the state to its demise !

Yet today, with the exception of those executives who were hanged as a result of the Izmir assassination, the rest of the leaders of the Union and Progress “gang”, chiefly Talat Pasha, are national heroes. There is no Enver Pasha Boulevard in big cities as far as we know but Talat Pasha Boulevard is the name of one of the most important avenues in both Izmir and Ankara. Another case in point is the Talat Pasha street in Bahcelievler/Istanbul. There is no need to even bring up the Talat Pasha Committee, but the tomb of Talat Pasha, whose remains were brought to Turkey in 1943 with Hitler’s permission, is on the Hürriyet-i Ebediyye (Eternal Liberty) hill, next to the Martyrs of Liberty. The one and a half year period during which he got the deportation ruling decreed and rapidly implemented with what could almost be called an idée fixe, this ‘national hero’ was primarily responsible for 972 thousand Armenians out of a million and a half to “disappear from the records” according to the very tally charts he had kept so diligently in his notebooks.

Most probably, the Armenian gang leaders who carried out massacres against the Muslim community in Eastern Anatolia are also heroes today in Armenia. However, this seeming equivalence does not take away from the unique situation caused by the crimes committed against humanity by civil and military state officials like Governor of Trabzon Azmi Bey, III. Army Commander Mehmet Vehip Pasha, ex-Minister of Internal Affairs and later on Grand Vizier Talat Pasha, who were exercising their state authority. There are armed gangs that committed massacres, on one side, whereas, on the other, are there state officials who embarked on a systematic ethnic cleansing and adamantly executed it on their entire geographic jurisdiction along with those whom they governed and manipulated, The mass murder of the Armenians that was planned, executed and overseen by the Union and Progress government is a severe crime against humanity that cannot even be justified as an unavoidable route that the state took out of desperation during its fight for survival. It is not a war crime. either. For it is not a crime committed by a warring army against the civilians of the enemy state. It is an ethnic cleansing operation by a state, implemented up to its final stage against men, women, elderly or children alike, on the basis of the religious/ethnic attributes of a group of its own citizens who had not shown any signs of insurgency or were guilty of any crimes whatsoever.

Those who say that they did it to us as well, have to openly express what “them” and “us” come to mean in this case. When they start to do so, the racist streak behind the “us” of those cling to the reciprocation claim will further be revealed. In fact, it already is. Those who attack the private apology initiative with rancor and hatred today, disclose the racist essence that has managed to hide behind the nationalist discourse for decades. Those who viciously attack this apology initiative, evaluate it entirely through their own self-centric world instead of a universal humane and ethical norm, a moral sense of responsibility or a specific conscientious position. They feel the need to look for the involvement of external and enemy forces as well as material expectations behind this deed. Because they get great discomfort out of the mobilization of citizens who talk and act on an issue to which they bear no direct relation, who do not look out for any benefits, who are not involved in political games, and who take a humane stance on the grounds of universal principles instead of values that change with circumstances.

Those who join in with the apology initiative do not essentially turn their faces towards the Turkish Armenians or the Armenians who live in Armenia or diaspora, or towards the EU or the USA, but mainly towards the Turkey society. And maybe this is what is most disturbing to racists, denialists and those who do not want to give up on their stranglehold on raison d’etat. If they really are disturbed, it only goes to show that this apology initiative is advancing its objective.

Translated by Ayşe Ünaldı

1) Ahmet Refik (Altınay), İki Komite İki Kıtâl, Kebikeç Yayınları, 1994 (ilk baskı, İstanbul, 1919). 2) For quotes except Ahmet Refik’s, see “Tehcir ve Taktil” Divan-ı Harb-i Örfi Zabıtları, eds. Vahakn N. Dadrian ve Taner Akçam, Bilgi Üniversitesi Yayınları, Aralık 2008. Statements of certain officials of the period as quoted in a book edited by Osman Selim Kocahanoğlu, İttihat-Terakki’nin Sorgulanması ve Yargılanması ( Temel Yayınları, 1998). 3) Atatürk’ün Söylev ve Demeçleri, M.E.B. Yayını, c.1, 1945, s.49. 4) On the formation of the prevalent taboo on the Armenian question see Baskın Oran, “Son Tabu”nun kökenleri : Türkiye kamuoyunun Ermeni sorunundaki tarihsel-psikolojik tıkanışı”, İmparatorluğun Çöküş Döneminde Osmanlı Ermenileri, 24-25 Eylül 2005, İstanbul Bilgi Üniversitesi. 5) An entry from www.sozluk.sourtimes.org on the Talat Pasha Boulevard says it all : “The shameful street sign, which every time I pass by, makes me wonder in embarrassment how an Armenian would feel if s/he were to see it. Later on I think to myself what we would have felt had there been a street in Sarajevo named Ulica Radovan Karadzic.”

6) Murat Bardakçı, Talât Paşa’nın Evrak-ı Metrûkesi, Everest Yayınları, 2008.

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