By Salpi Haroutinian Ghazarian
Dorothée Forma is a soft-spoken journalist of the European tradition. In the Netherlands, where media channels are clearly labeled as belonging to specific religious, ethnic or political groups, she works with a small broadcasting organization which supports humanist principles: Taking responsibility, having the right to make your own choices without being dictated by a religion, supporting other people in their lives, respecting others. “I am not a member of the Humanist League but I feel comfortable with their ideas,” she says. It was natural, then, in a country with a large Turkish minority, for her to find her way to social and political issues which involved Armenians and Kurds. Hearing Armenian Historian Vahakn Dadrian speak, she found in the topic of the Armenian Genocide a subject ready to be looked at “with a different approach that may cause people to think.”
A short documentary film ensued. A Wall of Silence broke new ground. Not out to prove the genocide, it assumes the historical realities and looks at the approaches of two scholars. Vahakn Dadrian and Taner Akçam, one an Armenian, the other a Turk, don’t just study the subject of Genocide, they live with it. The passion and outlook of two men of different backgrounds, different generations and different fields of study is carefully documented in a film that has been shown in Europe, and will next month make its North American debut.
The ongoing efforts of the filmmakers and the historians are being utilized by the Armenian government, too — and not just for historic reasons. At the Lisbon Summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1996, then President Levon Ter Petrossian invoked the memory of the 1915 Genocide to explain the fundamental necessity of guaranteeing the security of the people of Karabakh today.
After his election, President Robert Kocharian stressed the commitment of his administration to seek international recognition of the Genocide — both to please the Armenian Diaspora which is populated by Genocide survivors and their descendants, and as a way of underscoring Armenia’s security concerns regarding its neighbors Turkey and Azerbaijan.
Vartan Oskanian, Armenia’s Foreign Minister, explains the government’s strategy in trying to break the international wall of silence. “The recognition of the Genocide is to be pursued in three directions: the first is to work with other states to secure their recognition of the Genocide; the second is recognition by Turkey. The third is to keep the issue alive in international tribunals and organizations by presenting the issue in the general context of human rights, and specifically in the context of recognition of the genocide by international tribunals,” explains Oskanian.
Since Armenia’s independence, the Argentinian Senate, the Russian Duma, the Canadian House of Commons, the Greek Parliament, the US House of Representatives, the Lebanese Chamber of Deputies, the Belgian Senate, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly and the French National Assembly have issued resolutions and declarations in recognition of the century’s first instance of “ethnic cleansing.”
A Turkish Voice
Forty-five-year-old Taner Akçam is the first Turkish historian to speak plainly about the horrors perpetrated against the Armenians in Turkey, during the first World War, and refer to them as genocidal acts. The resident of Germany has appeared publicly in forums from Europe to Armenia, calling for the political recognition of this historic event, not just on moral grounds, but as a critical tool in understanding the modern Turkish state and the challenges it faces. On the eve of his first North American appearances, Akçam speaks about his life, his scholarship and his politics.
AIM: You live in Germany. Did you leave Turkey willingly?
Akçam: I “left” Turkey twice — both times it was compulsory. The first time was at the end of 1978, after I fled from prison. In Ankara, I had been one of the leaders of the student movement. We basically fought for democratic rights. I was the editor of a bi-monthly newspaper. On March 10, 1976, I was arrested. I fled on March 12, 1977, with some friends by digging a tunnel and left the country in 1978. Until 1994 I lived in Germany. Then, thanks to a partial amnesty, I was able to return to Turkey. But I couldn’t carry out the projects I was thinking of. And finally I had to leave Turkey in 1997 again, because it was impossible for me to stay there. At this moment, I can enter and leave the country without any restriction.
Why did you choose to live in Germany?
When I returned to Turkey in 1994, I was planning to open a center for archives and documentation. I was thinking of researching the transition from the multiethnic Ottoman Empire to the nation states which resulted from the demise of the Ottoman Empire and also how people lived during this period. This plan failed due to the direct and indirect obstacles placed probably by official bodies. Nothing prevented me from staying in Turkey and living there. I simply had to decide whether I should stay in Turkey and earn my living doing some ordinary work, forgetting research, or returning to Germany, where it was possible to make a living carrying out my scholarly work.
Where do you work now?
Since 1994, I have been employed as a researcher at the Hamburger Stiftung zur Foerderung yon Wissenschaft und Kultur. For the time being I am preoccupied with my Habilitationsarbeit — (this is an extra scholarly paper PhD’s are obliged to present if they want to become a professor), which is about the years and myths of the foundation of the Turkish Republic (1920-1930).
When did you first decide to study the Armenian Genocide?
In 1988, when I was working at the Hamburger Institut fuer Sozialforschung on the history of violence and torture I studied extensively the phenomenon of violence in the 19th century, and there I came across the conflicts of nationalities and the pogromlike massacres to which Armenians were subjected. Pretty soon, I realized that the violence against non-Moslems and especially the Genocide against the Armenians had played a formative role in the development of Turkish national identity. So in 1991, I began to devote myself to this theme.
How would you describe the beginning and the nature of your relationship with Vahakn Dadrian?
After I decided to work on that topic, I researched the literature in the field and soon came across Dadrian’s work. With my poor English, I tried to understand his articles and found that he quoted extensively from Turkish and German sources, and I concluded that he had perfect knowledge of both languages. I then sent him the manuscript of my project in German, together with a letter in Turkish. In a surprisingly short time, I got an answer from him — in Turkish. He said that he had left Turkey 40 years ago and this was his first exchange of letters in Turkish since then. He was very moved, he said, since he had waited all these 40 years, for a Turkish scholar to come and work objectively on this topic. I suggested to my institute to engage him as an advisor on my project. He is for me, as we say it in Turkish, a hoça, a wise teacher.
What were the reactions in Turkey to your first public comments about the Armenian Genocide?
If we leave aside the barrage of abuse by some extremely nationalistic newspapers and journals, it was ignored completely by the academic elite. It is as if such a study had never been published, although my book has gone through four printings in a rather short time. But when I visit Turkey, I’ve observed that my book-although not reviewed in scholarly circles — is known and its publication is considered a phenomenon.
Are there other Taner Akçams in Turkey–even if they choose to remain anonymous?
There are, of course, other intellectuals in Turkey who know the realities of the Armenian Genocide and they refer to it peripherally from time to time in their work. In a way, I am “the tip of the iceberg.”
You have said that Turks must “remember” a reality that has been treated as a non-event for 80 years. Is this possibly easier for someone of your generation — someone who was not alive in 1915?
Of course. To clarify my point, let me remind you of an oft-quoted and much criticized statement by former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. He talked in the context of the Nazi past of Germans of the “Gnade der spaeten Geburt” (Benefit of Those Late Born). I think his thesis fits quite well to the Turkish case. In other words, I don’t think that new generations are guilty, and they shouldn’t be burdened with the crimes of their fathers. But there exists a moral and political obligation to face the historical realities, to integrate them into the present and draw the necessary consequences in order to live together. In my opinion, the new generation can have a much better look at the past.
You have said: A discussion of the Armenian Genocide could reveal that this Turkish state was not a result of a war fought against the imperial powers, but on the contrary, a product of the war against the Greek and Armenian minorities. Can it be said that the Turkish state of the late 20th century depends on the suppression of its Kurdish minority?
A very popular current view in Turkey is that the incidents in Anatolia in the years 1919-1923 were part of a Civil War among the different ethnic groups. Therefore, local research into the Armenian Genocide can only serve to supplement this thesis.
However, I don’t think that it is appropriate to call the Kurdish people in Turkey a minority: first, because they are a too big a group to be a minority, and second the phrase “minority” is used in Turkey exclusively for Christian ethnic groups.
The major problem of the Turkish state is not that it oppresses the Kurds. It is a state which is not compatible with the structures of society. Its founding was only achieved by the construction of a subordinating super-identity. Turkey with its ethnic, cultural and religious structure is very much a mosaic. But the Turkish state is founded on the negation of this mosaic and the supremacy of one ethnic, cultural and religious group — Turk, sunni, hanafi. In this respect, the things happening now in Turkey can be compared with the events at the beginning of the 20th century. At that time, the Ottoman elite tried to keep all ethnic groups together with a particular super-identity (Ottomanism-Islamism), but this was just a subidentity. When this proved to be nonworkable, the non-Moslem ethnic groups were taken out of Anatolia; the genocide of the Armenians was the peak of that cleansing. We now see a second wave of nationalization in Anatolia, this time based not upon religious but ethnic identity.
You were in Yerevan in 1995 and participated in the International Conference on Problems of Genocide organized by the National Commission on the 80th Anniversary Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide and the Zoryan Institute. You visited the Tsitsernakaberd Martyrs Memorial Monument. What were your feelings?
It was quite a frightening and unforgettable moment to pass by the hundreds of thousands of murdered people. But more moving was the the religious ceremony at Ejmiatsin and the fact that Kourken Sarkissian, of the Zoryan Institute, and I together lit a candle in memory of a Turkish pilgrim, Haci Halil, who had saved Sarkissian’s family.
Are you aware that you are serving as an example?
This plays only a very minor role in my scholarship. I think that I’m doing something quite ordinary and normal.
Do you have security concerns either from Turks who might see you as traitor or from Armenians who might see you as the accessible embodiment of the perpetrators?
You left out informer and spy for the Germans and the CIA! I am very well aware of the fact that thinking outside the usual categories and the usual friend-foe approach has its price for my political life. That is why it didn’t bother me when at the beginning of my work on the Armenian Question, a much-respected scholar said to me: “Don’t work on this subject, Taner, because if you are objective, you won’t be good to anyone and you’ll only make an enemy of yourself.” In 1996, quite a number of my acquaintances got a letter signed by a “Group of Turkish Intellectuals” together with the Turkish translation of my German articles. In that letter they called me “an Armenian agent”, “enemy of the Turks,” “traitor” and were advised not to cooperate with me. As a result, all doors including those of the “leftist, progressive” universities were closed to me.
That is why I believe those persons in Turkey who directly or indirectly work on the subject of Genocide and have had no trouble thus far must explain why and how this is so.
I must confess that as a consequence of the heavy attacks from all sides, I got frightened and lost interest in working on this subject. I am an ordinary person with the ordinary challenges of making a living. I can’t be on the lookout for attacks nor do I have the power to deal with them. So I’m constantly preoccupied with my moral concerns, my obligations and my fears. Still, in my present work on the “Foundation Myths of the Turkish Republic” the genocide is one of the substantial parts.
A Dutch Filmmaker
Dorothee Forma, 44, is a film producer with the Humanist Broadcast Foundation (HUMAN) in the Nether-lands. Wall of Silence follows other rims she has produced on artists in Turkey, on the political situation in Ingushetia, and on the second track negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. A Wall of Silence has been shown on Dutch TV and very favorably received. She was born and raised in the Netherlands.
AIM: What is your affiliation with the Humanist Broadcast Foundation?
Forma: In the Netherlands, we have a complicated public broadcasting system. There are Protestant, Catholic, Moslem, Jewish and other organizations all of whom broadcast on the national channels. The one I work for used to be an integral part of the Dutch Humanist League and we still work with the humanist principles in the back of our head-taking responsibility, the right to make your own choices without being dictated by a religion, supporting other people in their lives, respecting others-things like that. We make programs for a broad audience with an accent on documentaries.
How did you find Vahakn Dadrian and Taner Akçam?
I met Dadrian in 1992 in Amsterdam. He was here to give a lecture during an Armenian commemoration and I interviewed him for a Dutch magazine. I had never heard of him before, but his biography seemed interesting. After the interview he told me that he was going to meet a certain Taner Akçam in Germany — a Turk — and he was very excited about it.
How was A Wall of Silence funded?
The film was shot in Turkey, Germany, Belgium and the US. Therefore it was more expensive than usual. I received funding both from HUMAN and-surprisingly, since the Armenian Question is not well known in the Netherlands — from the National Committee for International Cooperation and Sustainable Development.
How many years in research and production on this film?
The actual production started in June ’96 although the subject had been in my mind for years. Even before funding, I visited Taner Akçam in Hamburg to test the waters anyway. We started filming in December.
What was your purpose in making the film?
I wanted to show a new perspective with regard to all parties involved in the `Armenian Question’. Maybe in my heart, I wanted to show the Turks especially because I was closer to them. I know Turkey well and have many Turkish friends. I knew only a few Armenians.
Did the participants have reservations about participating?
Dadrian wanted some time to think whether he was ready to tell his personal story. I understood his hesitation very well and I feel very honored that both he and Taner Akçam trusted me. Naturally they were in control of their own answers but they had no idea about how I was going to edit them and how the combination would work out.
The Scholarship of an Armenian Historian
In the 1970’s, Vahakn N. Dadrian helped to create the field of the Comparative Study of Genocide, bringing to his work an interdisciplinary perspective that joined sociology, history and law, enriched further by his ability to draw upon half a dozen languages. He is also the foremost scholar of the Armenian Genocide, having devoted more than 30 years to research on virtually every aspect of it.
The culmination of his work is the book published in 1995 on The History of the Armenian Genocide. It is a rare work, over 20 years in the making, that is at once fascinating to read, comprehensive in scope, and unsurpassed in the documentation of the events it describes. Its authority is enhanced further by the fact that Dadrian relies heavily upon Ottoman-Turkish documents and the secret military and political dispatches of Turkey’s World War I allies, Germany and Austria. This is not the only way to counter 80 years of Turkish claims that the Genocide never occurred, but it is perhaps the most decisive.
Professor Dadrian shows us the past, but he also makes us aware that historical events have implications for what occurs even generations later. Today, for example, we witness the collapse of empire, the rise of ethnic nationalism, and civil and regional wars that contribute to, and mask, genocide. At the same time, international law is neutralized both by the reluctance of states to prevent genocide through humanitarian intervention and to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes. There have been numerous genocides since 1945, but only now is there an attempt to convene a court to exact justice. Unfortunately, the efforts at justice are being subverted by narrow conceptions of national interest. But as Dadrian makes clear, the whole pattern of nationalism, ethnic conflict and war, reluctance of states to intervene, and the failure to punish is not new, but rather part and parcel of national and international experience in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Nowhere, he points out, can we see this better than in the history of the Armenian genocide.
For Dadrian, there are three main lessons that can be drawn from the Armenian experience in terms of the prevention and punishment of genocide. The first lesson is that not punishing those who commit genocides sends a strong signal to other would-be perpetrators that they can commit genocide and get away with it. Next, there is the lesson about the conditions under which punishment can take place. It must not be left to the nation within which the crime has been perpetrated. But if the case is to be tried by an international tribunal, the victors must remain united and not pursue individual national advantage at the expense of justice. In the aftermath of World War I, the victors went after their own interests, and Turkey knew how to manipulate such ambitions. The third lesson concerns humanitarian intervention. Yet, to threaten to intervene to stop the violence and then not carry through, only makes the victims more vulnerable.
Over the course of a lifetime of writing about the Armenian genocide, Dadrian has helped to create the field of genocide studies, has deepened our understanding, and has offered, from his knowledge of the past, warnings to the present. In the deepest sense, however, what he has done is to pay respect to the 1.5 million Armenians who perished in the first genocide of the twentieth century.
AIM: How did you become involved in A Wall of Silence?
Dadrian: Dorothee Forma contacted me to indicate that she was thinking of producing a documentary on the Armenian Genocide with a focus on my work. She had interviewed me several years earlier when I was invited to deliver a lecture at the University of Amsterdam. In the course of this endeavor, we found it would be necessary and useful to include Taner Akçam in the documentary to make it more balanced and authentic.
How did you meet Taner Akçam? Did you not have reservations about helping him in his research?
Akçam approached me first. I found him a very sincere young scholar, haunted by the terrible burdens of his nation’s legacy, especially with respect to the 19th century Armenian massacres and the World War I Genocide. As a leftist intellectual he had been persecuted by the authorities of the modern Turkish Republic and the pain and suffering associated with that cruel persecution had infused him with an inordinate degree of sensitivity towards the Armenians. He was not content with mere commiseration and, therefore, had resolved to delve into the root causes of the TurkoArmenian conflict through research and scholarship. Hence, I not only had no reservations but went out of my way to help him. I flooded him with a stream of documents he requested in the course of several years. He never ceased to express his gratitude and amazement, especially since I had secured these documents through painstaking labor and cost in the official archives in Europe, the US and Jerusalem over a period of 30 years. He repeatedly told me that no other scholar would so easily share the fruits of his painstaking labor with others before publishing them.
What Was the substance of the discussions you had with your academic colleagues in Armenia during your recent trip?
My discussions revolved around the need to give impetus to Armenian Genocide studies in Armenia proper — and at the Artsakh State University — by a new concentric effort. I gave lectures at the Academy, at Yerevan State University, at Hrachia Ajarian University, at the Genocide Museum, and at Artsakh State University in Stepanakert. In all these places I was besieged with repeated requests to come to Armenia and deliver lectures, hold seminars and by the same token, train young students. There is no major Center for the Study of the Armenian Genocide, nor is there a substantial school of thought generating weighty literature on the subject. The Genocide Museum, being essentially a depository of documents and artifacts, has only a marginal role in research and scholarship. In addition to the need for highly motivated young scholars immersed in the details of modern Armenian history, there is an acute need for similar young scholars fluent in German, English, French, but above all Turkish and Ottoman Turkish. The comprehensive and thorough study of the Armenian Genocide not only requires, but mandates, such composite mastery of history and linguistics. I was struck by the near-total absence of students willing to learn, and teachers able to teach Ottoman Turkish.
The existing, pre-independence scattered works on this topic are not only reflective of communist dogma and soviet political doctrine, but are essentially descriptive in terms of the general patterns of the organized mass murder of the Armenians. With few exceptions, they rely on sources in Russian and Armenian. In other words, these fine works emanating from the Academy of Sciences and the Yerevan State University, are disjointed, random, minimal efforts.
What has been the response to your books?
The extent of the reception in the US, Canada and England of my major work, The History of the Armenian Genocide, (Berghahn Books, 1996) is best gauged by the fact that it is now in its fourth edition. Furthermore, its French version, published by Stock, a major publishing house in Paris, is sold out. The Russian translation is complete and will appear this year in Moscow. Likewise, its translation in Arabic is also completed and may be published at the end of this year in Damascus. The Italian translation has just begun in Venice. As to my German Responsibility in the Armenian Genocide (Blue Crane Books, 1996) it is now being translated into German. Only when it is published in Germany in German will it be possible to gauge overall German reaction. My next book project involves a comprehensive study of the 1909 Adana massacre for which purpose I have amassed and marshaled an enormous amount of primary sources in Turkish, Armenian, German, English and French.