By Tessa Hofmann
Eighty-five years after the first major genocide of the twentieth century, recognizing and coming to terms with the Armenian Genocide of 1915-16 is still the biggest taboo of Turkish history. This holds not only for “official” Turkey, which in 1999 erected, not far from the Turkish-Armenian border, a monument to the “Turkish victims of the Armenians” that can be seen from a long way off and can only be regarded as a provocation; it is also true of a great many Turkish opinion-makers and influential intellectuals. Only a handful of Turks in Turkey or abroad have raised their voices to demand that history be approached objectively, or even to ask the Armenians’ forgiveness for the crimes of the past. This makes the accomplishments of the “Association of People Opposed to Genocide” all the more remarkable. Since 1998, it has gathered over 11,000 signatures on a petition demanding that the Turkish parliament recognize the Armenian Genocide. More than 10,000 of these signatures were provided by Turkish citizens. On November 4, 1999, the Association’s chairperson, Ali Ertem, sent the petition and signatures by registered mail to Turkey’s Great National Assembly. The same day he provided written responses to questions I had asked him about the objectives of his organization.
Hofmann: In 1915, the Committee for Union and Progress, or the Young Turks, a nationalist party holding all the portfolios in the Sultan’s government, took advantage of the World War to rid itself of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire. The Allied Powers, France, Great Britain and Russia, vowed that, after the war, they would call those responsible for the Genocide to account for “crimes against humanity and civilization.” But the Allies did not make good on their promises. Mustafa Kemal’s Turkish Republic never had to face up to the murder of 1.5 million Armenians. To the present day, not only representatives of the Turkish government, but also leading Turkish intellectuals have vehemently denied that a genocide ever took place. What effects does the “Armenian Taboo” as Yves Ternon calls it in his book, have on contemporary Turkish society?
Ertem: The Armenian Genocide and Genocide denial continue to have devastating effects on Turkish society. Historical facts are very deliberately distorted, although the public is aware that two-thirds of an entire people was simply killed off. While vital social concerns are ignored, intimidation and violence are glorified. Turkish citizens are supposed to regard their own state with fear and trembling. People who did not even understand Turkish, that is, Kurds, Arabs, Laz, Cherkez, and others, were forced to express pride in their “new-Turkish” identity. Racism in its purest form, coupled with religious prejudice, is the order of the day. We are a tense nation prey to the delusion that we are surrounded by enemies, as is suggested by the common saying, “Turks have no friends but them-selves.” Injustice and deception hold sway at all levels of social life. In very general terms, new campaigns of extermination that violate international borders, and endless violations of human rights are all consequences of denying the Genocide. That is what our social reality is like.
The organization that you head, the “Association of People Opposed to Genocide,” was founded in Frankfurt in Sept. 1998. What are its objectives? Whom are your activities meant to reach? Who is eligible to join?
Our aim is to make it clear that genocide is something that humanity simply cannot reconcile with its conscience. Genocide is the worst crime that man can perpetrate against man, a crime motivated solely by the victims’ ethnic or religious identity. With the extension of industrialization and the reinforcement of the apparatus of the modern state, this crime has attained unheard of proportions. Our conscience demands that we act justly, that we do what is right. If we countenance genocide, we will end up betraying all other human ideals and we will have failed to do our duty vis-à-vis future generations. Our Association therefore appeals to all those whose consciences will not let them live with this crime.
But we have a special task when it comes to Turks. For those who have the greatest obligation to come to terms with this problem are the Turks and the other peoples who were used as tools during the Genocide carried out under the leadership of the Young Turk “Committee for Union and Progress.” Our priority must be to address these groups. It will take a great deal of energy and extraordinary powers of persuasion to lift the taboo on the Genocide. An effort lasting several generations will be required to open people’s eyes.
In April 1999, eleven members and supporters of your Association traveled to Yerevan to take part, along with the people of Armenia, in the annual ceremony in memory of the victims of the Genocide. Apart from the 1995 visit of a Social-Democratic deputy mayor of Istanbul to the monument commemorating the Genocide — a visit it was later denied he made — yours was the first visit to be made for this purpose by Turks and Kurds from Turkey. What were your feelings and the feelings of those who went with you about your stay in Armenia? What kind of a reception were you given?
First, I would like to take this opportunity to express my warm thanks to our Armenian friends, especially the members of the Central Council of German-Armenians, the Center for Research on the Armenian Diaspora (CRDA) in France, and other notables. They were unstinting in their efforts to make our trip a success. I am very glad to be able to tell you, without any exaggeration, that we achieved all the objectives we set out to accomplish on this trip. From the first day, we were received with great enthusiasm and hospitality. The Armenian media gave considerable attention to our project. And it was covered beyond Armenia’s borders as well: there were reports on our project in the Austrian, Russian and US media.
We put the short week at our disposal in Yerevan to very good use. After the commemoration, we met with the representatives of various institutions, including the Research Center on the Peoples of the East, the Middle Eastern Department of Yerevan State University, representatives of minority groups, and so on. All of them extended us a very warm welcome. We had ample occasion to talk about our project and exchange views. We were asked very interesting questions. For example, “Who finances your activities? What prompted your decision to concern yourselves with Genocide? Are you not afraid of the Turkish state? Will your trip be given coverage in Turkey? Are there political forces that support your efforts?”
We tried to answer to the best of our ability, going into as much detail as possible, and we also frankly pointed out our weaknesses. These include our small numbers, our insufficient knowledge of genocide, and certain social realities. Everyone in Armenia, from high-ranking personalities to the man in the street, very much appreciated what we were trying to do. I would like to emphasize something here: when one acknowledges the historical realities of the Genocide and expresses remorse, the Armenian people, which has a deep-rooted sense of history, has no place in its heart for feelings of hatred or vengeance.
Your Association addresses itself above all to people from Turkey living in Germany. Can Germany play a positive role when it comes to the discussion of the Armenian Genocide taking place in Turkey itself? In your opinion, what part can the Turkish Diaspora in Germany play in honestly coming to grips with the past?
It is true that we direct our efforts mainly at people from Turkey living in Germany. The Turks who live and work in Germany feel the consequences of racism in their own lives; Turks have been repeatedly exposed to racist attacks in cities throughout Germany. They are gradually coming to understand what being a national minority means. Among the Turks or the Muslims from Turkey who are of other ethnic backgrounds but consider themselves Turks, some — still very few, it is true — object to the way minorities are treated in Turkey and to the human rights situation there. I think that the first task of every honest, progressive Turk is to liberate these individuals from the effects of longstanding falsification of history. Germany could play an outstanding part in enlightening people about the Genocide if it did not act in such a half-hearted way. Germany’s own reputation has never suffered from her acknowledgement of the Jewish Genocide and her willingness to make reparations. Quite the contrary: if Germany enjoys international esteem, the reason is that she has been willing to recognize the [Jewish] genocide and make reparations.
However, I do not understand why Germany takes a negative, or, in the best of cases, abstentionist position on the Armenian Genocide. Today, as in the past, Germany is a Turkish ally. Allied with Turkey in World War I, Imperial Germany doubtless played a role then as well. For example, the German General Liman von Sanders was able to prevent the deportation of Armenians from Smyrna. It is known that when Hitler was planning the mass executions of the Slavic population of Poland as well as the annihilation of the Jews on an industrial scale, he alluded to the extermination of the Armenians: “Who today remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?” That means that the recognition of the Jewish Genocide and the forgetting of the Armenian Genocide are not justified by the realities of German history and don’t correspond to prevailing images of that history.
Do you think it would be possible to create an “Association of People Opposed to Genocide” in Turkey itself? If not, what is standing in the way?
In Turkey, people who have come together around various grassroots initiatives are doing outstanding work. They are risking their lives to preserve and defend human rights. The Turkish Human Rights Association is one good example. Although 17 of its members have paid for their courage with their lives, it has consistently maintained its position against the arbitrary exercise of state power. A number of committees have been created within the framework of the Human Rights Association. In Turkey, they cannot call their initiative an “Association of People Opposed to Genocide.” The Committee created to defend minority rights was called the “Committee to Observe and Pursue Minority Rights.” The great majority of its members are women. They have already done astounding work. Their documentation of the pogroms of 6 and 7 September 1955 offers an example. Things are progressing slowly, but they are progressing. We have close contacts with the Human Rights Association in Turkey. Together, we shall do our utmost to bring about condemnation of the Genocide.