Turn the Page, but Read It First: Why Europe and Turkey Must Now Address the Armenian Genocide
“It’s not the land that we lost, nor the dead. No, the worst is the hatred.”
On Dec. 13, the ghost of the 1915 Armenian genocide suddenly burst on the E.U. scene as French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier announced that Turkey would be expected to recognize the event during E.U. accession negotiations.
Why should the recognition of an event 90 years old be an issue today? Why connect it to Turkey’s E.U. bid? Indeed, why rack up the past, as Jack Straw put it?
This is not about Turkey recognizing the Armenian genocide: it is about the country ending its denial, and the low-level, state orchestrated hate campaign that goes with it.
The Armenians were eradicated from the Ottoman Empire in 1915-16 because they had been used as a pretext for interference on the part of the great powers of the day. In a gruesome and purposeful affair carried out over less than a year, an estimated 1.5 million people were killed. Many more fled to Russia and Syria. The remainder were swept up in cleansing campaigns over the following decades. As a result, Turkey’s Armenian population dropped from 10-15 percent to 0.1 percent of Turkey’s overall population, and all in Istanbul.
How does a country return to normal after such an enormous – indeed, unprecedented – atrocity? By blaming the victim: Turkey has accused Armenians of rebelling during the war, of helping the Russians and of killing as many Turks as Turks killed Armenians. With this inescapable corollary, the Armenians were, and remain, a threat to Turkey.
This narrative has been anchored in the minds of Turks by 90 years of official historiography and nationalistic campaigning. Its natural conclusion is that Armenians, wherever they live, are the enemy and their claim to genocide recognition is nothing less than a covert attempt to seize territory from the Turkish Republic. It is a message that has been driven by government policy for decades, and it has fuelled widespread hostility in the Turkish population towards a group they no longer have direct contact with.
According to Turkish historian Taner Akcam, this narrative played an important role in the reconstruction of Turkey by Kemal Ataturk as a newborn, anti-imperialist and thus necessarily innocent nation. It has bred a natural hostility to Armenians that can easily turn to fear and hatred. Europeans will recognize here parallels with fears of the Jewish conspiracy propagated by anti-Semites.
In the eyes of many Turks, Armenians in Europe and America who continue to commemorate the catastrophe are a threat, and this threat is being pursued around the world.
Turkey’s hostility to Armenians manifests itself on the most irrelevant occasions. When permission is requested to build an Armenian church in a European city, a Turkish Ambassador is likely to be working against it. When Armenians hold an event – say a conference or an exhibition – in a public building, the odds are Turkey will work to have it cancelled.
More dramatically, the prevailing state of mind in Turkey has played a major role in shaping the country’s policy towards the state of Armenia. The civil conflict between the ethnic Armenians of Karabagh and the state of Azerbaijan in the early 1990’s actually fed the narrative of Armenian expansionist threat (Azeris are considered Turks in Turkey). In defiance of its own interests, Turkey refused to establish diplomatic relations with Armenia and closed its border with that country.
In Turkey, the few remaining Armenians are still considered a security threat. They are supervised directly by the National Security Council, an honor they would happily do without.
The narrative of denial and its consequences are noxious, and it is not compatible with joining a community of nations such as the European Union – Copenhagen criteria or not.
Noxious, too, is the vigour that the Turkish state displays in obliterating the memory of the genocide abroad. Any event relating to the genocide – film, conference, memorial, publication – literally anything will be fought against tooth and nail by Turkish Embassies, mobilizing Turkish immigrant communities if need be. Violence may be involved, as in the French town of Valence on Nov. 28.
Most people are not heroes; they yield. The British government itself has yielded. So has the European Commission as it sidelined the issue in the context of Turkey’s relations with the E.U. Many press agencies and media yield by presenting the genocide as an Armenian “claim,” as if 90 years had not been sufficient to establish the facts as more than a claim. Countless authors, filmmakers, and others who considered telling the story of the annihilation of an ancient nation also yielded.
That is why the Armenian genocide, a crime of unprecedented magnitude, is so little known and has barely been mentioned in more than a passing fashion in the context of Turkey’s membership bid. And that is why the twin evils of denial and the group hostility it has bred – call it nationalism, racism, xenophobia – must not be allowed into our community of nations.
Michel Barnier’s declaration teaches us at least one lesson: the legacy of genocide is too big to be brushed under the carpet. Turkey’s true friends in the E.U. must have the wisdom to confront genocide denial.
Nicolas Tavitian is Director of European Programmes for the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU, online at www.agbu.org), a founding member of the Turkish Armenian association TABDC-EU, and author of several reports on relations between Turkey and Armenia, including “Les relations arméno-turques: la porte close de l’Orient”(2003), available on www.grip.org.