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A genocide denied

By Zafer Senocak

In the 21st century, Turkish society will no longer be able to afford this rotten foundation of repression and crude historical falsification if it wants to be invited into the circle of Europeans. The Turks cannot demand that others come to terms with their histories when they themselves are only willing to believe in a version they invented, says Zafer Senocak

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the Germans not only stood before the ruins of their fragmented country. They also, in the light of the crimes committed under National Socialist rule, stood before moral ruin and the question of guilt, which after a relatively short phase of repression, led to unprecedented historical scrutiny.

But what happens when instead of a culture of remembering, a culture of repression and denial is established? How can two societies, one at home in the culture of memory and the other in the culture of repression, come to terms with one another.

The current debate surrounding the Armenian victims of Turkish deportation and extermination in 1915 reflects the impossibility of this sort of understanding. Many Turkish public figures and associations in Germany react to the accusations of genocide with old patterns of repression that are so thoroughly internalised that to abandon them would be like abandoning one's very self.

This is no starting point, either for a dialogue with German society, which is discussing this problematic chapter of Turkish history ever more openly, or for the families of the victims who for decades have been seeking recognition for their suffering.

This fact alone is monstrous enough. Imagine this for a moment: Your own family is driven from its home, and in the process most of them lose their lives, are massacred in cold blood. But the survivors and their children then have to spend decades trying to bring the rest of the world, not to mention the perpetrator nation, to recognise the suffering and injustice inflicted on them. The accusation from the Turkish side that the Armenian diaspora has purely nationalist motivations is downright shameless, given that the Turkish establishment refuses to even lift a finger in acknowledgement of these people and their personal histories.

Acknowledgement can neither be replaced by a public discussion of the events in Anatolia, nor by parliamentary debate, and certainly not by an international dispute between historians. The very fact that people are calling for historians to debate the issue reveals coldness and distance, which is part of the problem, not the solution. The archives are open, they say, as if historical truth could be accessed solely through archives. Historical truth is not a physical quantity that can be measured with a mathematical formula. It is hidden in the memories of every individual person. If these memories are subjected to a permanent process of repression, there is no truth, only lies and falsification.

In the 21st century, Turkish society will no longer be able to afford this rotten foundation of repression and crude historical falsification if it wants to be invited into the circle of Europeans. The Turks cannot demand that others come to terms with their histories when they themselves are only willing to believe in a version they invented.

But virtually everything that has come out of the Turkish media in Germany in recent weeks bodes ill. Instead of a serious debate on the issue, they are concerned with capitalising on Armenia's history of suffering because it is ideally suited to exploit Turkish nationalist feeling. But when this takes place in Germany, it is not only dangerous but unbearable.

The defamation of critical voices by these press organs has by now lost all journalistic sense and assumed the dimensions of a campaign. Once again it is becoming clear that the majority of Turkish politicians and their lackeys are utterly indifferent to the real concerns of Turks abroad. They view them as a mass that can be manoeuvred to serve their own ends, however stable they are. They see them as peasant victims, who can be shifted back and forth, and abandoned at any point. The nationalistically-charged mass seems to consent to this. It is not their integration into German society that is important, nor their establishment and upcoming cosmopolitan orientation, no, the only thing of relevance is nationalist ethos.

This is an unbearable state of affairs, which if it persists, does not augur well for German-Turkish relations. German acceptance of Turks in Germany is already minimal. The consequences of further alienation are virtually impossible to estimate.

Sensible voices in Germany still capable of rational analysis are not entirely absent. The Turkish Union in Berlin-Brandenburg, the TBB, has refrained from jumping on the nationalist bandwagon. This should be welcomed wholeheartedly, even if it means that the campaign now being launched against this organisation will probably cause irreparable damage to the Turkish population. The instrumentalisation of genocide, for whatever end it might be, is always morally despicable and casts a dark shadow on those who practise it. This applies in particular to politicians who serve the interests of the so-called healthy understanding in Turkish society, to which the denial and repression of genocide belong.

This instrumentalisation is not only morally despicable, it also deforms those who practise it. Because by doing so they are treading in the footsteps of the perpetrators. In the same way, a society which represses a crime of such dimensions, which stubbornly refuses to feel guilt or responsibility, is in no way immune to a repetition. The lynch-mob atmosphere that has raised its head in recent weeks on Turkish streets against minorities and other-minded individuals, does not – as one might expect – awaken any bad memories, because such memories have been deliberately erased.

All these events substantiate one fact: the scale and effect of the Armenian genocide has yet to be understood by the Turks. What is lacking is not only a rational analysis but a compassionate heart and an awareness of responsibility, which would make many discussions completely superfluous. For example, whether one categorises the events as genocide or massacre and expulsion. A row over terminology cannot erase victims from memory or history. A society that is unwilling to remember remains imprisoned by the mistakes of the past. This verdict is much harsher that any judgement that could be passed by some government.


This article was originally published in German in the taz on 28 April 2005.

Zafer Senocak
, born in Ankara in 1961, has lived in Germany since 1970, where he has become a leading voice in German discussions on multiculturalism, national and cultural identity, and a mediator between Turkish and German culture.

Translation: lp.

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