In his first trip abroad as president, Barack Obama brought up the Armenian genocide in an address to Turkish parliament. Sort of. Instead of actually mentioning the genocide, he noted that America “still struggles with the legacies of slavery and segregation,” as well as its “past treatment of Native Americans.” Each country, he went on, must “work through” and “reckon with” the past.
|Todd Heisler/The New York Times|
In discussions of Turkey’s genocide denial, many people, Turkish and American, cynically suggest the real issue is reparations. If Turkey admitted it had committed genocide, the theory goes, something, maybe international law or the US congress, would then compel it to pay compensation to the victims. If this is really the concern, then let the US example serve as a reminder that there’s no need to worry. If anything, as we’ve discovered, apologizing for about past sins can be an excellent way to defuse the any expectation of financial reparations.
Last April, the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide led Americans to devote an unusual amount of attention to 20th century Turkish history. Turks, in turn, devoted an unusual amount of attention to 19th century American history, using every internet forum available to suggest that American interest in the genocide was hypocritical in light of our own country's troubled history. The difference, of course, is that in America we have long been able to talk openly about slavery, or the fate of our continent's indigenous population. In fact many of the people most vocally urging Turkish society to confront its past have also pushed Americans to do so as well.
But with each passing year, a growing number of people in Turkey are openly discussing their country’s past. Now it appears Turkey may finally be on the verge of realizing that when it comes to wrestling with history, they’d do better to emulate American hypocrisy than condemn it. For example, any basic cost-benefit analysis would have long ago led Ankara to realize it would be cheaper to ignore non-binding congressional resolutions than pay millions of dollars to lobbyists in order to defeat them. Or Ankara could have used the language recently employed by the French president, who simply explained that his country's debt to Haiti is moral, not financial. But what prevented Turkey from taking this approach, at least up until now, was not a fear of reparations but rather national pride. Specifically, though, a kind of national pride reflecting the fact that from the late 19th century to the Cold War, condemning Turkey's barbaric behavior was a favorite excuse for imperialist land grabs. After World War One, the Armenian Genocide in particular was an oft-cited justification for the dividing Anatolia up between Western powers. In short, Turkey never had the luxury we did in America, where our geopolitical power let us confront history on our own terms, comfortable that we would only face the consequences on the rare occasions we chose too.
Inevitably, this raises the uniquely troubling question of how the darker parts of our country’s history are related to the political circumstances that enable us to talk about them. That is, did our national crimes facilitate the wealth, power and even democratic values that give us the confidence to admit them?
In Turkey, however, the historiographic impulse is reversed. Liberal academics have instead argued that the Armenian Genocide, and the country’s refusal to reckon with it, help explain all that is authoritarian, violent and undemocratic about Turkey today. Some have argued, for example, that because Turkey’s industrial class owed its wealth to the state, specifically the state’s expropriation of Armenian land, they could never play the democratizing role that their class did in other countries. Other scholars have seen a more direct connection between the state’s genocidal treatment of the Armenians and its willingness to use violence against the Kurds today. For those in Turkey bravely fighting against denial, authoritarianism and state violence, this narrative offers a compelling way to understand the link between these struggles.
But there is another, potentially more disturbing possibility. By the low standard humanity has set for itself in the 20th century, the modern Turkish republic stands out for being relatively peaceful and democratic. This isn’t to minimize the political violence that Turkey has experienced, of course. Political trials that occurred under Ataturk’s rule ended with the execution of hundreds of political opponents, while they state used deportations, massacres and even poison gas to repress Kurdish uprisings in Eastern Anatolia. More recently, extrajudicial killings and collective punishment came to define the state’s dirty war with the PKK which has now killed at least 40,000 people. But tragically, this ugly record pales in comparison with the ongoing experience of many Middle Eastern states or the historic experience of any European state that participated in World War Two. Since 1923, Turkey has experienced less dictatorial rule and less political violence than most of its neighbors, all after the state systematically killed a million people in the first genocide of the modern era.
Even more disturbing is the possibility that genocide helped lay the groundwork for Turkey’s relative stability and democracy. It is far from clear that it did, but in many other contexts scholars have argued for the role of national homogeneity in facilitating democratic transitions. Certainly, key moments in Turkey’s own transition to democracy, were made possible by the existence of a political consensus on essential matters of foreign and domestic policy. That this consensus, and Turkey’s homogeneity more broadly, were based on mass murder doesn’t negate the possibility they were conducive for putting the country on a more positive political trajectory.
So what are we to do with this? What are we to make of the role of slavery in the creation of American democracy? Or the fact that if Turkey eventually becomes the kind of strong, confident, democratic society that can acknowledge the Armenian genocide, it could be, in part a legacy of genocide.
In his speech to the Turkish Parliament, Obama claimed “History is often tragic, but unresolved, it can be a heavy weight.” As an American, I’m proud we have the freedom to wrestle openly with our history, and as a historian I can’t help but believe that these efforts can make our society better. But what if our ability to confront the most tragic parts of our past is itself a product of these tragedies. This possibility is also something that we must reckon with.