President Erdogan just commented on the Armenian Genocide during a live TRT interview and stressed the need for critical debates. I would not dismiss Erdogan’s words out of hand. There is a lot of rhetoric in what he said, but it is possible to respond to him in a fruitful manner.
I tried to create an opportunity for a critical debate with Turkish colleagues, on a public platform, in 2007. Speaking through Turkish journalists, I offered a case study on the treatment of Armenians in Kharpert (Harput) and its plain in 1915.
Since Armenians in the Kharpert region were deported without passing through war zones, and since deportation laws specified how the names of deportees had to be recorded at the time of their removal and resettlement, I asked to see such records related to Kharpert in Ottoman archives. I also proposed presenting my own sources which, according to my understanding, suggested that the people in question were killed.
While my offer was addressed to any historian who had potential access to Ottoman records, Yusuf Halacoglu, the head of the Turkish Historical Society, responded. I believe Halacoglu agreed to enter such a debate because he was asked to do so by Turkish journalists. Our expected encounter drew some headlines.
However, Halacoglu pulled out of the agreed project. He stated on a CNN Turk programme that the deportation records I had asked to examine did not exist.
According to “Talaat Pasha’s Report on the Armenian Genocide” – a handwritten report that was found in Talaat’s possession – of 70,000 Armenians in the Kharpert area in 1914 (official Ottoman figures), just over 2,000 could be counted in the deportation zones three years later. These statistics were based on an Ottoman survey of Armenians carried out in 1917. There were practically no Armenians in Der Zor, the ostensible destination of most deportees.
I should point out that, when I proposed the case study on Kharpert, I was helped by several people in the Turkish press who gave the proposal due prominence. I was flattered when the late Mehmet Ali Birand expressed his disappointment when Halacoglu pulled out. The headline of his newspaper column was “Ermenilerden gol yedik” – “The Armenians scored a goal against us.”
Ironically, my main disappointment was on the Armenian side, where there was practically no reaction to the proposed case study. I presume the lack of response was because I was not affiliated with the Armenian Government, political parties, or lobbying organisations.
Presiden Erdogan’s latest comments raise the same issues again, and I would restate once more: we do not need official commissions to examine the Armenian Genocide. All we need is for the Turkish government, which is in charge of crucial evidence, to produce the deportation and any resettlement records which, according to the deportation decrees, had to be filed in local and central archives during the period in question.
Meanwhile, historians will continue to use the key records outside Turkey for their understanding of the events of 1915.