Interview with Taner Akçam about the Turkish policies ahead of 2015, how recognition of genocide is understood in Turkey and methods that could be followed to solve the conflict. According to Akçam, there is a deliberate effort to avoid issues such as justice and reparations.
REPAIR: What made you study the Armenian genocide? Did you regard it as an injustice?
Taner Akçam: I started to study the Armenian genocide by chance. It might not have happened. But, if I remember, Engels coined a very nice expression in his book called “Anti-Duhring” that “Coincidences are the result of obligations”. In my case it was one of these coincidences… I started a study on the history of torture in Ottoman-Turkish history at the Hamburg Social Research Institute. I read and learned things I didn't know about Ottoman-Turkish history. One of these things was the acts of torture and killings against the Armenians during Sultan Abdul Hamid's rule. Then, when I read up about 1915 in German, I remember that I said “I do not know all these details, I have to learn more about them…”
Then, another coincidence happened. In 1990-1991, the Institute for which I worked started a project on the Nuremberg Trials. The Institute looked for a simple answer: "Are the Nuremberg Nazi Trials a deviation in the course of the history of humankind, or will it become a norm in the future?”. The question was: “Could government officers be held accountable individually for crimes they committed for political reasons?” We also wanted to raise the question of whether an institution like the international criminal court could be founded”. Today, this question may seem strange, but at the time the war of Yugoslavia had not broken out and there was no debate at all about international criminal courts. My project on torture in Ottoman-Turkish history was almost completed. In my readings, I learned that there were several trials held against members of the Party of Union and Progress in 1919-1922 in Istanbul and those trials were related to the Paris Peace talks. One of the discussions during the Paris Peace Talks was about the establishment of an international criminal court. Based on this piece of information, I presented a project on the Istanbul Trials and the Paris Peace Talks. My project was accepted and I began to delve into the Genocide issue.
I would like to mention another coincidence. There was a lady working at the institute's library. She said that her mother was Armenian; the only sign of Armenian identity left in her were her eyes. She always encouraged me to study this subject and she said, “This is a very important matter and in your case it is even more important because you are conducting this study as a Turk”. At the time I was looking at the world through the eyes of an average Turkish left-leaning intellectual. I repeated those well-known interpretations such as “It was a dark period, there were clashes on both sides”. Her determination and her words of encouragement coincided with the launch of the new project by the Institute; I started studying the Armenian genocide out of academic interest.
You really worked in-depth on your subject.
I was captivated and found myself deep into the subject. Obviously, I did not know and I didn't see that this was such a risky and politically sensitive issue. I am a man who caught the last train of the 68 generation. I handled the subject like so many average left leaning Turks. I held world views such as “We, Turkish nation, fought against the great powers in an anti-imperialist war. We created our government out of thin air. Armenians, Greeks and other minorities were collaborators of Imperialism; they were the comprador-bourgeoisie and they mainly served imperialism.” That was how I saw what happened in 1915: “Yes, there were some brutal events during World War I, people killed each other, but we, Turks waged a struggle to build our nation therefore we were in the right. The others were traitors beholden to the imperialists. All of this happened in the past there is no need to dig up the past “Therefore studying the Armenian genocide for me was all about changing our mentality or identity, who we are and how we portray ourselves, I was not aware of the political risks the issue entailed.
It is easy for me to say it today. If it hadn't been for my leftist past I could have given up studying the Armenian genocide. In the years 68,69 and 70 you had to fulfil three criteria to be a leftist in Turkey. First you had to be prepared to be arrested and tortured. Second you were likely to be sent to prison for a long time. Third you had to be prepared to the idea of being killed in broad day light. At the time it wasn't possible to join left wing organisations without answering yes to those three questions. At the time I said that I was prepared to run the risk of being tortured imprisoned or killed therefore I could take the risk involved in working on the Armenian question. If I hadn't had such a past I could have given up. I have friends in academia who have.
After I started to work on that subject, the attacks from the government and nationalist and racist groups certainly scared me but they also made me angry. There were moments were I thought to myself « working on this subject is part of a political struggle and they want to destroy me. I already made my decision regarding the risks in the 70's. If you want to attack me, go ahead ». There were periods where I was really scared because of death threats before and after Hrant Dink's assassination.
Since Hrant Dink's assassination I have been torn between two conflicting feelings. On the one hand I have been scared witless and on the other hand I have been extremely angry because of the murder of Hrant Dink and all the injustices.
Was your work on the Armenian genocide a way to carry on your political struggle? As it is a vitally important subject for making Turkey more democratic.
That is how I saw it at the beginning. I had written a long foreword for my first book in 1992. I focused on why we had to work on that subject and on what happened. In short I stated that the Kurdish question was the consequence of the Armenian question and that it couldn't be solved without understanding the Armenian question. If you want to build a society that protects human rights you have to look at human rights violations that occurred in the past. To me The Armenian question was just part of bigger current political issues. It is not entirely irrelevant but this approach has serious flaws.
My position is different now. As a researcher knowing whether a question is politically solved or not isn't of much importance to me. There is no link between a subject and the fact that the subject in question is regarded as a problem. For instance the Holocaust as a political issue between Germany and Israel is to a large extent solved. But there is still work and research on the Holocaust. Therefore I will work on my subject for as long as I can write. On another note it is necessary to approach the subject with the responsibilities I have, as an intellectual from Turkey. Which involves supporting the communities, which are seeking justice, and especially the Armenians who suffered injustices in the past.
Recognition of the genocide can be defined in different ways by different groups in Turkey. Some people say that it means society being aware of what happened in 1915 whereas other people ask for the government to recognise the genocide. How would you define recognition?
I cannot say that I understand well why there is on the one hand recognition by society and on the other hand recognition by the government. I think it is absurd to say that society has to recognize what happened but that the government doesn't have to. Justice cannot be served without society acknowledging that there has been an injustice. Nowadays We talk about the extermination of native Americans, the subject is discussed and it is accepted by society. But is doesn't mean that the native Americans have been compensated for the injustices they have suffered. The question has to be framed in a fair way. What does it mean to remedy historical injustices? First it means that the government acknowledges the injustices and implements measures to remedy the consequences of the injustices. There need to be compensation, not only financial compensation there is also a moral dimension involved. Second the society in question has to acknowledge the injustice. Recognition not only involves compensations. Recognition means that all members of society can live together in a democracy and prevention of further genocides in the future. Which means that it is necessary to do right by the Armenians and the other minorities that live in Turkey today.
State recognition is important because of the reparations and similar measures. As for recognition by society it is a way to live in a more peaceful and democratic environment. Recognition by society means that at least Armenians don't feel any fear when they walk in the street. It means that they can say their name out-loud and speak Armenian and I am not even talking about removing the other legal obstacles they face. These are important steps for prevention of genocide.
What kind of changes do you expect in the future?
I would like to mention two different models. One is handling our history American-style. It seems to me that Turkey is becoming a Little America. We are just imitating the style of “facing the past” which is adopted by America. This is mainly an approach to leave the solution of this problem to civil society. Today, you can talk freely about the injustices suffered by Native Americans; there are departments in American universities devoted to the language and culture of native populations. You can research, talk and discuss freely about every issue including genocide. There are some special programs, initiatives to protect the languages and cultures of Native Americans. There is a museum in Washington dedicated to Native Americans. You can hardly see anything about the genocide but there is so much information about the contributions of Native Americans to American society. I guess, Turkey is following the same path. The Armenian genocide is increasingly accepted by civil society.
Thus, in the coming period, it won’t surprise me if university departments devoted to Armenian history and culture open and if there are more linguistic and cultural studies. The Armenian Genocide should become a more accepted topic in society. Of course there will be some people who think that those changes are enough and who may say “what more do you want?” For example, today, there are several people around us who think “we could talk now, what more do you want?” and even think “we talked enough, let’s write off each others debts and close this chapter”. People, who think like that don't ask for the government to recognize the genocide.
There are even some people in these sections of the society who say: ”Genocide is none of Armenia’s business. Why does Armenia interfere? This is none of the Diaspora's business. Why does the Diaspora interfere?” The reaction of some people to the struggle of the Diaspora for the genocide to be recognized is “why do they keep bothering us with that”. According to those sections of society; Genocide is a problem between Armenians in Turkey and the Turkish government. And it is a problem that should be solved by society. I suppose that the approach I called American-style solution will gain momentum in 2015 and beyond.
Another example, that Turkey could follow, is Germany and Israel. I think this model is the right path to follow. I do not believe that Turkey can solve its problem in facing its past like the Americans did, I think it cannot do so for two reasons: first of all, there is a government, a country called Armenia, and second of all, there is the Armenian Diaspora. In other words, Native Americans don't have an independent state or a Diaspora outside of America. Because of to these two realities, I think an American-style solution is not enough to solve the problem at the level of society.
Moreover, I see the efforts for solving the problem American-style as a different means of continuing a 90-year policy of amnesia. It is as if, they have realized that ordinary denial policies are not good enough, and therefore they are digging new trenches and taking up their positions in order to fight on a new battlefront.
If Turkey (with government and society together) wants this problem to be solved, it should start negotiations with Armenia about this issue immediately. Like Germany and Israel did. Moreover, as Germany did with the Jewish Diaspora, Turkey should start negotiations with the Armenian Diaspora. Armenia and the Armenian Diaspora could not represent each other; they are two independent legal entities. Of course there are some questions and problems such as “who should represent the Diaspora?” but I think that this is not problem of Turks to ask. Jewish people have so many different organizations but they rapidly put together a body for the negotiations. In short, I think that the Germany-Israel example must be followed for the solution to the Armenian Question in Turkey.
Although there has been no answer from Turkey, there was a letter of condolences sent. What do you think? Is Turkey going in the right direction?
It is difficult to make any assessment now. But, it seems that Turkey is following a twofold strategy. On the one hand it seeks to heighten tensions in the short term. On the second hand Turkey would like to give the impression especially to international public opinion that the only party that wants a solution is Turkey itself. It will try to show the Diaspora and Armenia as the parties that do not want a solution, and that don't want reconciliation.
I would like to give some examples of heightening tensions. Just visit the new web-site of the Turkish Historical Society about the Armenian Genocide. You will see that an 80-years denial policy continues in a devious way. All articles and books that have been written for 80 years and archive documents are gathered. As if they were gathering ammunition for a final war! The second example is schoolbooks. Look at all those schoolbooks; there is more obvious denial than in the past! Beyond the racism against Armenians, Armenians are also shown as a great threat against Turkey's national security. A third example is that Turkey allows Azerbaijan officials to carry out political actions in Turkey. A poster competition on the theme of the massacres perpetrated by Armenians during World War I was organised and took place with the cooperation of Gazi University and Azerbaijani Embassy. Besides, they said that they would announce the winner of the competition on the day of the anniversary of Hrant Din's death. You know, an embassy cannot engage in such a political activities in a foreign country, it is banned by international law. The fourth example of that policy is the celebrations of Sarıkamis and Dardanelles Wars. There, the theme means “we also suffered”, it was put forward. And Turkey decided to commemorate the Gallipoli war on exact the same day as the commemoration of Armenian Genocide. Those examples show that the Turkish government has the following approach “if you impose the genocide on us, we will impose those subjects on you”.
The second strategy is about the west. They say: "We handle this issue with respect and in a comprehensive manner, look; we sent our condolences last year”. Then they say “respect the pain and suffering of everyone”, it is necessary to develop the idea of “just memory”. Content-wise they keep repeating what has been said about 1915, there is one difference that has to be highlighted. They have put on a seemingly humane layer on their denial policies. There are of course some people who see this as a step in the right direction.
In short the main government policy is to pull through 2015 with as little damage as possible. I don't think the elite is serious about solving the Armenian question in Turkey.
How come some columnists and authors describe this approach as a revolution?
If you interpret this in good faith, you have to understand that small openings of that kind can be perceived as major changes. When you criticize change the answer will be: “before there wasn't even such a thing.” I understand this approach but in the meantime I think there is something wrong with it because you are looking for a good thing in something bad. You make the case for the worst alternative instead of trying to reach what is fair and what should be done.
There is also another downside to seeing small changes as major revolutions. The argument “before there wasn't even this” is used against you, “you should be happy with what you have been given”. Then you are told “What more do you want?” Some people say without shame « we have done our duty, the ball is in your court ». Recognizing a historical truth can be shown as strictly a negotiation.
It is as if instead of discussing reasonable solutions by agreeing on principles, you were told: «Even if it is just a small step you must be grateful». The general atmosphere is to present those small steps as outstanding acts of generosity. I would rather hear clear statements on the nature and the solution to the problem. This approach involves recognizing the historical facts, defining them as murder, asking for forgiveness and paying compensation.
The questions of justice and reparations are never raised in Turkey, returning confiscated properties, identify and condemning those who are responsible: Isn't all this unrealistic for Turkey?
It seems very unlikely even in liberal circles. Society and government deliberately avoid the recognition and reparations questions. Because we know that the answer lies in «giving». It is a situation left-leaning and liberal circles are not used to. People from the left, democrats and liberals have always been the ones asking for something. They are used to that position. They have asked the government for freedom and social justice. Why are we on the left? We ask for equality and for rights and if they are not granted we will take them. We will fight to take them if need be. Regarding the Armenian question we feel that the situation is different. That is where leftists and liberals have difficulty, we have to give, full stop. We have to learn how to phrase that question of giving as a win. We have to understand that by giving we can keep what makes us human.
And not only the government will have to give am I right?
Of course! The government will pay reparations but they will be paid thanks to tax-payers money. About « giving » and how it is going to affect us financially, I assume that there is a subconscious in the society that says “how can we pay as little money as possible and get away with the Armenian question”. That is why this issue is so thorny. If we can realise that giving is a great gain and if we can define that gain morally and materially we will be able to move one step further towards solving the conflict.