To date, other than the extremely brave Turkish scholars such as Taner Akcam, Selim Deringil and some journalists who lament the demise of a multicultural Turkey, there have been few efforts by Greece to actively engage Turkey in a rational discussion on the Genocide. However, popular opinion in Turkey is gradually shifting, especially with regard to the genocide against the Armenians. Recently, the grandson of Jemal Pasha, one of the three army officers who instigated the genocide, suggesting that “Turkey, as a state, should apologize to the Armenians.” Such public calls for recognition are becoming larger in number, with prominent businessman Ishak Alaton commenting that: “Apology is a sign of maturity and it is time for Turkey to grow up… There is little time left until 2015 when Turkey will face a huge campaign by the Armenian lobby, which claims it will be the 100th year of Armenian genocide.” There appears to be at least a tacit acknowledgment by sections of the Turkish media, that, despite their own interpretation of events, the Armenians have managed to convince the world of the righteousness of their cause.
Hurriyet journalist Mehmet Ali Birand, for example, observed the following in an article strangely entitled: “Now the Armenians are making us walk the Deportation March”: “Armenians are almost approaching the end in their genocide claims. They have made the world accept their claims by working continuously like industrious ants for 100 years. While they were explaining their pain and what they had to live through, we did not even discuss among ourselves what had happened. We buried our heads in the sand and have reached these days. We could not reply in a persuasive manner. We lost the case.”
While some sympathy exists for the Armenians among the Turkish intelligentsia, and while some Turkish journalists stress the need to tactically address the Armenian Genocide in order to enhance the global image of Turkey, this does not seem to extend to a consideration of the genocide against Greeks in Pontus and the rest of Asia Minor. Last year, when the Diatribe wrote about this Genocide, an incendiary letter was received from a Turkish nationalist, making accusations of racism and incitement of racial hatred. This is something echoed by many Turks I have spoken to over the years: that the victim’s (our) discourse about the genocide, (which usually involves exhibiting statistics of the death toll and reading contemporary newspaper articles that describe crimes of murder and torture in harrowing detail), is that it is a natural consequence of the actions of a race which is by its very nature, inhumane and barbaric. According to this view, the Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks are using the Genocide to vilify the entire Turkish nation and deny its humanity.
I profoundly disagree with this point of view, which does not take into account (a) the inherited trauma of the brutality of genocide and (b) frustration at the continued Turkish denial of this crime. I believe that the enormity of the crime, as contained in newspaper accounts of the time is so horrific as to need no further embellishment. However, I concede that the disturbing gleefulness with which some Greek ultra-nationalists and for want of a better word “genocide-peddlers” take it upon themselves to present historical incidents of Turkish brutality against Christians, the gorier the better, sometimes does seem to be more than just reporting of facts and rather, calculated to a) enhance their own self importance and b) incite feelings of disgust and anger at the entire Turkish race, despite their vocal protestations to the contrary.
Both in Greece and in Australia, the Genocide discourse is thus being played out, mostly for domestic consumption, with a schematic and highly narrow presentation of facts to the already converted, that focuses mainly on the mechanics of the slaughter. There is no consideration of the broader social, historical and political framework which enabled the Genocide to take place and certainly no dialogue with, or consideration of the discourse from the Turkish point of view, which is necessary, if we are to reach some type of recognition by them of the Genocide and an apology to the victims. Further, if our only contribution to the discussion is the internalised list of crimes, it is axiomatic that when faced with a perceived onslaught of racial denigration, that the immediate Turkish knee-jerk reaction is to dismiss all accusations put by us and wallow in rage, just as post-war Germans turned their heads away from the screen when forced by the Allies to watch footage of the Nazi extermination camps. At that stage, the time for listening or dialogue is past and any attempts to engage with Turks in order for them to appreciate the enormity of the crime of Genocide committed by their ancestors, are rendered futile.
Another major problem with unseasoned Genocide campaigners’ approaches, it their pseudo-legalism, where, in their quest to forensically ‘prove’ the genocide, they try to selectively fit the events of the genocide into the various legal definitions of genocide that exist, some of which have changed or are no longer as broad as they should be, or are too broad. For example, the UN definition is now extremely broad but does not cover all instances of cultural genocide or violence against women. As a result, the whole debate becomes a nit-picking exercise between would be-lawyers, obfuscating the main point – which is that a State took it upon itself to incite its subjects to commit horrible crimes against subject minorities, with a view to exterminating them, from within its borders and even worse, that the State in question, the Ottoman Empire and its successor, deny that it ever happened, despite a multitude of eyewitness and independent evidence verifying it. In this case, legally ‘proving’ what the world already knows is a useless exercise, especially since nation states can ‘opt out’ of being bound by international court decisions.
In his book With Intent to Destroy: Reflections on Genocide, Colin Tatz argues that Turkey denies the genocide so as not to jeopardize “its ninety-five-year-old dream of becoming the beacon of democracy in the Near East”. In the light of recent developments in the region, this argument seems unconvincing. On the other hand in their book Negotiating the Sacred: Blasphemy and Sacrilege in a Multicultural Society, Elizabeth Burns Coleman and Kevin White present a list of reasons explaining Turkey’s inability to admit the genocides committed by the Young Turks, being: a) a suppression of guilt and shame that a warrior nation, a ‘beacon of democracy’ as it saw itself in 1908 (and since), slaughtered several ethnic populations. Democracies, it is said, don’t commit genocide; ergo, Turkey couldn’t and didn’t do so. b) A cultural and social ethos of honour, a compelling and compulsive need to remove any blots on the national escutcheon. c) A chronic fear that admission will lead to massive claims for reparation and restitution. d) To overcome fears of social fragmentation in a society that is still very much a state in transition. e) A ‘logical’ belief that because the genocide was committed with impunity, so denial will also meet with neither opposition nor obloquy and f) An inner knowledge that the juggernaut denial industry has a momentum of its own and can’t be stopped even if they wanted it to stop.
Notwithstanding the above dealing with the genocide on a bilateral basis, the largest problem the Greek people face has to do with the nationalist hysteria referred to earlier and the fact that our history with Turkey is different to that of Armenians or the Assyrians. In striving to explain how we are the innocent victims of genocide, we shy away from exploring how it was that the Turks could be incited to commit genocide in the first place – a topic of vital importance if our intention is to ensure that genocide never takes place again, rather than achieve an ascendancy over the Turks.
We also airbrush out our own history in the region. In particular we ignore the role played by Turkish refugees from the Balkans, who, dispossessed and resentful, were easily manipulated into taking out their frustrations against the Greeks of Asia Minor. We also forget that the Greek army, assisted by native Greeks in Anatolia, during the Asia Minor campaign, also took part in massacres, though on an extremely smaller scale and in markedly different circumstances.
We are silent on these, though need to examine them and put them in perspective, for the Turkish response to our claims is always that we also committed massacres and or genocide, so that if they did perpetrate the genocide, we are no better than they and thus, all things are equal. Once we have examined our own role, and understand the motivation behind it, we can then condemn all acts of racial violence and brutality wherever these are committed, including our own, separating these and not linking them to the Genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire against the Christian of Asia Minor.
Next week, we will examine the massacres the Greek army committed in Asia Minor and consider how these impact upon Turkish views of the Greek Genocide.
* Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist.