The Armenian genocide has become a serious sticking point between the French and Turks. As our readers probably know, Turkey refuses to officially recognize the massacre of Armenians during and after WWI as a “genocide.” Paris takes another view, and last night legislatures voted to make it a crime to deny the Armenian genocide.
Readers whose memories of World War I have grown a little rusty may not have all the details concerning the Anatolian massacres of the era. Christian Armenians, then a significant minority in what was still the Ottoman Empire’s Turkish territory, had been the victims of massacres going back decades. Turks and other Muslims in the collapsing empire had grown suspicious of Christian minorities who sought the protection of European countries and the US, often gaining exemption from local laws, and who, when the opportunity arose, sought independence from an empire they loathed. As the Russians pushed through the Caucasus into eastern Turkey during World War I, the Armenians were suspected of sympathizing with the Christian Russian empire and looking to the tsar and the allies to establish a large Armenian state that would include perhaps as much as a third of what is now Turkey. The situation quickly deteriorated and while estimates vary, it is generally thought that somewhere between a million and a million and a half Armenians died in a variety of unpleasant ways. Greeks and Assyrians, two other Christian minorities, were also slaughtered in significant numbers.
The events were widely publicized in the west at the time. American missionaries worked among the Armenians, and they did their best to raise a storm of anger in the US about the brutal treatment of their pupils and associates. The story also fit well with allied needs in the war; it showed Germany in alliance with a murderous, bigoted and backward Ottoman government and allied propagandists lost no opportunities to spread extremely harrowing (and often, though not always) well-documented reports of beatings, dispossession, rape, mutilation and murder through the world.
Republican, post-Ottoman Turks could have chosen to blame these atrocities on the deficiencies of the empire, but they chose another path. One of the hallmarks of Turkish nationalism ever since has been a rigid and hardline refusal to consider this tragedy in the same light as the West. Massacres and the forced exile of Muslims from Europe also occurred as the Ottoman Empire was gradually pushed back out of Europe, they note. (The massacres of Muslim Bosnians by Orthodox Serbs in the recent Yugoslav wars are a contemporary example of this well-attested reality.) Turks saw themselves as victims and raged that the western world ignored Muslim and Turkish suffering, while, in their view, over-stressing and credulously exaggerating the crimes of what westerners then frequently called “the terrible Turk.”
Turkey to this day has strict laws against anybody calling what happened to the Armenians a genocide. Many educated Turks consider this law an embarrassing absurdity and favor free discussion of this and any other issues in Turkey’s past, but the law has not changed and there seems little prospect of repeal anytime soon, especially now that the increasingly desperate Sarkozy re-election campaign has decided to play the anti-Turkish, genocide card in the run up to an election Sarkozy is widely expected to lose.
The French law reflects a longstanding campaign by the Armenian diaspora (many Armenians emigrated to the west before and after these terrible events) to establish in law that a genocide occurred. This is partly about understandable lingering bitterness, partly about seeing some kind of justice rendered to the victims and preventing future episodes of this kind, partly about a hope of lawsuits and compensation for the wholesale destruction and thievery of the property of the community, and partly about watching how Jewish groups have made a response to the Holocaust an important and effective element in their political work. (France already has a law making it a crime to deny the Holocaust. The argument that the Armenians deserve no less has been an important one as Armenian advocates struggle in Europe and the US to establish their claim.)
Another force behind the new law in France is that country’s campaign to keep Turkey out of the EU. This meshes will with Sarkozy’s interest in capitalizing on public concern about Islam in France and elsewhere. French popular opinion is very concerned about the inclusion of a large (and increasingly pious) Islamic country in the EU. Elite opinion often shares those fears and also worries that the inclusion of Turkey would further weaken France’s EU power and role by diluting its voting strength in EU institutions. Passage of the law is seen by many as a kind of wedge issue that will make the EU less likely to offer Turkey membership — and make the proud Turks more reluctant to join a club whose members brand their ancestors as genocidaires.
Via Meadia thinks both sides have gotten this wrong. Genocide and Holocaust denial laws are crimes against liberty and should never be passed. There are other ways to deal with these people; the US has no such laws and as far as Via Meadia knows there are absolutely no serious problems that come out of it. Nasty cretins write and say nasty things, but concentration camps and gas chambers show no signs of rising up across the American landscape. Denying the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide is a crime against society but not something that needs to be persecuted in a court of law.
The French law requiring people to refer to the massacres as a genocide is wrong; the Turkish law that prohibits people from calling the massacres a genocide is also wrong. Neither law should exist; both countries should step down. It is irresponsible and counterproductive for the French to have passed this law; Nicolas Sarkozy’s increasingly desperate election campaign has done lasting damage to France and to Europe.
On the flip side, Ankara needs to face this issue. It’s been too long. For far too many years, Turkish officials have dodged, dismissed, or denied the Armenian massacre. If Turkey wants to play in the big leagues, it has to understand that its attitude on this question strikes the rest of the world as backward and neurotic. Regardless of the merits about what did or didn’t happen in the waning days of Ottoman power in Turkey, nobody doubts that terrible massacres took place — a huge tragedy. As Turkey emerges from its Kemalist cocoon, this past must be frankly faced and discussed — without taboos. Turkish laws on the subject look ridiculous to virtually everyone in the world and exhibit a defensive and immature nationalism that causes people everywhere to look down on the Turks. A country that passes and, worse, enforces such a law humiliates and demeans itself even as it impoverishes its intellectual life and reduces the credibility of its scholars worldwide.
Turkey’s newly assertive foreign policy is going to force this kind of discussion into the open. If Turkey wants to talk about Gaza and the Palestinians more, it will have to talk about the Armenians. If Turkey is going to revive a kind of neo-Ottoman approach to the region, it is going to have to come to grips in a much deeper way with the uglier side of the Ottoman legacy. Turkey, like France, Russia, Britain and the United States is among other things an ex-colonial power. What the Armenians suffered at the hands of the Turks and Kurds was worse than what the Palestinians have suffered at the hands of the Israelis. As Turkish public opinion seeks to play a wider regional role, it must understand that its failure to grapple fully and openly with the problems of the past seriously undermines Turkey’s ability to lead.