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In Turkey, the wall of denial of the Armenian Genocide is becoming cracked


Standpoint of Turkey 

In Turkey, the wall of denial of the Armenian Genocide is becoming cracked

Murat Paker


Murat Paker

Director, Graduate Program in Clinical Psychology, Istanbul Bilgi University 

In this article, Murat Paker comes back on the notion of trauma, including the one called "social trauma" that is suited to the armenian victims of the Genocide in 1915 but also to Kurds and Alevis. He also stresses the importance of the general socio-political context which, according to him, is decisive in the appearance of traumas. The psychotherapist then profiles the perpetrators. He also addresses the reasons why the Ottoman elites commited a genocide and analyzes the causes of its denial which is at the foundation of the creation of the Turkish Republic. Finally, coming back to the consequences of state-sponsored denial set up by the different regimes in Turkey, Murat Paker notes that some leading works of academics has led to the wall of denial to crack. A very slow process which must go along with the resolution of the Turkish-Kurdish question, the sine qua non condition, according to the author, for the advent of a new Turkey.

Do social events lead to trauma? Is it possible to talk about social traumas?

Trauma is a phenomenon that can be described both on the personal level and on the level of various social groups. Its effects are both on the personal level and on the familial level, as well as on a collective level. For example, when there is a great disaster in a village, the whole village is effected on a collective level. That is, the traumatic situation causes a social trauma on the level of the people that live there with a geographical event. 

Then of course, independently from geographical locations and events, there are traumas concerning various social identities and belonging groups. Those are generally traumas that can be classified as political violence. In that case it can effect all the members of the social group in various degrees. In Turkey's case for example, we can talk about social traumas concerning the Kurds, the Alevis or the Greeks. If all of these social groups have been targeted through particular events, through a particular social identity, then of course the trauma and its characteristics are beyond the personal level, bearing an additional social significance as well.

There are studies on the traumas experienced by people who were subjected to violence. Do you think we can talk about a trauma for the person who inflicts violence?

When we say trauma, this more extensively includes natural disasters and accidents as well. However, if we are to limit this with man-made traumas, this includes a wide range of phenomena from someone or a group of people harming, causing injury to, murdering others on a personal or collective level to genocide. 

It is not easy for us to generalize what the perpetrators,  that is those who cause the trauma feel. I want to limit trauma here with political violence. I do not want to add such events as theft, usurpation because some other dynamics are at work. In fact, even when we talk only about political violence, we mean a wide range of phenomena from torture, murders committed in the name of the state or in the name of other organizations, kidnappings, threats, caused injuries, forced immigrations, to massacres and genocides. Of course the people who are perpetrators in these places come in great varieties. According to various studies few number of them are anti-social, those who bear personality traits which we call psychopaths according to the old terminology. They are already unable to empathize in any way with those whom they call "others", they cannot feel remorse in relation to those "others" in any way, they do not possess such a faculty. They are individuals who, probably because of some certain traumatic childhood experiences of their own, have not been able to develop their capacity to feel empathy and regret or are atrophied. This minority group that bears anti-social personality traits, carries on in its path without feeling any sadness, remorse, etc. They are very useful in this kind of circumstances anyway. They can easily be used by authorities.  

As for the great majority, as requires their social roles during times when events such as this are happening, they find themselves in a situation. At that time they are either guardians, soldiers, police or militants. That is, they have a role. Some people tell them to do this, do that, kill this, injure that, burn or destroy that place. At that point there are many factors in terms of the severity of the situation and most importantly according to the strength of the threat.

If these people who are expected to obey the orders feel that they belong to the group, if they find the strength of the threat directed at that group to be high, then it becomes easier for them to take part in violent acts, to kill others, to cause injury, to break, to burn, to destroy. That is they can rationalize and commit such extreme violent acts by saying, “There is a threat against my group, I am involved in this at the moment and of course I will protect my own group".  This is the most common case. Some get involved enthusiastically, some reluctantly and a small number refuse to do so. Those who refuse are few because the price to pay for refusing is great. Especially during war time refusing brings along with it risks that are hard to bear, such as treason, culpability etc... In every situation there are people, albeit few, who refuse to obey such orders or who flee. For instance, whereas one of the reasons for the high number of deserters during war is fear, the other is not wanting to do the dirty work. Because they are asked to do a lot of dirty work. This of course puts pressure on them and some consider fleeing to be the best way to avoid doing all that dirty work. At this point, when the majority of the people can not flee because of the possible great prices they may have to pay, they rationalize the situation on many different levels. 

This is what happens at the time of the events, but of course there is the aftermath. If we are to understand what perpetrators, headsmen, who have gotten involved in so many violent acts even during the normalization period, feel and do, we have to keep in mind that the socio-political climate of that society at large is also a significant determining factor.  For instance Vietnam War veterans... They went to the other side of the world for the American government. They fought, died, they were injured, they experienced many difficulties, they were traumatized in war. How did they try to make sense of this? By saying “For our country, our society, against the threat of communism, we did this, we did that". When they returned, the general atmosphere in their country was highly critical against the Vietnam War, they found that the war was meaningless and they criticized it, there was a movement towards this kind of an approach. Therefore, the majority of these soldiers felt abused, they started seeing themselves as people who had lost so much in exhange for nothing. They were the ones who had experienced so many dangers during the war. The ones who had engaged violence and had killed others but when they returned the frame in which they could make sense of, rationalize their position as perpetrators had collapsed. It became difficult to do something by using American nationalism or militarism. It was then that the risk for them to feel bad, to question what they had done or to develop various psychological symptoms increased. Even though we can not talk about a clear-cut distinction, if there wasn't such a socio-political atmosphere, if the American society went on saying "you are great, you are heroes", a significant number of those war veterans would continue to attach a positive meaning to their experience and to rationalize it. Therefore, the issue of how the perpetrators feel afterwards is strictly tied to the socio-political context, as well as how the situation is interpreted and appreciated both on the level of political circles and on the level of the society in general.

In the years 1919-1920, there is a very short period in which the Unionists were judged in Istanbul. We see debates in the press of the period and in the parliament. There was a questioning of 1915, but it lasted a short time and it was closed. Can we say that rationalization continued because of the absence of the socio-political atmosphere that made questioning possible?

1915 coincides with the year the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the Turkish Republic was founded. The Turkification, homogenization, clearing out of differences in Anatolia takes place in the time all of these happened. In the Anatolian lands that remained from the Ottoman State, before the First World War, Christian population ratio was %20-25. In the aftermath, after clearing out Armenians and Greeks, there was a serious homogenization. The Ottoman Empire shrank rapidly in the last century and lost a great deal of land, fortune, population, fame.  This is a serious blow and the Ottomans came to the point of saying “We will be destroyed” that is “this war is our last chance, our last opportunity” because “We always lose against the West”.

Why does all this happen; because there is a consideration as "traitors, mainly the Christians, non-Muslims that we consider as our subjects, cooperate with Westerners and always stab us in the back". Therefore, we need to move towards a homogeneous nation state. How can we do this; through Sunni-Muslim-Turkishness. There is an especially alarmist situation of “Let us use the war as an excuse to deal with our own business, do our cleaning". Therefore, the need to soothe this fear of difference, this anxiety of "if we are different, heterogenous, we will be torn apart, destroyed, finished" was the reason why Turkish nationalism was brought to the fore as a remedy.

This remedy is used throughout the First World War. Cleaning is done. The Turkish Republic is founded through this remedy. After the founding of the Republic, this remedy is still present. Namely The Turkish Republic is founded through Turkish nationalism. All factors except Turkishness and Sunni Muslimism, mainly Armenians and Greeks, to a lesser extent Alevis and Kurds are all seen as being outside the center. They are seen either as dangerous "local-foreigners", or are coded as elements that need to be quickly assimilated, Turkified, brought to the level of acceptable citizens. Therefore, that is the same reflex that was present in the last few decades, the same reflex that continued in the Republic. In the first five-ten years of the Republic, questioning 1915 in all its aspects and facing it would actually mean to question the foundation axis of the Republic. Therefore they chose to close it silently and rapidly.

Did denial emerge at this point?

Of course. That is, at the time many more people knew what was going on. More ordinary citizens knew, almost all the political elite knew. Some are already murderers and they continue to be political elites in the Republic. Maybe a portion of the elite that founded the Republic are not murderers directly. Mustafa Kemal for example, may not have Armenian blood on his hands, but he too shares the thought of founding a nation state through homogenization, through Turkishness. Only, he did not dirty his hands as much as the other murderers. But they are all parts of the same mentality.

Is it the fear of "If we face this, we are done for"?

As a result of a shrinking of the Ottoman State that lasted a century there was the anxiety of being destroyed. There was a Turkish nationalism that was desperately embraced in order to fight off that anxiety of being destroyed and the issue of founding a nation state on Turkishness. They cling to that. Yet this is such an artificial, forced, sociologically and historically wrong thing. This is something they force themselves to do. They think that every questioning, every coming face to face will actually tear apart the dress that they are barely able to fit together. They are not wrong in this regard because this is a dress that they were barely able to fit together. Therefore, to these elites the best way seems to be not to touch it and to cover it.

They do not touch it, but the subject does not close of course.

It comes back as a nightmare.

Do people living in today's Turkey have a different nightmare in this respect? What would happen when they discover something that was hidden all these years?

The generation in the first years of the Republic know what happened, but the generations after that go through national education and by the media for decades that makes it look like such a thing never happened. Of course, when this came to the public agenda in the 70s with Asala, the great majority of the Turkish society did not really know anything. They are not pretending not to know at all. They too experience a great shock. The Turkish nationalism and official ideology in the 70s reflect the events as "some crazy Armenians are attacking us". 

At that time contemporary Turkish society meet 1915 and the Armenian issue through a new traumatic situation, through Asala. This is how it returns as a nightmare. “Why are they killing us?, What is their problem with us?" This time they start to try to understand what it is, they start investigating it. The official ideology this time starts to produce official theses saying "No, there is no such thing". A more active denial period begins. The previous one is a more passive denial period, because there is nothing compelling really. It is more like forgotten, covered, cast aside. Now someone is forcing you to pay attention with armed propaganda, by killing your diplomats. Then everybody asks, "What is happening?" Then more active lies begin like “They are lying, in fact they killed us, they exaggerate, there was a war”. This time we enter the period of active denial and manipulation. In Turkey, some generations live through the period of active denial, brainwashing. Therefore, the situation becomes even more complicated. At least, our difficulty at the moment is two-layered. One is a century-old denial, a more passive one in terms of not paying attention, the other is a denial that is at least 30-40 years old, since the 70s, and it is more active, defensive and reactive.

Right now the two levels of denial are woven into each other in an effort to make it difficult for Turkish society to face this issue. Yet in the last ten-fifteen years there are real efforts towards a face-off that progressed gradually. There still is nothing in the official scene. Yet through efforts of civil society, academics, reporters, artists, there is a partial, slow, unofficial face-off situation that is making progress.

There must be some people who faced the history of their own family in the last fifteen year period. Is it an another trauma for the people living in today's Turkey to realize that their own family bears a responsibility, to perhaps find out that their fortune comes from the genocide ?

In order for it to be a trauma, like I said, the general socio-political context plays an important role, that is the most critical factor. For instance, the general socio-political context can be "Turkish nationalism is the basis, in war the strong ones win, this is how it works everywhere around the world. They should not have lost then." Or it can be something more egalitarian and humane like "Let us honor the pain that was suffered, understand the other, we are all humans in essence, we should act with solidarity, we should question and face our history so we can be more humane and more civilized". If for instance the general political context is like the second one, then I would turn around and look and say, “God damn it, what has my grandfather done", then I can be ashamed of it. I may want to do something to make up for it, albeit on a symbolic level. Yet in the general political context and official ideology in Turkey there is a growing emphasis on official Islamist ideology. There is a Turkish-Islamist power that puts Muslims and Sunnis in the center. Turkishness was always at the center anyway, now Islam and Sunnism have come even more to the center. They were not very much outside before as well, but with the AKP government in the last ten years Sunni-Islam and Turkishness have come to the center. Everything else is defined according to this. Therefore, a significant part of Turkish society, the official ideology, state elites, political elites look at the world completely from this lens. For instance take a look at Turkey's foreign politics, it proceeds completely through this perspective. Who is our foe, who is our friend, is determined through this. Namely  equality is out of the question.

The fact that this issue is talkable now, could this have started to heal the fractures that had happened?

At least some cracks formed, these are very important. Whereas there was a concrete structure before; a very homogeneous concrete structure of denial, with publications, various projects, studies, conferences, television programs, leading works of academics, cracks were formed in the walls of that concrete denial structure. Now only waters leak from those cracks, many publications are read. There is the internet, so anyone who speaks languages can access any information. Therefore, the Turkish society, of course unofficially, knows much more than they did twenty-thirty years ago, at least they have attained a state in which they can learn. This will continue and these cracks will slowly eat the wall of course. That is, this concrete wall will collapse but this won't happen in a short time. There is still some time till its collapse. Because it is a strong wall and when that wall collapses so much will remain under it, that is the founding philosophy and foundation axis of the state will all be matters that will be questioned. Therefore, there is a great number of people that make an effort to prevent the wall from falling down, to cover the cracks, to make it less permeable. 

Another factor that needs to be mentioned is the Kurdish question. The Kurdish question in Turkey is a much more current and sensitive issue than the Armenian question. If the Kurdish question can really be resolved, and in a way that can also satisfy the Kurds, then this monistic structure of the Turkish state will have to become more flexible. For instance, everyone living in Turkey will have to be called "Turkish". The need to make definitions of upper identities such as “Citizen of Turkish Republic” or “being from Turkey” will arise. If this can be done, which in fact is not easy because of all the resistance in relation to that issue, an important obstacle will have been surpassed. This is also a process that needs to proceed arm-in-arm with democratization. 

Therefore, if Turkey is to achieve a satisfactory state in Turkish-Kurdish question, which is hard to do, before that we need to go through a systematical face-off process concerning the reasons for the very existence of the Kurdish question.  If after going through this face-off that includes the character and doings of the state, the Turkish-Kurdish question is put on the right track, then that means a new Turkey. This means a more flexible, more mature, more democratic Turkey. Then it will be more possible and easier to face, come into contact and terms with the Armenian genocide.




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