I don’t doubt the good faith of those 23 members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who voted on March 4 that the deaths of some 1.5 million Armenian citizens of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War constituted genocide, but I’m not convinced of their wisdom in making the call. Why? Not because the events of 1915, when the Ottomans deported the Armenians under conditions that could only result in their deaths by the hundreds of thousands, are undeserving of odium, but because legislatures are not the right place to make the point. The expertise of the Foreign Affairs Committee lies, as you might expect, in foreign affairs. Its members were helped to reach their decision by Armenian-American and pro-Turkish lobbyists, including arms manufacturers chasing Turkish contracts. Any resolution on the subject is a political token, and of little value as a historical judgment.
Ultimately, the argument will be laid to rest not in apologies, or indemnities, or monuments, but in the pages of Turkey’s schoolbooks, where children are still given an airbrushed view of history.
First, the politics. As senators, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden called for the White House to condemn the tragedy of 1915 as genocide, only to have second thoughts after assuming office. As a big emerging country of (mostly) western-oriented Muslims, and America’s partner in the pacification of Afghanistan and Iraq, Turkey is important. The administration has pledged to stop the resolution from going to a vote on the floor of the House, which would certainly excite from the Turks a less measured response that they have so far exhibited. (Turkey’s ambassador has been recalled to Ankara pending satisfactory resolution of the affair). On the other hand, a big and well-organized Armenian lobby exerts pressure of its own; to date, this lobby has godfathered genocide resolutions in 20 legislatures around the world.
It is hard to argue that the political maneuvering is a dignified memorial to the victims of 1915, or that it encourages the necessary Turkish sentiments of regret and remorse, without which the tragedy will always bleed and the modern states of Turkey and Armenia never become cordial neighbors. Apart from the impression of unwanted interference—imagine, a Turkish newspaper columnist wrote this week, if the parliament in Ankara were to rule that America’s treatment of its native populations amounted to genocide—each of those earlier resolutions has acted like an injection of testosterone into the Turkish right, stirring up xenophobic feeling and endangering those Turks brave enough to propose an honest appraisal of the past.
Urged on by the country’s notorious ‘Deep State,’ an unholy alliance of army officers, policemen, and criminals, Turkish nationalists screamed ‘traitor!’ when in 2005 the novelist (and subsequent Nobel Prize-winner) Orhan Pamuk referred to the Armenian deaths, leading to his prosecution and temporary exile in the US. They intimidated and prosecuted other authors and intellectuals, and in 2007 they cheered the assassination of an inspirational advocate for Turkey’s few remaining Armenians: the newspaper editor Hrant Dink.
Dink himself used the word “genocide,” but did not insist that everyone else do so. He discerned the inherently anti-democratic nature of French and Swiss legislation against genocide denial. He realized that the most important work was not to be done outside the country, where Ottoman culpability and Armenian agony had been acknowledged, but in Turkey, where the official denials spoke of a broader inability to come to terms with the past. This process has now started, but it is not without pain of its own, for it necessitates the abandonment of that axiom, of Turkish virtue and foreign treachery, that Kemal Ataturk employed when setting up his Turkish Republic in 1923. The Ottoman state is not the Turkish Republic—in important ways, they are mutually antagonistic. But modern Turks need to learn and understand what the Ottomans did. This is not something that hectoring foreigners can achieve.
If all this sounds like a mealy-mouthed defense of the Turkish position, it isn’t. Between 2005 and 2008 I devoted many months to uncovering the fate of the forgotten Armenian population of Varto, a remote region of eastern Turkey, whose present-day inhabitants, mostly Kurds with some assimilated Armenians, had adopted the Turkish habit of denial. I was rarely made to feel welcome in Varto. I was obstructed every step of the way by the state, the deliberate amnesia of the people, and the systemic dishonesty of much of Turkish history writing. Now, I am proud to say, my account of the demise of the Armenians of Varto has been committed to the page and can never be eradicated. And I did not hesitate to describe the Armenian gangs who, during the Russian occupation of 1916 and 1917, engaged in wanton and indiscriminate acts of revenge, for in this case the sinned against also did some sinning, as is often the case in unvarnished history.
Turkey is full of Vartos whose story needs to be told; the country’s past is being opened up, fitfully and not without pain, and this is being led by normal citizens, although the country’s mildly Islamist government has lent fitful support. An online apology signed by tens of thousands; the new ubiquity of books detailing the events of 1915; belated recognition for those converted or assimilated Armenians who survived the massacres and death marches—these testify to a new Turkish readiness to take a step back from the past and evaluate it dispassionately. A small number of Turkish and Armenian academics are collaborating fruitfully, and the Ottoman archives are more accessible to foreign scholars than ever before. Twenty genocide resolutions have not made this so, but Turkey’s own progress towards becoming a mature democracy, sure of its place in the world, unafraid of the past.
A twenty-first genocide resolution would achieve nothing save the strengthening of Turkey’s shady ultra-nationalist fringe–including those members of the Deep State who are being prosecuted on charges of plotting against the government. Ultimately, the argument over the events of 1915 will not be resolved in resolutions or even apologies (though the latter would certainly help), but in the hearts of Turks–and in their schoolbooks, which must reflect history as it happened, and not as they wish it had happened. No Congress resolution will achieve that. It can only slow the process.
Christopher de Bellaigue was born in London and has spent the past decade in the Middle East and South Asia. He has worked as a foreign correspondent for a number of publications, including the Financial Times, the Economist, and the New York Review of Books. His previous book, In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs, was shortlisted for the 2004 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize. He lives in London with his wife and son.