Facing History: Denial and the Turkish National Security Concept*

The Armenian Weekly
April 2009 Magazine

In September 2005, Turkish intellectuals who questioned the Turkish state’s denial policy on the deportation and killings of Armenians during World War I gathered for a conference in Istanbul. Outside, in the streets, demonstrators also gathered in protest against the conference. One of the placards read: “Not Genocide, but Defense of the Fatherland.” Two parallel convictions are at work here, one referring to the past, the other to the present. Both the events of 1915 and the denial policy nine decades later are framed in terms of Turkish national security and self-defense.

In 2009, in a raid against the ultra-nationalist shadowy terror organization Ergenekon, which is composed of mostly army and police officers and bureaucrats, Turkish police confiscated some documents. Among those documents was a file listing the names of five people along with their photos; they were targeted for assassination. My name was among that group. Turkish Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk and the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who was assassinated in January 2007, were two other names. The title of the document was “Traitors to National Security.” All of the people listed were known for having spoken out on the Armenian Genocide and for asking the Turkish government to face this historic reality honestly. One can therefore draw the conclusion that to be outspoken about the genocide is to be considered a threat, by certain groups, to Turkish national security.

This is not just the view of the political elite or an ultra-nationalist terror organization. It also underpins legal decision-making. In a judgment in 2007 against two Turkish-Armenian journalists—Arat Dink, the son of Hrant Dink, and Sarkis Seropyan, who received suspended sentences of a one-year imprisonment for using the term genocide—the Turkish court stated: “Talk about genocide, both in Turkey and in other countries, unfavorably affects national security and the national interest. The claim of genocide…has become part of and the means of special plans aiming to change the geographic political boundaries of Turkey… and a campaign to demolish its physical and legal structure.” The ruling further stated that the Republic of Turkey is under “a hostile diplomatic siege consisting of genocide resolutions… The acceptance of this claim may lead in future centuries to a questioning of the sovereignty rights of the Republic of Turkey over the lands on which it is claimed these events occurred.” Due to these national security concerns, the court declared that the claim of genocide in 1915 is not protected speech, and that “the use of these freedoms can be limited in accordance with aims such as the protection of national security, of public order, of public security.”[1]

The situation is not that different here in the United States: Even though April 24 was declared a “National Day of Remembrance” for the Armenian Genocide by a joint declaration of Congress on Sept. 9, 1975, and the president of the United States is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation, since then no U.S. president, except Ronald Reagan in 1981, has used the term genocide. The main reason for this attitude is “national security concerns of the United States in the Middle East.”

The same argument is used against proposals for recognizing the Armenian Genocide on the floor of Congress, which has been brought up almost every year in the form of resolutions. Both U.S. presidents and opponents of the genocide resolutions have very similar arguments to the Turkish court’s decision above. Indeed, it would appear that, as the court stated, using the term genocide “unfavorably affects national security and the national interest” of Turkey and the United States.

We have two sets of arguments here that are brought up in opposition of one another: national security versus morality, or in other phraseology, “realists” versus “moral fundamentalists.” The realists emphasize the national security concerns of their country. In Turkey today, any attempt to openly discuss historic wrongs is denounced as a covert move in a master plan to partition the country—a move, therefore, against the “national security of Turkey.” Here in the United States, the realists consider the acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide by Congress or the use of the term by the president to be “against U.S. strategic interests.”

One often hears: “Turkey is a close friend of ours and we should not upset them,” or “we should not jeopardize our strategic interests in the Middle East because of a moral issue, which occurred in the distant past.” On the other side we have the fundamentalist moralists who emphasize the supremacy of morality against “real interests.”

Pitting national interests against morality as mutually exclusive is wrong. Any security policy in the Middle East that excludes morality cannot ultimately work. Eventually it comes to undermine national security. Indeed, if one knows Turkey and the Middle East, one would easily recognize that history and historical injustices are not just dead issues from the past; the past is the present in the Middle East. There is a strong interconnection between security, democracy, and facing history in the Middle East. Even a passing glance at the region makes it clear that historical injustices and the persistent denial of these injustices by one or another state or ethnic/religious group is a major stumbling block—not only for the democratization of the region, but also for the establishment of stable relations between different ethnic and religious groups. My central argument is that the failure to confront history honestly is one of the major reasons for insecurity and instability in the region.

Why is the discussion of historical injustices perceived as a threat to Turkish national security? Let us try to examine the roots of this mentality, and try to show the reasons why it must be changed. The mindset that an open discussion of history engenders a security problem originates from the breakup of the Ottoman Empire into nation-states beginning in the 19th century. From late Ottoman times to the present, there has been continuous tension between the state’s concern for secure borders and society’s need to come to terms with human rights abuses. In this history, human right abuses and the security and territorial integrity of a crumbling empire can be likened to the two faces of a coin—the two separate faces of the same coin caused the rise of two opposing historical narratives.

Until recently, the dominant narrative has been the story of the partition of the Ottoman Empire among the Great Powers, which ended with its total collapse and disintegration. If one were to review the books in Turkey that recount this narrative, one would be hard pressed to find a reference to the massacres and genocide during the late 19th and early 20th century. Instead, Christian communities are painted as the seditious agents of the imperialist Great Powers, continually conspiring against the state.

The other narrative has been developed by those ethnic and religious minorities who were subjected to a different level of human rights abuses during that period. The history of the 19th century is mostly formulated in terms of human rights and the intervention of the Great Powers on behalf of the minority groups. It is plain to see the contrast in both positions. In one perspective the Great Powers are portrayed as “evil” and must be criticized for having intervened too much. In the other perspective, the Great Powers have been characterized as “positive” or “benign,” and are criticized for not having intervened enough.

Hence, Turkish controversies about facing national history, in particular the Armenian Genocide, can be understood, in part, as the deployment of two apparently contradictory narratives against one another. Whenever proponents of acknowledgment bring up the history of human rights abuses, they are confronted with an opposing narrative, that of the decline and breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the seditious agents who quickened the process.

Indeed, there have been certain moments in that history where national security and human rights became inseparably intertwined. One such moment came immediately after WWI, between 1918 and 1923. When that war ended with an Ottoman defeat, the political decision-makers of the time grappled with two distinct, yet related issues when working out the terms of a peace settlement—the answers to which determined their various relationships and alliances: The first was the territorial integrity of the Ottoman state. The second was the wartime atrocities committed by the ruling Union and Progress Party against its Ottoman Armenian citizens.

The questions about the first issue were: Should the Ottoman state retain its independence? Should new states be permitted to arise on the territory of the Ottoman state? If so, how should the borders of these new states be defined? The questions regarding the second issue were: What can be done about the wartime crimes against the Armenians and the perpetrators of these atrocities? How should the perpetrators be punished? These questions related two different sets of issues that hadn’t been tackled separately and were rather intertwined with each other.

The questions related to the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire led to the formation of two different viewpoints. The Turkish nationalist movement, under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, favored continued sovereignty within reduced borders as defined by the 1918 Moudros Ceasefire Treaty. The Allied Powers and ethnic/religious groups such as the Greeks, Armenians, and to a lesser degree the Kurds, on the other hand argued for the establishment of new states on both occupied and unoccupied territory of the Ottoman Empire. The successive treaties of Sevres (1920) and Lausanne (1923) reflected these divergent points of view.

As a result of this fight over territory in the period of the republic, a general understanding of history in modern Turkey emerged: We, the Turks, who see ourselves as the legitimate successors of the Ottoman Empire, defended our sole remaining territory against the Armenians, Greeks, and to a lesser extent the Kurds, who were trying to carve up Anatolia into nation-states,with the support of the British, French, and Italians. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres resolved the question of territory in favor of the non-Turkish nationalities. For the Turks, therefore, Sevres remains a black mark in our history. For the other ethnic/religious groups, however, the significance of Sevres is quite different.

Although it did not fully reflect their demands for territory, the treaty represented an unprecedented historical opportunity to resolve the territorial issue in their favor. Conversely, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which guaranteed Turkish dominance in Anatolia, stands as a milestone and validation of our continued national existence. Meanwhile, the other nationalities regard it as a great historical injustice.

Nevertheless, both treaties were not merely symbols of territorial conflict; they also symbolized how the injustices committed against the Armenians and other Christians during the war would be addressed. The central question concerned how the perpetrators of human rights abuses during the war would be punished. Although everyone, including the Turkish nationalists, agreed that these crimes should not be left unpunished, there was uncertainty about the scope of the penalty. One group advocated for the trial and punishment of only some first-hand criminals as well as some of the top Union and Progress leaders. Another group advocated for the trials of individual suspects, casting the net as wide as possible, and for the punitive dismemberment of the Ottoman state into new states created on its territory.

The position of the Entente Powers was that “the Turks,” [2] so to speak, organized the massacres of other peoples, in particular the Armenians, during World War I, and that it was therefore necessary to punish “the Turks” collectively in order to rescue the subject peoples (Arabs as well as Greeks, Armenians, etc.) from Turkish domination. Punishing “the Turks” was to be accomplished in two phases: First, the members of the Ottoman government and other officials were to be tried for the crimes against religious and ethnic communities. Second,“the Turks” would henceforth inhabit a state that would be rendered as small and as weak as possible. A telegram sent to the Paris Peace Conference on April 3, 1919 by the assistant high commissioner of Istanbul, Webb, clearly illustrates this policy; it read:

In order to punish all of those persons who are guilty of the Armenian horrors, it is necessary to punish the Turks as a group. Therefore, I propose that the punishment be given on a national level through the partitioning up of the last Turkish Empire, and on a personal level by trying those high officials who are on the list in my possession, and in a manner that would serve as an example for their successors. [3]

In short, casting the net as widely as possible, the Allied Powers advocated for the trials of individual suspects and for the punitive dismemberment of the Ottoman state into new states created on its territory. So, the main ostensible reason for partitioning Anatolia among the various national groups was motivated by the Great Powers’ desire to punish “the Turks” for the barbarous acts they had committed.

What was the attitude of the “Turkish” position relative to the punishments of the criminals? Recall that postwar Turkey was governed from two political centers: Istanbul, the seat of the Ottoman government, and Ankara, the headquarters of the Turkish Nationalist movement led by Mustafa Kemal. Both the Istanbul and Ankara governments acknowledged the massacres of the Armenians and agreed with the Allies that the perpetrators should be tried and that the trials were considered “just and necessary.” However, Ankara and Istanbul vehemently opposed the punitive partition of Anatolia.

This was one of the central issues when both governments met in October 1919 to call an election of an Ottoman parliament in accordance with the constitution. They signed five protocols to regulate the process of the upcoming elections. The first and third protocols were directly related to the topic at hand. The first protocol declared: “1. Ittihadism (Party of Union and Progress) [which organized the genocide against the Armenians] or any hint of its reawakening is politically very damaging . . . 4. It is judicially and politically necessary to punish those who committed crimes in connection with the deportation.” In the third protocol, both parties agreed that the fugitive members of “Ittihat,” who were wanted in connection with wartime atrocities, were not to participate in the elections. The protocol described the atrocities as “the evil deeds” of the Union and Progress Party. The perpetrators were defined as persons “who have been sullied by the nefarious acts of the deportation and massacre,” and so their participation in the election was qualified as “contrary to the true interests of the nation.”

The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal, when addressing the parliament on April 24, 1920, called the atrocities a “shameful act.” Now, keep in mind that Mustafa Kemal was not a human rights activist or an altruist, but a politician. The underlying reason in supporting the punishment of the perpetrators was his expectation from the ongoing Paris Peace conference; the commanders of the British and French occupying forces in Istanbul had grabbed every opportunity to remind “the Turks” that if they expected a positive outcome from the Paris peace talks, action had to be taken against the perpetrators of the war crimes. So, the Mustafa Kemal-led government in Ankara and the administration in Istanbul believed that the war crime trials were the price for obtaining national sovereignty. In a memo written by Mustafa Kemal in September 1919 to the Istanbul government, this point was underlined in a very clear way: “The punishment of perpetrators,” he wrote, “should not stay only on paper…but should be carried out, since this would successfully impress the foreign elements.” In exchange for this concession, the Turkish leadership expected a more favorable peace settlement without the loss of territory.

This strategy failed. In April 1920, the provisions of Sevres became known, according to which it was proposed to punish “the Turks” for the war crimes by partitioning the Ottoman territory. In the same month, the Istanbul Court Martial, which had been established in November 1918 and which was in the process of trying the perpetrators of the Armenian atrocities, now under pressure from the Allied Powers, began trying almost the entire Turkish national leadership,Mustafa Kemal foremost among them, who were opposed to the partitioning of Anatolia. Mustafa Kemal and around 100 nationalists were sentenced to death in absentia.

When the Turkish nationalists realized that their support for the punishment of war criminals was not going to prevent the partitioning of Anatolia, and was in fact going to lead to their own prosecution and punishment, their attitude changed. As Mustafa Kemal wrote to Istanbul on Aug. 20, 1920: “[t]he Ottoman government . . . continues to hang the children of the homeland on accusations of [having perpetrated] deportation and massacres, which now became totally senseless.” [4] What Mustafa Kemal meant was that the policy whereby the Ottoman government punished Turks for what they had done to the Christian minorities would make sense only if Turkey received some positive results in terms of a better treaty to secure the Ottoman territories. However, Sevres had been signed, Ottoman sovereignty had not been acknowledged, and the Ottoman territories were distributed among different nations. Therefore, Mustafa Kemal concluded that these “senseless” death sentences should be halted.

We can conclude that had the Western forces agreed to territorial integrity in exchange for trials for “crimes against humanity,” we might be talking about a very different history.

Today, we can say that the court martial in Istanbul is a symbol of these two interwoven but distinct strands of Turkish history: “territory and borders,” or expressed another way, “national security” on the one side, and “human rights,” or “facing history and addressing historic wrongdoings,” on the other. The fact is that the attempt to dismember and partition the state as a form of punishment for the atrocities committed during the war years, and the proposed punishment of its nationalist leaders for seeking the territorial integrity of their state, created the mindset in Turkey today that views any reference to the historic wrongdoings in the past as an issue of national security.

A product of this mindset is therefore a belief that democratization, freedom of thought and speech, open and frank debate about history, and the acknowledgment of one’s past historical misdeeds is a threat to national security. Those who invite society to engage in an open examination of the past are therefore labeled as “traitors,” made targets of smear campaigns, and dragged into courts for “insulting Turkishness.” It is this kind of mindset that was behind the murder of Hrant Dink in 2007.

Reviewing Turkish history from this perspective reveals four important new perspectives. First, Mustafa Kemal’s condemnation of the Armenian massacres is diametrically opposed to the current official Turkish policy of denial. His position during the difficult war years could be a positive starting point for a resolution. To become truly democratic, Turkey must confront this “dark chapter” of its history, this “shameful act,” as Mustafa Kemal called it.

Secondly, until now, the Turkish-Armenian problem has been perceived within the old paradigm that produced these conflicts, namely, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the clash of different ethnic or national groups over land and boundaries. We have to change this understanding. What we need is a new paradigm, and we need to rethink the Armenian-Turkish conflict. We have to reposition the Armenian-Turkish conflict within the new paradigm of transitional justice, that is, as a part of the democratization effort within existing nation-states. The conflict should not be regarded as a territorial dispute, but rather as a human rights issue and as a problem of historic injustices that must be rectified in order to establish a just and democratic society.

Thirdly, the concept of Turkish national security must be revised and changed. The main flaw of this concept is its perception that the promotion of basic democratic rights such as equality under the law, social reform, and freedom of speech are a threat to national security. In the past, the emergence of the so-called “Armenian Question” was the result of Armenian demands for equality and social reform, which arguably would have led to a better Ottoman society. Their demands and the Armenians themselves were considered a security threat, leading to them being targeted for massacres and deportations. Today, the demand for an honest account of history is being handled in the same way: as a security problem.

The irony is that criminalizing historical inquiries for national security reasons is not only a huge obstacle on the path to democracy, but is also counterproductive and leads directly to real security problems for the country. This “self-fulfilling prophecy” can be shown not only in the case of the Armenian Genocide of the past but in the Kurdish problem today. Just as the Armenians and their social and political demands for a more just society were considered a threat in the past, a democratic future for Kurds today is also considered a threat to Turkish national security. So, instead of solving the Kurdish problem by seeking solutions that would lead to a more democratic society, the old—and, I would argue, now useless—security concept has been resurrected and has declared that Kurdish demands are essentially a security problem for the nation.

As long as Turkey continues to regard moral principles (one of which is facing historical injustice with honesty) and national security as two opposing poles that are mutually exclusive, and refuses to come to terms with the past for national security reasons—indeed, as long as Turkey’s national security is defined in opposition to an honest historical reckoning—further problems will be created.

Fourth, the United States should change its policy towards the recognition of the Armenian Genocide and the security concept towards Turkey. The best way to summarize why is with the French concept of “Bon pour l’Orient!” translated as “It is good enough for the East.” During the 19th century, this concept legitimized French colonialism and provided justification for the humiliation of the eastern countries they colonized and the acts committed there. The U.S. has to rid itself of this classic colonial patronization. If it’s good for the U.S., then the same should be demanded of Turkey.

The idea of criminalizing discussion about American slavery or the treatment of Native Americans because of “security issues”; or of maintaining federal government websites where these historical events are uniformly referred to as “so-called” or “alleged” and filled with openly racist, hateful propaganda; or of forcing American children to watch films denying that the slavery of Africans or subjugation of Native Americans ever took place would be viewed as a sick joke in the U.S., but American foreign policy makers have had no problems supporting Turkey, a country that has been doing virtually the same consistently for decades, even going so far as to establish a coordination committee among the different ministries to coordinate the fight against “so-called Armenian genocide lies.”

The U.S. government should recognize that any argument here, in the U.S., that brings up America’s national interest as the reason to reject the official acknowledgment of the genocide, will result in supporting those in Turkey who still hunt down intellectuals because they are opposed to this inhumane, racist mindset.

There is a security aspect of the problem, as well: A non-democratic, authoritarian Turkey creates a security problem when it makes denial of historical injustices an integral part of its security policy. It is exactly this attitude that not only delays democratization in the region, but also destabilizes relationships in the volatile Middle East.

A main problem in the region is the insecurity felt by different groups towards each other as a result of past events. When you make the denial of these pain-filled acts a part of your security policy, this brings with it insecurity towards the other. This is what I call the security dilemma: What one does to enhance one’s own security causes a reaction that, in the end, can make one even less secure. Often statesmen do not recognize that this may be a probable outcome; they do not empathize this with their neighbors and are unaware that their own actions can appear threatening. The existing sense of mistrust engendered by denial is an obstacle to the creation of security in the region. For this reason, any security concept, any policies of realpolitik in and for the region that ignores morality and forgets to address historical wrongdoings are doomed to fail.

So, instead of helping those who deny past injustices, U.S. policy should integrate an honest confrontation with history into a policy of national interest in the Middle East.

Lastly, there are some pragmatic reasons why existing U.S. policy regarding Turkey should change. First, there’s an ongoing theatrical drama (or perhaps comedy would be a better term) that all the parties engage in every year and that has started to grow old. It’s time to end this dishonorable playacting. As we know, each time the administration or Congress has the issue of the Armenian Genocide on their table, they don’t vote for/against what they think about the events of 1915. They end up denying for one day what they believe the other 364 days of the year. All of the parties involved know very well what the administration and Congress think about 1915, but Turkey asks them to tell a lie only for one day. I have never understood why the Turkish government extracts so much joy out of making the United States lie for one day. I also find it completely dishonorable. Not only does this lie fail to lead to a resolution, it needlessly locks up the debate. All of the parties involved, arguably using all of their energy and effort, wait for this one day and get completely locked into a single word that may or may not be used by Congress or the president. Placing so much expectation and energy on a specific day and around a single word that may be uttered by the U.S. government creates incredible tension. It builds up into an impenetrable gridlock that impedes any solution. The United States should stop being a gridlock that prevents resolution. The time has come for the United States to stop allowing itself to play that role.

If the United States declares what it believes to be the truth and stands behind it, not only will it gain some self-respect on the subject, but it will liberate both Turks and Armenians and itself in the process.

After stating what it believes to be the truth, the U.S. could step away from being a part of the problem and could step into the role of mediator. That would bring about the realization to the opposing sides that the solution lies within them, not in expending all of their energy trying to get a U.S. president to state something or to keep quiet. The border between the two countries should immediately be reopened, diplomatic relations re-established, and a series of meetings planned where all subjects, not just history alone, are discussed and debated. Turkey needs to stop treating the discussion of history as a category of crime. This can only be possible when the U.S. puts an end to this gridlock and is honest with its statements about history.

The problem has another important aspect to it. At a time when Turkey is making an effort to engage in foreign policy mediation between Arabs and Israel and is attempting to be seen as an international team player, it might be an eye-opener for Turkey to understand that bullying and threatening others is not the behavior of an international actor. Turkey cannot continue with the same repressive domestic policies towards its own history and minorities—under the guise of national security; it cannot continue to threaten other countries in expressing their thoughts on 1915, while at the same time pretending to be a democratic country. An open official acknowledgment by the U.S. government might force Turkey to understand that blackmailing and threatening other states and suppressing and persecuting its own intellectuals do not offer solutions for historical problems nor for security.

I believe that we will enter a new era where morality and realpolitik will not be considered mutually exclusive—if President Barack Obama should put an end to this lingering problem and liberate everybody in the process by an official acknowledgment of genocide.


* This article is based on the inaugural lecture of the author at Clark University.

[1] Court decree, Second Penal Court of First Instance for the district of Sisli, file number: 2006/1208, decree no. 2007/1106, prosecution no. 2006/8617.

[2] I place the term “Turks” within quotation marks. Although the term was used in the discussions of the time, it is clear that in explaining historical events general terms such as this are not only wrong to use, but also incorrect from the standpoint of attempting to write a history.

[3] FO 371/4173/53351, folios 192-3.

[4] Bilal Simsir, Malta Surgunleri (Ankara, 1985), p. 334. The letter was written to the first Grand Vizier of the Armistice period, Ahmet Izzet Pasa, with the aim of its contents being communicated to the British High Commission.


Taner Akcam

Taner Akcam is the Robert Aram, Marianne Kaloosdian and Stephen and Marion Mugar Chair in Armenian Genocide Studies at Clark University.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.