I Apologize for Not Apologizing

Translated from Turkish by Melis Erdur

The concept Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which we first heard from Theodor Heuss, the first president of Federal Germany following World War II, was difficult to translate to other languages. This German term was translated as “coming to terms with the past” to some languages, and as “coping with the past” or “dealing with the past” to others. Those who wanted to avoid the negative tone in these phrases used more neutral terms such as “relationship with the past,” “politics of the past,” “processing the past,” and “culture of remembrance.” Mithat Sencer, who has significant contributions in this field, makes his choice in favor of “coming to terms with the past,” as the title of his book Coming to Terms with the Past (Iletisim, 2007) shows. The phrase “coming to terms with the past” (gecmisle hesaplasma) captures not only the courage and openness to debate the past, bring it to light, and accept its “realities,” but also other deeds (for instance, legal consequences such as trial, compensation, and punishment)
related to the past. The term that I prefer is “making peace with the past” because of its more positive tone.

The attractiveness of forgetting

In Ancient Greece, after the Peloponnesian War, remembering the unpleasant events of the past was forbidden. In Rome, after Caesar’s murder, the great orator Cicero said in the Senate, “All memories about this event must be consigned to eternal oblivion.” One of the conditions of the Peace of Westphalia (1648) that ended the bloody Thirty Years’ War in Europe was about forgetting the crimes committed during the war. After the French Revolution, first Napoleon, and then Louis XVIII who acceded to the throne after Napoleon’s exile, outlawed the remembrance of the revolution. More or less until the end of World War II, forgetting bad events of the past and forgiving them was the rule.

Cosmopolitan memory

At the present, however, a radical change is occurring. Although, as happened in Spain, Austria, and Mozambique, some preferred to move on to more peaceful relations without much talk about the atrocities committed by one generation, the general inclination today is to face the past. One of the main reasons for this is that the 20th century witnessed the most horrible massacres in history, in particular the Holocaust. But another reason is that globalization has changed and improved the ways in which individuals and societies observe others. Today—fortunately—wrongdoings can hardly remain secret. With globalization, local and national memory is evolving into global (cosmopolitan) memory. Cosmopolitan memory, unlike traditional (national, communal, local) collective memory, cannot limit itself to what happens on a piece of land. Contrary to national and ethnic memories, cosmopolitan memory filters everything that happens through the totality of all national memories. This is one of the most important components of the modernization project. In this sense, genocide is one of the most important sources for cosmopolitan memory. Because in genocide we can see all the elements of the ideas of good and evil. Because genocide is the most significant breaking point of civilization.

‘Virtual’ memory

“Collective memory,” the main element of facing the past, became a major research topic in the social sciences. In that context, the relationship between individual and collective memories are put under a lens. The more we know about the workings of memory, the better we can understand that memory is not a mirror to reflect the exact historical reality. No memory can quite preserve the past as it is. On the contrary, what remains is what the individual’s group is able to reconstruct according to its context. For instance, “identities,” which cause passionate arguments nowadays, cannot be built without appeal to “real” and “made up/created” virtual memory.

Let’s take a quick look at some types of memory. Communicational memory covers more recent memories. Some have more communicational memory than others. After a period of 40 years or so, communicational memory turns into something else and “cultural memory” enters the stage. The main components of cultural memory are processes such as symbolization, mythologizing, and ritualization. Shamans, priests, teachers, writers, philosophers, and other community leaders, pass this memory from generation to generation using tools like monuments, sculptures, history books, place names, memorial days, and anthems. These two types of memory heavily interact with one another.

Why must we remember?

Why is the past remembered? For two main reasons: First, in order to not diverge from the direction of the past, and second, in order to diverge from it. In the first case, what is important is to “reconstruct” the past according to the needs of the present. The glorious aspects of the past are emphasized and the bad aspects are swept under the carpet. Those societies, especially, that want to make a fresh start use strategies of “suppression” in an attempt to “draw a thick line on the past” and set a “zero point” so that they can turn their faces to the future. Suppression sometimes occurs as “public silence” and sometimes as an “official ban on remembering.” “Forgetting” and “remembering” (including the remembrance of the past in a different way) are combined because, as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Man . . . cannot learn to forget, but hangs on the past: however far or fast he runs, that chain runs with him.”

What must we remember?

An overwhelming majority of scientists working in this area emphasize the need to remember past injustices and victimizations, because suppressing and not remembering the past constitutes a second victimization of the victims. This is a very new approach in the history of humanity, because until today collective/national memory was constructed either by taking a heroic past as a reference point, or by the actual perpetrator’s embracing the role of the victim. Today’s politics of “facing the past,” however, suggests that a nation define itself in terms of its wrongdoings.

Germany, which built its official political identity on rejecting and condemning the Nazi regime, is the first example of what we may call “negative memory.” To be sure, Germany did not do this wholly voluntarily. In fact, if there hadn’t been a “caught red-handed” situation, perhaps they would have kept their old ways. Nevertheless, given the fact that hundreds of crimes have been swept under the carpet in Turkey since the 1970’s, we cannot but admit that the German experience deserves praise despite everything.

Looking through the eyes of the victim

At this point, I want to draw attention to something, especially the attention of those who immediately think of trials and punishments (as in the Germany case) when they hear the phrase “coming to terms with the past”: The point here is not to declare some people to be guilty, but to put an end to human suffering and victimization.

The best way to stop such suffering is to look at the past through the eyes of the victim and mourn with them. In this way, the dignity of the victims, which has been trampled on by the perpetrators, is restored to some extent. And there arises a stronger sense of trust and solidarity between the individuals, generations, and societies, who are now ready to talk. Establishing social peace and understanding becomes easier between people who trust one another. Moreover, learning from the experiences of the past helps us in preventing the same evils from occurring again.

Collective guilt/collective apology

Here, I will turn to the “I apologize to Armenians” campaign, which was started by a group of intellectuals in Turkey. I did not put my signature on this statement, which was signed by some 30,000 people. Before explaining why I didn’t, I want to summarize my views about collective apologies in general. Although many scientists claim that apologizing is a rhetoric aimed at fixing one’s image, I wholeheartedly believe in its virtue. I never hesitate for a second to apologize for my mistakes. Collective apology, on the other hand, has its merits as well as defects. In order to understand collective apology, we must understand collective guilt. Collective guilt, which is a concept from social science rather than law, can be understood as the society’s collaborating with the perpetrator of a crime and then taking responsibility for the crime.

Collaboration may be overt and direct, as well as covert and indirect. In a society whose past contains events that can be regarded as “crimes against humanity,” coming to terms with the past may be the way to prevent the crime from turning into a collective burden carried from generation to generation. Thus, collective apology has a very important function in “coming to terms with the past” or “making peace with the past/history.”

Original sin

Some claim that this new “culture of apology” is closely related to the Judeo-Christian concept of “original sin” and the practice of “confessing,” and argue that it may lead to an escapist attitude that may be summarized as “confess and be done with it.” Some draw attention to such examples as the United States’ and NATO’s legitimization of their intervention in Kosovo through appeal to Auschwitz, and Israel’s legitimization of its strategies in Palestine through appeal to the Holocaust, and point out that memory politics aimed at forming a universal morality can be misused.

Others, on the other hand, do not dwell on such analyses and see an apology by the highest representatives of a society for the crimes committed by its members in a positive light, because of the collective responsibility that lies behind it. However, everyone agrees that great care must be taken in order to avoid the trivialization of these apologies.

Dialogical process

What has to be done is to consider an apology in its context, as part of a certain process. What experts describe as a “legitimate,” “consummate,” or “perfect” apology (or similar terms) must satisfy certain conditions. First of all, “apologizing” must be dialogical rather than one-sided. An “apology” is meaningful when seen as part of a process of correcting an injustice or putting a peaceful end to a dispute. Experts call such a process “coming to terms with the past” or “making peace with the past.” In the terms that I favor, this process of making peace with the past has political, scientific, cultural, psychological, and legal dimensions and stages. When these stages are disregarded, apology does not serve its purpose, and even results in unwanted consequences.

Who is the Subject?

Here are my views on issuing a collective apology:

1) A collective apology must be based on the demands of a determinate, defined victim group.
2) A collective apology must be constituted by the apologies of the representatives of the groups who played a role in the crimes, not by the apologies of those who identify with such groups.
3) Those who apologize by saying “we” must be saying that they identify with that “we” of the past, that they belong to the same politics, that they once approved of these crimes, or that they at least could not prevent the crimes from being committed.
4) Those who apologize by saying “we” must not speak for those who do not want to apologize.
5) Those who say “we” must not apply contemporary moral criteria to the past, and they must not apologize in the name of the dead who committed the crimes and regarded them as moral or legal.
6) Those who say “we” must not merely express regret and sympathy for the victims; they must at the same time express a collective responsibility for the continuing effects of the crimes on the victims and their descendants.
7) The apology must be supplied with a firm, clear, and determinate commitment. Those who say “we” must be ready to take every compensatory, reparatory, and restorative step, including tangible and/or symbolic wrongs.

The apology campaign in Turkey

In my view, the “I apologize to Armenians” campaign did not satisfy the above conditions. The apology did not seem to be part of a proper, well-thought out, and comprehensive “facing the past” campaign. If there was such a background, I was not aware of it.


Who were those that “apologize[d] on [their] part”? Those, whose conscience cannot accept the indifference towards the “Great Catastrophe” (Medz Yeghern, in Armenian) that Ottoman Armenians suffered in 1915 and its denial, and who reject this injustice?

Are they the Turks, the intellectuals, the citizens of Turkey? If we are apologizing as Turks, why should I apologize in the name of an ethnic group that I have never seen myself as belonging to? If we are apologizing as intellectuals, wouldn’t it be insincere for me to apologize, given that I do everything I can to fight the injustices that Armenians suffer? If we are apologizing as Turkish citizens, would Turkish citizens of Armenian descent apologize too? If yes, to whom and for what?

To Whom?

It was not clear from the text to whom the apology was extended. Does “my Armenian brothers and sisters” mean those who are alive or those who have passed away, those who were personally subjected to the terrible crimes, or those who were badly affected by them? It was hard to tell. Why were we apologizing only for 1915? Did the Great Catastrophe happen only in 1915? What about the things that Armenians were subjected to between 1915 and 1923, and throughout the republican history? Did the aforementioned conscience accept them? Was there no need to apologize to Assyrians and Yezidis who were deported along with Armenians?

For what?

It was not clear for what the apology was offered. I don’t think that the term Great Catastrophe is the right term for what Armenians were subjected to in 1915. Unless this term is meant to replace the term “genocide,” which causes negative reactions in Turkey for understandable reasons—if, that is, this new terminology is only a suggestion—then the text should have included other alternatives such as massacre, slaughter, elimination, and genocide, or the terminology should have been left blank to be filled in by those who signed the statement. If, on the other hand, the terminology was the public declaration of a decision by the group that started the campaign, then it amounted to an imposition and did not fit the dialogical nature of peace processes.

Who is the Perpetrator?

It was also a shortcoming of the text that it wasn’t clear who the perpetrator of this Great Catastrophe was: the Ottoman state? The Ittihadist (CUP) government? The Ittihadists? Turks, Kurds, Circassians, others, all of the above?

What is our commitment?

In the text, we only apologized “on [our] part.”As a general principle, those who deal with human rights violations in the past must have the following two aims: first, to make sure that such violations and injustices do not happen again in the future; and second, to repair the damages that these injustices have caused. There was no such promise in the text. For instance, why weren’t we demanding reparations for the material and moral damages that our Armenian brothers and sisters suffered after 1915? Why weren’t we asking the people who appropriated Armenian properties and accounts, and destroyed their cultural inheritance, to compensate for these material and moral damages?


Wouldn’t I have to apologize also to Kurds, inhabitants of Dersim, Alawites, Assyrians, Yezidis, Gypsies, communists, Islamists, and many other groups who have suffered in front of my eyes? Where does it end? Might there be groups that I was forgetting about? Would it be best to play it safe and say mea culpa!, in accordance with the Judeo-Christian tradition that considers even being human as sinful? In the end, I thought it would be insincere to sign such a document that I disagreed with in many respects.


Ayse Hur

Ayse Hur was born in Artvin, Turkey, in 1956. She lived with her parents in Urfa, Nazilli (Aydin), and Edirne, then moved to Istanbul.Having completed her double major in 1992 from the departments of history and international relations at Bogazici University, she joined the History Foundation of Turkey and worked on such projects as the Istanbul Encyclopedia. In 2004, she completed her master’s thesis on “The European Union’s Policies of Reconciling with History and the Armenian Question” at the Ataturk Institute of Bogazici University. She is currently pursuing her doctorate degree at the same institution. She is a member of the editorial board of Social History, and writes historical and political articles in various newspapers and journals, including Taraf, Radikal, Birikim, and Agos.

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