The article below is based on a speech delivered by Prof. Peter Balakian during a panel discussion on the legacy of Hrant Dink held at MIT on Feb. 1, 2009.
George Santayana, the philosopher who taught at Harvard for decades, wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It seems like an axiomatic enough assertion, yet what happens to those who don’t know history, who have been locked out of history, for whom the past is a manipulated narrative constructed by the state? The idea of repeating a past you don’t know is fraught with another kind of tragedy. It’s a kind of blind legacy that one might see in various cultures, but one that we see in Turkish society that hasn’t been allowed to know its history, in particular its dark histories of which the Armenian Genocide of 1915 is one. Blind history will beget a blind and violent present.
Hrant Dink’s assassination in broad daylight, carried out by Turkish nationalists, is one manifestation of blind history. Dink was a man of unusual courage, and dedication to the complex process of creating a ground upon which Turks could come together with Armenians in order to know the true history of 1915. Hrant forged complicated roads and narrow alleyways to make this journey; he spoke openly in a country where to speak openly is done at great risk and to speak openly as any minority, an Armenian, a Kurd, is done at even greater risk.
Hrant was an Armenian citizen of Istanbul who was writing and speaking about the Armenian Genocide openly in Turkey. He was inhabiting a delicate civic space in Turkey’s complex society. In one of his final essays, he told us he felt like a pigeon—at once vulnerable, yet free, he so hoped. But he was gunned down, apparently by the Deep State, by forces of repression and violence against free expression and thought, having been demonized and made a pariah by Article 301 of Turkey’s penal code.
Stephan Deadalus, in Joyce’s “Ulysseus,” says: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” It’s a phrase that hits any Armenian in vulnerable places. It’s a notion that is embedded in the traumatic life of the legacy of genocide. For Armenians, whether of the diaspora or the Republic, that legacy remains poisoned by ongoing Turkish state denial. The assassination of Hrant Dink is in some way emblematic of that nightmare.
Hrant’s murder resonated with Armenians for many reasons, but not least because it evoked the murder of thousands of intellectuals and cultural leaders in 1915. There was a genocidal taint to his assassination in broad daylight in downtown Istanbul. It reenacted our history.
The killing of Armenian intellectuals and cultural leaders goes back well into the 19th century and before, but it was this killing of intellectuals on April 24 that marked the beginning of the genocidal process in 1915.
In the end, thousands of Armenian cultural leaders and intellectuals were killed by Turkey’s Ittihad government. In the end, more than 5,000 churches, monasteries, and schools were destroyed. In the end, a civilization, not only its people but its many layers of history and culture, which had evolved for 3,000 years, was gone. In the wake of this, it is not surprising that Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish legal scholar who invented the concept of genocide as a crime in international law, relied quite heavily on the Armenian case in developing the concept of genocide. It was Lemkin who first used the term “genocide” in relation to the Armenians on U.S. national TV, on Feb. 13, 1949.
So affected by the Armenian Genocide was Lemkin, that he noted as the UN Genocide Convention was being ratified: “…A bold plan was formulated in my mind. This consisted [of] obtaining the ratification by Turkey [of the proposed UN Convention on Genocide] among the first twenty founding nations. This would be an atonement for genocide of the Armenians.”
Hrant Dink’s death opened up positive forces in the democracy movement in Turkey; in this sense he was a martyr for democracy. His death forced an inquiry into intellectual freedom in Turkey and into the Armenian past.
For me, Hrant’s legacy is emblematic of a new climate of Armenian-Turkish intellectual dialogue and colleagueship and friendship. Where once there was a black hole of abstraction about Turkey for many of us, now there is a more visible and complex world. In the past decade, Turkish intellectuals and others have made great inroads that are now visible to us and have given us a deeper understanding of Turkey as a place of many layers and nuances, a place not simply defined by ultra-nationalism and Deep State forces. Armenians need to embrace the new sense of complexity they have given us—of our shared history, of our shared humanity, of the understanding that there is no future in denying the past. Our Turkish friends are vital to our sense of a future.
I feel it is also important for Turks and Armenians to de-ethnicize the Armenian past. The idea that this is a debate between two cultures is wrong and ahistorical. It is not “Armenians say” and then “Turks say.” The genocide is a fact of modern history, and here, there is an important place for the international scholarly community. Rather than defending or rejecting a particular national narrative, scholars are able to see the anatomy of such events in a comparative context across a global expanse. They are able to show us that the Armenian Genocide is part of a human history that involves many perpetrators and many victims. Turkey is not alone in its crimes against humanity; most countries have built themselves from violence done to other ethnic groups and peoples.
It seems as if there has never been a more open moment for bonds to be forged between Turks and Armenians on the issue that haunts both their cultures. Hrant Dink was concerned that pressure on Turkey from the outside world would backfire or endanger the lives of people inside Turkey, and his perspective I respect deeply; he paid the highest price for it. And yet, I think he was wrong here. While his fears were a genuine response to the mechanisms of terror and repression inside Turkey, the fact remains that the process of education about the history of the Armenian Genocide is an inexorable force, and a litmus test of intellectual freedom and democracy for Turkey. The process of education can’t be stopped, or controlled, by any entity. It is part of world knowledge. We cannot allow the accepted history of the Armenian Genocide to be falsified by the blackmail and threats of the Turkish state. And the Turkish state will have to come to accept that the moral reality of the Armenian Genocide is not controversia
l anywhere else in the world but in Turkey. And, even there, the taboo is crumbling.
In this new era, Armenians I hope will find ways of joining hands with their new Turkish colleagues and friends to work for change—in whatever ways—in creative ways and pragmatic ways. Not rigid, ideological, or romantic. There are new openings in this landscape and there are new pitfalls and fears. There is anger, frustration, and paranoia among Armenians after decades of Turkish state violence, denial, and continued racism. There are threats of violence against progressive Turks from the new wave of Turkish ultra-nationalists; and there are many people inside Turkey asking for broad, democratic change, so that religious and ethnic minorities can achieve equality, and intellectual freedom and free speech can be realized. Two years ago, more than a hundred students at Bogazici University in Istanbul staged a protest with the slogan “against the darkness,” and they chanted Hrant Dink’s name and their solidarity with Armenians. These are the forces that Armenians want to join with and work with in pursuit of an open and free society in Turkey.
Peter Balakian is Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities at Colgate University and the author of many books including The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, winner of the 2005 Raphael Lemkin Prize.