Ungor: Turkey Has Acknowledged the Armenian Genocide

The Armenian Weekly Magazine
April 2012 

“Turkey denies the Armenian Genocide” goes a jingle. Yes, the Turkish state’s official policy towards the Armenian Genocide was and is indeed characterized by the “three M’s”: misrepresentation, mystification, and manipulation. But when one gauges what place the genocide occupies in the social memory of Turkish society, even after nearly a century, a different picture emerges. Even though most direct eyewitnesses to the crime have passed away, oral history interviews yield important insights. Elderly Turks and Kurds in eastern Turkey often hold vivid memories from family members or fellow villagers who witnessed or participated in the genocide. This essay is based on countless interviews conducted with the (grand-)children of eye witnesses to the Armenian Genocide. The research results suggest there is a clash between official state memory and popular social memory: The Turkish government is denying a genocide that its own population remembers.

Children in Mush (Photo by Khatchig Mouradian)

Oral history in Turkey

Oral history is an indispensible tool for scholars interested in mass violence. A considerable collection of Armenian and Syriac oral history material has been studied by colleagues.1 The existing body of oral history research in Turkey, though gradually developing, has hardly addressed the genocide. A potential research field was politicized by successive governments and the Turkish Historical Society. Several documentaries about the victimization of Ottoman Muslims in the eastern border regions have included shots of elderly Muslims speaking about their victimization at the hand of Armenians (and presumably Cossacks) in 1918. It seems unmistakable that the Turkish-nationalist camp fears that the local population of Anatolian towns and villages might “confess” the genocide’s veracity and disclose relevant details about it. For example, the 2006 PBS documentary “The Armenian Genocide” by Andrew Goldberg includes remarkable footage of elderly Turks speaking candidly about the genocide. One of the men remembers how his father told him that the génocidaires had mobilized religious leaders to convince the population that killing Armenians would secure them a place in heaven. Another middle-aged man recounts a recollection of his grandfather’s that neighboring Armenian villagers were locked in a barn and burnt alive.2

In the past decade, I have searched (and found) respondents willing to relate their personal experiences or their family narratives related to the war and the genocide. In the summers of 2002 and 2004-07, I conducted up to 200 interviews with (grand-)children of contemporaries in eastern Turkey, all semi-structured and taped. Needless to say, oral history has its methodological pitfalls, especially in a society where the memory of modern history is overlaid with myth and ideologies. Many are unwilling to reflect about their family histories because they have grown accustomed to ignoring inquisitive and critical questions, not least on their own moral choices in the face of their neighbors’ destruction. Others are reluctant to admit to acts considered shameful.3

But while some were outright unwilling to speak once I broached the taboo subject, others agreed to speak but wished to remain anonymous, and again many others were happy to speak openly, with some even providing me access to their private documents. Even though direct eyewitnesses to the crime have most probably passed away, these interviews proved fruitful. Elderly Turks and Kurds often remember vivid anecdotes from family members or villagers who witnessed or participated in the massacres. My subject position as a “local outsider” (being born in the region but raised abroad) facilitated the research as it gave me the communicative channels to at once delve deeply and recede at the appropriate moments. It also provided me with a sense of immunity from the dense moral and political field in which most of this research is embedded.

Turkish and Kurdish eyewitness accounts

A.D., a Kurdish writer from Varto (Muş), recalled a childhood memory from 1966 when an earthquake laid bare a mass grave near his village. The villagers knew the victims were Armenians from a neighboring village. According to A.D., when the village elder requested advice from the local authorities on what to do, within a day military commanders had assigned a group of soldiers to re-bury the corpses. The villagers were warned to never speak about it again.4

Interviews with elderly locals also yielded considerable useful data about the genocide itself. For example, a Kurdish man (born 1942) from Diyarbekir’s northern Piran district, had heard from his father how fellow villagers would raid Armenian villages and dispatch their victims by slashing their throats wide open. As they operated with daggers and axes, this often led to decapitations. After the killing was done, the perpetrators could see how the insides of the victims’ windpipes were black because of tobacco use.5 Morbid details such as these are also recorded by the following account from a Kurdish man from the Kharzan region, east of Diyarbekir:

My grandfather was the village elder (muhtar) during the war. He told us when we were children about the Armenian massacre. There was a man in our village; he used to hunt pheasants. Now the honorless man (bêşerefo) hunted Armenians. Grandpa saw how he hurled a throwing axe right through a child a mother was carrying on her back. Grandpa yelled at him: “Hey, do you have no honor? God will punish you for this.” But the man threatened my grandfather that if he did not shut up, he would be next. The man was later expelled from the village.6

Here is another account from a Turkish woman (born 1928) from Erzincan:

Q: You said there were Armenians in your village, too. What happened to them?

A: They were all killed in the first year of the war, you didn’t know? My mother was standing on the hill in front of our village. She saw how at Kemah they threw (döktüler) all the Armenians into the river. Into the Euphrates. Alas, screams and cries (bağıran çağıran). Everyone, children and all (çoluk çocuk), brides, old people, everyone, everyone. They robbed them of their golden bracelets, their shawls, and silk belts, and threw them into the river.

Q: Who threw them into the river?

A: The government of course.

Q: What do you mean by ‘the government’?

A: Gendarmes.7

These examples suggest that there still might be something meaningful gained from interviews with elderly Turks and Kurds. Needless to say, had a systematic oral history project been carried out in Turkey much earlier, e.g. in the 1960’s or 1970’s, undoubtedly a wealth of crucial information could have been salvaged. Besides the excellent research conducted in Turkey by colleagues such as Leyla Neyzi, Ayşe Gül Altınay, and others, interviews by individual researchers are at best a drop in the ocean. A measured research project with a solid book as output would be a memorable achievement for the centenary of the genocide.


When I was traveling from Ankara to Adana in the summer of 2004, I stopped by the friendly town of Ereğli, north of the Taurus mountain range. My friend, an academic visiting his family, had invited me along. Strolling through the breezy town, we came across one of my friend’s acquaintances, an “Uncle Fikri.” The old man looked sad, so we asked him what was wrong. He said, “My father has been on his deathbed for a few days now.” When we tried to console him, he answered: “I’m not sad because he will die, he has been sick for a while now. I just cannot accept that he refuses to recite the Kelime-i Shehadet before he passes on.” (Shahadah, the Muslim declaration of belief: “There is no God but Allah and Muhammed is his Prophet.”) The man looked deep into our eyes, there was an awkward silence for four seconds, we understood each other, and we parted.

In this example, only two generations separated us from the eyewitness generation. Therefore, I believe there might still be avenues for oral history research on the genocide. Father Patrick Desbois is a French Catholic priest who travels to Ukraine in a concerted effort to document the Shoah through the use of oral history. His team locates mass graves and interviews contemporary witnesses about the mass shootings of Jews, which often took place just outside the Ukrainian villages they visit. The elderly respondents usually remember the slaughter in vivid detail.8 Desbois’ work on Ukraine has proven helpful in completing the already comprehensive picture historians have of Nazi mass murder in that region. During a private conversation, Desbois intimated that he would be interested in launching a similar project in Turkey, if a viable initiative was proposed.9 It might be worthwhile to gauge what place the Armenian Genocide occupies in the social memory of Turks and Kurds, even after nearly a century. The conclusion would undoubtedly warrant my introductory comment: The Turkish government is denying a genocide that its own population remembers.


1. Donald E. Miller and Lorne Touryan-Miller, Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993; David Gaunt, Massacres, Resistance, Protectors: Muslim-Christian Relations in Eastern Anatolia during World War I, Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2006, appendix; Ayşe Gül Altınay and Fethiye Çetin, Torunlar (Istanbul: Metis, 2009).

2. Andrew Goldberg, “The Armenian Genocide,” Two Cats Productions, 2006.

3. For parallel problems in Russian history, see Orlando Figes, The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, London: Penguin, 2007, p. XXXV.

4. Interview conducted with A.D. (from Varto district) in Heidelberg, Germany, Nov. 24, 2009.

5. Interview conducted with M.Ş. (from Piran district) in Diyarbakır, July 15, 2004.

6. Interview conducted with Erdal Rênas (from the Kharzan area) in Istanbul, Aug. 18, 2002.

7. Interview conducted with K.T. (from Erzincan) in Bursa on June 28, 2002 and Aug. 20 2007, partially screened in the documentary “Land of our Grandparents” (Amsterdam: Zelović Productions, 2008).

8.Patrick Desbois, Porteur de Mmémoires: sur les Traces de la Shoah par Balles, Paris: Michel Lafon, 2007. Also, see www.shoahparballes.com.

9. Personal communication with Patrick Desbois at the conference “The Holocaust by Bullets,” organized by the Amsterdam Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the Nationaal Museum Vught (Netherlands), Sept. 11, 2009.


Ugur Ungor

Uğur Ümit Üngör is Assistant Professor at the Department of History of Utrecht University and at the Institute for War and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam. He specializes in genocide, mass violence and ethnic conflict. His recent publications include Confiscation and Destruction: The Young Turk Seizure of Armenian Property (Continuum, 2011), and The Making of Modern Turkey: Nation and State in Eastern Anatolia, 1913-1950 (Oxford University Press, 2011).


  1. Professor Ungor’s article and his thoughts for the continuation of research on the collective memory of the genocide in the third generation living in Eastern Anatolia is certainly very worthwhile. I hope various Armenian, Assyrian and Kurdish organizations will fund the research. True to his name, may:
    (Ugur) Luck follow him, (Umit) Hope lead him and (Ungor) Fame be his reward.

  2. How could should not called A Genocide, this is one thousans proof ,have the World know that..we people looking for Justice for to Recognize the Genociide by Turkey!!

  3. as I have said countless times, pursuing the recognition is a total waste of precious Armenian money and a waste of time, Genocide recognition will not accomplish anything whatsoever, what is important and should be pursued vigorously is the UN resolution to recover the $60 billion as compensation as well as the Armenian properties.
    Letting Turkey know that we are less interested in recognition and more interested in recovering and restitution, Turkey maybe more receptive to our demands.

    • Paul,

      Totally agree with you. If Turks apologize good if not so be it. But, they must return what they stole from Armenians i.e. some land, properties, money and churches. And they have to launch programs to help those hidden Armenians to go back to their roots. If they want to adopt Christianity and learn the Armenian language the Turkish government has to launch programs for that too and stop harassing those poor souls.

      Without doing all the above mentioned Turkish apology means very little to nothing to me.

  4. Just wanted to say that not every Turk denies the Armenian Genocide. I am amongst the ones who recognizes the genocide, shares Armenians’ pain and are sorry about what happened. As a Turkish citizen, I will try my best to make Turkey recognize Armenian Genocide and apologize officially. I protested Turkish Embassy in New York City by myself on 04.24.2012 and many others did the same thing in Turkey. https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.212967712139529.31092.142172542552380&type=3

    • That was very brave of you Umut, particularly you being a Turkish citizen.
      Hopefully Turkish officialdom will not harass you when you return to Turkey.

      I don’t know any Armenians who believe all Turkish citizens or all Turks are Denialists. A very brave Turk woman, Ms. Ayse Gunaysu, lives in Turkey and is a columnist here at AW. So, if there is one, there must be many more like her in Turkey.

      And certainly Turks like Mr. Ugur Ungor and Prof. Taner Akcam have published important research to demolish the vacuous arguments of the Denialists.

      Unfortunately you and those like you are in the minority in the population of Turkey.
      Nevertheless, individuals like you are a force-multiplier, being non-Armenian Turkish citizens.


    • Here it is Umut the Hidden Armenians in Turkey
      Yusuf Halaçoğlu, the ex-chairman of the Turkish Historical Society, is fiercely indignant over the awakening of national identity among “hidden” Armenians.

      One of the Turkish nationalistic websites has put on his statement saying: “Several years ago I warned many Armenians were concealing their national identity, claiming they were Kurds. I stated all that on the basis of data from U.S. archives which gave them an alias ‘Armenian Kurds’. According to the information at my disposal, about 500,000 Armenians concealing their national identity and claiming to be Kurds are residing in Turkey now,” Halaçoğlu said. According to him, Armenians’ national identification in Turkey creates favorable conditions for growing demands for restitution on the Turkish Government. He stressed that this process will also cause similar processes among the other Turkey-based minorities, namely, Turkmens and Alevis.

  5. To Umut Ermec,

    Thank you for your heartfelt words of recognition of the Armenian Genocide. It’s people like you that give me hope for humanity. You also give me reason to remember how my family was saved by a Turkish family during the 1895 massacres that preceded the full blown Armenian Genocide. Lately I’m finding lots of similar stories where honorable and courageous Turks risked much to protect and save Armenians. So I think it’s fair to say that you are the latest in a long legacy of courageous Turks that will do what is right despite the circumstances.

    You are in my hopes and prayers Umut. God Bless you my friend.

  6. Thank you for your research, as i said before and i will say it again there are many Turks that recognise the Armenian Genocide and i know sooner or later which will be sooner the Turkish Government has to recognise the Armenian Genocide and we all will be living next to each other as good neihgbours , of course there has to be the reperations and our land also there i sno question about that, it is time i mean is it time for the Turkish people to stand up agains their own Government and ask for justice, we are living in a new age with a new generation why should i remind the Turkish people about it every time i see one in the street and yes we live in Los Angeles ( Los Armenios) it is time to see each other in the eye and say Salam malekom arxadash.

  7. Thank you for all of your support and compliments. I believe Armenians and Turks will make peace sooner than we expect; we have a solid cultural foundation for it. The poison from the CUP racists cannot be that powerful to last more than a century; more and more people realize that the racist’s denial arguments are actually not true day by day. We are healing. People of Turkey will understand that advocating the ideas and sins of some murderers, rapists and plunderers who lived a century ago is wrong and dishonorable. As I said in front of the embassy: “confession fits better to us, not denial”

    • “The poison from the CUP, Ataturk, and the kemalist racists…”

      THAT IS WHY it lasted this .long, and seems like it will last longer

      actually, that poison was introduced in the 19th century (if not even earlier), much before CUP grabbed power

    • Hello Umut my friends call me Uncle Artin or Uncle HArut i understand what you are saying and that is a very good idea of what by standing in front of the turkish embassy telling them how you feel, Umut lets go back lets say about 700 years when your people came to the Armenian lands what did we did then we opened our arms as people and excepted your people as people and ypour people the Turks lived on our land for so many centurys and as time went by, yes you grew in numbers and things started to change slowly but surely some of the people in the Turkish government started to have different feelings toward us the Armenians on our own land, as you can see were i’m going with this Umut , we opened our doors for you and in return well i should not say any further, hope one day things will change for better.

  8. I, like thousands more, went to Dsidsernakabert (the Armenian Genocide Monument in Yerevan) not to hate Turks but rather to honor the memory of the
    victims of “man’s inhumanity to man”. I know first hand that there are many Turks
    like Mr. Ugur Ungor who acknowledge the Armenian Genocide. The difficult task ahead is to educate more Turks and not hate them, keeping in mind that those brave souls who acknowledge the Armenian Genocide in and out of Turkey do take a risk.

  9. oral history certainly is a very important source for discovering what happened in Eastern Anatolia and Syria in 1915-16. If Turkey proceeds to a situation in which people are exhorted to tell what their parent and grand parent generation witnessed many questions may be answered better than today. But in order to get there , Turkish politics must be based on a genuine will to look for the truth. I am afraid that day is still far away

    • Hi Ragnar,hope you are well.Absolutely there’s no need to discover what happened.Discover?I should consider it as an insult …It’s a fact for us the Armenians & for the rest of the world.Turkish government keeps on chewing the old gum hoping that this subject will disappear.
      Turkish/Kurdish oral history is a necessity so that it does not get lost & to tighten the noose on to what happened.Turks & Kurds know super very well what happened.Over the years & each time I met a Turk or a Kurd ,whether in Turkey or outside they used to whisper question me…”is it true what our grandparents told us?”
      Anyway,Zorian institute has thousands of Genocide survivors’ witnessing videos.

    • Furthermore please read what president Gul when he spoke on the 97th anniversary of the battle of Canakalle:
      “After the Republic was established, we avoided reopening old wounds so future generations would not inherit these pains. Unfortunately, the Armenian Diaspora has started to use this tragic event as a tool for preserving their identity and enhancing the feeling of solidarity between themselves since the 1960s.”
      Can you see the contrast between the memories of the common folk in Turkey & their president who should be reflecting image of its people?


  10. Regarding mass graves:
    Iin “Rebel Land: Among Turkey’s Forgotten Peoples
    by Christopher de Bellaigue” & in Varto region the subject of mass graves is discussed…

    • Also in Kemal Yalcin’s ‘You Rejoice My Heart’ book there are the testimonies/memories of ‘hidden or islamised’ Armenians’ whether in Turkey or Germany.
      The hidden Armenians’ memories should be a very beneficial point of Mr. Ungor’s study/research.The problem is always finding or convincing them to talk.

  11. Today May 9th 8.30 am Eastern Time, the AL JAZEERA, is showing a documentary on the ARMENIAN GENOCIDE .Turks are verifying what happened in ottoman Turkey then in 1915-23. A rather lengthy Documentary.
    Al Jazeera must be commended.
    All the Moslem world is watching …millions get to know better WHAT TURKS DID TO ARMENIANS!!!!!
    sO FAR NO ANY FOREIGN SOURCE HAS SO WELL SHOWN THE genocide perpetrated on our people.
    Kudos to Al Jazeera!!!!

  12. Ugur Ungor you are a brave, brave man! I don’t know how you mustered up the courage to ask around without getting put into jail, but so far you did it!

    I know that many Turks don’t want to go into battle with Syria and they don’t like Erdogan in particular either.

    The Armenian Genocide is one of those issues which I am afraid will take many years to heal from. I hope to hear more Turks speak out against it, I would not be surprised if more start coming forward in the next few years and century!

    The only villain left would be the Turkish Government and then eventually they will have to confess sometime to get this hard guilt and denial off their backs!

  13. thank you VTiger, I hope you are well, too! I understand that you refer to the knowledge that “yes, it was genocide” . As I have written before I believe we dont need to “diascover” or find out more in order to ask Turkey to apologize and ask for reparations. But there are still many facts that are not sufficiently researched. To insist that “everything” is known is not true to my mind. the research must go on. And as you know I believe the question of ittihadist intent is not well enough researched.
    Regarding the Gül citation, I agree with you. It is a strange idea that those who feel wronged are asked by the ones whose ancestors committed the wrongdoing to “reopen the wrong wounds”.
    you ask:

    Furthermore please read what president Gul when he spoke on the 97th anniversary of the battle of Canakalle:

    Can you see the contrast between the memories of the common folk in Turkey & their president who should be reflecting image of its people?

    yes, there is a contrast, but I dont agree that the common people today remember the “genocide”. I need to qualify it. They remember instances of massacres of Armenians and also the participation of gendarmes, information handed down from the older generation.

    To me what mr. Ûngör is doing is very valuable. It reminds Turks and Kurds to go into their own history and admit mistakes, even apologize when this is needed.

    • That the Ittihadist intent was not made public in CUP newspapers or dispersed from airplanes as leaflets cannot change the horrific experiences of the victims or the testimonies in the witness accounts or the reports in diplomatic and consular dispatches or condemnations in the Allied Powers’ declarations or the verdicts of Turkish Courts Martial or the legislations of some twenty-five foreign governments or the resolutions of international organizations and professional associations. All facts have been researched to the extent when it was sufficient for the majority of genocide scholars, historians, demographers, international lawyers, and Nobel Prize laureates to unambiguously say that even without a post-it note that the naïve Ittihadist murderers forgot to stick on the door of their headquarters in Constantinople, the mass physical extermination of the Armenians was carried out on governmental orders, because it bore a centralized character involving regional governors, village heads, army commanders, soldiers, gendarmes, and special regiments, in the form of a deliberate measure directed against a particular ethnic, national, religious, and racial group. Those who insist that not everything is known and that the research must go on play to the hands of the Turkish government whose policy of avoiding responsibility for the crime of their predecessor-state includes indefinite “research” in the anticipation that things may change in their favor in the future. They will not. Turkey must recognize its crime, repent, offer an apology, and pay retributions for annihilation of a nation and the theft of their ancestral homeland.

  14. sorry, I made a mistake: I wrote:
    It is a strange idea that those who feel wronged are asked by the ones whose ancestors committed the wrongdoing to “reopen the wrong wounds”.
    I wanted to say:
    It is a strange idea that those who feel wronged are asked by the ones whose ancestors committed the wrongdoing not to “reopen the OLD wounds”.

  15. The common Turkish sentiment that Armenians “not open the OLD wounds”, is a big problem. It reflects an overly simplistic approach to problem-solving and peace-making within Turkish society.

    “Let’s just not look at this painful history, and then we don’t have to think about it or come to terms with it.”

    Of course, when someone invests a lot of energy into warding off awareness of something, they will resent others who remind them of that painful subject, event, memory…. Thus, Turks resent Armenians who won’t ‘shut-up’ and Armenians resent Turks for treating us and our truth as unimportant and forgettable or ‘disposable.’

    In my opinion, Turkish society will be forever stunted until it evolves enough to face the reality and repercussions of the crime committed by their ancestors. Ungor’s work is a necessary step in the right direction. I would love to hear more from Turks who are able to approach this history with more sophistication, sensitivity, and willingness to engage the lessons that the truth has to offer.

    Meanwhile, Armenians are heavily burdened by this history which drains energy from our society in the form of preoccupation with the past, anxiety about the future and basic safety and trust among ‘neighbors.’ It would serve both our societies to be able to move forward. Turkey should take the lead by offering a simple statement of acceptance of responsibility for the destruction of the ancient Christian nations of Asia Minor. Whether or not the Ittihadists ‘intended’ it, shouldn’t stop Turks from apologizing for the obvious reality of the devastation that occurred. Further research may provide more depth to understanding the facts—much like a sportscaster augments the score when commenting on a game—but it shouldn’t stand in the way of a long overdue apology and restitution.

  16. Ragnar naess

    You definitely misunderstood what the President said. I understand that most Armenians do not get what is said or done about Turkey. There is no contrast between the president and the people of Turkey. When he talked about “old wounds” he didn’t refer to Armenian deportation or anything like that. He simply talked about the sufferings that were inflicted on Turks in the past.But Turks didn’t pass down these sufferings from generation after generation like Armenians.

    • “But Turks didn’t pass down these sufferings from generation after generation like Armenians.”
      Finally you accept what Turks did to Armenians!

  17. Please read Mr. Ugur Ungor & Mehmet Polatetel’s “Confiscation and Destruction – The Young Turk Seizure of Armenian Property”.
    It is a very well researched & detailed work.An example:
    “Most important,the highly politicized archive of the land registers (tapu kayitlari) remains closed due to Turkish fears of potential Armenian material claims.These records,stored at the Land Register General Directorate (Tapu Kadastro Genel Mudurlugu),contain the (presumably) highly detailed account books of confiscated Armenianproperty.In August 2005 Turkey’s powerful Council for National Security (Milli Guvenlik Kurulu) strongly & confidentially admonished the archive staff not to disclose their material because ‘the data could be abused for the purpose of unfounded Genocide & property claims’.2 ‘Tapu Arsivlerini “Sinirli” Kullanin’ Hurriyet,19 September 2006.

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