In the Shadow of 1915: Reflections on Hrant’s Assassination

The Armenian Weekly April 2014 Magazine

Seven years have passed since Hrant Dink’s assassination and those who planned his murder remain free. While the search for justice continues with a second round of trials, there seems to be insufficient political will to uncover the truth. With these new trials, I am reminded of Karl Marx’s famous adage about history repeating itself—the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. Frustrating as this may be, political will is precisely what prevents the Turkish justice system from discovering the guilty parties.

Friends and admirers of Hrant are understandably angry: How can the conspirators responsible for his assassination still be unknown? How can a single murder case last so long? The reasons are suggested in a “Tweet” posted by Prime Ministerial Advisor Hamdi Kilic on Jan. 2, 2014: “There is something known as ‘state tradition’ in this country; it still exists. It’s enough to read a little history to understand this.”

Kilic is right; the obstruction of justice in the Hrant Dink case is one of these disturbing “reflexes.” If we had simply read a little history, we would have understood what was transpiring in the trials of Hrant’s attackers. For a long time, Turks protesting Hrant’s murder resisted seeing the connection with the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Some were even angered by those who tried to suggest such a link. Yet, his assassins were well aware of this connection, and that is why they killed him. In deconstructing some of the founding myths of the Turkish state, Hrant threatened its traditions, and that is why his real killers remain free. His murder, as Kilic recognized, was an example of the Turkish state’s “traditional” reflexes.

 

Hrant murdered in revenge for Talat Pasha

Hrant Dink was killed in revenge for the assassination of Talat Pasha, the architect of the Armenian Genocide. Everything about his murder suggested a “vengeance operation” for the 1921 conspiracy to assassinate Talat Pasha in Berlin. This, for example, accounts for the decision to murder Hrant Dink in public rather than to kidnap him, kill him, and throw his remains in some remote location—the way all the other “unknown perpetrator” crimes have been committed in Turkey. The conspirators deliberately chose to come up from behind and to shoot him in the head on the street, in front of Agos, the newspaper he edited. The operation mirrored precisely how Talat Pasha was killed. His attackers wanted revenge for the murder of Talat Pasha, and they did so by targeting Hrank Dink.

As 2015 approaches… the Turkish state will undertake a search for so-called “Good Armenians”—and it will find them! It will use these puppets as a counter-weight to the “intransigent,” “belligerent,” and “uncompromising” Armenians in the diaspora.

We know that when Yasin Hayal, one of Hrant’s assassins, was released from prison after serving his sentence for the 2004 McDonalds bombing in Trabzon, he spoke with his father about Talat Pasha. “Do you know how Talat Pasha was killed?” he asked his father, adding, “Did you know that the person who killed Talat Pasha wasn’t punished? He was set free.”

Soghomon Tehlirian, a young man who witnessed the murder of his family during the genocide, assassinated Talat Pasha in broad daylight on March 15, 1921, on a Berlin street. The assailant approached Talat and, after confirming his identity, fired his pistol at the former Ottoman Interior Minister’s head. Hrant was killed in the same fashion.

This isn’t the only similarity between the killings: Although Tehlirian attempted to flee the scene of the crime, he was quickly apprehended. In fact, those who planned the attack on Talat wanted him to remain at the scene and to surrender himself to the authorities. Likewise, documents connected to the investigation surrounding Hrant Dink’s murder suggest that the plan was for his young assailant, Ogun Samast, to remain at the murder scene instead of fleeing. Everything was supposed to be just as in 1921. The aim was both to take revenge for Talat Pasha’s murder and to remind the Armenians that the genocide of 1915 had been carried out in order to silence them. The plotters were saying, “We established this Republic on the foundation of the Armenians’ annihilation, and since 1915 we do not give Armenians the right to speak freely on these lands.”

 

Muammer Guler and Dr. Resit

The case of Dr. Mehmed Resit, the Unionist governor of Diyarbakir during the Armenian Genocide, further demonstrates the connection between the events of 1915 and the murder of Hrant Dink. I would like to compare this man, who was personally responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent Armenians, with Muammer Guler, who was the governor of Istanbul at the time of Hrant’s assassination in 2007 and was complicit in creating a climate conducive to the crime. It is then possible to extend the comparison of past and present figures to Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Talat Pasha. The comparison works despite the fact that Prime Minister Erdogan attempted to resolve the Kurdish problem through peaceful means and has apologized—albeit half-heartedly and with the actual intention of needling the Republican Peoples Party and earning credit with voters—on behalf of the state for the massacres at Dersim in 1937-38.

In July 1915, the German Consul at Mosul reported to his superiors that some 2,000 Christians in Mardin and Diyarbakir, the majority of them Armenians, had been taken from their cities overnight and “slaughtered like sheep.”1 The consul claimed to have received this information from the district governor of Mardin and demanded that measures be taken to prevent such crimes. The German Embassy in Istanbul passed the information on to Interior Minister Talat Pasha, who then sent a cable to Governor Mehmed Resit, in which he repeated the information he had received, including the phrase “slaughtered like sheep.” Clarifying the target of the massacres, he issued the following order: “It is categorically prohibited for disciplinary measures imposed in regard to the Armenians to be implemented against other Christians.” And he demanded an immediate cessation to such measures “that might endanger the lives of [other] Christians.”2

Despite this cable, the indiscriminate massacres of Christians in the Diyarbakir province continued. In a July 22 telegram, Talat wrote to Dr. Resit stressing that the government’s policy of annihilation should be implemented against the Armenians, and no other Christians. He mentioned that “complaints are being received” and ordered the provincial governor to cease this practice, which “will put us in a difficult situation.”3

Armenians seeking recognition of the Armenian Genocide seek justice. Turks striving for democracy and human rights strive for freedom. The relationship between these goals is complex because they address separate problems. The attainment of one does not automatically bring about the righting of past injustices.

Nonetheless, Resit continued the massacres without differentiating between Armenians and other Christians. Finally, on Aug. 2, Talat sent a third telegram, complaining that reports of massacres continued to be received and that, “despite our having sent numerous cables, the Christians in the province continue to be killed.” He repeated that the government viewed the situation as intolerable. In the message, Talat reminded Resit that he was an official of the state and “as a [state] official, he was therefore obligated to carry out the orders he received without exception.” Finally, there was an explicit warning: Resit would be held directly responsible “for all activities and incidents by bandits and armed gangs.”4

These cables were transmitted in coded form. Their content was intelligible to only a few people, including Talat, Resit, and the government functionaries who sent or decoded them. No investigations transpired and no sanctions were imposed against Dr. Resit as a consequence of opposing or ignoring government orders that resulted in upwards of 2,000 persons being “slaughtered like sheep.” Indeed, the outcomes were the very opposite. Hilmi, the Mardin District’s official, who was opposed to the murderous actions of Governor Resit and who informed the German Consul of these crimes, was removed from his position.5 Even more significant, on account of their “successful” implementation of anti-Armenian policies in Diyarbakir, the security personnel who worked under Resit were awarded medals. A July 28, 1915 telegram orders the “promotion of some of the police and commissars who were instrumental in the arrest of Armenian committee leaders and other members in the province of Diyarbakir;” others received monetary awards or medals.6

Resit, who deported and killed thousands of Syriac and Armenian Christians from Diyarbakir and its environs, was eventually called to account—not for the mass murders he had ordered, but for keeping precious jewelry and other valuables from the deportation. An official message demanded that he “send to the capital” the confiscated items, as he had promised. An Oct. 6, 1915 telegram, with the special note “to be handled personally,” informed Resit that the government “has received reports that you have confiscated” monies, jewels, and other items belonging “to the Armenians who were deported and subjected to attack on the way.” The cable demanded information on the amount of gold and jewelry present, as well as the manner in which their records were kept. The subject that interested Talat was not the annihilation of these Christians, but the fate of the valuables confiscated from them.7

Eventually, Resit was rewarded with an appointment as governor of Ankara in recognition of his services. Yet, he was ultimately removed from this post and subjected to a criminal investigation for the misappropriation of the confiscated Armenian property and possessions. It seems that Resit attempted to purchase a seaside mansion in Istanbul with the Armenian jewelry he had confiscated, but when Talat caught word of this he had him removed from his position. The journalist Suleyman Nazif summed up the situation succinctly: “The same Resit that Talat Pasha had esteemed as a murderer…he removed from office for being a thief.”8 As Prime Ministerial Advisor Hamdi Kilic said, “There is something known as ‘state tradition’ in this country; it still exists. It’s enough to read a little history to understand this.” History shows that while the Armenian Genocide was taking place, the state praised Resit and others for murdering Christians, but condemned him for theft.

Returning to the comparison between Istanbul Governor Muammer Guler and Diyarabakir Governor Mehmed Resit, we find a similar lack of accountability. Like Resit, Guler was never called to account for the murder, but rather was rewarded for his loyal service—first with a seat as an AKP parliamentarian and later, by being appointed as Interior Minister. Ironically, he too was subsequently removed from his post for bribery and corruption. Nor was the situation different in the case of the police officials involved in Hrant’s case. All received promotions in the wake of the murder, just as in Diyarbakir in 1915. With history as our guide, we can appreciate why the real culprits in Hrant Dink’s murder have not been found.

Ninety years of state-sponsored denial have so blinded the public that we cannot conceive of the relationship between the 1915 genocide and the murder of Hrant Dink. But while the Turkish government has pushed us to forget the events of 1915, state officials have not forgotten. Turks grow uneasy at the mention of “genocide,” and calls for “genocide recognition” cause us to flee in terror before some unknown retribution. We resist using Hrant’s death as an opportunity to face up to history, to see the connection between that history and the killing of an Armenian newspaper editor. We are made to forget Hrant although he is the key—the key to the 40th chamber in the Arabian Nights fable, the one that others do not want opened, the key that is given to the heroes of those tales. We have a treasure chamber in our old houses where all of our secrets are kept. And Hrant is the key to that room. If the Hrant Dink murder case is ever solved, the secrets behind the establishment of the Turkish Republic will be revealed. But, sadly, in the present government, there is neither the courage nor the will to furnish the key, because the government is heir to these “state traditions,” and the “keepers of its secrets.”

 

Hrant and the diaspora

I predict that as 2015 approaches, Turkey will attempt to create an atmosphere of “reconciliation.” Appearing ready to resolve the Armenian issue, Turkey will portray Armenians in the diaspora as uncompromising “sectarians.” For this purpose, the Turkish state will undertake a search for so-called “Good Armenians”—and it will find them! It will use these puppets as a counter-weight to the “intransigent,” “belligerent,” and “uncompromising” Armenians in the diaspora. They will seek to pit their “Good” Armenians against the “Bad” Armenians of the diaspora. And they will use Hrant for this purpose, too. They will find the criticisms Hrant leveled at the Armenian Diaspora and use them without hesitation. Hrant’s own words will be exploited as a part of a new wave of hostility toward the Armenian Diaspora.

Do not be duped by this cynical scenario! Hrant criticized certain circles within the Armenian Diaspora, and some Diasporan Armenians criticized him. But he did so because he recognized that some diaspora groups could not see that the final struggle for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide would ultimately be fought and won within Turkey itself, in Anatolia. When we spoke by telephone, he frequently urged me to “tell those friends of yours that they should come and be part of the struggle here. The genocide took place on these lands, and its recognition will also occur here.”

Diasporan Armenians don’t readily appreciate that the struggle for recognition of the genocide is linked to the struggle for democracy in Turkey. At the same time, some Turks fail to grasp that the diaspora’s struggle to attain recognition is part of the Turkish struggle for democracy. The majority of those in the diaspora are uninterested in the Turkish struggle to achieve democracy and human rights; and many struggling for democracy within Turkey are hostile toward the Armenian Diaspora’s insistence on genocide recognition.

These tensions derive from the conflation of complementary goals. Armenians seeking recognition of the Armenian Genocide seek justice. Turks striving for democracy and human rights strive for freedom. The relationship between these goals is complex because they address separate problems. The attainment of one does not automatically bring about the righting of past injustices. The United States, for example, is a free and democratic country, yet its Native American population continues to pursue justice. And the search for justice by the indigenous peoples of Australia and Canada also continues. Thus, we need to both see and understand this one thing: In Turkey today it is essential that we not juxtapose freedom and justice; we must instead create a shared language and intellectual foundation in our search for both. We do not have to sacrifice one in our search for the other.

Hrant sought to construct a shared language for his struggle and that of the diaspora. He dreamed of staging a large diaspora conference for this purpose. Hrant’s murder demonstrated the absolute necessity for this “shared language,” as well as the error of attempting to conceive of the struggle for freedom in Turkey at the expense of recognition and acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide. It has shown us that this recognition must be a shared demand of people in both the diaspora and in Turkey. The struggles for freedom and justice complete one another and must not be seen as either contradicting or opposing. If we understand what Hrant was trying to do, we must bring together these two struggles as one: the diaspora’s demand for recognition of the Armenian Genocide with the struggle in Turkey for human rights and democracy. Those wishing for a democratic Turkey that respects human rights must merge their struggle with that of the Armenian Diaspora. They must invite diasporans to Turkey and join their struggle to have the Armenian Genocide recognized abroad. And they must remember: The Armenian Diaspora is not their enemy but their friend, a valuable colleague who, due to the decades of denial by the Turkish state, has unfortunately grown accustomed to looking at things through cynical and mistrusting eyes.

If Hrant had lived, he would have joined the Armenian Diaspora. This is not idle speculation; I know of that which I speak. Hrant was never ignorant of 1915 the way many of us were. Every day of his life, he experienced the connection between the genocide and what he had to face; he felt it in his very bones. When his sentence was approved, he was serious about wanting to leave Turkey and walking, with his entire family, from his hometown of Malatya, on the path of deportation taken by his ancestors, all the way to the Der-Zor desert in northeastern Syria. “Just like my forefathers, they don’t want me to remain here,” he would say. “And if so, then there’s no point in my doing so. I’ll travel the path that they took.” In other words, Hrant saw the Armenian Diaspora as one of his options. With him, we must understand that some categories are meaningless and incorrect, like the categorization of a monolithic Armenian Diaspora, single-mindedly fixed on revenge and of the overarching conception of the “evil Turk.” These need to be discarded into the dustbin of history.

 

Hrant and the word ‘genocide’

When speaking with Turks, Hrant was polite and gracious enough to avoid the word “genocide.” “I know what was done to my people,” he would say, “but if my use of the word ‘genocide’ will be used against me as an excuse not to listen to the things I have to say, then I won’t use it.” Despite his extreme sensitivity and gentility in the matter, the authorities wanted to punish him anyway, claiming that he had used it—once! Before he was murdered, Hrant told me that he wanted to turn his trial for using the word ‘genocide’ into an historical showcase. “I will state that ‘Yes, 1915 was a genocide,’ and I will then turn the trial into a history course.” But they didn’t give him the chance.

Hrant Dink was murdered because he wanted to deconstruct Turkey’s founding myths. Those who planned the murder—the real culprits—have received promotions and praise for doing so. The sensitivity the government expressed over the confiscation of Armenian property was never shown toward the lives of Armenians. On the contrary, they oversaw the annihilation of a people. And the situation today is not so different! 1.5 million-plus-1. Hrant is the “plus-1.” Failing to recognize this, we cannot understand the crime or hope to solve it. As we approach the year 2015, the 100-year anniversary of the Armenian deportations and genocide, we won’t be able to confront this crime without first admitting to ourselves that, “Yes, 1915 was a genocide and it must be acknowledged as such.” And that “Hrant was murdered because he reminded us of the million-plus Hrants of 1915.”

Let Hrant Dink be a symbol for us. Let him be our Martin Luther King. Even as others in the past have gathered closely around Talat Pasha and his ilk, and even as they today gather around Erdogan and his, let us hold fast to Hrant. Let Hrant and the “1.5 million-plus-1” be our point of divergence between our republic and their republic. This is the only way that we can claim our Islamic selves, our Turkishness and/or our Kurdishness from the hands of murders —those of yesterday and of today.

 

Notes

[1]) The full text of the telegram reads: “Reshid Bey, the Governor of Diyarbakir, is raging among the Christians of his province like a champion bloodhound; he recently had a gendarmerie [force] specially dispatched from Diyarbakir collect 700 Christians (mostly Armenians) in Mardin…in one night and allowed them to be slaughtered like sheep. Reshid Bey is continuing his murderous work against innocent persons, with the district governor [of Mardin] having assured me that the number of his victims has exceeded 2,000.” (DE/PA-AA/BoKon/169, From the Vice-Consul in Mosul (Holstein) to the Embassy in Constantinople, Mosul, July 10, 1915; URL: http://www.armenocide.net/armenocide/armgende.nsf/$$AllDocs/1915-07-10-DE-011).

2) Here is the full text of the telegram: “Since the disciplinary and political measures adopted vis-à-vis the Armenians do not in any way apply to the other Christians, an immediate end should be put to such events, which will have an extremely negative effect on public opinion and which randomly threaten the lives of Christians in particular; please provide an accurate report of the present situation.” Thus the policies deliberately enacted against the Armenians were explicitly to exclude other Christian groups. BOA/DH.ŞFR, no. 54/406, coded telegram from Interior Minister Talat to the province of Diyarbakir, dated July 12, 1915.

3) Here is the full text of the telegram: “Despite the firm and explicit instructions within the province,” he wrote, “one hears that operations have been undertaken against the Armenians and all other Christian [groups] without exception, and that this situation, which was repeatedly a cause for complaint, is now spreading to the surrounding provinces. The continuation of this situation…which will leave the government in a difficult position in the future, is entirely unacceptable.” BOA/DH.ŞFR, no. 54-A/73, coded telegram from Interior Minister Talat to the province of Diyarbakir, dated July 22, 1915.

4) Here is the full text of telegram: “Despite firm and explicit instructions, certain armed gangs within the province have continued persecuting and killing Christians” and that, “as it was previously announced, the continuation of this situation is absolutely unacceptable… It must not be forgotten that as a responsible representative of the present government, you are obliged to carry out the orders and instructions that are handed down from here, unconditionally and in accordance with our interpretation [of their meaning].” Talat concluded with a clear warning that his governor would be held responsible “for every action and incident in which bandits or armed gangs are involved.” BOA/DH.ŞFR, no. 54-A/248, coded telegram from Interior Minister Talat to the province of Diyarbakir, dated Aug. 2, 1915.

5) David Gaunt, Massacres, Resistance, Protectors:Muslim-Christian Relations in Eastern Anatolia during World War I (Gorgias Press: New Jersey, 2006), 170.

6) BOA/DH.EUM.MEM, no. 2042/67/31/1333.N.15, July 28, 1915.

7) Here is the full text of the telegram: “It has been reported by parliamentary deputies that the money, jewels, and other possessions belonging to the Armenians who were deported and attacked along the way have not been lost but rather secured and sent to the capital due to the measures that you have taken. Please report back on the quantity [of valuables] and the manner in which they were recorded.” BOA/DH.ŞFR, no. 56/315, coded telegram from the Interior Ministry to the province of Diyarbakir, dated Oct. 6, 1915.

8) Hadisat, Feb. 8, 1919.

 

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Taner Akcam

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

4 Comments

  1. Regards from Turkey, friends,
    I am sure 99.9% of the population of Turkey knows nothing about Talat Pasha. I think Dr. Akcam assumes that the murderers have the same intellectual skills and historical knowledge that he has. Hrant was killed by ignorant nationalist. Samast had very little knowledge even about Hrant, let alone the Armenian heritage. The similarities between two murders, except Hayal’s scanty knowledge on Talat Pasha’s death, seem mostly arbitrary.
    A call to all humanist friends: we should keep fighting peacefully for the victims of the Armenian Genocide and their legacy. But also there is a genocide, apartheid, occupation and state-terror committed everyday by Israel for more than six decades. We should stand firm and united against all violations of human dignity: that is the legacy of Hrant Dink and Edward Said.
    Peace,

  2. Dogan,

    I appreciate your post for several reasons, but disagree with your dismissal of the thesis. The issue is not what the average Turk or even the average nationalist anti Armenian knows.

    Are not Dogu Perincek and his ilk members of a Talaat Pasha Society with chapters in Europe? Is not his Mausoleum of Talaat “sacred ground” to such persons? The trigger-puller and immediate supervisors may have been ignorant, but they did not devise the plan, someone very high up in the deep state did.

  3. “The comparison works despite the fact that Prime Minister Erdogan attempted to resolve the Kurdish problem through peaceful means and has apologized—albeit half-heartedly and with the actual intention of needling the Republican Peoples Party and earning credit with voters—on behalf of the state for the massacres at Dersim in 1937-38.”

    I wholeheartedly disagree here. Yes, he took a shot at CHP in his apology, but for once I believe that the “other” factors played only a secondary role to Erdogan’s sincerity here. The government owed us Alevis an apology and we got one. I’ve said this many times, if you want to criticize someone over the Dersim apology issue you need to focus your attention on CHP’s pathetic excuse of a leader, politician, and man Kemal Kilicdaroglu- who, by the way, is a Kurdish Alevi from Dersim. What was this Kurdish Alevi from Dersim’s response to Erdogan’s apology?
    “I wouldn’t be surprised if this Prime Minister soon forces the ‘Armenian Genocide’ allegations on us too. The target is Ataturk, you want to get to him, you want to criticize him. We’ve faced our past [as CHP],our past is clean.”

    Absolutely pathetic.

    So yes, Erdogan “needled” the Republican Peoples Party in his apology. But you’ll have to excuse me for not writing off his apology simply because Erdogan’s apology for Dersim implicated our Lord and Savior Mustafa Kemal Pasha and his political party.

  4. A heartful thank to Mr. Akcam for his soul-stirring analysis. On the question of freedom and justice, however I can’t quite agree with the assumption that they are “separate issues and that the attainment of one does not automatically bring about the righting of past injustices”. True, they are separate issues, but are in the meantime interrelated and the attainment of one can’t but help the realization of the other in the long run.

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