Special for the Armenian Weekly
As the 102nd anniversary of the Armenian Genocide passes, I am reminded of the time not long ago when I began research on the book, Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad, about the courageous women and men who risked their lives to save survivors.
My initial questions were basic: Who was responsible for the genocide? Why did it happen? When, where and how did happen? The initial responses I received were never satisfactory. They were too pat, too simple. Even answers to “when, where and how” left me with many more questions.
Now, after two years of intensive research, I have a much clearer picture of the events and their causes. But when I recently talked about the details with an Armenian friend, he often commented throughout our discussion, “I didn’t know that. We didn’t learn about that in school. It wasn’t in any of our textbooks.” That made me think about recorded history in general, and how much of it has been left out of the “official version.” Then I remembered something I had heard long ago: History is written by the victors.
It is the conquerors who have the power to publish the books, control the media, and decide which facts are taught to our children, and which facts are to be ignored or erased. Whether we call it spin or propaganda or even “alternative facts,” the result is the same. The official history of any country reflects those in power in a good light, and either downplays or eliminates facts that would tarnish that image. Over the generations, we come to believe that version as the truth. But we should not believe everything we think.
Part of the History of Canada
On April 9, Canadians commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Though it was not seen so at the time, starting in the 1930’s when the Canadian National Vimy Memorial was built, Vimy came to represent national achievement and sacrifice. The battle was indeed important because all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fought beside one British division, and winning it demonstrated the strength and military strategy of Canada’s army. But as John Pierce wrote in 1992 (Constructing Memory: The Vimy Memorial), “The historical reality of the battle has been reworked and reinterpreted in a conscious attempt to give purpose and meaning to an event that came to symbolize Canada’s coming of age as a nation.”
On July 1, Canada will commemorate the 150th anniversary of confederation. Not everyone will be celebrating. From 2008 to 2015 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada revealed a shameful part of our history that was no less than an attempt at cultural genocide. The abuse inflicted on our indigenous peoples through the Indian residential school system was horrific. Under the authorization of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, indigenous children were taken from their homes, relocated to boarding schools run by Christian churches far away from their families, to be “educated.” They were not allowed to speak their native languages, and were often subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse by their caregivers. This happened for more than a hundred years, from the late 1880’s until 1996 when the last residential school was finally closed. If you had told me all this in 2007, I would have denied it was possible. This is Canada! Things like that do not happen here. My parents and grandparents had never heard of these things, and there was no hint of them in my school books or in mainstream media. It was not part of the “official version” of Canadian history, which was started by the French settlers, extended by the British conquerors, and continued by each successive government responsible for perpetuating the system. Naturally, under those circumstances, the history of the peoples who inhabited the continent for thousands of years previously would not be included in it!
The repercussions from the residential school system were passed down from generation to generation, and today are the cause of many social problems among indigenous communities, social misunderstanding by non-indigenous citizens, and a great deal of hidden and not-so-hidden shame by everyone. It takes courage and a strong society to acknowledge wrongdoings in the past and attempt to mend the resulting wounds. With the conclusion of the Commission, the truth has finally been revealed, and the first step on the long road towards reconciliation has finally been taken. But learning about this has caused me, and other Canadians, another type of distress: What else do we not know about our collective past?
Part of the History of Turkey
Even before the Ottoman Empire gasped its last breath, the history of Turkey was starting to be re-written by the victors. In 2008 Leyla Neyzi wrote (in Remembering Smyrna/Izmir: Shared History, Shared Trauma) about her interviews with Iren, a Turkish woman who had been a child during the burning of the city of Smyrna [Izmir today] in September 1922. “According to Iren, when she was growing up, what amounted to a conspiracy of silence existed about the fire in Izmir. In Turkish national history taught in schools, the emphasis was on building a new, Turkish Izmir and erasing the past.” Little more than a year later, the victors—the Nationalists—had buried the old empire, and established the new Republic of Turkey.
As its first president, Mustafa Kemal, or Atatürk (Father of the Turks) as he became known, introduced radical reforms to modernize the country. Many reforms were, and in hindsight are still considered to be, good for the people. Turkey became a parliamentary republic with a secular constitution, granted equal rights to women, and upgraded its financial, legal and education systems, including the education of girls. But names of cities, towns and villages were changed, and Armenian and Greek churches were renovated into mosques. To paraphrase Neyzi, the emphasis was on building a new Turkey and erasing the recent shameful past.
Perhaps more than any other reform, the creation of the new alphabet in 1928 had major repercussions on Turkey’s history. The alphabet was changed from the ancient Arabic script to a Latin script. Designed by Turkish-Armenian Hagop Martayan Dilâçar, the Secretary General of the Turkish Language Association, it better reflected the numerous vowel sounds of Turkish than the Arabic script. But a consequence of this new written language is that Turks today are unable to read pre-1928 historical documents. Even scholars, unless they first learn “old Turkish,” cannot read archival materials. This means that most Turks only know The Official Version of Turkish history. Considering that the Nationalist party was founded by members of the former Committee of Union and Progress which ruled the Ottoman government of 1915, it is not surprising that The Official Version of the history of Turkey does not include taking responsibility for the act of genocide. As Turkish scholar Taner Akçam noted in the Armenian Weekly in 2012, “If Turkey acknowledges the genocide, we would have to accept that a number of our national heroes and founding fathers were either murderers, thieves, or both. This is the real dilemma. Those individuals, as we were taught in school, were men who ‘created our nation and the state out of nothing.’ They define who we are.” If Turks today ask themselves, “What has been kept from us? What do we not know?,” the answers will undoubtedly provoke great distress—even, as Akçam stated, to the point of questioning their national existence.
Part of the History of the Armenia
If I were Armenian, I would have many questions about the official version of my people’s history, especially about the Genocide. I would start with: Who were the victors who wrote it? The first Republic of Armenia (1918-1920) did not have time to establish an educational system with researched-based textbooks; it was too busy trying to survive, while dealing with an influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees, and its also-newly-created neighbour states of Georgia and Azerbaijan. Generations of Armenians learned of their history during the Soviet era. Given that Turkey and Russia were traditional enemies, what kind of light was shone on Russians and Armenians? Were the Turks shown in a different light? Were the “facts” presented as black and white, good versus evil, or were they complex and multi-faceted?
Has there been a revised official version since the establishment of the second Republic of Armenia? Many letters and documents have been uncovered over the last hundred years that add to our understanding of the events of 1915-23 in Turkey. A few years ago the Turkish government opened some of the Ottoman archives to scholars. These things have contributed to a more detailed discourse on the Genocide. Scholars such as Akçam, Burçin Gerçek, George N. Shirinian, and others have reported on hundreds of Turks and Kurds—administrators, military personnel and citizens—who helped Armenians, as much as possible, during the deportations. Has the official version been updated to more specifically define the perpetrators of the Genocide? Would the new information be distressing? Would it open the door for reconciliation and healing?