On April 24, 2020 Armenians commemorated the victims of the Genocide perpetrated 105 years ago during World War I in the Ottoman Empire. The Armenian Genocide has ever since been denied ardently by the Turkish State, a denial partly made possible due to the tacit approval of the world community in pursuit of realpolitik at the expense of human rights and justice.
“Forgive and forget” is a common reply to the calls for recognition. “It happened more than a century ago; let’s put it behind us and move forward.” But is it possible? Current Armenian-Turkish relations are living proof of the issue of reconciliation being far from that trivial. On the contrary, the Genocide which occurred over a century ago is highly topical, not only for the two involved nations but also constantly engaging third parties, e.g. the United States. This is mainly due to a perpetuating process known as the politics of memory—utilizing our memories but also shaping them, a process essential in many aspects of our societies, including reconciliation.
Sometimes reconciliation is wrongfully proposed as an outright initial step. In fact, reconciliation is not the first step after a conflict, but rather the final product of several component processes. You can’t just kiss and make up, shake hands and move forward if the committed errors are not acknowledged and addressed adequately. More importantly, forgiveness becomes very difficult if no one acknowledges the wrongdoing and asks to be forgiven. Any such one-sided rapprochement would be superficial and labile as the unresolved issue will constantly simmer and remind both parties, especially the victim, about the elephant in the room.
Reconciliation is instead about a complex process composed of recognition, responsibility and reparation. Although this trinity would constitute an ideal recipe, it is far from the common practice. Often it is the post-conflict power balance which comes to get rid of the issue of responsibility as many of the perpetrators are still around and possess powerful roles in the society. If accused and risking punishment, they could threaten the political stability in the country. This was a major factor in post-apartheid South Africa, in post-junta Argentina, in post-Pinochet Chile, etc. Responsibility and justice were omitted or postponed for the sake of political stability. The compromise was not without scrutiny though, as uttered in South Africa where people said, “We’ve heard the truth. There is even talk about reconciliation. But where’s the justice?” It is only a matter of time when future generations question the scarification of justice as a political tradeoff.
The same is true about Turkey where the perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide during WWI were the founders of the succeeding Republic. The cleansing of the country from Armenians and other Christians was an important step, but so was the illegal confiscation of their lands and assets, essential for the creation of the republic after a devastating war. Thus, the denial was born early on during the birth of the Turkish Republic to refute any notion of wrongdoing and thereby the risk of liability and reparation.
The early denial, or at least the revisionism to soften the culpability, can actually be beneficial during this crucial stage of state-building. The idea is to fend off the issue of responsibility and punishment for later in order to achieve political stability. Once political stability is in place, the society can, hopefully, with the help of prevailing democratic tools and procedures, start looking into the painful past and address it. Turkey, however, has made the revisionism into its own reality and exported it internationally.
The issues of responsibility and reparation notwithstanding, the question of recognition stands out as the only solid step which cannot be omitted. Two parties cannot move forward if there are conflicting versions of what happened in the past. South Africa did not question whether the apartheid regime had committed wrongdoings; neither have Chile or Argentina questioned their respective regime’s crimes. Turkey, however, not only managed to successfully escape any responsibility for the Genocide but has even succeeded in persistently denying any wrongdoing and persuading the world governments to tacitly confirm the revisionism by resisting calls for recognition.
The recognition is not only about the past though, but very much about the present and the future. A century on, the memories of the Armenian Genocide not only dictate the relations between Armenians and Turks, but also their respective identities and actions. In Turkey’s case the denial and history revisionism not only materialize as the ongoing embargo against Armenia and closed borders, but also in fending off any criticism against the ailing democracy at home. A century ago the Armenians were the “enemy within.” Later the Kurds inherited the title along with any oppositional politicians. Recently it is the Gülenists who are targeted as such to justify the mass-arrests throughout the entire society. After all, why change a concept which works successfully?
Thank you for the interesting article. I believe it IS possible to forgive before seeking recognition and reparations. I wouldn’t say it is “forgive and forget,” but more like “forgive and let go.” By fully letting go, we’re allowing ourselves to come back into focus instead of the oppressor, who is still the focus if we are seeking recognition first. This doesn’t mean there will not be other steps toward reconciliation after or that we pretend as if nothing ever happened, but it means that we INTERACT with each other as if it never happened and eventually find common ground.
I personally believe that until we see the other party differently, we will not be able to advocate for true and holistic reconciliation/recognition.
You may forgive someone who steals a piece of bread or an apple, or who unknowing causes an accident. But, forgive those who brutally murdered your ancestors, stole your rightful lands, confiscated your property, tried to wipe out your entire nation and it’s culture, and who, to this day, continues to deny any wrongdoing? No. Moving on, as you stated, is not an ethical and moral possibility. It would be like desecrating the suffering of the victims, the survivors, and their ancestors. Your own children would not forgive you for this.
Forgiveness is not only imperative when it’s easy — it’s always important and it frees us to heal just as much as it does the oppressor. Again, there are steps that come after forgiveness, but I do think it is the only way forward.
Armenia needs to build relationships with its neighbors if it is to succeed in the long run. I understand that not every Armenian is concerned about that, sadly.
I will be posting a video about this very topic on my YouTube channel tomorrow. Feel free to check it out!
Thanks for the kind remarks and for the comments. I would say that your approach is not unique and has been done in some cases. However, I have to point out that I’m not suggesting that recognition has to be a prerequisite for e.g. normalization of relations. In fact, I’m quite positive to opening the borders without requiring Turkey to first recognize the genocide. Allowing the two nations and people to freely come together and visit each other will help quite a lot to bypass the Turkish official narrative. But (and it’s a very important BUT), the “normalization without preconditions” shall not mean questioning the past and opening up for a politically “negotiated” history. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened in the case of TARC back in 2000-2004 and later with the 2009 protocols. In both cases, the issue of the genocide came to hamper both cases of “normalization”. The issue of the genocide should be off the table for “normalization without preconditions”, something which Turkey has not agreed to. As it has proven to be, just because Armenia agrees to put the issue of the genocide aside in order to open the borders has not quite translated in Turkey doing the same. Turkey has in both cases (TARC and the 2009 protocols) tried to push for its “objective historical commission”, as if the existing scholarly research is biased or inadequate. That is a dangerous approach which should not be treated lightly.
Secondly, when I suggest that recognition is the first step, it’s an observation from the different cases I have studied. This article is trying to reflect about 80+ pages of theoretical discussion in my book where each part in the trinity of recognition, responsibility and reparation can indeed come in different order or even be omitted. Forgiveness, as you have suggested, can indeed come first, although it’s more common that it is granted after a recognition and an apology. To use the South African example again, many of the victims were frustrated and angered since some of the perpetrators who confessed in the court in exchange for immunity from prosecution, did not show remorse at all and even continued to insist on having acted correctly and justly. That has certainly contributed to the post-apartheid frustration among the victims who feel that the oppressors walked away free by simply admitting to have done what they did.
And lastly, as I have written in the article, there is no exact formula for reconciliation: victims can forgive, but not forget; they can even choose to not forgive at all. In fact, some scholars would suggest that reconciliation after grave wrongdoings such as a genocide are not possible. You can reconcile politically (leaders sign memorandum and move on) but you can’t reconcile socially. You can’t reconcile the rape victim with the rapist or the survivors of a murdered family member with the murderer. The essential part is ceasing hostilities and resentment; that the two sides don’t go on hating each other, cemented in an image of each other which correspond to the diverging views of perpetrator (they were traitors and deserved what they received) versus victim (we were accused wrongly and subjected to massacres/genocide). This is what recognition tries to remedy: to bring the two sides on a common ground; to create one narrative about the past and what happened.
Hopefully I can develop my thoughts in a future book which will be the result of my ongoing research project, expanding my theoretical chapter in this regard in my aforementioned book based on my Ph.D. thesis.
Please stop using the touchy-feely word “reconciliation.”
The word implies that the Armenian Cause is based on some kind of personal relationship between Armenian and Turkish individuals.