Collective Trauma and the Armenian Genocide: Armenian, Turkish, and Azerbaijani Relations since 1839 by Dr. Pamela Steiner examines over 100 years of conflict within the region through a trauma-informed lens. The book is designed to provide an in-depth examination of historical events during the late-19th and early-20th century to understand the psychology behind the actions of both victims and perpetrators, from political and military figures to laborers and peasants. Dr. Steiner ultimately proposes suggestions for more successful conflict resolution to allow these countries to grow and prosper in a healthy, healed manner.
Dr. Steiner has organized the 18 chapters of the book into four parts: Part I- “Collective Trauma: An Introduction;” Part II- “A Brief History of the Armenian-Turkish Relationship;” Part III- “Violent Entitlement Carried into Armenian-Azerbaijani Relations in Transcaucasia;” and Part IV- “Analysing and Processing Collective Trauma: Is a Different Future Possible?” Dr. Steiner prefaces the book with her personal journey to pursuing trauma psychology and Track 2 diplomacy in conflict resolution. Dr. Steiner is the great-granddaughter of Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, Sr. and subsequently the great-niece of Henry Morgenthau, Jr. The introduction also provides a detailed review of her writing process— a multidisciplinary approach combining history, human rights, conflict resolution and psychology. The book has been endorsed by both Armenian and Turkish writers and renowned individuals in other disciplines (such as Bessel van der Kolk, a leading researcher in trauma).
Part I provides an introduction to trauma psychology. It addresses the historical development of trauma work and how many have come to understand it clinically through post-traumatic stress disorder in individuals. Trauma is defined here as harmful events or “ongoing conditions… that… cause intense physical and psychological stress reactions or symptoms” (p. 17). Dr. Steiner provides an extensive list of types of traumas imposed by humans, almost all of which were present during the Armenian Genocide. Bodily reactions to trauma explained in this section include arousal as a state of alertness which leads to the fight, flight or freeze response depending on the individual and the circumstance. There are numerous post-trauma symptoms, many of which are familiar to Armenians. Dr. Steiner identifies both conscious and unconscious coping strategies that individuals may develop after a traumatic event to help with functioning, including: repetition compulsion, which is an unconscious magnetism toward repeating traumatic experiences in order to attempt a different outcome; seeking and taking revenge; seeking justice; and scapegoating by misplacing revenge onto innocent targets. There is an increased understanding and awareness developed in the last few years that symptoms and coping skills for unhealed trauma can be transmitted through generations.
Dr. Steiner draws examples from Rwanda, Hungary, Israel/Palestine and Indonesia. These vignettes display revenge narratives, collective identity crises, overwhelming emotions triggered by threats and destruction of the past causing overreaction in the present, entitlement to act recklessly in the present due to past suffering, and the beginnings of resolutions which can be impaired due to their fragility. Dr. Steiner proposes that one method for collective recovery is to decrease the importance and meaning attached to collective identity as an ideal. At first glance, this may appear reflective of the perspective of psychologist Vamik Volkan, whose views are, in my opinion, problematic. He often advocates for erasure of past experiences and lacks respect for the incorporation of large group identity into individual identity, in addition to utilizing nuanced psychological language to appear to have a balanced viewpoint of trauma on all sides in order to subtly perpetuate genocide denial. Volkan also argues that responses to mass cultural traumas are subjective experiences, not real events. In contrast, Dr. Steiner focuses on de-idealizing collective identity, but not in a manner that causes any group to deny or diminish their experience. She emphasizes the need for all parties to openly process facts, events and feelings surrounding their histories. While collective identity can provide safety and security, it can also provide increased violence when a group experiences real or imagined threats. She points to Ottoman rage and fear which causes Turks to go to extreme lengths of genocide and nationalism to protect their collective identity, but states that this is in an effort to understand and not to excuse. The Turks’ current denial and lack of reflection on their past creates obstacles for learning and positive growth. Each country in this region has participated in a violent act, whether as an aggressor or defender, and Dr. Steiner asks all to put aside idealization of collective identity in order to look truthfully at their actions. However, it appears this can only be effective if all parties agree to do so, an unlikely circumstance given the deep-rooted mistrust among Armenians, Turks and Azeris. From an Armenian standpoint, our feelings of mistrust are validated by the most recent war, including attacks launched by Azerbaijan with the full support of Turkey against Artsakh and Armenia during a global pandemic and the continued brutality against hundreds of POWs.
Parts 2 and 3 provide an extensive and detailed history of Armenian-Turkish relations in the Ottoman Empire and Armenian-Azerbaijani relations in Transcaucasia in the early 20th century. Dr. Steiner presents all historical facts without any indication of political bias. With quality research from historians like Dr. Taner Akcam, she accurately depicts the crimes against humanity committed by the Ottoman Empire against Armenians during the Armenian Genocide. She displays no hesitation in utilizing the word “genocide” and understanding the need for recognition and accountability. Dr. Steiner also clinically explores the childhood trauma of the men responsible for the Genocide due to being born and raised in territories of violence, tension and oppression. They continuously perceived threats about European colonialism and Armenian separatism, indicative of loss of power. Is it possible to have empathy toward the fear that was experienced while not excusing the measures taken to protect power? Dr. Steiner believes so, while also making it clear throughout the book that none of these explanations are valid excuses for avoiding accountability for the Genocide. In an interview with the Armenian Weekly, Dr. Steiner reiterated this point, stating, “What I think may be hard for Armenians and Turks to get their minds around is that I show…that the main perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide were themselves traumatized. And I show that that happened to them, but I also make it very clear, it doesn’t mean at this collective level they should be sympathized with. So I think they need to be understood. But I don’t think that means that you feel sorry for them or that they should get a free pass.” Additionally, she explores the complexities of violence that occurred between Armenians and Muslims in Transcaucasia prior to and during World War I, with a heavier focus on the influence of Russia. This sets up an understanding of Armenian and Azerbaijani tensions that were never resolved and continue to manifest in the conflict over Artsakh.
The crux of this book is contained in Part 4, where meaning-making of these events by an Armenian and Turkish individual is examined and potential solutions are proposed. Trauma impacts the way individuals and groups make meaning of their experiences. Dr. Steiner reviews the four epistemologies for meaning-making that develop throughout a person’s life and how trauma can affect meaning-making. She notes three important conditions to factor in resolution: 1. Trauma affects the development of epistemologies for meaning making; 2. Individuals may examine their trauma from a less complex epistemology than the rest of their experiences due to compartmentalizing their trauma; and 3. Conflict resolution discussions are filled with triggers for bringing up trauma. She proposes that conflict resolution practices need to adapt to individuals’ ways of making meaning. She also notes practices will be more effective when individuals have evolved into self-authorizing epistemology; that is, we are able to independently define meaning of experiences for ourselves without feeling the need to conform to external authority. While we may consciously make the choice to align ourselves with norms and leaders in our communities, we no longer feel an unconscious obligation to do so. We can gain a deeper and broader perspective in this manner.
Dr. Steiner compares and contrasts meaning-making of trauma with relative powerlessness in Armenians versus relative power in Turks. The titles of these chapters alone indicate an understanding of each country’s positioning within current conflicts. From my perspective, it can be compared to an abusive relationship. Though the abused individual is responsible for their healing, they have ultimately held less power. Abusers tend to maintain power through their manipulative behaviors. Generally, abusers have experienced trauma, but it does not excuse their own accountability for abusive behaviors, and they are also called upon to heal (at times, in a mandated manner, as we argue Turkey should be). However, in our interview, Dr. Steiner made an important distinction between healing from trauma at the individual level and a country that needs to heal at the collective level:
“A distinction here would need to be very clearly made that you did not cause your trauma, but unfortunately you have the responsibility for your own healing. That’s true at the individual level. Collectively, it is not, because at the individual level, the victim-survivor can get away from the perpetrator. Either law puts them into jail or they can go move someplace or get a restraining order and so on. If you are a collectivity, you can’t… Turkey as the successor government of the Ottoman Empire, has never, not only not acknowledged the Genocide…it has never rejected the war aim of the Ottoman Empire to dominate the Armenians and if not eliminate them in the South Caucasus. If you’re an Armenian living in that region, you’re scared because you have no assurance that that party, which is much stronger, can be stopped and doesn’t aim to destroy you anymore.”
Here, she clarifies that, while people must take responsibility for their healing, there are also international reassurances that must occur to create a feeling of safety for an empowered healing process to be possible.
For the purposes of this article, I have decided to focus on Dr. Steiner’s perspective about what is important for Armenians. Armenians have focused on striving for safety and equality within their geographic region. Dr. Steiner also provides an analysis of the psychological impact of seeking genocide recognition. Seeking, and ultimately getting, recognition and reparations decreases a sense of helplessness in Armenians. However, it has also resulted in a loss of hope and put our people in a position of being solely dependent on Turkey’s recognition and apology for our growth and healing. In this way, we tend to impose limits on ourselves. How do we release our traumatic past without becoming complacent in our growth or dependent on another? Again, it is like an abused individual who either depends on justice for their abuser or who says, “This hurt is too much, and I do not care about myself anymore.” As a therapist, I believe the answer to healing is this: We must invest in ourselves, not only in the manner of developing materially, but also from a personal growth perspective. We allow ourselves to grow psychologically and not make our healing solely conditional on what Turkey or the surrounding countries do.
Dr. Steiner also examines the “loyalty code” that is assigned to non-Armenians depending on their responses in various situations. She briefly mentions the resistance of Armenians to the Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) but does not negate Armenian concerns. Instead, she acknowledges the inadequate information she possessed to understand the depth of Armenian experience at that time. She therefore displays the importance of sharing information and growth that can occur in conflict resolution practices. This section of the book was uncomfortable to read as she calls upon Armenians to recognize their own violent past. Armenians have so often espoused solely the victim narrative in our political pursuits, and rightfully so as we have been victims. How do we develop ourselves to own our whole pasts, not only our victimization? Is being a victim the only thing that makes us worthy of support from others? And why do we rely so much on that external validation for our own development?
Taking responsibility for our past would be a large step for our country according to Dr. Steiner. She specifically notes this when discussing the Artsakh conflict, stating that both Azerbaijan and Armenia have not recognized their past, which Dr. Steiner proposes gets in the way of “offering reassurances” and “expressing regret” (p. 270). She acknowledges and validates Armenian resistance to apologizing for any action due to suffering far worse losses than Turkey, while also advocating for owning our entire history. However, this is an ideal, because international politics would have to provide a space for this level of vulnerability. At this time, it unfortunately does not, and there would be many risks of exploitation. I asked Dr. Steiner if there was anything Armenians could do to encourage Turkey’s participation in the process at this time without continuing to put ourselves at risk. She immediately responded, “No.” However, she also added, “If Armenians did this work amongst themselves and outreached for Turkish partners, you’d find them. And I do think that that has to happen, at an important enough scale. And with the Azerbaijanis as well.”
Dr. Steiner concludes the book with seven ideas for working through collective trauma, though acknowledging that they are “experimental and ambitious.” They are as follows: establishing and broadly disseminating facts and attitudes (in other words, free speech); lessening the toxic power of prejudice and stereotypes; recognizing triggering from discussions about trauma as both an opportunity and a pitfall; training trauma-informed facilitators; dealing with triggering at the level of the body and working on regulating the nervous system in conflict resolution conversations; preparing parties for productively meeting with the other, internally and externally, while strengthening democracy; and broadening the base to a critical mass and the unique opportunities of scale (that is, engaging a much larger portion of the population in the process). I would argue that one other condition must be present, as in group therapy or family therapy. It only works if all parties agree to be actively involved and fully engaged in the process. If even one member of the group makes efforts to sabotage, therapy becomes unsuccessful. The number one rule for success in therapy is a willingness to change and a willingness for everyone to openly acknowledge and process the entirety of their experiences.
To illustrate healing collective trauma at the micro level, I’d like to share a recent personal experience during an unexpected Uber ride with a Turkish girl. As I proceeded to pay the fare, I noticed her name and inquired about her ethnic identity. She informed me she was Turkish, and I immediately replied that I was Armenian. The first words out of her were, “I’m so sorry.” In the most compassionate manner, she took it upon herself to apologize for what her country did during the Genocide and provide me assurance that she disagreed with their continued denial. She noted that she always feels the need to do this when she meets an Armenian. She described what it ws like growing up in Turkey, never learning about the Armenian Genocide, and being brought up to worship Ataturk. She came to the US 10 years ago and began to learn the facts of her country’s history and the dangers of idolizing one person. While she never stopped identifying with her Turkishness, she was able to operate from the self-authorizing epistemology in order to decide which parts of the collective identity she would integrate and which ones she felt were no longer productive. I thanked her and validated her experiences being raised in Turkey and the trauma that has existed within the whole region. We mused about what could be for both countries if past traumas were acknowledged.
If only all experiences were this positive. What would happen if our governments and politicians could have conversations like this? It would not cause anyone to lose their identity. Turks will still be Turks, Azeris will still be Azeris, and Armenians will still be Armenians. We will all still have a shared history of trauma. There would be acknowledgment of the crimes committed, but it does not mean any of us need to commit ourselves to living in those shadows forever. Artsakh would no longer have to be reduced to a symbol of power and control, but would thrive independently. While this picture seems nothing short of impossible in the current political climate, it does not have to be a pipe dream. All parties must be willing to participate equally in a space of trust and empathy.