Ronald Grigor Suny writes: Turkey, like many other nations, celebrates its founding moments as a heroic struggle against internal and external enemies. The perpetrators of atrocities imagine themselves instead to be victims.
After Pope Francis reminded the world that the centenary of the greatest atrocity of World War I was approaching and the European Parliament condemned Turkey’s continued efforts to conceal, distort and evade the facts, Mr. Erdogan responded by claiming that the Turks had experienced “far more suffering than what the Armenians went through,” while his prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, accused European lawmakers of anti-Turkish racism.
Such obstinate refusal to come to terms with history’s darker chapters is not unique to Turkey. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has refused to acknowledge and apologize for what Imperial Japan did during its colonial annexation of Korea or in China in the 1930s and during World War II. Russians agonize over but repeatedly temper their assessments of Stalin’s crimes; Poles and Ukrainians turn away from the brutalities of the anti-Semitic pogroms before and during World War II.
Americans, Australians and Israelis shy away from confronting the foundational crimes that were committed against those living on the territory that they coveted but which they wanted emptied of indigenous people. It is often forgotten that former victims can easily become perpetrators in their drive to make a nation.
There are examples of straightforward recognition and public repentance. After the Holocaust and much soul-searching, a democratic Germany acknowledged what the Nazis had done. The record of fascist atrocities is now taught in schools and memorialized throughout the country without relativizing the horrors by referring to what Germany’s enemies did.
As Pope Francis put it, “Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.” Courageous Turkish and Kurdish historians have long realized this, and they have defied the government by challenging the traditional nationalist account that blames Armenians for their own destruction.
These historians have sought to reconstruct what happened in 1915 and examine why the Young Turks convinced themselves that Armenians were an existential threat to the future of their empire. Their thankless but necessary task is to lay the groundwork for honest scholarship that involves the uncovering of the pain that governments would prefer to bury forever. [Continue reading…]