Why politics and historical reckoning don't mix -- especially when Turkey's involved.
- By Nick DanforthNicholas Danforth has been a Senior Analyst in the Bipartisan Policy Center's National Security Program since January 2016.
As German Green Party co-chair Cem Ozdemir put it, there is “never a favorable time to speak about something as dreadful as genocide.” True. But there can still be counterproductive times.
On June 2, the German parliament officially recognized the Armenian genocide. In other circumstances, this might have been a healthy development: Germany, because of its own troubled past, could have played a unique role in pushing Turkey to reckon with a dark chapter in its history. Instead, by passing what certainly appears to be a politically motivated resolution on the subject at a particularly tense moment in Turkish-German relations, the Bundestag has played into the hands of Turkish genocide denialists, confirming their belief that the accusations are inspired by anti-Turkish politics rather than historical truth.
It’s understandable why some in Germany may have felt a desire to take a swipe at Turkey. Between the slow-motion unraveling of the Turkish-EU refugee deal signed in March, and widespread accusations that Chancellor Angela Merkel has betrayed European values in order to appease an increasingly autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, relations between the two countries of late have become strained. The parliamentary genocide resolution has been presented by observers as either an effort to stand up to Turkey or, alternatively, to appear to be standing up to Turkey for domestic purposes. It is impossible to look inside the heads of those who voted for this resolution and know their motivations; most undoubtedly believed in the substance, and some have argued that, in delaying a vote on the resolution, originally scheduled for April, in deference to Turkey, Merkel actually made its timing appear more suspect. Yet as with the appearance of partiality in the law, the strong suggestion of an ulterior motive here is enough to undermine the whole enterprise.
To insist, as most people in Turkey do, that the events of 1915 were not a genocide requires a set of historical arguments about what exactly happened. But it also requires a political argument about why, today, so many people outside Turkey insist that it was. Thus, many Turks argue that Western genocide accusations, and particularly genocide resolutions of the type recently passed in Germany, are simply a stick that hostile powers use to beat Turkey when needed.
Indeed, it has not been forgotten that, before the term “genocide” even existed, the Ottoman government’s murderous treatment of the Armenians was used to justify European imperial powers’ occupation of Anatolia after the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I. Today, arguments about the anti-Turkish motives of foreign genocide recognition often veer into the conspiratorial. But when Western countries lend these arguments a degree of plausibility by seeming to use genocide recognition for political ends, they inadvertently help mask the profound implausibility of Turkish historical arguments about what actually happened in 1915.
In criticizing Germany’s parliamentary resolution, Turkish politicians have been quick to portray it as politically motived. Turkey’s new prime minister, Binali Yildirim, stated “We know that those trying to blame Turkey for this are not well-intentioned…. To use this as a political tool, or in political calculations would be a mistake.” Ibrahim Kalin, an advisor to President Erdogan, struck a similar note, suggesting the bill was an effort to “put pressure on Turkey using the 1915 events as an excuse.”
Governments, of course, will always be in the business of legislating history, whether in the form of school textbooks or public monuments. Turkey, certainly, has often fallen back on the line that historians, not politicians, should decide — conveniently obscuring the fact that, on this issue, historians have almost all decided. Still, when governments approach history in a manner that comes off as too cynically political, their efforts tend to backfire, both as history and as politics.
In the end, this resolution is unlikely to convince anyone in Turkey to rethink their view of history, or for that matter, significantly alter Turkish-German relations. The economic importance of Turkish-German trade ties will provide a particular incentive for Turkey not to overreact, allowing the two countries to get back to arguing about the same things they were before — refugees, freedom of speech, and visa liberalization for Turks traveling to Europe. In the past, when other countries have passed similar resolutions, Turkey has initially made a show of threatening boycotts and withdrawing its ambassador, before quietly letting the matter drop.
In response to previous genocide resolutions, Turkey has also been quick to launch reciprocal genocide accusations of its own. When France passed a bill on the subject in 2011, Erdogan responded by accusing France of committing genocide in Algeria. And whenever the U.S. Congress debates a genocide resolution, the proposed response inevitably involves a Turkish resolution on the U.S. government’s genocide against America’s native population. Within hours of the vote in Berlin, Turkey’s justice minister told Germans: “Look at your own history. Nothing can exonerate you. You are proud of having burned people alive in ovens. We have nothing to be ashamed of in our history.”
But in this case, if Germany’s unique history made the work of Turkish politicians easier, Germany’s unique relationship with that history made it considerably harder. Against Germany, Turkish accusations of hypocrisy fall flat: Ankara can only accuse Germany of crimes to which it readily admits. Not only did yesterday’s resolution mention the Holocaust six times, it also admitted the German government’s “complicity” in the Armenian genocide as an ally of the Ottoman Empire in 1915.
The irony of this debate is that if people in Turkey are — rightly — worried about genocide accusations being used as political weapon against them, Germany provides the best example of how candor, rather than denial, can effectively serve as a defense. It is not as if other countries have never tried to score political points off Germany by bringing up the Holocaust. But when they do, most recently perhaps in the case of the Greek debt crisis, it often ends up looking desperate and immature — rather than as is often the case with Turkey, entirely legitimate.
America’s experience also serves as a revealing contrast to Turkey’s. On his first visit to Turkey, Barack Obama told the Turkish parliament that America “still struggles with the legacies of slavery and segregation,” as well as its “past treatment of Native Americans.” Each country, he went on, “reckon with” the past as “history is often tragic… but unresolved, it can be a heavy weight.” Like Germany, America has discovered that even if wrestling with your past does not prevent other countries from using it as a political weapon, the process can still be a source of national strength.
Unlike Germany, however, America has been unusually lucky in being able to confront its history on its own terms — that is, without having to worry about having a particular view of it imposed by an occupying army. Which is to say that Turkey’s relationship with its own past is different from Germany’s and from America’s. Following its victory against Western occupying powers in in 1923, the country escaped the forced reckoning Germany experienced after World War II. Yet partly on account of this brief occupation, it was also denied the opportunity America had to approach its history from a position of confidence. The country has faced genocide accusations throughout its modern history from more powerful, often hostile countries; this has not been conducive to an open and honest debate.
Which brings us to today, and the need to guard against any hint that politics — real or imagined — might be driving any country’s decision to recognize the Armenian genocide. This is important for Armenians, who deserve to have the genocide recognized for its own sake, but also for Turks, who should recognize this history for their own sake as well.
In the meantime, as the German parliament revealed, Turkish denial continues to ensure that anyone looking to attack Ankara for foreign or domestic political gain will always have the perfect issue with which to do so.
Photo credit: Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images