Based on the hypothesis of the existence among the Turkish population of a generalized feeling of guilt, consecutive to the genocide of 1915, I reconsider here nationalism and the writing of history in Turkey (even in their excessive characters) as effects of the genocide. The feeling of guilt and the impossibility (or refusal) of mourning have indeed necessitated the opening of "emergency exits", according to the expression of A. Mitscherlich, by the creation of prejudices and stereotypes capable of facilitating the process of repression or denial of the violence committed.
“What follows now is speculation, speculation often far-fetched, which each will according to his particular attitude acknowledge or neglect. Or one may call it the exploitation of an idea out of curiosity to see whether it will lead.”
S. Freud, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” in Essays on Psychoanalysis.
When I began my research on the “reform of History” Atatürk and his entourage called for and implemented in 1931, the topic was considered to be marginal by most of Turkey’s specialists. At its worst, “the reform of History” was considered a mistake by Mustafa Kemal, something unworthy of study. According to Bernard Lewis, Atatürk’s rantings had fallen into a “clement oblivion”; they would have consisted of inevitable and negligible exaggerations, and, as one scholar suggested, it would have been “pointless and cruel to insist on the matter”.
Yet, the topic of history teaching is of burning importance. During the post-genocidal period in Turkey, the new leaders needed to adopt a policy on history-writing that would allow rendering acceptable, or erasing, what had happened in 1915.
For example, in 1929, a geography textbook published by the Turkish state summarized in a barely disguised form how the new republic was constituted: “Turkey is currently composed of lands where only Turks live. Non-Turks, foreigners to Turkey, stayed outside the homeland or were removed from it (çekilmiş) and this is how national unity was built.” (Duran, 1929, pp. 177-178). This is a brutal admission that needed to be attenuated, masked, or diverted.
The 1931 “history thesis” reveals the nub of the matter.
In 1931, having decided to proceed with a “reform of history”, Mustafa Kemal addressed a series of recommendations to the members of the Commission on Historical Research in the Turkish Hearths (Türk Ocakları Tarih Tetkik Heyeti). He states then forcefully: “Writing history is as important as making history.”
This sentence is often quoted in the opening pages of school manuals, and it is one of the pillars of the official notion of history in Turkey. Formulated sixteen years after the genocide of Armenians, it is remarkably meaningful, because, in the interval, mechanisms of systematic Turkification had gone on, with new massive expulsions of Armenians and Kurds, and through the confiscation of belongings allegedly “abandoned” by the Armenians, allowed for by the 1922 bill of law "Emval-i metruke kanunu" (Akçam and Kurt, 2012).
Following the extermination, it was considered necessary to erase traces of Armenians. At the same time as the Turkification of place names, history was to become an additional way of eliminating the presence of the Other.
In a way, the “reform of history” consisted in bringing the historical narrative into conformity with the post-genocidal situation. In that sense, it was the final point of the genocidal process.
By imposing his views on historians, Mustafa Kemal enacted complete control of history-writing by the State, properly a coup d’Etat on history. The new historical narrative was elaborated with no further delay. While erasing a shameful past, it invented another in its stead, with a new national narrative designated as the “Turkish history thesis” (Türk Tarih Tezi). Without a single debate, this new narrative was imposed as a school curriculum, published by the State in history textbooks, and implemented in the high schools in September 1931.
There followed a solemn historical congress in July 1932 in Ankara. Participants, scholars, historians, anthropologists, archeologists, linguists, and a public composed mainly of carefully selected high school teachers, were placed in front of the fait accompli.
The narrative’s main characteristic is that it is a “history of the Turks”, who are there considered an ethnic group that had remained pure and unchanged throughout geographical migrations along centuries. History is conceived as a “national” story (milli tarih) and not as that of Anatolia, the territory of the Republic of Turkey.
Here, in a few words, is what the 1931 “history thesis” consists of.
The Turks are said to have founded a brilliant urban civilization on the shores of an inner sea in Central Asia. During the 7th millennium BC, the drying up of this “Great Turkish Sea” would have forced the Turks to migrate toward the boundaries of Eurasia. Thus, they would allow all the peoples of the continent to benefit from their civilization and superior culture in China, India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Crete, Greece, Etruria, and, of course, Anatolia.
The origins of some ancient cultures, uncertain at the time, such as those of the Sumerians, Etruscans, and Hittites, were henceforth clear: these peoples were Turks. And since the Hittites were supposedly Turks, Anatolia had been the land of the Turks ever since Prehistory.
In so doing, the regime built a historical narrative controlled by the state, a coercive representation of the past that would sterilize a part of scientific research in history, rigidifying history teaching, and the minds of generations for decades, up to this day. Since it proceeds from the personal wish of Mustafa Kemal, a sacred figure, who participated in its elaboration, this literally unbelievable narrative achieves itself a sacred character.
Although progressively watered down later, as we shall see further on, the ”history thesis” and the fairy tale about the migrations have never been officially refuted nor invalidated and have remained part of the narrative under implicit forms – therefore, more difficult to unmask.
This refusal, on the part of the power, to officially reconsider the “history thesis” (what, of course, serious intellectuals did: cf. Beşikçi, 1977, Ersanlı 1992) shows the extent to which Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had padlocked history, but it also shows that such a sealing was vital in the process of genocide denial and that the tale was created in order to mask the genocide and the violence. And to cap it all, Atatürk, the comforting Father figure, and the quasi idolatry established around his person (particularly at the end of the century) would crown for a long time a system of masking the violence on which the Republic was established.
The control of history-writing was so important for post-genocidal Turkey - I mean by this Republican Turkey – that history was considered, after the military coup of 1980, a matter of national security and an element of what I call the “imposed consensus” (Copeaux, 1997 and 2000).
As mentioned before, I was stunned at the beginning of my research, to discover the attitude of some Western Turkologists who had neglected or minimized the “history thesis”. What did signify their disdain, and what did it reveal? As most of these specialists were, at best, silent about the genocide, was their disdain linked to the taboo character of the event? Wasn't it an authentic sign revealing the function of the narrative – and of some historians: to mask the genocide?
Anyway, I consider that disdain as, at least, a severe misjudgment, and even as an attitude of flight or complacency, given that this question is crucial in understanding how the state managed the aftermaths of the genocide.
The waking dream, the alibi, the historical myth
If it is possible for a psychoanalyst to diagnose troubles by analyzing words and dreams, I am tempted to consider the “history thesis” as the waking dream of a nation, or better yet, the dream of a dominant group who perpetrated, or helped to perpetrate, or again masked a genocide. Thus, the “dream” of the “history thesis” tells us something about post-genocidal Turkey.
The first striking element in the narrative is its strong narcissistic impregnation.
Narcissism is present everywhere: Turks always are the best, the first, the elite of humanity. The narrative is a development of Mustafa Kemal’s famous words, pronounced in 1924: “One Turk is worth the whole world (Bir Türk dünyaya bedeldir).”
The narrative is devoted to the sole national-ethnic ego: otherness is so obviously absent that its presence, or past presence, is obvious. Otherness is the black hole of the narrative.
The narrative reveals a profound lack of self-confidence and, hence, a vital need for permanent self-justification. The reason for the need being, of course, kept in the shadows.
The use of hijacking recent archeological discoveries (notably on the Hittites and the Sumerians) is systematically used to cover the dream in apparent rationality. Rationality and science appear to validate the absolute antecedents of the Turks: as well in the domains of human knowledge as in the establishment in Anatolia. Such rhetoric reveals a need for legitimacy.
The historical narrative often seems to be addressed, not to its natural addressees (the pupils) but to an implicit super-addressee, the West. This is a response to an implied indictment, formulated with increasing force in Europe, but never made explicit in Turkey, making the narrative a plea.
Moreover, the historical process is reversed, in that the “West” and its values, according to the narrative, would not even exist without the intervention of Turks in history, since the latter would have offered the other Eurasian peoples not only their civilization, but also their moral values and intrinsic virtues: democracy, gender equality, secularism, and, above all, tolerance. Logically, the “history thesis” should de-legitimize any anti-Turkish charge. It consists of a Copernican revolution defying the West: “We are the ones who created you!”
All of which formalizes the idealization of the Turk (by essence civilized, good, and tolerant) already present in the discourse and mentality of the nationalists even prior to the Republic, and used as negationist rhetoric as early as 1919, during the genocide trials then held in Istanbul. In substance, the rhetoric of some of the indicted was based on the argument of essentialization: how could the most tolerant and most civilized nation on Earth have perpetrated genocide? (Dadrian and Akçam, 2015). This notion has been carried forth in the political discourse to this day, as I will show later, with the use of keywords belonging to the semantic domain of enrichment (of civilization), of benefits (to humanity), such as « sower », « sowing », « yeast », « spirit », etc.
This rhetoric lasted during the following decades. For example, the official instructions to teachers in 1948 point out, as the main objective in history teaching: “[The teacher must demonstrate] how the Turkish nation, from the most ancient times onward, […] through the spreading of its own culture, was an example for other peoples in every domain; how this brought them happiness and peace; how the Turkish nation (…) was committed to enabling a superior lifestyle.” (Copeaux, 1997, pp. 119-120).
In fact, one may consider the “history thesis” as what German psychoanalyst Alexander Mitscherlich called the “waking dreams” of a nation (Mitscherlich, 1972).
The alibi and the myth
But the “history thesis” also sounds like a suspect’s alibi, an alibi rendered odd by its incoherence, its exaggerations, and denials, to the extent of raising suspicion, instead of allaying doubts. This is clearly suggestive that something extremely serious occurred: in a way, the alibi becomes admission.
Turkish intellectuals who were commissioned to write the “history thesis” were all in their fifties and sixties in 1931; necessarily, they had a clear awareness of what had happened in 1915. Those who imposed this narrative, and most of those who taught it, were at least witnesses of the genocide. They no doubt felt the need to infuse young minds with the notion that nothing had happened in 1915, nothing other than the “usual” misfortunes of war. In any event, the narrative of the war was definitively limited to the tale of Mustafa Kemal’s heroic deeds.
Taught over decades, in the framework of the daily coercion exercised by the school, on pupils who were “at the age of the enchanted listening” according to the words of Clémence Ramnoux, the “history thesis” became a historical myth, one explaining the world, consolidating social ties and helping anyone to live: something essential (Ramnoux, 1971).
As with all myths, it consists of a value system made even more irreversible since it was conceived after a genocide, an act that is itself irreversible, as is any murder. Fundamentally, this new myth, all through the decades, has provided the stereotypes and prejudices which, according to Mitscherlich again, are necessary to guarantee “that nothing impedes the process of repression or denial.”
Thus, the fairy tale rings in echo to the injunction in the national anthem adopted in 1921, which begins with the word: “Korkma! Don't fear!”, which proves, however, that something is awry in Turkey.
Loss, mourning, fear, guilt
The reason why such a Copernican revolution of the concept of history was deemed necessary resides in four words: loss, mourning, fear, and guilt.
Loss and mourning
The Turks lost much between 1912 and 1923, as is always the case in times of war. In analyzing the situation of Germany in 1919, Hannah Arendt described it as the loss of a world, the loss of “something much more fundamental than freedom and justice; [Germans] had lost the feeling of belonging to the community in which they had been born” (Mahrdt, 2007, 45; Arendt, 2002, 598-607). This appraisal could also describe the situation of Turks in 1923, but for one difference: during World War I, the Turks had perpetrated genocide.
It may seem provocative, but in order to understand all the consequences of genocide, including for those who perpetrated it, I deem that we must consider that a murderer loses his own victim. The Turks lost the Armenians and the Greeks. This means that, as murderers, accomplices, or even passive witnesses, they destroyed their own society and that, in a certain way and to a certain point, the violence turned back against themselves.
Therefore, the Turks were responsible for their own mourning and, as a society, they had to bear both the mourning and the guilt. But further complicating matters, mourning was forbidden to them because it was out of the question to express regret for those who had “disappeared” since they were supposed to be foreigners, enemies, or traitors. As writer Yiğit Bener expressed in 2015: “In 1915, not only did we annihilate lives. We did not only destroy an important part of the population on these lands, we did not only destroy what they had contributed to this country, their history, and their cultural heritage, we did not only destroy the sense they had brought to the authentic history of Anatolia, we did not only destroy the diversity and the richness of these cultures that fed one another… Because in so doing, we destroyed the common identity born of a common fate of all these ancient peoples mixed in this country. We destroyed our memory, and, what is worse, we destroyed a part of our humanity” (Bener, 2015, 13, English translation L.B.)
Perhaps these are the reasons why certain traits of Turkish society reflect a generalized feeling of anxiety. I mentioned earlier the injunction of the national anthem “Korkma! Don't fear!”. Surprisingly, the most frequent family name in Turkey is still “Yılmaz” (Fearless); and among the most common, many others express the necessity of exorcizing fear: Korkmaz (Intrepid), Kaya (The Rock), Çelik (Steel), Arslan (Lion), etc. (cf. Sabah, January 3, 2013). One could suspect here a case of denial of reality (Verneinung) since a repeated negation often reveals the existence of its opposite.
Fear is also present in the history textbooks in the years 1980-1990 where one can find warnings relative to the dangers threatening the country, such as: “Our enemies have their own conception of history and they want to recover parts of our territory”; “For the past 900 years, Anatolia has been the target of numerous powers”. And the evocation of these dangers sometimes ends on a new injunction: “A Turk must tremble for his country”. More generally, the “Sèvres syndrome” and the threat of the country’s disappearance the 1920 treaty would have implied are constantly agitated by nationalism, in the hope of mobilizing and binding the population together.
Thus, besides “Don't fear!”, the delivered message is “Tremble!”. Again, the appropriate answer must be: “We are not afraid!”. But to avoid fear, isn't it best to scare?
An event that occurred in 2015 is highly significant in this regard. During the culmination of Turkey's warfare against the PKK, in 2015-2016, the henchmen of the state often tagged the walls in Kurdish neighborhoods they had just subjected “You are right to be afraid, we’re coming!” (Copeaux, 2018). In these same circumstances and in the same discursive sphere, those who were supposed to be afraid, the Kurds, were often insulted as “Armenian bastards”. We have here an example of what psychoanalyst Vamık Volkan qualifies as time collapse, a frequent phenomenon in the nationalist mentality (Volkan, 1997). Because time has indeed collapsed for those voicing such insults and who think they are still in 1915.
The feeling of guilt
In Totem and Taboo, Sigmund Freud uses a myth of his own invention to explain the existence and the unavoidability of a general feeling of guilt and its transmission over generations. But the disasters of the 19th and 20th centuries are of such magnitude that there is no need to rest on the Freudian myth of the murder of the father in the primitive horde. I deem that the existence of a generalized feeling of guilt among the populations of nations in whose name mass killings were perpetrated is a hypothesis to be discussed. Neither the passage of time nor repression or denial can erase such a feeling.
In Western thought, the Armenian genocide did not generate, at the time, a philosophical or anthropological reflection comparable to that following the genocide of Jews. Thus, I am driven to refer to the philosophical reflection of the 1950s and 1960s related to the post-genocidal situation in Germany, in order to better understand Turkey.
Very early on, philosopher Karl Jaspers, and then psychoanalysts Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, explored the feeling of guilt in their compatriots and reached the conclusion that no part of the population could escape it. For Jaspers, the possibility of genocide results from the behavior of each through “The commission of countless little acts of negligence, of convenient adaptation of cheap vindication, and the imperceptible promotion of wrong; the participation in the creation of a public atmosphere that spreads confusion and thus makes evil possible”. (Jaspers, 1961, 34).
During and following the perpetration of genocide, a clear individual conscience may well remain so, thanks to the elaboration of “false conscience” (“ein falsches Gewissen”), of a “good conscience in evil deeds”, or an “eagerness to obey – that compulsive conduct, feeling itself conscientious and, in fact, forsaking all conscience”. Criminal acts appear justified for supposedly good reasons such as homeland, nation, and the duty of obedience. Jaspers writes: “'This is an order!' – in the ears of many these words had and still have a ring of pathos as if voicing the highest duty. By simultaneously, by shrugging off stupidity and evil as inevitable, they furnish an excuse” (Jaspers, 1961, 64-67). The “false conscience” are among the defensive mechanisms Mitscherlich calls “safety exits”.
But “the harm is done” and no matter what the efficacy of false conscience may be, not only does the feeling of guilt subsist, but it is transmitted. German psychosociologist Angela Moré has provided a detailed explanation of how trauma is transmitted from one generation to another: “Children who grow up with a traumatized parent experience the parents’ anxieties, nightmares, attempts at avoidance. […] With his sensitivity [a child] experiences with astonishment the flaws, the incoherences and the weaknesses of his parents, and takes them on personally.” (Moré, 2015. Translated from German to French by Brigitte Demeure. English translation by L.B.).
As pertains to Turkey, recent research has now demonstrated and documented the existence of a diffuse feeling of guilt. I refer here more specifically to research in oral history conducted in the region of Diyarbakir by Adnan Çelik and Namık Kemal Dinç, whose interviewees often evoked “a hundred-year malediction” (Çelik and Dinç, 2015, 2021). Such an admission may seem easier for the Kurds, since Turkish nationalism does not hold much sway over them. But for the Turks, nationalism seems very efficient both in blocking the process of mourning and in helping to establish defense mechanisms.
Defense mechanisms are highly efficient and can allow murderers, even mass murderers, to repress any feeling of guilt, as shown both by Hannah Arendt in her Report on the Banality of Evil about the case of Adolf Eichmann, and Alexander Mitscherlich, who was a witness at the trial of Nazi medical doctors in 1945, and observed in them no manifestations of remorse or regret (Arendt, 2015; Mitscherlich and Mielke, 2015).
Regarding Turkey, historian Duygu Taşalp, analyzing the memoirs of CUP leaders, underlines a similar absence of guilt: “Just like the defense lawyers in the Nuremberg trial, the Unionists [the leaders of the Union and Progress Party in power] do not deny the nature, intent, or even the extent of the massacres. (…) With ill-disguised pride, they admit the reality of murder, but refuse to take responsibility for it and to bear the punishment.” Of even greater concern, she notes that these memoirs, recently republished, show healthy sales figures in Turkey, which would seem to indicate the existence, at least apparently, of a similar clear conscience in their readers and in a good part of the population.
Someone who has committed a murder in the name of the nation can hardly make a public admission of a feeling of shame. He may even sincerely believe throughout his life that he acted well. But inversely, research on war shows that “false conscience” and the repression of guilt can lead to serious problems such as addictions, neuroses, and suicides (Mauss-Copeaux, 1999); and, this is important for Turkey, they often lead to new flashes of violence in the private or in the public sphere.
So the question remains: what happens when a whole country commits crimes in the name of the nation, or even brags about it? When, moreover, the crimes of the past have remained unpunished? The answer lies in the question: the state must maintain and reinforce the defense strategies that will allow the population to repress the problem.
In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud had very clearly expressed the need for the existence of an "Other", despised by a population and kept at the margin: “It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness.” (Freud, 1930, 114). In Turkey, the school, the army, the mosque, and the Koranic school convey the stereotypes founded on “the narcissism of minor differences” (Freud 1930, 114) and encourage disdain for the “Others”. Organizations and parties in harmony with the state ideology do so in an even more open and constant manner.
Hence, in order to avoid mourning, suppress the feeling of guilt, and unite the population, it is incumbent on the state to repeat and renew the waking dreams and stereotypes as national obsessions. And it appears that the most efficient “safety exit” consists of a nationalism impregnated with religion.
“The warm breath of love” and the “blissful hallucinatory confusion”
With its certainties and pride, nationalism provides a feeling of well-being, because everyone is comforted that he is better and stronger than the “Others”. Nationalism provides reassurance about one’s self, one’s past, and the past of the nation. As it can provide an escape from the arduous task of mourning, its function in Turkish society is so vital that it is not a matter of opinion: it is mandatory, and rarely openly questioned, because it is one of the elements of the consensus imposed on the population. It allows both the acceptance of sufferings and losses experienced and the legitimizing of the violence inflicted. But what happens when religion and nationalism are closely mingled?
Freud insisted on the need for the existence of an emotional, libidinal link to the creation and durability of a feeling of belonging. One century earlier, Johann-Gottlieb Fichte was aware of the need for a touch of Eros in the national feeling (without ever using this word, of course). I find bringing together their points of view interesting.
In his second Address to the German Nation (1806), Fichte evokes “the warm breath of love” provided by “the other world”, that is by the nation. Whereas Freud, in The Future of an Illusion, describes religion as “a state of blissful hallucinatory confusion” and underlines the power of historical reminiscences (the past) when they are associated with the hopes of religion (the future).
If the “warm breath” of the nation and the “hallucinatory confusion” are congruent, they reinforce one another and multiply their power. Nation and religion add their respective “store of ideas” (Freud actually writes “ein Schatz von Vorstellungen”, i.e. “a treasure of representations”), consisting of visions of the past and promises for the future: “We now observe that the store of religious ideas includes not only wish-fulfilments but important historical recollections. This concurrent influence of past and present must give religion a truly incomparable wealth of power” (Freud, The Future, 43, 104). Moreover, if nationalism often attempts to appear rational, religion is beyond rationality, and action accomplished in the name of faith does not require a rational justification.
Throughout the 20th century, the notion of a Muslim nation was widely expressed in Turkey and has become a commonplace statement. It is precisely condensed into two expressions.
The first one, “The Turkish nation is Muslim” was expressed as early as 1918 as a political program by Ziya Gökalp, theoretician of Turkish nationalism, in the very title of his celebrated essay, Turkify, Islamize, Modernize. As a Turco-Islamic ideal (Türk-Islam ülküsü), always to be understood as a Sunni ideal excluding the important Alevi minority, the notion is defended by organizations and right-wing movements beginning in 1945, and their extremist branches attempt to impose it by all means, including violence.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Turco-Islamic ideal was expressed in abundant literature, in newspapers, and magazines, sometimes funded by the state, and by influential historians (such as Ibrahim Kafesoğlu or Osman Turan), or essayists and famous columnists in right-wing circles, such as Ahmed Arvâsi. Expressions such as “Islam is the Turkish nation’s way of being” are common (Copeaux, 1997, p; 97; Copeaux, 1998). In May 1978, in a speech delivered on Taksim Square in Istanbul, Süleyman Demirel, leader of the conservative movement before becoming five times Prime Minister and eventually President of the Republic (1993-2000) clamored: “The Turkish nation, the Turkish state, as well as the flag, the call to prayer (ezan), the mosques and the minarets are eternal! God is by our sides!” (Demirel, 1978).
To my knowledge, no leader from the political establishment has dared defend publicly or explicitly that the - officially secular - Turkish nation is not founded on Sunni Islam, or that it might not be founded on it. The link established between the nation and this majority Islam has lasted, either underground or openly: since the 1970s, this political trend is known as “the Turco-Islamic synthesis”. And, very significantly, it has been defended by a good many conservative historians, well established in the universities.
The second sentence seems to be a truism in present Turkey: “Turkey is 99% Muslim”. It is stated on all occasions, but no one ever explains why Turkey is “99% Muslim”, as this is a recent feature of the country; nor how it came to this… In a way, this formula, familiar to Turks, is an implicit avowal of the process of “cleansing” the country from its non-Muslim populations.
The very wide distribution of these never-questioned expressions provides a naturalizing effect. They have become evident as accepted assertions, which contribute to creating, as expressed by Jean-Pierre Faye in Langages totalitaires, a “latent discourse” and an atmosphere in which those who adhere to the state ideology feel more or less free to act, through intimidation, violence, and, often, murder.
One note will suffice in this regard: while the Turco-Islamic synthesis ideology was developing, Turkey simultaneously was the scene of an impressive series of outbreaks of violence aimed at non-muslims or against heterodox Muslim Alevis: pogroms (Jews in Thracia, 1934; Greek orthodox in Istanbul, 1955); massacres (Alevis in Kahramanmaraş, 1978; in Çorum, 1980); riots and arson (Sivas, 1993); murders (Hrant Dink, 2007); the systematic destruction of Christian cemeteries (Northern Cyprus, 1974), etc. Even if the State is not directly involved, these actions almost always remain unpunished.
As the notion of nation is associated with that of Sunni Islam, the violence against the “infidels” (gavur) and the Alevi is legitimized in a sense and can provide a posteriori justification, even if it remains unformulated.
Let me risk the following notion: in a way, as long as Turkey denies genocide, the Turkish nation has to be Muslim, even though ruled under the mask of secularism.
The Turco-Islamic synthesis and history-teaching
We may now return to history writing.
The “history thesis” of 1931 was a crucial element of the negationist process. Four decades later, the historians close to the Turco-Islamic synthesis trend conceived of a new representation of the past, according to which the Turks acted through the past as shields and spearheads of Islam. The further vision is much more credible and at least as appropriate as the preceding one in legitimizing the past, developing narcissism, and, perhaps, erasing the feeling of guilt.
Paradoxically, the government arising from the 1980 military coup approved of this vision. A new narrative, in conformity with the Turco-Islamic synthesis, was integrated into school textbooks between 1985 and 1990. Globally, I will mention two significant modifications.
First of all, in response to the Armenian “awakening of memory” in the 1970s and the wave of attacks perpetrated by ASALA (Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia) against Turkish diplomats, the new narrative devotes, from 1992 on, an entire chapter to “the Armenian question”, to provide Turks with reassuring answers to their own questions. Briefly stated, the blame addressed to Turkey is transferred back onto the Armenians: “They are traitors, they are responsible for what happened to them”. The discourse is based on the rhetoric of comparative relativizing of evils: “You suffered, so did we; both sides are even.” This latter argument was used in Germany after 1945.
Secondly, the role of Islam in Turkish history has been heavily emphasized. Thanks to subtle discursive means I have analyzed in my Ph.D., pupils are incited to identify with Sunni Islam and to feel above all members of a Muslim nation. As pertains to the global vision of the past, the conversion of Turks to Islam is described as the main factor of progress in world history. According to the new narrative, the Turks would have saved Islam from sclerosis and brought to the Muslim world their intrinsic values such as democracy, and tolerance.
A new version of the narcissistic portrait of the Turk appears then, as having brought civilization to the West. Thanks to the arrival of Turks in Anatolia (11th century), followed by the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Europe is purported to have learned from the Turks about religious freedom, freedom of thought, and, yet again, tolerance.
This vision of the past has been taught now for thirty to forty years, and thus clearly influenced the generation of the party in power, the AKP. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan does not represent a break, but rather a continuity: he is himself a product of the Turco-Islamic synthesis. He embodies an ideal that pre-existed for decades. And he is the man who allowed the conservative trend to come fully to light and to take power.
The obsessive claim of “tolerance” is another form of denial of the genocide. This constant appreciation only reveals its opposite: a continuous intolerance, as demonstrated by facts. Thus, “tolerance” has become another political myth that will last for as long as the genocide is denied (Copeaux, 2013).
To summarize, the Turco-Islamic synthesis, with its vision of the past, its vision of the “Turkish and Muslim” nation, is now an autonomous, naturalized artifact and, in Eugène Enriquez’s words, it is “a real object to which are owed reverence and love”. (Enriquez, 1983, 83).
Is the Armenian genocide a shameful Fetih?
In Turkey, those in power have always appreciated the grandiose staging of historical commemorations. Prior to the AKP’s reign, almost all of these were devoted to Atatürk and his actions. Progressively throughout the 20th century, two other commemorations appeared, both perfectly adapted to the spirit of the Turco-Islamic synthesis: the commemoration of the conquest of Constantinople (1453) and that of the battle of Malazgirt or Mantzikert (1071).
I deem both play their role in the process of denial, as I will try to show hereafter. They are designated by a very significant word of Arabic origin, fetih, which literally designates an “opening” of Islam, that is to say, a gain for Islam over a Non-Muslim territory, a religious conquest through the accomplishment of a jihad.
The “Fetih” of Constantinople, “the second Rome”, the last remnant of the Byzantine Empire, has been commemorated intermittently since the fifth centennial, in 1953; from the period when R.T. Erdogan's tenure as mayor of Istanbul (1994-1998), it has grown to become, under the governance of the AKP (since 2002) a great popular festival.
During the 2010s, the conquest of the city has been replayed in many forms (parades, reenactments, films, television series, sound-and-light), welcomed by huge and enthusiastic crowds. Nothing is surprising in this: a whole age group has been educated in the spirit of the Turkish-Islamic synthesis. In school textbooks, for the past thirty or forty years, the Fetih has been described as a religious event, the fulfillment of religious duty. Since 1991, it has been presented as a jihad.
During the decades when appeared these public commemorations of the Fetih of Constantinople and of Malazgirt, reprobation against the Armenian genocide was growing in Western opinion. The Turkish public opinion, even among the moderate left, was often annoyed by these denunciations, always repeated in Turkish media and caused discomfort. In conscience, the Turks know full well that Armenians and Greeks were living, until 1915 or 1955, in the neighborhoods or the towns, where their architectural testimonies remain visible. But instead of facing the past and the risk of feeling disorientated and rootless, they preferred running toward one of the “safety exits” provided by the state: a brilliant commemoration of the Fetih, one that flatters national narcissism and pride. Thus the state and its citizens are well in tune: the “latent discourse” is acting.
Here, I would like to formulate a hypothesis. If a fetih is a victory over the non-Muslim “infidels”, theoretically, the genocide itself can be considered as such, along with the entire process of ethnic cleansing in the 20th century (a “religious cleansing”, in fact). But since the genocide is denied, that victory, that fetih is unsayable and indescribable; one cannot praise it, nor commemorate it, one can barely verbalize it.
This impossible celebration is frustrating and it is possible that, whether consciously or not, it has been transferred onto the celebration of a glorious event of the 15th century, the Fetih of Constantinople, by overloading it with a hidden meaning. This is but a hypothesis illustrating again a time collapse. In this case, the commemoration of the Conquest would be the masked one of what we can call the "great fetih" of the 20th century that led to the creation of a state “99% Muslim”.
The second commemoration is more recent but celebrates a more ancient event. It attracts smaller crowds because it takes place in Malazgirt (Mantzikert), in eastern Anatolia. This is where, in 1071, the Seljuk Turks defeated Byzantium and “opened the gates of Anatolia to the Turks”, as is claimed to this day. Long described as a military victory (zafer), Malazgirt has now become the fetih of Anatolia (Anadolu’nun fethi). The event has long been taught with fervor in school manuals, and its hero Alparslan is as present in the mind of Turks as are Vercingetorix, Clovis, or Joan of Arc in that of the French.
Defining this battle as a fetih infers that Islam is the supreme justification for the conquest of Anatolia and the submission of its Christian population. In introducing Islam in Anatolia, the Turks would have brought a “spirit” (Türk ruhu), a “yeast” (Türk mayası). Anatolian soil, according to the views spread by the schools and mosques, would have been kneaded and sanctified by the blood of the Turks and by the sufferings they endured over centuries.
With Malazgirt's victory, the Turks acquired a “new homeland” to which they supposedly were predestined. Retrospectively, its former inhabitants, Armenians and Greeks are therefore considered “strangers”. This is an astonishing paradigmatic reversal that renders the new arrival more legitimate than the indigenous populations. Once again, time and chronology have collapsed.
Once again, the celebration seems to result from a fear of expulsion, of disappearance, that must be exorcised: “Never again will we be forced to leave Anatolia!”, “We are here forever!” were some of the slogans at the 2017 commemoration (Copeaux, 2019). This is still the “Sèvres syndrome”, the fear caused by this treaty of 1920 that aimed to dismember Turkey, creating new states, Armenia and Kurdistan. To follow another idea by Vamık Volkan, the Sèvres treaty, although annulled by the Lausanne treaty in 1923, remains a “chosen trauma” for Turkish nationalism.
Justifying the Turkish presence in Anatolia is no longer necessary other than through religion; not only is the Turkish presence sacralized, but everything they did from then on is ipso facto legitimate and licit. As Islam’s spearhead, they performed a sacred duty in Anatolia.
As for Armenian and Greek inhabitants of conquered lands, they are supposed to have benefitted from the arrival of Turks, bringing them “justice, commiseration, moral values, peace, brotherhood, science, wisdom and tolerance”, as claimed in the speeches pronounced at Malazgirt in 2017.
What is striking once again is the pervasiveness of the word “tolerance." Its obsessional reiteration at the centennial of the genocide is part of the negationist process. Thus, Kemal Atatürk’s famous words are still relevant: “Writing history is as important as making history.."
Following the assassination of Hrant Dink (2007), the centennial of the genocide (2015) saw a resurgence of the feeling of guilt in some segments of the population, mainly the intellectual and urban ones. Anti-negationist reactions and denunciations of Turkish policy concerning the genocide are now more common and more open, if bitter.
Turkish writer Ece Temelkuran expressed this new conscience emerging in Turkey in a pessimistic but powerful way. Paradoxically, as long as such a voice can express itself in Turkey, it brings a measure of hope. In 2015, she wrote: “Lying is tiring. Constantly, the lie takes root, grows, and becomes entangled. It becomes bigger than the hidden truth and ends up sucking out and corrupting your life. And this country that, ever since its existence, insists on writing stories of victories to hide defeats, stories of celebrations to hide massacres, stories of martyrs-who-never-die to hide the dead, this country makes us tired and erodes us.” (in Bener, 2015. Trans. E.C. And L.B.).
We must always be aware that the official vision of Turkish history is the result of one hundred years of violence and that it requires and engenders violence. I fear that Turkey will never acknowledge the genocide because that would require a complete and profound reappraisal of the nature of the Turkish nation. Or again, Turkey, or some political trends in Turkey, might acknowledge the genocide, but that would turn into a nightmare: “Yes, we perpetrated genocide, and we were right to do so.”
In 1980, Primo Levi, Italian writer and survivor of the Nazi extermination camps, expressed the murky relationship genocidal killers have to their actions as follows: “It is as if someone cried out: 'The massacre never happened, but we wish it had happened and were ongoing' or 'The massacre did not happen, but we work our best' while requiring to be believed. What the hell, a bit of coherence! If you love massacre, why do you deny its existence? And if you do not love it, why do you imitate it and defend it?”.
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Thanks to a kind invitation by Professor Stefan Astourian, I had the opportunity to present this essay at Berkeley University’s Institute of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies (ISEEES) in the frame of a conference on “Debating the Origins, Development, and Impact of the Armenian Genocide (1850-1938)” held on April 20, 2019.