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Europe diary: Historical guilt

2 November 2006

BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell talks to Armenians in Turkey and asks why a massacre that took place nearly a century ago, and the question whether it was genocide, is such a sensitive issue in Turkey today.


map of Turkey
Luckily the last remaining Armenian village in Turkey does not rely on the mut berry for its living. It's plucked from the hedgerow and offered to me by two village women. It smells fantastic, a heady aroma a bit like rosemary. But it tastes of nothing and puckers the mouth. Instead it's the nectarine, turning from green to orange on the trees running down the hillside, that makes the village of Vakif its money.

The mayor, Berc Kartun, is more interested in talking about how his village's unique status attracts tourists, and the economic benefit of going organic, than discussing how his parents and grandparents died. "We are all rather tired of this question. We should let the historians settle it once and for all so it comes to a stop and you won't be asking our children the same thing."

My question of course is: "Was it genocide?"


Why is modern-day democratic Turkey so sensitive about something that happened nearly 100 years ago in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire? A BBC radio programme wants me to probe the delicate question of what the state's official attitude to the killings says about present-day Turkey.

Protesters form Turkish families, in the Netherlands
Dutch students of Turkish origin object to the dropping of election candidates who do not recognise the Armenian "genocide"

Nobody seriously disputes that many thousands of Armenians died in what is now eastern Turkey between 1914 and 1918. Some Turkish historians say 200,000 died, some Armenian historians say it was two million. Turkish writers are still prosecuted for calling it "genocide". But the French parliament has caused outrage in Turkey by voting to make denial that these killings were genocide a crime on a par with holocaust denial.

My first reaction to the programme's request was, "It's obvious". If Britain was asked to acknowledge guilt for something in the past, say the Irish potato famine, there would be fury in some quarters. If the government was pressed by its EU partners to officially label it "genocide" there might be an explosion of incandescent rage in certain papers. But the key is "some quarters" and "certain papers". There would be a lively debate, because many British liberals do feel guilt for the country's colonial past.

Certainly Martin Amis and Iain Banks wouldn't find themselves on trial for agreeing with the foreigners. Yet in Turkey top novelists do find themselves on trial for libelling their country - although the actual law says "insulting the Turkish republic", so I don't quite see how insulting the Ottoman Empire qualifies.


One of the things I value most about writing this diary is your comments. Even the rants, re-statements of obvious positions, and questioning of my intelligence, ability and motives interest me. But the majority of comments are both thoughtful and thought-provoking.

They often give me a new perspective and a greater understanding of the stories I am covering. So help me now. I'm not asking for a rehash of the old arguments, but why it is such a sensitive subject for Turks 90 years after the killings took place?


The village of Vakif (also known as Vakifli Koyu) was once one of several Armenian Christian villages dotting the hillside leading up to Mount Moses (Musa Dagh in Turkish, Musa Ler in Armenian) very near the Syrian border.

French warship, the Guichen
A French warship, the Guichen, came to the Armenians' rescue
In 1915, because of their ideal tactical position, the Christian villages were able to repulse the Ottoman attackers long enough to appeal to fellow Christians. They were rescued by a French warship and taken to safety, but later made their way home.

The international boundary fluctuated over the years. When the area again became Turkish in 1939, many of the villagers decided to go to Lebanon or Syria, but those that remained grouped together in Vakif.


Inside the single-room cafe men play cards and drink small glasses of tea as the rain lashes the citrus trees outside. When I talk to the mayor of oranges and selling laurel berry soap to tourists they chat noisily among themselves in Armenian. But when I ask about the past, the room falls silent. They stare intently at the mayor as though willing him not to say the wrong thing.

Body of Armenian girl
Admission of what happened is as important for some as the G-word
It turns out that one of the men is just back to visit his father-in-law, the oldest man in the village. Canik Capar was once a villager, but he is now a tourist. He says he once had a good job in a bank but was sacked when they found he was an Armenian and a Christian. He re-trained as a teacher in the 1970s but says the government didn't want Armenian teachers in the region at the time. He told me the atmosphere was often tense, and knowing what had happened in the past, he was always worried that things might turn nasty again.

So he left for Berlin, where he has lived ever since, and is now a German citizen. He tells us the obvious, that his friends have to be careful what they say. So, would he call what happened in 1915 genocide?

"I don't care what they call it, the important thing is they admit what was done."

And as an EU citizen now, does he think Turkey should be allowed to join?

"Like my [Armenian] patriarch in Istanbul, my heart and soul say No, but with my head I say Yes, because if they don't, they will turn towards the Middle East and that could lead to something happening to our people again."


The whole question of historical guilt is an interesting one. Should I bear any guilt for the sins the British committed in Africa, if they were sins, any more than I do for the crimes of Jack the Ripper committed around the same time?

Man killed during Mau Mau rebellion
Britons are learning about atrocities committed in colonial Kenya
And if I and my government do bear this burden, should we feel similar guilt for the evil committed by Elizabeth I against Catholics or Mary I against Protestants? Should we apologise to the French for the 100 Years War, and they to us for 1066? Thinking about it, weren't the "Normans" actually "Norsemen"? So should an apology be forthcoming from Denmark, Norway and Sweden?


I'm not going to speculate further about Turkey, but if it was Britain I suspect part of the problem would be a certain kind of nationalism.

It seems to me that nationalism comes in two distinct types. One is fiercely proud of the achievements of the country, its history and language. The other is prickly, always looking out for insult and offence and its main motivation seems to be not pride, or even prejudice, but nursing old wounds.

Let's call it stabinthebackism, in memory of the Weimar Republic. Any gentle poking of fun, questioning of values or tradition is seen as the latest sign that the barbarian hordes are already inside the gates.

It was, I believe, Spike Milligan who used to say that he enjoyed kicking the backs of people's chairs when they didn't rise for the national anthem at the end of a theatre performance or film in the cinema (as was once routine). He said he did it not because he cared much about the national anthem but because it was a good excuse for kicking people. There are those still with us who have a similar motivation, without the irony.

Your comments:

Turkey needs to address the issue of killings of armenians, but we all need to consider the fact that Russia was trying to advance into the areas populated by armenians, and armenian militia were supporting the idea of the advancement of Russian Imperial Army into Easter Turkey. Armenians were seen as supporters of a powerful enemy state to which Turkey has just lost in two recent wars large portions of territory. It is nonsense to compare this situation to the Nazi Genocide of jewish people.
Alex Dagvi, N.Y. USA

If Turkey would agree with the charge what about the former Armenia territories? What about Kurds?
Eugene, NY, US

Here is a story from Old Dogubeyazit (Beyazid),East Turkey. This was a volatile region around the time of the First World War as it is tucked into the North East of Turkey near Georgia, Armenia and Iran. The story comes from the Kurdish great grandfather of a friend. The town was attacked by Armenians - those who did not escape were killed, except for the above great grandfather who was a baker. He was kept alive to bake bread. News came that the Turkish army was approaching and the order was given for the baker to be taken out and shot. An Armenian who had befriended the baker voluntered, but let him go instead. To me this story indicates that the Armenians also committed atrocities; and also, that simple ideological points of view neglect the many acts of compassion that must have occurred during this time. I would also like to point out that Kurdish culture in this region is (even still)a heavily oral culture. If this type of story is not recorded then a large part of the history of this time will disappear.
DB'dan, U.K.

The problem with the genocide thesis is it simplifies a complicated picture into the absurd. Armenians killed Turks. Armenians led Russian occupation armies into Ottoman Turkey's eastern provinces. Turkish villagers but more importantly irregular Kurdish militia killed Armenians. Ottoman Turkey's hated and irresponsible triumvirate of Enver, Talat, Jemal pashas gave order for forcible deportation of Armenians to another imperial provice. My family in central Anatolia rescued and harbored many Armenians during the migration. Modern Turkey today denies genocide because of its possible political implications. If all the Armenenians want an apology, it's ready. Can they give the same? And for God's sake, let's take a look at whatever archive material is available. And let the historians decide as to what happened. Finally, bravo to France for having eternally crushed its haute image in the perceptions of Turks.
Nuri Yalcin, Istanbul

As a Turk living abroad, I never felt guilt or shame on what happened about 100 years ago. I judged the events as an unfortunate twist in the difficult war time conditions. Ottoman Empire was made up of many nations and ethnic groups and religions and these people lived in harmony for many centuries side by side. Turks in general are very tolerant towards other nations and cultures and proved this through their actions throughout their history. Just one small example is our Turkish Gypsy and Jewish minorities who were invited to live in the Ottoman Empire when they were escaping from the Spanish prosecution in the 16th century. These people still speak some form of Spanish amongst themselves today. How such nation could be blamed for genocide? When the imperialism attacked Ottoman Empire from almost every front during World War I and provoked the Armenians and other ethnic minorities against Turks, Turks had to defend the country and their lives. It was unfortunate that many people from all sites lost their lives and suffered to great extent. Just another thing; my surname means "Hero". This surname was given to my great grandfather by his villagers because he and his brothers had fought against the Armenian militia who attacked their village and killed many of its residents. I regret that during war times horrible side of human nature comes out and terrible things occur. I wish the wars never happen. I'd like to finish quoting our great leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk "Peace at home, peace at world!".
Hakan Kahraman, England

For the Western countries i want remind them that they have their own sins which are much darker than that of Turkish.So stop pointing a finger on other countries on a ground of 'Human rights' violations (be it past or present), since it is you who are historically wrong doers and who thought political elits to follow your foot steps( like in Africa).
Salem, Asmara, Eritrea

The problem has to do with the Turkish identity. At the contrary of all other European states, Turkey and turkishness are vaguely lost in time and place. Turkey is something in between the Ottoman Empire and the Byzantine Empire, and its people swing violently between those extremes. If Turkey was 100% European they would acknowledge the massacres and dump the guilt into the Ottomans. But the problem is that Turkey was built over Ottomaness, namely anti-Christianism, by being against the surrounding Christian states. And by considering themselves successors of the Ottomans instead of successors of the Byzantines they have brought this problem into themselves.
David Rulloda, Swindon, UK

Ottoman Empire and Turkey had a past of tolerance and acceptance for the minorities and those who suffer under oppression. Ottoman Empire had accepted Jews to Ottoman soils who had been exiled from Spain in 1492. And this time Turkey had accepted fleeing Jews (Jewish scientists and scholars) from Nazi Germany and Austria during Second World War. Another anecdote, during WW II, Turkish ambassadors in Europe had saved thousands of Turkish-Jews from the trains in Marseille in France by risking their own lives. Otherwise, those Turkish-Jews would have been sent to the concentration camps like French-Jews in the Second World War. France's government had sent 70.000 French Jews to Nazi concentration camps during Second World War. In the same period, during WWII, besides France, sadly many European countries had been putting all their own Jewish citizens into the trains for sending them to the concentration camps. In short, Turkey's 'portrait' in the West is far smaller than the actual frame. So many of us in Turkey wonder when we are going to take Turkey's story back from the orientalists. I really wonder.
Kaan Kolber, Istanbul, Turkey

Growing up in Turkey one is thought to be a ┐Proud Turk┐ and to have a strong Turkish nationalistic identity. We were totally ignorant about the Armenian Genocide. I only found out about it after traveling abroad and I was shocked that Ottoman Turks were capable of such an act. As I have looked into the late history of the Ottoman Turkish period around 1900s, I can see the Turkish point of view of "the war and being attacked by the Allies during WWI", along with the Armenian point of view of being "victims of a systematic Ottoman Genocide" and I can conclude that even if the truth is somewhere in the middle, there can still be reconciliation and peace between these two neighbors.
Sukru Murat, Izmir, Turkey

Turkey, will never say that the genocide happened because this will cause them to give back the money and territory they took. With all the interest and inflation, the government will be bankrupt and the whole country will crumble. Turkey will have to take money and be in debt for like the next 1000 years. This is why they will never accept it.
Samuel Aleksanian, montreal, Canada

Criticism of Turkey serves no purpose other than to demean its people - who are no more responsible for the Armenian holocaust than you or I. This dust up damages a laudable effort by a democratic Islamic country to position itself westward. A focus on the benefits accession will bring to Turks and the EU is much more worthy of discussion. The sins of the fathers should not be visited on the great grandsons.
Bill Wood, Houston USA

The matter of the Armenian massacres should be ┐studied┐ and appropriately 'recognized' as a black mark in history. This it is the only way we can better understand how not to repeat such tragedies of history. BUT 'recognition' also must extend to the tragic massacres of the Turks during the same period. The world should know exactly what happened to a community of peoples who lived peacefully side by side for hundreds of years and what exactly caused this tragic sequence of killings. I submit, however, that pursuit of the ┐truth┐ will not reflect favorably towards the Armenian case or the current 'bastions of morality' that aided and abated them, namely France, England and Russia. Why are the Armenian Archives still shut to independent historians. Why also does the 'West' not insist on Armenia participating in an open international fact finding mission in order to clearly establish the 'facts'. There seems to be plenty of bloodied hands and souls to go around. The real tragedy is that innocent Armenian and Turkish men, women and children were lead into a no win mutual massacre by the likes of France, England and Russia. These countries used the situation to further their own political interests in the area at any cost to the Turks and Armenians. Are these countries prepared to stand up and take some responsibility for inciting the Armenian militia to go on their murderous campaigns and thereby seal the fate of their own country men? I wont hold my breath for a truthful response.
Bob Ozdemir, Sydney Australia

I don┐t know if what happened was indeed genocide. But past crimes collectively committed by nations appear to be never a simple matter. As some comments pointed out, territorial and monetary compensation are certainly always part of the real issue. You might wonder why the Australian government has been using all kinds of excuses to not to officially say 'Sorry' to the indigenous people for the wrong doings of the past governments. You might also want to ask why no US governments have ever admitted that systematic annihilation of Indian populations (from 20 millions to less than 0.3 millions today) was genocide, let alone to admit at least some killings were intentional. You might also be puzzled by why, even today, majority of Japanese support their Prime Minister to visit their war dead shrines where 14 top Japanese WWII war criminals were rested.
Michael Lee, Sydney, Australia

I am ready to accept - as I am sure many other Turks would, however painful it may turn out be - whatever title/description will be seen appropriate for this matter as long as it is the result of a comprehensive study, one that is undertaken by an independent group that is formed by HISTORIANS from number of countries that have no direct interest in the matter and it is reached by closer inspection of both Armenian and Russian archives as well as the Ottoman┐s. This has not taken place yet so the question is: why not? In a court of law, before convicting someone with a crime, prosecutors would need to examine all evidence ┐ solid, sound, indisputable evidence. Experts and scientists would be involved to back up any eye witness evidence given before reaching a conclusion. This should be no different. No one denies that many unfortunate deaths had occurred during the war and Armenians have indeed suffered great losses as did Turks. My point is, until the genocide claim is proven by methods I mentioned before, it is a case of ┐what my grandfather said┐ against what ┐your grandfather said┐.
Huma, London, England

It seems to me that this issue is tied up very closely with the lionisation of Mustafa Kemal 'Attaturk' within the Turkish state. Attaturk is acknowledged as the figurehead and driving engine behind the modernisation and industrialisation of Turkey. As part of this process, Attaturk pushed through many brilliant reforms that have helped develop Turkey into the exceedingly promising state it is today. On on the other hand, Attaturk presided over some processes that are regarded in this day and age as heavy handed at best, and utterly inhuman at worst - and I think quite rightly in some cases. Somewhere along the line, perhaps because of their chronological closeness or perhaps because Attaturk himself chose to downplay the conditions of the Armenian Turks, admission of the Armenian genocide and attacks on Attaturk and his efforts as head of state are conflated in the public (and certainly government) psyche in Turkey, and therein lies a problem, I think. The killings and forced deportations of so many Armenians nearly a century ago at the fall of the Ottoman Empire isn't, I would say, perceived as being that much different from an attempt to undermine the very nature and culture of modern Turkey, and nor will it be until the Turkish government and other state organisations start to roll back the cult of Attaturk as a personality, and/or until they manage to distance themselves and Attaturk, and the dynamic and thriving modern-day Turkey, from the Armenian genocide. If they can do these things, then an 'official' admission of the Armenian genocide can perhaps happen without a perceived 'weakening' of modern Turkish political systems and culture.
Varian , Leeds, Britain

According to the supporters of the genocide story everything begins and end in 1915 deportations. What happened before or after? Do we forget the formation of Armenian gangs,the Ottoman Bank incident, attemp to murder AbdŘlhamit, the Adana upraising, Zaytun affair, the Van occupation, Armenians in Russian or in French uniforms, the inability of the British to try and convict the exiled Malta group of Ottoman politicians and commanders of genocide just after the WW1. How about what happened during the Dardanelles and Sarkamish campaigns? How about the murdered Republic of Turkey diplomats? Do you remember thousands of Azeris living in camps and forcefully occupied Azeri land? How many Muslim or non Armenian villages remaining in Armenia today? What happened to them? Is forced relocation legal? As late as 1960's India relocated Chinese origin Indians. Americans did the same to Japanese Americans during the WW2. How about Tatar relocations? If we are so mean and cruel how come thousands of Republic of Armenia citizens are earning a living in Turkey illegally? Why ignore works by professional historians or the smear campaign against the Western writers that support the Turkish view? How about the material in Armenian archieves? Why are they kept secret? It is a very complex matter to be resolved by the historians.
dundar aytar, istanbul, turkey

The difficulty here lies in the fact that the request to the Turks to accept genocide take the last 20 years of an ongoing series of wars between 1820 and WW1 between Russia and the Ottomans. The Russians and the Armenians on the Russian side systematically massacred and removed masses of Turkic and Muslim populaces from the Caucauses and eastern Anatolia either into the Russian hinterlands or into central and southern Anatolia starting around 1820 and forward. The complexity of the Eastern Anatolian geography was that of any given 5 villages 2 might have been Turkish, two Armenian, and one Kurdish. The Ottoman mass deportation and the incredibly large number of deaths it caused would certainly qualify as a massacre/genocide. However, to start this history's tract in 1914-1915 is like starting WW2's tract in 1943 and condemmning the Americans and the Allies of terrible acts of inhumanity for the mass bombing of German industrial cities without discussing the bombing of London and other English cities by the Luftwaffe. The voices and stories of the dead Turkic/Muslim voices are never heard in this particular scenario. A joint Russian/Armenian/Turkish review and acceptance of the terrible horrors these great peoples commmitted onto each other's civilians over that span of time would be the only way to remember all who sufferred and to improve relations between Turks and Armenians.
David, Los Angeles, CA, USA

The definitive historical analysis of the Armenian case has been conclusively demostrated and adopted by the world's leading authority on the topic. The International Association of Genocide Scholars. One hundred thirty six of the leading historians on the topic signed a letter in 2005 addressed to the Prime Minister of Turkey, urging him to do the right thing and recognize the genocide. Reopening of the file under the pretext of an impartial analysis and debate of historians is only a delay tactic and one of obfuscation adopted only by deniers of historical fact. Furthermore, Raphael Lemkin, the jurist who invented the legal term of genocide and was the major figure to advance the concept within a UN resolution, clearly and unequivocally says so in his own words that he had the Armenian and the Jewish cases in mind when he created the legal term as evidenced in the film documentary by Andrew Goldberg, "The Armenian Genocide". The difference between the German and Turkish cases is that the current government of Turkey is complicit in the denialist agenda and is engaged in an active campaign of denial, teaching lies in its school network and dedicating huge budgets to publications masquerading as historical research. Can you imagine a Germany in the EU whose government denies the Shoah? or a France, whose government denies the actions of the Vichy regime? Or an Italy whose prime minister denies its fascist legacy? Any regime engaged in such activity would be unacceptable in a Europe based on values of human rights. National guilt has nothing to do with it. The only way people and countries can move on is by accepting the truth about themselves.
Viken Attarian, Montreal, CANADA

What bothers me is the analysis that this is all about Turkey's nationalism. I see it as actually adopting the worst possible aspect of nationalism--simplification. In your discussion in what would happen in Britain you suggest people would be enraged, just because they are prickly about their country. But in the 19th century, when it was found out that there was exploitation in the Congo, there was an outcry by the public. The issue becomes not whether Britain should be responsible for what happened in the past, but whether it was really fully responsible in the past--and that the only people who want to point this out need to have nationalistic motives. Sometimes nationalism becomes involved, but used in defense not of admitting some type of fault in their government, but in defense against people who stereotype their culture and country and wish them to be seen as the bad guys. Calling something "genocide" politicizes something by inserting implications of motives, its more than a choice of words, its a demand to demonize one party over the other. In Turkey and in Armenia there are a lot of politics involved. As much as many Turks want in their nationalism to look eternally like the good guys, some Armenians in their nationalism want Turks to look eternally like the bad guys. The defensive nation isn't always at fault for nationalistic sentiment. Similarly, there are a lot of people who want to blame every foundation of Western culture and British culture during their imperialistic era, and tear down any remnants of that culture that remains, as if it can't be defended. People shouldn't be surprised when it is defended.
Brian Shapiro, Encino, California, USA

If anyone needs to apologize, Armenians need to do so to Turks and Azerbaijanis, then the Britain, France, Russia, and the US should apologize to Armenians, Azeris, and Turks.
Ayla, Istanbul, Turkey

All I know is this. I am Armenian and I have no home. Believe what you may, but I live my life everyday with the knowledge that I must be where I am for some reason. Surely, there must have been a reason why my great-grandparents were killed in their homeland, why my grandparents were exiled into foreign lands, why my parents and I were born on foreing soil, why I now live what seems like lightyears away from my homeland..which I've heard about, and seen pictures of, but have never been to. Say what you may, say what you must in order to feel proud. I know it's not your sin, I know it wasn't you who commited the crime. But, why can't you empathize with me just once? Why can't we share our stories with each other? Why can't we accept the past and listen to each others stories? I(and all the Armenians) can pour our hearts out, and you(and all the Turks) can share with us your pain. We are not that different after all. You are all invited to watch my animated film titled "Ara's Flight" [on the web] It's not a film about guilt, just empathy for the dead (and the living). peace
Hagop Kaneboughazian, California USA

For the memory of my grandparents in Sevas Turkey, my father's first wife, and 4 daughters and the entire family living on a ranch were totally murdrered as were their neighbors....this genocide has given every Armenian descendant a living scar in their hearts that needs to be recognized. Turkish history books do not recognize the plunder of the Armenians, and killing the professionals before the common citizen. The genocide is not in any of their own history books. No wonder they are in denial.
margo Darderian, east amherst Ny. 14051

As a Turk, I do not ignore the 1915 Armenian Genocide in any way. Yet it angers me greatly to see countries such as Germany and France be so judgmental of Turkey's past without analyzing their own. The European Union is putting in great effort to make Turkey look like a scapegoat with its historical past concerning the Ottoman Empire because they are hesitant to admit a predominantly muslim nation into the EU. Placing Turkey in a corner of shame is no solution.
Deniz T , Chicago, USA

First of all, I do not deny that there were killings...the exact figures?? Well don't think anybody knows. My grandmothers family fled from erzurum for armenians/french/russians. However, my family is not starting a arguement over and over again, about the killings by armenians. I personally do not blame the armenians living today, for what their ancestors did to us, why do they keep blaming turkey? Why is europe so eager, to accept as if it's a fact, that there was a genocide?
Nees, Rotterdam, The netherlands

I believe that one day Turkey will grow up and man up to its mistakes just like every other country has. But, until it mans up to its wrong doings it can never progress to its future and will always remain a young scared boy who just says "I didnt do it" to everything.
Gevork, Los Angeles, California

When I was a child, I happened to listen to one of the few remaining eye-witnesses of the cruel murders and rapes committed by the Armenian gangs in my town and how the Turks defended themselves against them. If people are concerned with the historical facts, shouldn't they explore more before they come to a conclusion that an entire nation is guilty? Why don't you study the archives and documents of the 'other'? Is it ethical,moral or scientific to blame a nation without listening to them? OR HAS BIAS REPLACED WESTERN VALUES AND ETHICS?
nejat , istanbul, turkey

Quite frankly, after more than 91 years, we Armenians are somewhat sick and tired of having to prove and justify events which have been fully documented both at the time and afterwards. Isn't the killing of over half a race sufficient to be labelled Genocide, a term which the world media appears much less shy in using for any mass murder nowadays from Sudan to Rwanda or Bosnia, but from which Armenians are wantonly excluded? Please stop playing with words.
Armen Kouyoumdjian, Vi˝a del Mar CHILE

I am Turkish and my BEST FRIEND is Armenian. We both acknowledge that there was killing on both ends. Why does this have to be so complicated? We need to put this 100 year old debate aside, and focus on mending the wounds.
, Vancouver, B.C.


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