The Magazine

The Price of Denial

Why Turkey needs to come to terms with history.

Apr 17, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 29 • By ELLEN BORK
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It is a variation on the argument, made by some in the 1990s, that there was no obligation to stop the killing of Muslims by Serbs in Bosnia since the people of the region had been "killing each other for centuries." Both justifications are red herrings, which can be effective when made with confidence by articulate proponents.

In the documentary, Turkish historians reject this claim, providing historical context that enhances rather than undermines an understanding of the fate of the Armenians as genocide. The loss of Balkan territory, the flow of refugees from these Christian quarters of the empire telling of persecution--all combined, says Taner Akcam, to make "fear of collapse . . . [the] basic factor of the emergence of Turkish nationalism."

The effects of this fear have been profound, and the documentary's most compelling moments come when the Turkish historians describe their experience with their society's most stubborn taboo. Halil Berktay received death threats for being a "Turkish historian inside Turkey that has spoken up." He argues that the new Turkish republic, launched in 1923, dissociated itself from the past by adopting attributes of Western society, including secularism, and found itself embraced and courted by Western powers.

"All kinds of reasons like this made it undesirable for the young republic to maintain an honest memory of what had been done in 1915," says Berktay, and "as a result, you have an enormously constructed, fabricated, manipulated, national memory."

After decades of denial and silence, it took an act of courage for these historians to question the official version. Fatma Müge Göcek expresses the confusion she felt upon realizing "you could actually live in a society, get the best education that society has to offer, which I did, and not know about it or have any books or anything available to read about it."

This situation is changing, as this documentary and events like the Bilgi conference make clear. While my acquaintances in Istanbul have complicated feelings about international pressure on Turkey to confront its past, America has been involved from the outset. Reporters and diplomats relayed news of the atrocities, and charity appeals raised enormous sums, all of which is documented in the film. For some Turks, it was in the United States that they found the freedom, the libraries, and the contacts with Armenian Americans that enabled them to delve into the past and develop independent judgments. Of course, the U.S. government is still the prime target of Turkish efforts to prevent official recognition of the genocide.

It will be up to the Turks to come to a complete understanding of their past, and consolidate their democratic institutions and civil liberties. In the meantime, less deference to the Turkish official position would put America on the side not only of justice for genocide victims, but also of Turks, like the historians in this film, who refuse to accept limits on their speech and scholarship.

Ellen Bork is deputy director at the Project for the New American Century.