Friday, August 1, 2014
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Remembering the Armenians

NEW YORK – On the 99th anniversary of the start of the massacre and deportation of a significant share of the Armenian population in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued a very positive statement. The decision to acknowledge what Armenians call Genocide Remembrance Day may well represent a breakthrough, given modern Turkey’s persistent refusal to call what happened “genocide.” But it is only a start.

Erdoğan’s statement recognized the significance of the date and offered condolences to the victims’ descendants. “It is a duty of humanity,” he said, “to acknowledge that Armenians remember the suffering experienced in that period….” Moreover, Erdoğan accepted that those who speak out more pointedly about what took place may do so: “In Turkey, expressing differing opinions and thoughts freely on the events of 1915 is the requirement of a pluralistic perspective, as well as of a culture of democracy and modernity.”

Perhaps most important, Erdoğan’s statement suggests that there is room for Turkey to go further in the run-up to the centenary of the crimes that began on April 24, 1915, which many people – not only Armenians – regard as a genocide. One additional step, for example, would be to describe the events that caused the Armenians’ suffering and to acknowledge who caused it.

Turkey is far from alone in having to face up to terrible crimes committed by previous generations. In general, those states whose leaders have forthrightly apologized for past crimes have benefited from doing so.

The contrast between Germany and Japan with respect to the crimes committed during World War II is especially noteworthy. German leaders have repeatedly apologized for the Nazis’ crimes. Any visitor to Berlin nowadays is struck by the number, prominence, and powerful character of memorials to victims of the Holocaust. This official commitment to public commemoration has played an important part – perhaps especially in countries whose people suffered the most at the hands of the Nazis – in generating wide acceptance of Germany’s complete transformation.

By contrast, Japan has equivocated about crimes such as the Rape of Nanking and the sexual enslavement of Korean “comfort women.” Though Japan today bears no resemblance to the militarist regime of World War II, its willful historical amnesia continues to fuel resentment elsewhere in Asia, particularly China and Korea.

Consider recent apologies for past misdeeds by the United Kingdom and the United States. In the British case, Prime Minister David Cameron spoke out in June 2010 after a lengthy government report found that in 1972, in an episode known as “Bloody Sunday,” British soldiers had fired without warning into a crowd of protesters in Derry, Northern Ireland, killing 14 people.

A number of those killed were shot in the back. “Some members of our Armed Forces acted wrongly,” Cameron said. “The Government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the Armed Forces. And for that, on behalf of the Government –indeed, on behalf of our country – I am deeply sorry.”

In the US, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation in 1988 apologizing for the internment of more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans during WWII, an overwhelming majority of whom were US citizens. There had never been any evidence showing that Americans of Japanese provenance in the US furnished assistance to the wartime enemy. The apology was followed by payment of more than $1 billion to survivors of the camps, accompanied by letters signed by Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush.

In the past, the Turkish government has reacted furiously against Turks who have spoken out about the massacres of Armenians in 1915. It has even brought criminal charges, ultimately dropped, against the prominent Turkish writers Elif Şafak and the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk for describing what happened as genocide. This makes Erdoğan’s recognition that Turks may express different opinions about the episode especially welcome.

This has been an eventful period in Turkey, marked by developments that point in different directions. For those who wish the country well, Erdoğan’s statement – though it falls short of a genuine apology – is an encouraging sign that Turkey’s government and society are moving in the right direction, toward a fuller understanding and acknowledgment of one of the most troubling chapters in the country’s history.

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  1. CommentedMurat ASLAN

    Mr. Neier it is pretty easy to blame Turks as a killer and also it is unaccepteable for us to accept these genocide claims! According to Armenians Turks killed almost all the Armenians in the region in the past but you seemed to forget that the Turks and Kurds that had been killed by the Armenians! There are plenty of evidence that Armenians killed thsosands of muslims when Ottoman army was fighting against its enemies in WW1. Let me ask you a question Mr Neier, Why you do not dare to open your archives to the world ? What scres of your country , if you are an Armenian,? Also you have to prove your claims that Turks killed Armenians with no reason because blaming a country with such a CLAIM need to be proven! We Turks would like to see your archives so badly, also. Why don't you open your archives to the international press? And, according to this if you cant even open your archives how can you keep blaming us as a killer? If you are rightful, you should demand to opening the archives from the Armania! Also what happened to Petrosyan after his meetings with Turikish goverment in the 90's ? We all know that he was willing to make some arrgements with the Turkish goverments in those years and he had to be resigned by some gangs, why dont you ask some questions to those people? Another thing is that almost 50 ambasssador and officers had been killed by the Armenians, shouldn't you apolgy for that? However, yes blaming us and seing no crime of yours would benefit you somehow! If you really rightful in this topic you have to see all the sides of this problem becasue you cannot solve these kinds of problems with just maintaning just one side and blaming the other sides with this and that!

  2. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Mr. Aryeh Neier is full of praise for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has gone down in history as the first Turkish prime minister to offer condolences to the grandchildren of Armenians, killed under Ottoman rule during World War One.
    Erdogan is not under political pressure in Turkey to apologise. This conciliatory tone may boost his popularity in the region and shed a bad light on the Kemalists, whose hero Kemal Attatürk was the founder and first president of the Turkish republic in 1923. Since then Attatürk's secular successors, especially the generals had continually denied the occurrence of the Armenian Genocide. They rejected the use of the term "genocide" to describe the 1915 mass killings of Armenians, denying the claim that up to 1.5 million lost their lives.
    The Armenians see the genocide as the seminal event of their modern history, which unites one of the world's most dispersed peoples. As both Armenia and Turkey couldn't agree on the number of people died in 1915-16, Erdogan has urged for a joint historical commission into the events surrounding the killings. Yet the request has so far been denied by the Armenian authorities. Its government has yet to respond to Erdogan's latest statement, but it will not change the status quo as "it falls short of a genuine apology".
    Political calculations may have been behind it. The Armenian and Turkish governments agreed to normalise relations in October 2009, but peace efforts have since stalled and the border remains shut. There has been a slight thaw in relations between the two in recent years. Many Armenians - including in the diaspora - have been upset by Armenia's warming diplomatic relations with Turkey.
    Erdogan is unpredictable and sometimes surprises the world. Previously, he has apologised for the genocidal massacres against Dersim Kurds. He sees these killings as the crimes of secularist nationalists and does not link them to his government. He reconciled with Israel a year ago, after the Mavi Marmara incident off the coast of Gaza, during which several Turkish activists were killed by Israeli soldiers in 2010. He was also capable of making peace with the PKK last year, after decades of armed conflict.
    Indeed Britain, Germany and the US had also been able to come to terms with their troubled past and showed their remorse. Mr. Aryeh Neier rebukes Japan's "willful historical amnesia" and urges it to have "a fuller understanding and acknowledgment of one of the most troubling chapters in the country’s history". Or else it would continue "to fuel resentment elsewhere in Asia, particularly China and Korea".

  3. CommentedChristian Frace

    "In the past, the Turkish government has reacted furiously against Turks who have spoken out about the massacres of Armenians in 1915." - freedom of speech is the fundamental issue here that stifles the acknowledgement of historical facts.

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