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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.