Friday, April 17, 2009

News from Turkish archives: there was genocide

This was first published in March 14, 2009 Armenian Reporter.

Scholar: Ottoman documents corroborate Armenian Genocide
Hilmar Kaiser on new archival research and view of future

Kaiser (l.) with Ara Nazarian who helped put together the Armenian Assembly's genocide exhibit in background. Armenian Reporter photo

A scholar of Ottoman history, Hilmar Kaiser specializes in the Armenian Genocide. He has conducted archival research on the subject worldwide and is one of only a few Genocide historians to have spent extensive time working in Turkish archives. According to Mr. Kaiser, in recent years these archives have become “world class” in terms of service and are open to all interested experts.

Mr. Kaiser was in Washington to speak at the Armenian Assembly of America’s National Advocacy Conference on March 2, where he introduced an exhibit of photographs taken by German military personnel that depicted Armenian Genocide victims during deportations and their aftermath.

Following his presentation, Hilmar Kaiser spoke with the Armenian Reporter’s Washington Editor Emil Sanamyan.

Official Turkish evidence of genocide

AR: You said in your presentation that there is now the “first low, but reliable body count on Armenian victims - 1.1 million lost their lives, 150,000 were assimilated in Turkey.”

The numbers corroborate what has already been known from Armenian and European sources. What is the significance of the “new” numbers?

HK: These numbers come strictly from official Ottoman Turkish sources, specifically Ministry of Interior archives.

Some of these materials popped up in the “Black Book” of Talaat published in January and others in other places. You have to understand, these sources are from the administration. These sources are political documents people acted upon. These are returns on deportees, survivors, counts, and so on. These are documents prepared for [the Ottoman Minister of the Interior] Talaat to do politics. And Talaat knew exactly what was going on and he had this number in front of him.

According to Hilmar Kaiser there are now “respectful disagreements and debate in Turkey” regarding the Armenian genocide. He encouraged outreach to Turks who don’t recognize the genocide, since many of them see charges of genocide “as a personal insult with hidden agenda.”

“I have come to appreciate Turkish denial,” he said, because to a large extent it represents a rejection of genocide as an immoral act.

HK: There is no unified Turkish position or thesis on [the Armenian genocide]. Just in January six evenings a week, you had two to three hours of Armenian genocide on TV every evening. There is an aggressive debate about the apology initiative.

In addition to people on TV, there are those who work silently in academic circles. The treatment of the subject is much more sophisticated. And I have to say I am very optimistic.

AR: While there is certainly change in Turkey, your colleague Ara Sarafian recently visited a number of Turkish museums and found that denial of Armenian history is still the order of the day there.

HK: This is a slow process. Even if you want to change things, you need a budget for changing things. These are institutions that have bureaucratic processes.

One should not over-politicize everything. Certain things are just red tape. I have seen things done in Turkey in a way that I could never understand. But it is not political. It is just basically administrative law.

Turkey’s good intentions and commission proposal

HK: In Turkey, there is a strong desire for normalization of relations [with Armenia], obviously with a hope that in return the genocide would disappear [as an issue].

[Recep] Tayyip Erdogan is a remarkable person who has the habit of doing the right thing, although he has certain constraints on his policy due to what he inherited.

AR: At the same time, for nearly four years, the Turkish government has conditioned its relations with Armenia on a commission of historians, which as you mentioned earlier was effectively a political ploy thought up by a former Turkish diplomat, who is now a member of parliament.

HK: Some people think that once you put the [genocide issue] out of politics and hand it over to historians, you can deflect the [pressure on this] issue. This is a way for politicians to duck the issue. Although, this may not be a bad idea as such, I do not think [such a commission] would deflect the pressure.

But there is no need for historical commission to do research and it is not going to help advance academic research and understanding of the issue.

If someone wants to have a commission, let them have their commission. I will continue with my work. I hope that we come to a situation when a historical commission is no longer even thought of or deemed necessary.

Just the idea to have this artificial environment created gives me a headache. Knowing the red tape on the Turkish side and on the Armenian side, if these two paper tigers get together there will be a mountain of paper created, and I do not want to be buried under it.

I definitely do not want to be part of any commission, because I am anyhow [doing research] in Turkey, what would I need a commission for?

Preparing for the future

AR: At the end of the day, beyond academic research, what do you want to happen between Armenians and Turks?

HK: It is very simple. [It should become] absolutely normal to walk down the street in Van and hear Armenian and Turkish [languages spoken], like in Yerevan. I do not see many differences between Armenians and Turks. Leave the people alone and let them eat the same food and sing the same songs.

There should be an office of the ARF [Armenian Revolution Federation] in Van with coat of arms and an Armenian flag in front of it, because that is where ARF belongs. Catholicos Aram I should have his See in Cilicia and not in Lebanon. There should be a right of return for Armenians. I think Armenians belong not in Lebanon or Syria but in Turkey.

I would be happy when we see the Armenian genocide and decades following it as one chapter of Armenian history in historic Armenia, Anatolia, Kurdistan, or whatever [you call it]. I think that Armenians were there for 3,000 years and they should be there also in 3,000 years.

We have to overcome the results of the genocide. We have to prepare the future. The recognition of the Armenian genocide is not the end of things, it is the beginning.

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