Berlin – On January 29, historians, human rights activists and students gathered in Berlin and – via Zoom – internationally for a lively debate on denial, an aspect of genocide studies that has become increasingly prominent in political developments. Organized by the Working Group for Recognition: Against Genocide, for Understanding among Peoples (AGA), the conference dealt with both the Holocaust and the Genocide against the Armenians and other Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire.
Tessa Hofmann, AGA chairwoman, opened the conference with introductory considerations on what genocide and denial actually mean. “Genocide,” she stated, “occurs when a victim group, defined as such collectively, is robbed of its right to life. This can be reversed if this crime is explicitly condemned as such. In the event the crime is denied, on the contrary, the repudiation of the right to life is continued. Suffering and guilt will thereby be continued. Denial of genocide causes continuing pain for the victims and for their descendants, since it not only denies the crime committed against them, but also accuses the victims and their descendants of deliberate lying or slander.”
She made the point that guilt for genocide is not collective, but personal and individual; subsequent generations of Turks do not bear guilt, but they do have the responsibility to deal with their history, acknowledge the genocide, lest it become a part of national history. According to genocide researcher Gregory Stanton‘s 2013 ten-phase model, she said, denial constitutes the last phase. The case in question here is the most stubborn, since it has been incorporated into Turkey’s national history, its law and state doctrine.
The zoom conference examined the issue through the examples of the two genocides committed during the two world wars in the last century, which served as empirical examples for Raphael Lemkin to develop his definition of genocide.
Hofmann explained the need for addressing the issue scientifically, pointing to growing antisemitism in Germany, even though the country recognized the genocide against 6 million European Jews, assumed responsibility and worked through its past. According to a recent poll by the World Jewish Congress, one out of three young Germans and one of five adults harbor anti-semitic views.
Hofmann described various forms of denial, from disputing facts like the deportations, to accepting those facts, but denying there was political intentionality behind them; or dismissing attacks by Kurds, for example, as “collateral damage.” A further tactic is to claim that historians haven’t treated the matter adequately and no conclusions can be drawn; or, to twist facts, claiming that in 1915/1916 civil war conditions prevailed and that attempts by Christian victims at self-defense were illegal uprisings. Minimizing facts and figures is another approach, whereby in the Ottoman case, deniers ignore deaths of deportees during the marches and reckon only those killed in massacres. Or, perversely, the victim/perpetrator roles are reversed; here Hofmann cited the way Ottoman Greeks before the war were designated as “tumors to be excised.”
To explain the reasons behind denial, Hofmann distinguished between situations and generations involved: if those directly involved lied about their deeds in an attempt to escape prosecution, their descendants might have emotional difficulties in accepting that “Grandpa was a Nazi SS member.”
Another motive behind denial lies in the attempt to preserve a positive national identity, for example, the glorification of the Turkish “liberation wars” which overshadow massacres of Ottoman Christians, or present them as necessary self-defense.
A further mechanism Hofmann identified is the deniers’ attempt to victimize themselves, with the line, “My ancestors suffered more than yours,” a phenomenon present in both genocides in question.
Coming to the issue of penalization, Hofmann noted that although genocide denial has been declared punishable by law in the European Union and several individual countries, opponents have complained that this infringes on freedom of research and expression. Here she cited the case of Turkish political figure Doğu Perinçek, whose conviction in Switzerland for genocide denial was overturned by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in 2015 on grounds it was not incitement to hate, violence or intolerance. Yet, Hofmann noted, the same court would recognize such as a call to racial hatred in the case of the Holocaust.
Although not all aspects could be addressed in one conference, Hofmann concluded, this zoom meeting would be a beginning. She warmly welcomed the two guest speakers, Prof. Wolfgang Benz, Director of the Center for Antisemitism Research at the Technical University in Berlin, and Prof. Taner Akçam, well-known genocide researcher and professor from Clark University
Antisemitism and Instrumentalization of the Holocaust
Genocide denial does not characterize the situation in Germany society today, Prof. Benz began; rather there is a problem with instrumentalization of the Holocaust. Denial was never a state policy aim in Germany, he noted, in fact, there was no German state when Nazism was defeated; it was the victorious Allies who saw to it that there would be accountability. In Germany today, genocide denial is actually punishable by law. But there are also those who instrumentalize the Holocaust. He pointed to ongoing street demonstrations organized against Covid vaccination campaigns, in which protesters have worn the star of David, comparing themselves with persecuted Jews under Nazism. Other examples include a slogan used by animal rights activists, “Holocaust on your dinner plate,” and one spread by anti-abortionists, “Babycaust.” Benz, who has researched antisemitism for 20 years, considered such blatant examples of relativizing and minimizing the Holocaust as problematic in German political culture. A conflict is being posed as one between freedom of speech and the state, and whether or not such manifestations are unlawful has become an issue of debate.
“It is not a matter of freedom of opinion,” Benz stated, “no historian is a denier,” even if some denier may have studied a bit of history. Deniers are usually paid propagandists, he said, and named names: David Irving, or Horst Mahler, who moved from being a lawyer for leftist extremists to a Holocaust denier. “This has nothing to do with the freedom of opinion,” he said.
Exploring the question of how it is possible for people to lend credibility to denialists, Benz reviewed German postwar developments. The de-Nazification process, which involved individuals, as well as the war crimes tribunals, and German reparations were all the result of Allied interventions. Their approach to Germany was to say, you have to learn democracy, then be welcomed among civilized peoples and nations. It was, he said, not voluntary. In 1952, when the first compensation agreement was sealed, Germany knew this was a precondition for international recognition. As communist East Germany was unable to pay, the Federal Republic of Germany gained advantages; the point is, it was not voluntary.
Actual denial and relativizing began, he went on, after the fall of the Hitler regime; people claimed they “didn’t know” what was happening. Or, one claimed it was not 6 million Jews who were killed but “only” 300,000 or so, the notion being, that it was “not that bad.” Such victims were considered “collateral damage.” Benz reported on some post-war press reports that cited the Red Cross as the source for these figures, despite Red Cross protests to the contrary; the neo-Nazi NPD party claimed the figures were official statistics of the United Nation, though the German ambassador to the UN, on inquiring, learned this too was a fabrication. Benz suggested another reason for falsification of the number of deaths was related to the reparations issue.
A further claim presented by denialists was that such a large-scale genocide would be “technically impossible.” German nationalists as well as ordinary citizens didn’t want to hear about the atrocities, also for personal reasons; they would insist that “Grandpa was not a Nazi,” etc. Such denialism, Benz went on, is important for right-wing extremists’ propaganda, again citing Horst Mahler. As for one leading figure of the right-wing Alternative for Germany party (AFD) Björn Höcke, Benz remarked that the man was too intelligent to deny the Holocaust outright, and instead argued, it was “so long ago, one should just forget it.” But trauma, Benz stressed, can never be forgotten, not by the survivors, nor their children nor grandchildren; those who argue that they “want to be proud and leave the shadows of the past must recognize that that is impossible.”
Behind Denial in Turkey
Prof. Taner Akçam took the issue head on, asking the question, why? Why do Turks deny the Armenian genocide? This is a question he has been dealing with since 1990, and his response has evolved over time, as he detailed in his remarks. Drawing on these decades of research, Akçam said he initially tried to explain it with the concept of “continuity,” referring to “governmental continuity from the Ottoman Empire through the Turkish Republic;” if the Republic was founded, as it was, by members of the Union and Progress Party which was responsible for the genocide, and if many of them were perpetrators, or profited materially from the genocide, then how can they be revered as heroes? This is the dilemma. He went on to describe how this identification with the founding fathers, that is taught in the classrooms, has characterized successive generations of Turks, including those in the progressive, democratic student movement in 1968, as well as later groups, whether leftwing or Islamist, or nationalist. “In other words, in order to accept the genocide, in our present state,” he said, “we would have to deny our own national identity, as it exists today.” Instead of facing this very difficult task, it is easier to deny reality.
But his quest did not end there. In further developing his response, Akçam said he considered the question of reparations. Even if one denied the genocide per se, and fantasized about having relocated the Armenians to some comfortable place “like sunny Florida,” still one would have to acknowledge that their possessions had been confiscated, and that “the country of Turkey today was formed on the seizure of Armenian assets, and now sits on top of that wealth. As a result, if you accept and acknowledge that something unjust happened in 1915 in Turkey, you have to pay back compensation.” Again, denial is simpler.
Then there is the psychological phenomenon, that once a lie is told and repeated, it is difficult to reverse it, even for a state. Here he drew an important distinction between the state and the population, “between state policy and the attitude of the people of Turkey towards genocide,” and suggested that society’s attitude should be described as “one of ignorance, apathy, fatalism, reticence, and silence, rather than denial.” Furthermore, Turkish society is not monolithic, but comprises different sub-cultural ethnicities, and they have different views. Akçam noted numerous “Kurds, Dersimians, and Alewites have accepted the reality of what happened in 1915,” but have not been able to express it,– thus his use of expressions like “silence” and “avoidance” to depict the lack of an open position taken against the official state narrative. But even these distinctions, albeit necessary, do not fully explain the dominance of denial.
As he continued studying the problem, Akçam said he began to suspect there was something more profound, actually existential involved, both with regard to the state and to society. “The answer to the question seems to lie in a duality between existence and non-existence—or, as Hamlet would say, ‘to be or not to be.’ I believe our existence as a state and a society translates into their—Christians in Anatolia—non-existence, or not-being. To accept what happened in 1915 means you have to accept the existence of them—Christians—on Turkish territory, which is practically like announcing our non-existence, because we owe our being to their non-existence.”
Here he drew on considerations by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas regarding a “secret violence” within social institutions, through which a structure of communication is created. As society identifies with this structure, a “collective communication” comes into being, whereby certain topics are no longer addressed, and their exclusion becomes institutionalized. What is relevant, he stressed, “is that this structure is not imposed on the society by the rulers, but is accepted and internalized by those who are ruled. There is a silent consensus in the society.” Author Elias Siberski coined the term “communicative reality” in reference to secret societies, that is, an exclusive form of communication known only to insiders, which creates an internal reality separate from the real world. This, Akçam said, is one way to describe the situation in contemporary Turkey, where a “communicative reality” has prevailed since 1923, shaping emotions and beliefs, the way people think of themselves. “What is important to note,” he said, “is the gap between this ‘communicative reality’ and actual reality.”
As a result, this “communicative reality” has defined what can be uttered and what not, and has created what he called “a collective secret” or “one big gigantic black hole,” and a “coalition of silence.” In sum: “We simply eradicated everything Christian from this reality. This is how we teach Ottoman history in schools, this is how we produce intellectual-cultural works about our society.”
In Akçam’s view, this is the “secret behind the denial of the Armenian Genocide…. What happened in 1915 is Turkish society’s collective secret, and genocide has been relegated to the ‘black hole’ of our societal memory.” This has been the case since 1923, and all sectors of societies, including different ethnic groups and political factions share the “coalition of silence”; like a warm protective blanket, it is something they want to keep. Without it, one would be forced to put everything into question, “our social institutions, mentalities, belief systems, culture, and even the language we use,” as well as society’s self-image.
When reminded of the genocide and confronted with it, he said, the Turkish response is something like: “If you think we are going to destroy the social-cultural reality we created with such great care over 100 years, with one swipe of a pen, think again!” Akçam concluded with a clear definition of the existential issue and the real challenge posed: “The Armenian Genocide is a part of a more general framework that is directly related to our existence. The republic and the society of Turkey today have been constructed upon the removal of Christians—the destruction of an existence on a territory that we call our homeland. Since we have established our existence upon the non-existence of another, every mention of that existence imparts fear and anxiety in us. The difficulty we have in our country with speaking about the Armenian issue lies within this existence-non-existence duality.”
“So, I think we have to reverse the question: The central question is not why Turkey denies the genocide, but whether we the people of Turkey are ready, as a state and as a society, to deny our present state of existence. It seems that the only way we can do that is by repudiating how we came to be and by creating a new history of how we came to exist. Are we capable of doing that? That’s the true question.”
Time for Animated Discussion
Lively debates followed each presentation and would have continued at length, had there not been a workshop scheduled to follow. Prof. Benz, when asked about the polls indicating alarming levels of antisemitism in Germany today, thought poll results do not necessarily reflect reality, and pointed to the need to examine the thinking behind individuals’ responses. As for the purpose of memory culture, he stressed the importance of knowing the facts as facts, and anchoring facts in the general knowledge of the population, to counter the notions, “I never knew,” or “it wasn’t that bad” or “it doesn’t matter any longer.” Most important, he said, the aim is not to produce guilt feelings. He gave the hypothetical example of a teenager who goes on holiday to Greece and meets a girl. “If the girl says, ‘I’m Jewish,’ what do you do? You shouldn’t feel guilt or be ashamed. But you have the right to know what happened in order to be able to deal with this.”
To a question about the BDS movement, which has been called antisemitic for its criticism of certain Israeli policies, for example, against Palestinians, and denounced by the German Bundestag, Benz was clear. He said the BDS was not antisemitic and that the Bundestag’s condemnation was a “bogus claim.”
When one participant brought up the question of whether or not the Turkish population were not more disposed than the government to face the issue, Akçam examined how Turkish society might be able to distance itself from the founding fathers. “The lack of democracy is the problem,” he said, “and a democratic identity is required for distancing oneself.” He spoke of an “expansion of identity.” As for who the founding fathers were, he said 60-70% of Turkey’s political elite, from Mustafa Kemal, to the presidents, prime ministers, political leaders—all of them were involved in the genocide. As a “joke” he asked, “Suppose the government of post-war Germany were established by former Nazis, and you asked about the Holocaust.”
How, then, can one raise the issue among the younger generation in Turkey? Akçam’s approach is to establish a link between current events and the past. As an example, he took the Kurds. “Denialism is a structure,” he said, “and cannot be relegated to past atrocities.” This structure continues to foster policies in today’s Turkey. He suggested comparing Turkey’s denialism to South Africa’s apartheid. The genocide was based on discrimination, and the discrimination of Kurds today is rationalized by the claim that democratic demands by Kurds constitute a “security threat.” This is something he said they and the opposition should realize, because if they see the connection they will be in a better situation.
How, then, another participant wanted to know, can one break out of this bind and actually defeat denial? Continuing his comparison with South Africa, Akçam said the combination of external pressure and internal democratization was crucial. To make the point clear, he reported on the campaign started by the New York Times in 2019, known as the 1619 Project, which demands a reassessment of America’s founding, from the standpoint of the arrival of the first ship with slaves in that year. Participants may or may not have been familiar with this campaign, but the point was evident: if it possible in the United States today to take up this challenge, it is because of a democratic tradition. “There is a national conversation in America about the founding fathers,” he said, “and we need such a national conversation in Turkey.”