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The Role of Historians of Turkey in the Study of Armenian Genocide

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The Role of Historians of Turkey in the Study of Armenian Genocide.

Professor Erik Jan Zürcher


Professor Erik Jan Zürcher

Turkologist and Dutch historian at the University of Leiden

In discussing his own personal and professional history, Professor Erik Zürcher explains the contribution that historians of Turkey can do in two areas for a better understanding of the Armenian genocide: the causes and motives and the way in which modern Turkey, as it emerged after World War I was shaped by the Armenian genocide. Erik Zürcher also welcomes the progress of historical research made thanks to some historians from the country more and more inclined to find and spread the truth. Some positive developments, which, according to the author, give hope for a possible reconciliation between Turks and Armenians.

On the occasion of the centenary of the Armenian genocide someone like me, who sees himself as a historian of Turkey in the twentieth century, has to speak out.

In the first place, there are moral and ethical reasons why this is so.  Historians of the late Ottoman Empire and Turkey in the twentieth century have a special responsibility, because we have been part of the fabric that maintained the silence for so long. We cannot allow a situation to continue such as I knew it when I was a student and a young university teacher in the nineteen seventies and eighties, when –in spite of the fact that outside our field the genocide had been an object of historical research for 50 years– we were barely aware of what had happened in 1915. Our textbooks only mentioned it as a footnote to history, if at all, and never defined it as a genocide. Our teachers never discussed it.

I felt the effects of this silence clearly in my own research. In 1984, I published the book that would form the basis for my academic career. It was called The Unionist factor. The Role of the Committee of Union and Progress in the Turkish National Movement (1908-1925). The dates in the title are significant, because the most important thesis of the book was that the national resistance movement in the Ottoman Empire after the World War I, out of which the Republic of Turkey emerged, was in fact the creation of the Young Turk Committee of Union and Progress that had been in power during the World War I. It was also this Committee that launched Mustafa Kemal, the later Atatürk, as a leader.

The book was well received, but a friend of mine translated a review in an Armenian journal for me. That, too, was appreciative of my work, but it also voiced a criticism. According to the reviewer my story seemed to play out in an empty landscape, as if the elimination of the Armenians had not taken place. At the time my reaction was: ‘Yes, that may be true, but my book was not about that.’ It was only 20 years later, when I started to involve myself more with the Armenian question in the context of the pioneering Workshop on Armenian Turkish Scholarship (WATS), that I realised that I had been wrong. Even the continuity of the political leadership between the Unionist period and the Kemalist republic, the subject of my book, cannot be studied without taking into account the fact that this leadership had been formed in the crucible of 1915-16 and that the national resistance movement that brought forth the republic was in so many ways a continuation of World War I –politically, ideologically and personally. It is true, of course, that the top political and military leaders of the World War I era had fled the country in 1918 and that most of them were killed by Armenian agents in the following years, but still: quite a few of the people involved in the genocide held high office in the republic, and the shared experience of 1915-16 undoubtedly created group solidarities.

Involving oneself with the issue of the genocide is not just a moral issue, however. Historians of Turkey also have something specific to offer. Now that the outlines and many of the details of the genocide have been so well established by historical research based on original documents and eye-witness accounts, there are, I think, two areas where historians of Turkey can contribute significantly to a better understanding of it, on the basis of Turkish sources. The first area is that of the causes and motives. At this point in time we have come to recognise that both longer-term developments (the popularity of social Darwinism, militarism, the issue of reforms and land disputes, mass migration of Muslim refugees) and short-term ones (the Ottoman loss of the Balkan War, the outbreak of the World War I, the Ottoman defeat at Sarıkamış the British landings at Gallipoli and the rebellion at Van) played a role.

Looking for causes and motives is important because it helps us better to understand what happened. It does not affect the issue of genocide, and the fear of some Armenian scholars that analysing the causes and motives is necessarily apologetic, is groundless. What is important for the definition of genocide is intent, the intent to destroy an ethnic or religious group wholly or in part. The motive behind this intent is not relevant, that is why the denialist argument that what happened in 1915 cannot be genocide because Armenians formed a threat is nonsense, even if this contention were founded in fact.

The other issue is the way in which modern Turkey, as it emerged after World War I was shaped by the Armenian genocide.  I have looked at the personal and ideological continuities between the Committee of Union and Progress and the Kemalist republic, which are considerable. More can certainly be done in this field, but the issues that now require attention (and increasingly are also getting it, in Turkey as well) are the transfer (or theft) of Armenian property and the conversion of Ottoman Armenians. The first, together with the more regulated takeover of Greek properties, laid the basis for the emergence of a Turkish bourgeoisie during the republic and quite a few major corporations of Turkey have their roots in this process. I am not a lawyer and I have no idea about the validity of legal claims after a century has passed, but for a better understanding of Turkey we need to know more about the transfer of property, for instance through access to the still closed cadastral archives.

The conversion to Islam of large numbers of Armenians during World War I is the other big issue that needs to be addressed. As in any nation-building process, homogenising the population has been a key feature of modern Turkish history. This has obscured the fact that many Turks today have some Armenian roots.  Nobody knows exactly how many Armenian women and children were taken into Muslim families in 1915-16, but even if we assume a relatively low number of 100,000 and project on that the demographic trends of Turkey in the twentieth century, that would mean that something like 2.5 million Turks have at least one  Armenian grandparent. Rediscovering these roots has become popular among progressive Turks in recent years.

In other words: the Republic of Turkey not only carries the legacy that it was founded and ruled to a considerable extent by people who had been involved in the genocide, it also carries a material and a personal legacy of the Armenians themselves.

I am happy to say that not only in the world of Turkish studies in general, but also among Turkish historians in Turkey the number of those who are genuinely interested in finding the truth and discussing it openly, is increasing constantly. Both the ground breaking conference at Bilgi University in 2005 and the demonstrations following the murder of Hrant Dink in 2007 have been milestones. At the many conferences that have been held at the centenary of the genocide, Turkish scholars have played an important role.

This new openness is a hopeful sign that reconciliation between Turks and Armenians is a possibility. That reconciliation cannot be built on denial, that is obvious, but it also cannot be built on compromise. Compromise is a politician’s tool and it serves to solve current issues, but it has nothing to do with an enquiry into historical truth. People cannot be slightly murdered. Nor can reconciliation be built on the notion, heavily promoted by the current Turkish government, that all those who suffered in the horrible years of the World War I in Turkey should be commemorated together. Many more Germans died in the World War II than Jews (although some of the Germans were Jews and some of the Jews Germans) but Chancellor Merkel would not dream of claiming that these should be remembered equally as victims of their time and circumstances. ‘Respectfully agreeing to disagree,’ a solution proposed by some semi-official spokesmen in Turkey, is no solution either. It implies that recognition and non-recognition of the genocide are morally and academically equivalent positions. They are not.

Acceptance of the historical truth will take time, even though the circle of Turkish historians actively promoting it is increasing. Younger generations of Turks (which means the vast majority of them as this is a young country), having been exposed to nationalist state rhetoric in school, during military service and in the media, are genuinely convinced that the story of the genocide is a lie. Unlike the first generation of the republic they no longer consciously deny a truth they know only too well. Instead, the younger generations of Turks often place the ‘Armenian lies’ in the context of the conspiracy theories that are so prevalent in Turkey – they see them as a weapon used by the West to denigrate and harm the country.

That makes the task of re-educating the Turkish public and opening up the debate huge. But the door has been opened and it cannot be closed. Among Kurdish intellectuals and politicians, too, we see a completely new readiness to discuss the events of 1915 with an open mind, not only in Istanbul and Ankara but also, even primarily, in the southeast.

A broader realisation in Turkey and beyond that genocide is a personal crime, in other words: that persons can be accused and convicted of genocide, but not nations or states, might also make the discussion easier. The current Turkish state and society can rightfully be accused of denying the genocide, but not of the crime itself. Its perpetrators are long dead.

Recognition is important not just for the Armenians, but also for Turkey itself. As Taner Akçam has argued long ago, the genocide needs to be faced if Turkey is to develop into a more relaxed, more democratic, more humanist society. Discussion and recognition can act as a catalyst to remove the blanked of narrow and increasingly religiously tainted nationalism that lies over this society. So, let us hope that the centenary is the opening of a new page in the story of facing the historical truth, in the interest of Turks as well as Armenians.

The original version of this article appeared on the site "Turkey Research - Centre for Policy and Research Turkey" in May 9, 2015.


Armenian genocide : recognition and reparations


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