If one considers the statistics, these reflections seem apt. Some 37 million casualties during World War I. Between 50 and 60 million dead during World War II—the largest human undertaking in history. Genocides in Armenia, Rwanda, Bosnia. Millions and millions dead in purges in Russia and China. The Vietnam and Korean wars. Horrendous killings in Argentina. The list goes on and on and on.
Given these terrible realities, it is hardly shocking that there are numerous legacies of trauma. In Germany, collective guilt is virtually a cornerstone of post-World War II national identity. In Austria, collaboration with the Nazis was carefully “forgotten” until the 1980s and 90s. In France, the need to forget more shameful chapters of the Second World War created what historian Henry Rousso called the “Vichy Syndrome.” Indeed, the first serious historical study of Vichy, written by Robert Paxton in 1972, resulted in hate mail and death threats. In Russia and China, unpleasant memories of mass death and all pervasive fear are submerged in nostalgic recollections of a previous age.
Against the great canvas of the twentieth century, the Turkish effort to forget the massacre of roughly 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1923 is hardly unique. During those years, the Ottoman government force-marched Armenians from their homes to horrendous camps, never supplying adequate water or food. [You can see a map of the various genocide-related sites by clicking here.] The experience represents the first genocide of the twentieth century, an ominous marker of what was to come.
The effort to separate modern Turkish identity from the Ottoman past started with the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk disdained the Ottomans. Historian Christopher S. Wilson, a professor at Izmir University of Economics in Turkey, quotes Atatürk saying: “The new Turkey has no relationship to the old one. The Ottoman government has disappeared into history. A new Turkey has now been born.” Wilson goes on to say that the new leadership
frequently described their Ottoman predecessor as old, outdated, inefficient, wasteful and disorganized. In contrast, their new democracy was to be modern, up-to-date, efficient, resourceful and well organized. This attitude of contempt for the new state’s immediate predecessor shaped the ideology and hence policies of the young Republic of Turkey.
Toward this end, the Turks did everything in their power to move on, right down to endeavoring to represent the new state through different architecture, symbols, and myths. Useful, pre-Ottoman sources were emphasized to give legitimacy to the new regime, while whatever came after was conveniently forgotten. There was certainly nothing helpful about remembering a mass murder.
Given the foundation story of the Turkish state, it is hardly surprising that efforts by the European Union and now the United States to demand a confession of the sins of the past is not greeted warmly by the Turks.
Turkish objections are so vehement that the country faces exclusion from the European Union and the passage of a non-binding Congressional resolution by the US Congress is raising fears that US-Turkish relations may be damaged at a time when the American government is dependant on Turkish good will in order to carry out its foreign policy in places such as Afghanistan.
Understanding the nexus of legacies of trauma, contemporary politics, and national identity, even in places that may seem as peripheral to many Americans as Armenia, is tremendously important. While it seems utopian to imagine, along with Armenian foreign minister Edward Nalbandian, that resolutions such as the one passed yesterday represent “an important step towards the prevention of crimes against humanity”—the endless repetition of “never again” in reference to the Shoah certainly has not stopped mass killing from taking place—the ongoing working out of memory does seem important. Especially if that memory work inspires a greater understanding of twenty-first century identities.
Christopher S. Wilson, “The Persistence of the Turkish Nation in the Mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk,” in Mitchell Young, Eric Zuelow, and Andreas Sturm (eds), Nationalism in a Global Era: The Persistence of Nations (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), 93-114.