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Halil Berktay
Halil Berktay

On 9 October 2000, Turkish historian Halil Berktay, a professor at the prestigious Sabanci University in Istanbul, gave a full-page interview to the daily Radikal. "A special organization killed the Armenians", read the title of the text. Berktay laid responsibility for the deaths of at least 600,000 Armenians in 1915 during the final decade of the Empire at the door of the last Ottoman government. An Armenian rebellion had resulted in the deaths of thousands of Turkish and Kurdish Muslims, he noted, but "the activities of the Armenian rebels had more the character of localised violence." The Ottoman response, however, was of a different order: the government, said Berktay, created "special death squads" and volunteer forces of convicted criminals to conduct the massacres.

Never before had a respected Turkish academic spoken so openly in the mainstream press about Ottoman responsibility for the Armenian massacres. The reaction, Berktay told ESI, was immediate:

"After my interview I got very positive responses. By phone, by mail, people stopping me in the street. There were many more positive than negative reactions. At the same time, hell broke loose. The day after the interview many websites published information about my background, including details which could not have been found through normal journalism. It was an orchestrated attack. I received hate mail. It was choreographed intimidation fake indignation."

One of Turkey's most influential columnists, Emin Colasan, attacked Berktay on the pages of the country's then best selling daily paper, Hurriyet, with an article entitled "Those who stab us in the back." Colasan accused Berktay of treachery and demanded his dismissal from Sabanci University for "inciting his students against the fatherland and filling their young minds with lies." When Berktay and other Turkish scholars met with Armenian historians at a conference in Mulheim, Germany, in March 2001, Hurriyet called it a "meeting of the evil" where "so-called Turks attack Turkey."

Berktay was not intimidated, however. In another interview in Milliyet in 2000 he stressed that while he did not support the idea of passing resolutions on Ottoman history in the US Congress, it was crucial for Turkey to face the truth about 1915 for the sake of historical truth:

"In fact, I stressed that it is entirely wrong for the U.S. Congress, or any other political institution, to see itself as empowered to judge history in this way. Those who introduced this resolution, and who supported it, did a great disservice to everyone; they remove the possibility for finding common ground and dialogue.

But that is another issue entirely, completely distinct from what is known and what is not known. We can talk all we like about the context, but there's no way you can convince any half-way well-read person in the U.S. or Europe that no horrific event happened in 1915. For there are tons of documentation there that treat of it. Diplomats' reports, journalists' telegrams, the accounts that reached the West from Christian missionaries and their schools, diaries that were kept, photographs: all of these things. And moreover, there are the documents of the Ottoman state; for instance, the documents covering the 1918-19 investigations and trials.

In fact, neither I nor any other historian can reach a conclusion without recourse to these sources. For instance, the figure of 'at least 600,000' dead has been in every edition of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica since 1915."

In September 2005, Berktay, joined by fellow intellectuals Murat Belge, Edhem Eldem and Selim Deringil, organised a conference on the fate of the Ottoman Armenians. For parts of the establishment, it was a deeply provocative event. Justice Minister Cemil Cicek attacked the organisers in the Turkish parliament with the familiar charge of "stabbing the Turkish people in the back." Recalling the impact that the conference had, both in Turkey and abroad, Berktay says:

"I did not imagine that it would be this much, but it became an enormous breakthrough. In fact, the efforts made to prevent the conference from taking place created a feeling of unfairness; this made it twenty times more successful than it would have been otherwise. We showed the world that it is not possible to silence us."

Every country has foundation myths, Berktay tells ESI in early 2009. Turkey's, however, thanks largely to the perseverance of Kemalist dogma, has been virtually uncontested at least till the 2000s.

"Turkey was a late nation state. The hegemony of state Kemalism allowed foundation myths to survive longer than in most nation states. Our myth of immaculate conception is that though other countries might have performed ethnic cleansing, our nation state is virtuous, perfect, white and pure. It's like a child when he learns about sex. He thinks, 'Maybe others parents did this, but not my mother and father; a stork brought me.' […] And in this context the most important repressed issue is the Armenian question. […] It has the potential to stain the idea of the immaculate conception."

"A few Turkish intellectuals, such as Taner Akcam or Fikret Adanır, addressed the Armenian issue in the 1990s. But they were isolated from Turks in Turkey. The press did not cover their views. Marginal journals or printing houses printed 1500 copies of one of their books, for example. But no one ever heard of them."

Berktay decries how dialogue between Turks and Armenians has been undermined by the fixation, on both sides, with single word: genocide.

"In 2001, I went to the Mullheim conference it was a mix of historians, Armenians and Turks. All of them had come to hear or not to hear one thing only: the g-word. The word 'genocide' is quintessentially legal vocabulary. […] But historians cannot decide if something constitutes genocide or not. They can only relate the events that took place. The word genocide implies a crime, as in a court of law. And the Turks feel like they have been seated, en masse, at the seat of the accused."

"So at this conference, whenever someone would use the word 'genocide', the Armenians would cheer and clap, and the Turks would jeer. And then no one would listen to the rest of the presentation. And vice versa: whenever someone didn't qualify the events as genocide, the Turks would clap and the Armenians would jeer, and again, no one would listen any further."

Berktay is quick to acknowledge the extent to which freedom of speech in Turkey has evolved over the past 10 years, particularly in reference to the Armenian genocide. "How much things have changed in Turkey in 10 years on this topic is hard to believe," he tells ESI.

"Since my 2000 interview in Radikal, I have been using the word genocide regularly. There has never been a court case opened against me. It is also the way you say it. I am a professional historian. I have an historian's ethic. We don't talk in terms of collective statements. This is not for any legal measure, it's just part of a historian's craft. Or maybe they didn't indict me because I am too famous. I really don't know. I did not take any measures to prevent indictment."

"Many interviews followed for a Dutch newspaper, for an Australian documentary, for PBS. I must have given 40 interviews. The first hate campaign against me [after the Radikal interview] lasted two-and-a-half months. The second lasted one-and-a-half months; the one after the BBC interview, 15 days; after the Australian one, even less. My point is, it was a long haul effort. They want to intimidate you with noisy clatter. And if don't get intimidated, they get tired before you do."

"Their energy ran out. It was a snowball effect."

August 2009

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