Rene — A devastating document is met with silence in Turkey

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A devastating document is met with silence in Turkey
By Sabrina Tavernise
Monday, March 9, 2009
International Herald Tribune
ISTANBUL: For Turkey, the number should have been a bombshell.
According to a long-hidden document that belonged to the interior
minister of the Ottoman Empire, 972,000 Ottoman Armenians disappeared
from official population records from 1915 through 1916.
In Turkey, any discussion of what happened to the Ottoman Armenians
can bring a storm of public outrage. But since its publication in a
book in January, the number – and its Ottoman source – has gone
virtually unmentioned. Newspapers hardly wrote about it. Television
shows have not discussed it.
“Nothing,” said Murat Bardakci, the Turkish author and columnist who
compiled the book.
The silence can mean only one thing, he said: “My numbers are too high
for ordinary people. Maybe people aren’t ready to talk about it yet.”
For generations, most Turks knew nothing of the details of the
Armenian genocide from 1915 to 1918, when more than a million
Armenians were killed as the Ottoman Turk government purged the
Turkey locked the ugliest parts of its past out of sight,
Soviet-style, keeping any mention of the events out of schoolbooks and
official narratives in an aggressive campaign of forgetting.
But in the past 10 years, as civil society has flourished here, some
parts of Turkish society are now openly questioning the state’s
version of events. In December, a group of intellectuals circulated a
petition that apologized for the denial of the massacres. Some 29,000
people have signed it.
With his book, “The Remaining Documents of Talat Pasha,” Bardakci
(pronounced bard-AK-chuh) has become, rather unwillingly, part of this
ferment. The book is a collection of documents and records that once
belonged to Mehmed Talat, known as Talat Pasha, the primary architect
of the Armenian deportations.
The documents, given to Bardakci by Talat’s widow, Hayriye, before she
died in 1983, include lists of population figures. Before 1915,
1,256,000 Armenians lived in the Ottoman Empire, according to the
documents. The number plunged to 284,157 two years later, Bardakci
To the untrained ear, it is simply a sad statistic. But anyone
familiar with the issue knows the numbers are in fierce dispute.
Turkey has never acknowledged a specific number of deportees or
deaths. On Sunday, the Turkish foreign minister, Ali Babacan, warned
that President Barack Obama might set back relations if he recognized
the massacre of Armenians as genocide ahead of his visit to Turkey
next month.
The collapse of the Ottoman Empire was bloody, the Turkish argument
goes, and those who died were victims of that chaos.
Bardakci subscribes to that view. The figures, he said, do not
indicate the number of dead, only the result of the decline in the
Armenian population after deportation. He strongly disagrees that the
massacres amounted to a genocide, and says that Turkey was obliged to
take action against Armenians because they were openly supporting
Russia in its war against the Ottoman Empire.
“It was not a Nazi policy or a Holocaust,” he said. “These were very
dark times. It was a very difficult decision. But deportation was the
outcome of some very bloody events. It was necessary for the
government to deport the Armenian population.”
This argument is rejected by most scholars, who believe that the small
number of Armenian rebels were not a serious threat to the Ottoman
Empire, and that the policy was more the product of the perception
that the Armenians, non-Muslims and therefore considered
untrustworthy, were a problem population.
Hilmar Kaiser, a historian and expert on the Armenian genocide, said
the records published in the book were conclusive proof from the
Ottoman authority itself that it had pursued a calculated policy to
eliminate the Armenians. “You have suddenly on one page confirmation
of the numbers,” he said. “It was like someone hit you over the head
with a club.”
Kaiser said the before-and-after figures amounted to “a death record.”
“There is no other way of viewing this document,” he said. “You can’t
just hide a million people.”
Other scholars said that the number is a useful addition to the
historical record but that it does not introduce a new version of
“This corroborates what we already knew,” said Donald Bloxham, the
author of “The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism and
the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians.”
Bardakci is a history buff who learned to read and write Ottoman
script from his grandmother, allowing him to navigate Turkey’s written
past, something that most Turks are unable to do. He plays the tanbur,
a traditional string instrument. His grandfather was a member of the
same political party as Talat, and his family knew many of the
important political figures in Turkey’s founding.
“We had a huge library at home,” he said. “They were always talking
about history and the past.” Though Bardacki clearly wanted the
numbers to be known, he stubbornly refuses to interpret them. He
offers no analysis in the book, and aside from an interview with
Talat’s widow, there is virtually no text beside the original
“I didn’t want to interpret,” he said. “I want the reader to decide.”
The best way to do that, he argues, is by using cold, hard facts,
which can cut through the layers of emotional rhetoric that have
clouded the issue for years.
“I believe we need documents in Turkey,” he said. “This is the most important.”
But some of the keenest observers of Turkish society said the silence
was a sign of just how taboo the topic still is. “The importance of
the book is obvious from the fact that no paper except Milliyet has
written a single line about it,” wrote Murat Belge, a Turkish
academic, in a January column in the liberal daily newspaper Taraf.
Still, it is a measure of Turkey’s democratic maturity that the book
was published here at all. Bardakci said he had held the documents for
so long – 27 years – because he was waiting for Turkey to reach the
point when their publication would not cause a frenzy.
Even now, the state feels the need to defend itself. Last summer, a
propaganda film about the Armenians made by the Turkish military was
distributed to primary schools. After a public outcry, it was stopped.
“I could never have published this book 10 years ago,” Bardakci said.
“I would have been called a traitor.”
He added, “The mentality has changed.”