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From Empire to Republic

Auteur : Taner Akçam
Éditeur : Zed Books Date & Lieu : 2004, London
Préface : Taner Akçam Pages : 288
Traduction : ISBN : 1-84277-527-8
Langue : AnglaisFormat : 135x216 mm
Code FIKP : Liv.ang. 2895Thème : Politique

Table des Matières Introduction Identité PDF
From Empire to Republic

From Empire to Republic: Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide

Taner Akçam was born in the province of Kars-Ardahan in the northeast of Turkey and became interested in Turkish politics at an early age. He was very active in the student movement of the generation of 1968 and, as the editor-in-chief of a political journal, was arrested in 1976 and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. He managed to escape one year later and fled to Germany.

He received his Ph.D. from Hanover University with a dissertation titled, Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide: On the Background of the Military Tribunals in Istanbul Between 1919 and 1922. He has since lectured and published extensively on this topic, with ten books and half a dozen articles in Turkish and German.

From 1988 to 2000, he held the position of Research Scientist in Sociology at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research. His scholarly interests focused on violence and torture in Turkey, a subject on which he has published a number of books and articles. He has also written extensively on Turkish national identity.

He has twice been Visiting Scholar at the Armenian Research Center, University of Michigan–Dearborn. He was Visiting Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, 2000–2001 and since then has been Visiting Professor of History at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities.


I remember when, during the early 1980s, I was offered the opportunity to meet with the ASALA,1 I became extremely angry. I recall even yelling at the hapless individual who had made the proposal: ‘Don’t you ever bring up this subject again, nor do I want to hear the name of that organization from your lips. It’s an issue that’s being put out there by some dark forces and I have nothing to say to this organization, which is an extension of these dark forces.’ (The term ‘dark forces’ was commonly used to refer to foreign secret services and foreign powers.)

It was actually the typical reflexive response of a Turkish intellectual’s struggle to deal with the issue, which was regarded as very complicated and troublesome. One preferred to keep oneself aloof from the issue, especially in light of ‘the cooperation of Armenians with the imperialist powers.’ I can see clearly today that the real problem lay neither with the type of organization ASALA was nor with the question of whether Armenians had ‘made common cause with imperialist powers.’ The real problem was that the subject referred to as the ‘Armenian Problem’ occupied such a perverse place in our mind. The subject was so foreign to our way of thinking and the way we viewed the world (our Weltanschauung) that to approach it seriously meant risking all of the concepts or models we had used to explain our world and ourselves. Our entrenched belief systems constituted an obstacle to understanding the subject. I refer to this as a ‘fear of confronting’ the issue.

It is fair to say that political parties and even individuals with diametrically opposed ideas nevertheless maintain a common mindset. They perceive the world and themselves with the same worldview. We can exemplify this mindset, which has such a fear of examining the Armenian Genocide, thus: ‘The Ottoman Empire was the target of divisive maneuvers by the Western imperialists. Turks established their independent state by defending the last bit of territory they held in their power. The Armenians and Greeks were local collaborators with the imperialist forces in support of their expansionary aims and wanted to partition Anatolia.’ The common symbolic use of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk by disparate schools of thought and politics is an interesting example of the widespread sharing of this mindset in Turkey. Writing to his father in 1971, Deniz Gezmis¸, one of the leaders of the radical youth movement of 1968,2 stated in a letter: ‘I’m grateful to you because you raised me with Kemalist principles…I’ve been hearing stories about the war for [Turkish] Independence since I was little…We’re Turkey’s second-generation independence warriors.’ The generals who had Gezmis¸ executed for insurgency did so on the grounds that he had acted ‘against the principles of Atatürk.’ It is clearly not possible to find a place for the Armenian Genocide of 1915 within this atmosphere and frame of mind. Turks and Armenians have developed a historical account of events that is completely at odds with each other’s.

The problem is not limited to the history of Turkish–Armenian relations. This trend is epidemic in almost all historiography of the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries in the Balkans and the Middle East. This period, which has been defined as the transition from empire to nation-states, constituted a major transformation, with the breakup of the peoples who occupied these regions. I am referring not just to the breaking apart of peoples from one another, but also to a breaking away from one’s own history. The histories of all the different cultures and religions occupying this large territory have been constructed more or less through this same nationalistic perspective. Nation-states developed different and separate histories in order each to create a common past, because territory is not enough to make a population homogeneous. In addition to the ethnic–cultural–religious, that is, objective, criteria for establishing nationhood, a nation needs a common memory. Collective memory and history are the building blocks of the ‘imagined’ nation and the ensuing real nation-state. History has to be written in a unique way to fit this aggregate of people, who will soon remember themselves as being one, both in happiness and distress. As stated boldly by Ernest Renan, ‘a nation could only be formed by the distortion of its past. It is impossible to form a nation without distorting its past.’3 ‘The most common form of distortion is “forgetting.”’4 Whenever one attempts to rewrite history based on this collective memory, it is almost a requirement that one should omit or redefine other nations. This means that one’s own history must be put in a context where other nations emerge as alien or the ‘other.’ Consequently, common histories of nationalities that had lived together for centuries were deconstructed and these same nationalities became detached from one another. The new history embodied one set of remembrances in opposition to those of others. We can say that this itself poses a serious impediment to the solution of many contemporary problems. Furthermore, the prevalence of globalization today means that nations have less and less opportunity to live in isolation from one another.

The following question is in dire need of an answer. Instead of remembering this period as the demise of an empire and the emergence of separate nation-states, and instead of writing their respective histories as the histories of rival nation-states, is it possible to reread this period with a common historical perspective? Can we reread the history as one evolving between the Ottoman state and its citizens? It is obvious that Ottoman citizens of Armenian origin experienced this history far differently than Muslim citizens, but this should not be an obstacle for a new historical perspective. This book should be understood as a struggle for such an understanding and the product of a wish to read the transitional period from imperial state to nation-state as a history in which different nationalities comprised elements of a common history, rather than separate histories. There is one other consideration that I would like to express with this book. Speaking openly about the Armenian Genocide in Turkish society, which means incorporating the Armenian Genocide into Turkish historical writing, has a direct impact on pushing Turkey towards becoming a truly democratic state. Unfortunately there is not yet enough awareness in Turkey of the positive and propelling effect that incorporating the narratives not only of Armenians but also of other ethnic–religious groups would have on democratization. Only nation-states that are at peace with their pasts and all their citizens can build futures based on democratic principles. Moreover, by eliminating the history of these various groups from its national narrative, Turkey has deprived itself of a rich and vibrant part of its own history.

The individual to whom I have dedicated this book, Jan Philipp Reemstma, is the Executive Director of the Hamburg Institute for Social Research. At a time when I had not yet received a doctorate, he accepted me into the institute and changed the direction of my life. He provided both emotional and material support for the research and work I did between 1988 and 2000. The more than ten books and numerous articles which I have managed to publish are the product of his encouragement and support. For these reasons he occupies a most important place in my life. I give immeasurable and heartfelt thanks to him.

In the publication of this book I had the support of several remarkable individuals. My special thanks go to the directors and staff of the Zoryan Institute. I would like to thank Greg Sarkissian, its president, who provided unstintingly the facilities and resources of the institute, and has encouraged me in my research. The deep belief that bringing the people of Armenia and

Turkey together is an indispensable element for the peace and prosperity of the region has drawn us very close together. I want to express special thanks to George Shirinian, the Director of the Zoryan Institute, whose tireless editing, challenging questions, and overseeing of the whole publication process helped make this book a reality. Vahakn Dadrian, its Director of Genocide Research, went over each page with a fine-tooth comb, making important critical analyses, despite undergoing heart surgery during the process. Müge Göçek gave me invaluable critical insight into how to put the ideas contained in this book within a general framework. I am also indebted to the many individuals who are not specifically named here, who provided important critical observations while I was preparing this book.

Any shortcomings, however, are solely my responsibility.

Taner Akçam
Minneapolis November 2003

NOTES 1. Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, an organization which was actively engaged in bombings and shootings, especially of Turkish diplomats abroad, aimed at bringing international attention to the recognition of the Armenian Genocide. 2. Gezmis¸, who fought to topple the Turkish government by force, was executed for his involvement in armed struggle against the state. 3. Ernest Renan in Ulrich Schneckener, Das Recht auf Selbstbestimmung, Ethno-nationale und internationale Politik (Hamburg 1996), p. 26. 4. Ernest Renan quoted in Gary Smith, ‘Arbeit am Vergessen.’ In Gary Smith and Hinderk M. Emrich, eds, Vom Nutzen des Vergessens (Berlin, 1996), p. 15.

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