The prominent Turkish journalist Hasan Cemal, in his recent book titled “1915: Armenian Genocide,” published last month, accounts for the evolution of his response to the question of what happened to the Ottoman Armenians, which forms the substance of what we call the “Armenian question” in Turkey. It starts with the first column he wrote on the topic on Feb. 18, 1985, largely loyal to the official view of Ankara, which maintains that the question has to do with “reciprocal massacres” between Armenians and Muslims, and ends with the talk he gave at the University of California, Los Angeles on March 31, 2011, in which he recognized the “Armenian genocide.”
Hasan Cemal's book is significant in various respects. One aspect has to do with him being the grandson of Cemal Paşa, who was one of the leading figures in the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) government that took the decision to forcefully deport nearly the entire Armenian population of the empire, and who was gunned down in revenge by Armenian nationalists in Tbilisi in 1921.
The book quotes the following passage from Cemal Paşa's memoirs, published in Germany in 1919: “I am not in the least involved with the problem of Armenian deportations and massacres. I did not take part in the discussions that led to the decision on the deportations, and have hindered the massacres. I did my best to help the deportees. Would I have approved the decision on deportations if I had been in İstanbul and taken part in the discussions, with knowledge of the events in the Eastern Anatolian provinces and behind the army's back? I cannot answer that question now. … No, gentlemen, no! You should not unfairly accuse these two nations. The real blame is with the Russian policy which rascally incited them to attack each other. … Russians provoked the Armenian against the Turk. And the Turk concluded that it was necessary to kill the Armenian in order to survive.”
An interesting piece of information provided in the book has to do with the late İlhan Selçuk, a columnist of the Cumhuriyet daily who has held great value for Kemalists. He has apparently never spoken of his Armenian mother. This is quite a remarkable example of how the Kemalist state has not only tried to cover up historical facts but also induced citizens to hide their ethnic origins.
Another important aspect of the book is that it indicates how daring Turkey's intellectuals can be in smashing the taboos of the Kemalist state. That the book is already among bestsellers shows the growing interest among the public at large in the Armenian question. The book has not yet faced any prosecution. This could be said to be indicative of the paradoxical situation in the Turkish media whereby, on the one hand, oppositional media face pressures and harassment by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, while Turkey is moving on to leave no taboos unbroken on the other.
Was what befell the Ottoman Armenians an intentional genocide or the greatest of tragedies experienced in the course of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire? Is what the Unionists did to the Armenians during World War I comparable to what the Nazis did to the Jews in World War II? Such questions will surely be debated for a long time to come.
For my part, I demand that the Republic of Turkey apologize for the Great Tragedy that befell the Ottoman Armenians due to the decisions taken by their government, pay indemnities for their confiscated properties and offer citizenship to family members who have survived. I consider, however, the insistence on that tragedy being recognized as genocide a serious obstacle to Turkish society coming to terms with one of the darkest pages of its history. I also consider Armenia's continued occupation of a fifth of Azerbaijan's territory, rendering close to a million Azeris refugees in their own country, another obstacle.
The late Hrant Dink, a prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist, who fell victim to a racist plot in 2007, said, “Neither denial nor recognition first, but cognition.” I believe those words are still relevant.