An open and critical discussion of the genocide against the Armenians is no longer so rigorously prevented today as it was earlier in Turkey. In the past few years numerous articles and books on the subject have appeared, which do not reflect the official Turkish historiographical viewpoint. In April 2011, for example, Prof. Halil Berktay delivered a speech in Hamburg on the occasion of the anniversary of the genocide, in which he quite incidentally remarked that leading Turkish scientists considered the crime against the Armenians as genocide in accordance with the United Nations Convention. Many do not say as much openly because they fear the reactions of nationalist extremists or simply because they are afraid they might lose their jobs in a state educational establishment. Even if the view held by many scientists and intellectuals that the fact of the genocide can no longer be denied has been gaining credence, the situation in the Turkish population is quite another. The state policy of denial continues to hold sway and shapes public opinion. So one cannot yet speak of a really open, unrestricted discussion.
In contrast to the Turkish population, the Kurds display a clear readiness to deal with the genocide issue. The rejection of the official historical theses is far more widespread among them. Since the founding of the republic, Kurds have been denied basic national and cultural rights, and in Dersim in 1937-38 they were victims of a genocide. In the past thirty years, thousands of Kurdish villages have been burned down, millions of Kurds have been driven out of their homes with violence. The number of Kurdish civilians who have been killed by Turkish military and state controlled paramilitary units will probably never be able to be established. A Kurd who lives in a poor district of a west Anatolian city, because his village was burned down, or who spent years in jail because he fought for the respect of the national and cultural rights of his people, is more readily able to comprehend what befell the Armenians in the years of the genocide because of his own bitter experience with the policy of Turkish nationalism.
The Kurds and the Recognition of the Armenian Genocide
If Turkey‘s denial policy and the wall of silence around the genocide are beginning to waver more and more, this is not only due to recognition on the international level or the campaigning of Diaspora Armenians. Nor is it thanks to Turkish civil society, which remains unfortunately very weak. That a debate has broken out in Turkey around the genocide issue has more to do with the strengthening of the Kurdish national movement. The need to face the genocide issue, the Kurdish question, and other taboo themes has become unavoidable. In April 1997, the Kurdish parliament in exile recognized the genocide against the Armenians and Syrians/Assyrians and declared at the same time that the ethnic Kurds recruited in the Hamidian regiments were collaborators of the Turkish government in that crime. Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed Chairman of the PKK (Workers’ Party of Kurdistan) sent a congratulatory letter on April 10, 1998 to Robert Kocharian on his victory in the Armenian presidential election and went into the issue of the genocide. He welcomed the resolution of the Belgian Senate which called on the Turkish government to recognize the Armenian genocide. At the same time, Öcalan stressed the need for a comprehensive debate and analysis of the background of the crime.
As early as 1982 the Party Newspaper of the PKK called the annihilation of the Armenians genocide. And it held the Young Turk regime responsible: “In a period in which the peoples of the Ottoman Empire sought to free themselves, the bourgeois-natioanlist movement of the Young Turks made the defense of ‘Unity and Individibility‘ the basis of their program. Thereby they positioned themselves against the democratic right of the oppressed peoples to self-determination. (…) As soon as the Young Turks came to power, the oppression of subject peoples under their rule assumed far worse dimensions than had been the case earlier. They attempted to suppress the right to self-determination with violence and did not even shrink from committing a barbaric genocide against the Armenians.” During the First World War, the Young Turk regime “annihilated over one million “, the party publication wrote.
Other Kurdish organizations have recognized the genocide as well. “Our party conference denounces the massive genocide against the Armenians in 1915 as a black stain on the history of mankind. Our conference acknowledges that this bloody course of action, in which Kurdish feudal lords participated as collaborateurs of the Ottoman-Turkish colonialists, constitutes a historical injustice,” said a resolution of the party conference of the PRK/Rizgari (Kurdistan Liberation Party). The descendants of the genocide survivors, they wrote, had the right to return to their former settlements.
Kurdish publications regularly cover the genocide on the anniversary. The Kurdish “Zel Verlag” published the work of M. Kalman in 1994 in Istanbul, entitled, “West Armenia, Kurdish Relations, and Genocide.” It is noteworthy that a Kurdish author speaks of Western Armenia and not, as usually is the case, or North Kurdistan. Another noteworthy more extensive work is the book written by Recep Marasli and published in Turkey in 2008, entitled, “The Armenian National-Democratic Movement and the Genocide of 1915.”
Murder By Higher Orders?
Kurds do display a readiness to work through the question of Kurd-Armenian relations and the Armenian genocide; however, above all when it comes to the issue of the position of the Kurds during the genocide, the differences of opinion among Kurdish intellectuals become evident. Orhan Miroglu, a journalist of the left-liberal newspaper “Taraf”, who comes from Mardin, wrote an article entitled, “1915, Denial and the Kurds” on the anniversary of the genocide in 2011. In it, he went into the reasons for the establishment of the Hamidian Regiments and mentioned their participation on the 1894-1896 massacres of the Armenians. Miroglu then comes to his actual subject, the genocide against the Armenians and Syrians/Assyrians as well as the role of the Kurds: “In 1915 Kurds played an important role in the massacres of Armenians and Assyrians. It is obvious that theirs was not a role of ordinary hired killers. Especially the extermination of Assyrians in Turabdin region was carried out by the joint efforts of local authorities, and Kurdish and Arab tribes. The Ittihadists hadn’t even a deliberate plan for Assyrians.“
Miroglu critizes the position of Kurdish intellectuals because they deny the Kurds‘ complicity: “We cannot say that Kurdish intellectuals displayed a good performance as regards recognition of their complicity in the crime. Our intellectuals attributed the massacres by the [Kurdish] tribes to their being provoced by the Ittihadists. This, he writes, is however not correct: “The massacres directly committed by Kurds cannot be accounted for by simply saying that they were obeying orders. They really believed or they had a stake in believing in the Ittihadists’ propaganda.” Miroglu criticizes that the Kurds evaded the genocide issue for a long time: “Therefore Kurdish intellectuals and politicians, until very recently, instead of facing the truth about the mass extermination of Armenians and Assyrians living in Kurdistan, found it more convenient to stick to stories of Armenians and Assyrians ‘saved’ [by Kurds].”
The Kurdish journalist and author Ahmet Kahraman, who lives in exile, went into Miroglus’s criticism, in a newspaper published in Europe, “Yeni Özgür Politika”, without mentioning him by name. Kahraman wrote: “The Genocide, however, was a project of the Committee of Progress and Union, members of which were also the co-founders of the Turkish Republic. Within the context of this project the Armenian was someone whose murder was a ‘religious duty’ and whose property was [legimitimate] booty [for the Muslims]. Kurds didn’t play a part in the decision making process [for the Genocide] but it is a fact that in practice the Hamidian Regiments, an Ottoman version of today’s ‘village guards’, were used [in the accomplishment of the crime].” Although in his article, Miroglu does not claim that the Kurds or the Kurdish tribal leaders at the time were responsible for the genocide, Ahmet Kahraman accuses him precisely of this and blames him for slandering the Kurds. “To hold Kurds responsible just because Hamidian Regiments were used [in massacring Armenians] is an unfounded argument – a slander against Kurds and a product of conspiratorial minds. You cannot absolve the murderers by slandering [others].”
The Turkish penal code contains the infamous § 301: he who speaks of genocide against the Armenians risks being charged with “Insulting Turkishness.“ For this reason Turkish intellectuals like Orhan Pamuk or Elif Safak sat in the dock, and for the same reason Hrant Dink was murdered in January 2007. If Orhan Miroglu is accused of slandering the Kurds, then this reminds one of the procedure of the Turkish state against critics of the official Turkish version of history.
The Armenian genocide has been the subject of extensive investigation by historians in the past years, and many documents from state archives have been published. Armenian scientists or intellectuals have never claimed that the Kurds were responsible for the 1894-94 massacres or for the 1915 genocide. Prof. Vahakn N. Dadrian is generally regarded as the best known Armenian historian. He has been researching the history of the genocide for the last 50 years. His work, “The History of the Armenian Genocide“, published in 1995, is a standard work on the subject. Not one chapter or sub-chapter is dedicated to the role of the Kurds. They are mentioned in the entire book only 14 times.
In the debate on the genocide, no one – not even official Turkish historical research – attributes responsibility for the crime against the Armenians and Syrians/Assyrians to the Kurds. The role of the Kurdish Hamidian Regiments in the 1894-96 massacres is generally known. That Kurds played a role in the implementation of the crime planned and carried out by the Ittahist regime is also known and is not refuted.
Intellectuals and scientists play an important role in the examination and evaluation of history. Criticism of the official version of history must be accompanied by an explanation of the true political, social, and economic conditions that led to the genocide. What Kurdish authors who are considered “trustworthy” write about the Armenians and the genocide issue, however, resembles partially the viewpoint of the state “Institute for Turkish History.” With few exceptions, their writing often testifies to superficiality and lack of knowledge, especially regarding the history of the Armenians and the Syrians/Assyrians. Many authors appear not to know the extensive literature, especially important contemporary documents. It is also remarkable that those who stand up for a critical evaluation of the Kurdish role in the 1915-1916 genocide are reproached for insulting their own people. In this way, the attempt is made to set limits to a truly open, critical, and comprhensive discussion.
Did Armenians Kill 5000 Kurds in Rawanduz?
Particularly among the Alawites who live in eastern Turkey there is an increasing interest in the history of the genocide and the Armenians, with which they were historically and culturally connected. Articles on the Armenian genocide have already appeared in several issues of the magazine “Kizilbas”. Among them is a text by Naci Kutlay which gives an impression of the status of the debate on the theme of genocide and Armenian-Kurdish relations.
Kutlay writes: “At some places they released Kurds in prison to kill Armenians. However Armenian Fedayeen and organisations, during the Russian invasion of the Kurdistan, responded with the same massacres. According to some sources, 5000 Kurds were killed in May 1916 in the city of Rawanduz. This was very clearly an act of revenge.“ He does not consider it necessary to cite a source for this very serious accusation. Although there is no reference to any scientific work, Kutley seems to have used an essay by the well-known historian Dr. Kemal Mazhar Ahmed published in 1975 by the Kurdish Academy in Baghdad. “The city was taken on May 13. The Armenians fedayeens wanted to take vengeance and as a result they shed a lot of blood. According to some sources, at the end of the massacre 5000 Kurdish women, children, and men were killed. Many of them had not been shot but had been thrust into the Rawanduz gorge.” Ahmed’s work states. In a footnote, he refers to a book by K. Mason, an English officer at the time. It dealt with the question of the Turkish-Iraqi border and the role of the League of Nations. It is curious that in his footnote remarks K.M. Ahmad himself doubts that in Rawanduz 5000 Kurds had been killed: “This figure seems to be exaggerated. Neither M.H. Zeki, who reports on the destructions of the war, nor Hüseyn H. Mukriyani, who lived in Rawanduz after World War I and wrote about it, cite such a figure. Among the people it was said that many Kurdish women had thrown themselves into the gorge to save their honor.” Thus, not only is the number 5000 murdered Kurds questionable, but also whether or not such a mass murder took place at all in Rawanduz. Naci Kutlay seems either not to have read this important remark by K.M. Ahmed or to have deliberately concealed it. What remains fixed in the mind of the reader is that in Rawanduz 5000 Kurds fell victim to an act of revenge by Armenian Fedayeen.
Clearly one dare not play down the gravity of crimes or remain silent about them. When, however, scientists or intellectuals make such serious allegations like the killing of 5000 Kurds, without a shred of concrete evidence, they are knowingly or unknowingly promoting animosity, hatred, and mistrust among peoples. That Armenians who were in the areas that were under Russian control from 1916 committed acts of revenge cannot be denied. Many Armenian Fedayeen came from Western Armenia. They had fought there against the government troops and Hamidian regiments before the “Young Turk Revolution of 1908“. So the pro-government Kurdish tribal groups that had participated in the massacres were known to the Armenians. This is why they directed their vengeance mainly against these Kurds. In Revanduz, which is in the south, outside the areas of Armenian settlements, there was no Armenian population worth mentioning. The Kurdish tribes in this region of Kurdistan had not taken part in Armenian massacres, under Abdul Hamid’s rule or later. Thus it is unlikely that Armenian Fedayeen should have committed acts of revenge against the Kurds there of all people.
Apology without Compensation?
Naci Kutlay’s article in “Kizilbas“ Magazin is all the more noteworthy for Armenians because he goes into the question of how the genocide question can be solved: “We cannot bring back the dead. It’s impossible to redress the material and immaterial damages and to heal the injuries, but it is possible to alleviate the injury. Willy Brand apologised for the Holocaust in Germany. Why should the German nation and Willy Brand carry the burden of what Hitler did?” Thus Kutlay sees a solution to the genocide issue in an apology to the descendants of the survivors.
That the murdered Armenians will not rise from the dead is clear. But why does Naci Kutlay believe that it is impossible to repair the material and moral damage? It is precisely the German example which shows that this is both necessary and possible: in 1951 the Christian-Democratic government of Konrad Adenauer acknowledged before the Bundestag the guilt and responsability of the German people for the Nazi crimes, as well as a principled duty to Israel and the Jewish people. The German federal government and representatives of Jewish organizations came to an agreement in 1952 for the payment of 3.45 billion DM as collective compensation. It was 30 years later that the Social Democrat Willy Brand fell to his knees before the Warsaw monument and that has to be seen in connection with German-Polish relations. His visit to Warsaw paved the way for German-Polish reconciliation and normalization of relations with Poland and the states of the Warsaw Pact.
Kutlay not only remains silent on the fact that Germany lived up to its moral and material responsibilities, but also fails to justify why it should be “impossible” for Turkey to make compensation following the German precedent. Does the Turkish government, which has no qualms about making outlays for its military in the fight against the Kurdish people and spends further sums for tens of thousands of “village guards” to terrorize their own people, have no money left? Kutlay either feels duty bound to show solidarity with the Turkish state against the allegedly “unjustified Armenian claims to compensation“, or he is afraid that the Kurds might also be affected.
When alive, my grandparents vividly remembered and recounted stories of one by one killing of their family members by the Kurds as they traveled from Van to Iraq. If it was not for the intervention of the British troops stationed in Iraq, my 7 year old grandmother & my 11 year old grandfather would have been killed or kidnapped, as well.
It brings some comfort to learn that at least Kurds are recognizing the crimes of their forefathers. Hopefully, both Kurdistan and Western Armenia will become free soon.