U hosts conference on Turk, Armenian violence

by Elizabeth Dunbar

Turkish, Armenian and U.S. scholars gathered at the University’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs on Thursday, Friday and Saturday to present research concerning the Armenians’ fate at the end of the Ottoman Empire in Turkey.

The conference was the third in a series dedicated to exchanging information and discussing ways of presenting it to an uninformed public and a Turkish state that does not acknowledge the Armenian deaths from 1915-23.

“The issue of the Armenian massacre became so politicized that politics prevented any scholarly work from going on,” University of Michigan professor Muge Gocek said.

University history professor Eric Weitz said scholars consider what happened to the Armenians in the early 20th century the first modern genocide, but the Turkish state denies the genocide ever happened.

During World War I, the Armenians’ alliance with Russia and other European states threatened the Ottoman Empire. As many as 1 million Armenians died when they were relocated to certain areas of what is now Turkey.

In Turkey, the government describes the events as a civil war in which millions of Turks died. Visiting history professor Taner Akcam said museums in Turkey are dedicated to retelling the deaths of millions of Turks.

“I do not personally use the term ‘genocide’ to describe what happened to Armenians, but not because I don’t believe it wasn’t,” said Gocek, who is originally from Turkey. ” ‘Genocide’ is too political a term. They’ll stop listening to you when you use it.”

Because the issue is controversial, workshop organizers closed the discussion to the public until Saturday.

“It was important to bring people together to discuss the issue in a depoliticized environment,” Weitz said.

University of Chicago professor Ronald Suny said the first two workshops demonstrated a need for the closed sessions.

“The first two meetings demonstrated the very word ‘genocide’ had become a battlefield,” he said.

Though the official Turkish state position has been to reject accounts of genocide, Weitz said, Turkish people are beginning to learn about what happened.

“The Turks as a people have a very different position than the Turkish state,” he said.

Still, some insist otherwise.

Meltem Deniz, a dentistry post-doctoral researcher from Turkey, said the Turks were responding to a civil war.

“The Armenians joined the enemy and they became our enemy,” she said. “We killed to defend our land and defend our freedom, and they call it genocide.”

Deniz comes from the city of Adana where, she said, many of her relatives died during the conflict. Many Turks still do not realize what happened between the two groups of people, she said.

Deniz said she has researched the conflict on her own and tried discussing the history with several scholars involved with the workshop, but the conversations only ended in disagreement.

“It was economic and social conditions that drove society to this conflict, but the intention was not to kill Armenians so everyone can get rid of Armenians,” Deniz said.

Weitz said scholars consider the Armenian genocide one of the three modern genocides, the others being the Holocaust and the recent massacre in Rwanda.

“The genocide of Armenians was perhaps the first modern genocide,” he said. “It was a highly systematic and highly organized way of eliminating a group of people.”

Professor Elazar Barkan said researching Turkish-Armenian history is difficult because Turkish archives are closed to the public.

Despite the lack of a historical narrative, Barkan said, continued dialogue is necessary to prevent atrocities from happening again.

“History can and ought to be used for reconciliation,” he said. “There is an ethical and moral obligation to remember.”

Elizabeth Dunbar covers international affairs and welcomes comments at [email protected]

Jens Krogstad welcomes comments at [email protected]