Rober Koptaş from the Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos interviews bianet’s Ertuğrul Kürkçü, following the latter’s article entitled “An apology owed”, published in Turkish on bianet’s website on 19 January 2009.
Agos - İstanbul
The article "An apology owed" which Ertuğrul Kürkçü wrote for bianet on 19 January 2009, the second anniversary of the murder of Agos editor-in-chief Hrant Dink, was concerned with the signature Kürkçü and nearly 30,000 others put under an apology campaign which asked for forgiveness from “our Armenian brothers and sisters” for “the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915”.
Agos journalist Robert Koptaş interviewed Kürkçü on his view on the Armenian issue.
RK: In the past, people did not really know what happened to the Armenians in 1915, but even so nearly everyone has a story of how they learned about the issue. What was your first with Armenians?
EK: I was still very young when I realised that the existence of Armenians in Turkey was considered a “problematic existence.” When I registered at the Talas American Middle School in 1959 (in the central Anatolian district of Kayseri), we had Armenian friends there, but their status was different from ours. The Armenians local to Talas were able to go to that school without paying fees, they were more privileged. We put this down to them being Christians and thought that the school, being run by an American Board, was continuing a tradition. We did not make any connections with the past, but life in Talas at that time was very different to other places in Turkey. I still remember the well-kept vineyards, terraced fields, beautiful stone buildings, traces from the past…
Are you from Kayseri?
No, we lived in Ankara at the time. I was a boarding student. Mostly upper-class children and children of higher-level bureaucrats went to that school. Although I did not know anyting about the frictions, I met Armenians then. This does not really happen to many 11-year-old children in Turkey.
When I became politically active towards the end of the 1960s, I don’t remember us having the issue on our agenda. The existence of the Soviet Union meant that the borders of Turkey to the east were clear, and claims on either side were irrelevant. The Armenian issue was thus neither on the agenda of the Soviet Union nor of the Turkish Left. Because of Cold War politics, Armenians in contact with the USA seemed to have better relations with Turkey. I believe that is why the issue was not really discussed.
The second time I met with the issue was during the time of the 12 March military coup (1971), when I was in the Selimiye Military Prison (in Istanbul). Garbis Altınoğlu (a Marxist of Armenian origin) and his friends had formed relations with İbrahim Kaypakkaya, so they were part of TİKKO (The Turkish Workers’ Peasants’ Liberation Army). When you think about why they took part in that movement, you realise that there was a serious criticism of Kemalism, which other movements of the Left in Turkey supported. That attracted the Armenian young people who had been educated at (Istanbul’s American) Robert College, especially, I believe. Garbis was not alone, but I don’t remember the others well. The second time I realised and debated this issue was thus in military prison.
What kind of debate was this?
We debated what the Armenian issue was, the existence of Armenians in Anatolia, Armenian identity, and topics like that. When the issue was discussed, we had friends, for instance from Adana, who sometimes realised for the first time that their mothers were Armenian. I noticed then that they were worried that they would be doubly oppressed if it were found out that their mothers were Armenian. These debates led to a kind of awakening; people started looking for pictures of the Armenian relatives they had never been curious about; for instance, some realised that their relatives lived in Marseilles and had different (ethnic) roots. People with different origin came together in prison and had plenty of time to discuss these things. But this did not take the shape of saying “We have this problem, we have a story, what is the truth, let us examine it.” Rather, it was discussed as unique stories from the distant past or in the context of people’s identities. But in the end it became obvious to us that we were discussing a massacre.
Was that term used?
Yes, it was. Generally, it was not talked about as a civil war which ended in something, but in terms of a massacre. I remember this. But this was never translated into politics, a criticism of history, a political criticism. It was left as a series of historical facts that people needed to know.
What did people talk about when ASALA (Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia) emerged before the period of the 12 September military coup?
Of course the attacks carried out by ASALA (on Turkish diplomats) made us talk about the topic again. However, ASALA’s attacks happened at a time that was not at all conducive to such a debate…The pressure of 12 September was felt in Turkey, and people were busy with the violence of the 12 September regime. ASALA’s attacks thus did not transformTurkey’s politics. Mostly people were suspicious that these attacks were provocations designed to confuse people. I cannot say that the Turkish Left reacted with sympathy. I can only say that after attacks such as that carried out by Ekmekçiyan (at the airport) in Ankara, there was a confused feeling of pity. How can I explain, there were many civilians who had died and been wounded, but he was caught alive, which turned out to be very unfortunate for him (he was executed). He was very young, and when we looked at his face, we felt pity. But generally, ASALA’s attacks were seen as something outside of Turkey, which was just confusing issues.
A real in-depth debate on the issue only really started when (the Turkish-Armenian newspaper) Agos was published and (its editor-in-chief) Hrant Dink started to bring it to the attention of the Turkish public in careful steps, creating a climate that made debate more possible. Of course, a relative relaxation of limits on the freedom of expression in Turkey, the publication of controversial theses, and the fact that someone like Taner Akçam who came from the left started to write about this issue, meant that people could not really stay uninvolved.
Around 10-15 years ago, when our office was in Cağaloğlu (on the historical peninsula of Istanbul), a publisher working in the office below ours gave us a present of the published reports of the Istanbul Martial Law Court trial on the Boğazlıyan massacre.
That must be the book “The Questioning and Trial of the Committee of Union and Progress” published by Temel Publications.
Yes. From the clear and straightforward statements of witnesse, defendants and victims I realised that there was very clear knowledge about how the massacre was carried out on orders of the Committee of Union and Progress. The only issue that compromised the cour was that the case was being heard in an Istanbul that was occupied by foreign powers; one could thus question the neutrality of the court. However, leaving those doubts aside, there were such clear, detailed documents that were consistent with each other and witness statements that the book made a reader believe that there was an awful truth in them.
Later, when the Kurdish struggle became more intense, the way the state treated minorities and non-Turkish groups became a target for criticism. I remember economist Aslan Başer Kafaoğlu speaking at the anniversary of the foundation of the Özgür Gündem newspaper. He was from Yozgat (central Anatolia). He said how the villagers in Yozgat massacred the Armenians. Aslan Bey was around 80 years old, and he was generally someone who held “Turkish national values”. Even someone like him thought that a disaster had happened. The massacre was thus not limited to the east, but also happened in Çorum, Yozgat and Bursa.
But again, it has only become necessary very recently to have a coherent position on the issue. Hrant’s efforts, the Internet and new publications have provided people with a lot of information. Everyone tries to order the information according to their own viewpoint and understand the past. Of course, when it became clear that Turkey has a varied, multi-cultured social historical background, the need to make politics not for an assumed unit but a real multitude pushed people like me to think again. The same realisation may have pushed others into a rut, while others again think that the issue was solve in, say, 1920, with no need to return to it.
As far as I am concerned, while the world is being rebuilt, it is impossible for this issue to remain invisible. That is why my journey of discovery has continued from when I was eleven to when I turned 60, and still continues. And each day I understand more clearly the depth of the pain that was experienced.
What do you think these experiences were like?
As I wrote in my article, “An apology owed”, we face an issue that relates to us in several ways. For instance, the fact that Turkey’s non-Muslim population disappeared because of massacres and population exchanges menas that a social division of labour which went on until the end of the Ottoman Empire disappeared. When the non-Muslims were purged in the name of “increasing the Turkish element”, all the accumulated intellectual knowledge, and Turkey’s best-educated, most developed and most cosmopolitan population was purged. From traditional craftspeople like carpenters, metal workers, goldsmiths, stone masons, leather traders to the more modern craftspeople of industry, they all disappeared. In other words, Turkey cut off its own arm, or damaged its own brain.
When you look at it like that, not only from an intellectual but also a political loss, you realise that Turkey lost one of the most important dynamics in its social, political class struggle; the Armenian population and its Hınçak socialist party, who had struggled most against the Committee of Union and Progress, the previous sultanate, and autocracy, were eradicated from this soil.
I gradually realise more clearly that the feeling of something missing, of a lack of roots is closely related to these events. If we had continued to live in this multiplicity, there would have been Armenians, Jews and Rum in the political parties and trade unions as well as Turks and Muslims. The accumulation of Western ideas had to be rediscovered in Turkey after the 1920s and 1930s: enlightenment, socialism, the workers’ struggle – they could have been an ordinary part of our lives. Unfortunately we deprived ourselves of them…
Some leftist literature interprets the events of 1915 or population exchanges as affecting mostly the non-Muslim bourgeoisie, that is, it is partly approved of.
Unfortunately…we are talking about a whole people being destroyed, that means its workers, its traders, and its villagers. During the time of the Committee of Union and Progress and later, when the population of non-Muslims continually decreased, there was never a socialisation or nationalisation of capital, and the working class was not strengthened.
If that had happened, then everything would have been different. However, whatever the cause, Turkey was pushed into a politics of getting rid of non-Muslims. If you consider it from this angle, it is not just a technical process of transferring wealth from one bourgeois class to a new bourgeoisie; rather, it is a case of a people “totally ridding itself” of another.
In your article you strongly criticise the fact that the left, including yourself, did not face up to what happened in 1915. Why was this not done?
I think this is mostly related to the transitory state of our socialist movement. If the socialist movement had added this issue to its programme in the 1920s, and had dealt with it in the 1960s, we would have taken over the debate.
Does it have anything to do with the fact that the Soviet Union obstructed the discussion of the issue after Armenia was Bolshevised in 1922?
Without a doubt…The effect of Komintern’s politics and choices on the socialist movement in Turkey was great. The Communist Party of Turkey was always close to the choices of Komintern, and it was effective on this issue. Of course, there are other reasons. Our sources of information were society, school and our families…In school, no one mentioned such an issue, nor did anyone at home, in newspapers or books…We always knew that there were non-Muslims, non-Turkish people in Turkey, but we always perceived them as something folkloric.
We tended to see them as a kind of Turk. For instance, at that time the radio was the only medium of communication; people did impressions of Jews, Rum and Armenians, but there was no knowledge about them being a different people, nation, culture, etc… Politics did not warn us either. So the eyes of our generation were not really opened. This ignorance and darkness could only be pierced from the outside. When a mentality is shaped like that, it is difficult to add topics that were silenced onto the agenda…When people are part of a political struggle, they are told: “If you want to get your viewpoint across, if you want to convince people, you must stay away from distractions, from details.”
Are you saying that the class struggle ignored ethnic discrimination, ethnic issues and injustices?
Let me put it like this: this situation has blinded people to the fact that the class struggle is not only between classes, but that it also involves speaking out for all the oppressed…and this despite all the accumulated Leninist thought…Although Lenin was not one to miss any of this, although he always said that the workers’ party had to deal with the nationalist issue at the same time as the class struggle, he later accepted the Komintern’s attitude of delay. The attitude can be summarized as ‘first workers into power, then all other problems will solve themselves.” […]
In an old issue of Agos, we published an interview by Hrant Dink with (writer) Vedat Türkali. He said that in the first years of the Republic Kemalists did not defend what had been done to the Armenians, but that the bourgeoisie later made heroes out of the Committee of Union and Progress leaders.
True. In the Turkey after the 1930s, it seemed impossible to continue with the Ottoman legacy of social and cultural plurality in the changing world, and the new regime offered two things. The first was to reduce the nation to one in order to preserve it; the second was to build an new class dominance. According to this approach, founding a bourgeoisie took a national ideology and an ethnic unity. […] a new nation was built on the “Turkish element” and the Hanefi (Muslim) sect. Then the Republican elite became reconciled with the Committee past, and the practices of the Committee government…Those outside the Turkish-Muslim identity were marginalised or ignored. For some one the left this was considered an inevitable part of modernization and development…However, I know that the old Communist Party of Turkey did not really approve of this process, all the documents show that. Nevertheless, they also did not realise that the struggle should be based around this issue. […]
At the end of your article you say that by leaving the apology campaign to the liberals, the left is doing itself a disfavour. Could you explain this a little?
According to their own points of view and political mentality, liberals of course believe that this issue needs to be discussed, and they are right. The most important difference is this: Liberals do not look at history from the angle of a class struggle; rather, the issue of the freedom of identities goes hand in hand with economic liberalism for them. […]
What could be a much more in-depth criticism is reduced to a criticism based on identity. When we accept that, I see this as a disfavour we are doing ourselves.
For instance, Hrant Dink’s importance for me lies in the fact that he was a man of action who created a secular Armenian identity; his leftist politics had a big effect on this. In Turkey, the Armenian identity has mostly been associated with the church, with a religious community. Hrant Dink’s leftism, his grass roots struggle, and his efforts to open new grounds for struggle through civil society created a balance through which the problems of the Armenian people could be united with the problems of other oppressed people. I think this is very important. Despite this, no one on the socialist left except for the Freedom and Solidarity Party (ÖDP) paid Hrant much attention, and the liberals respected him more than those in the ÖDP. Thus, Hrant’s struggle was gradually shaped in that direction.
When we argue with leftist friends and voice similar criticism to yours, we always hear the phrase “We have always supported the fraternity of peoples.” Can we say that this slogan relieves their conscience but ignores the vital problems of Armenians or other ethnic groups?
This is an abstract slogan, and thus it is easy to say it. I saw this slogan become concrete when people poured into the streets (at Hrant Dink’s funeral procession) saying “We are all Armenian.” And because it was concrete, it moved Turkey. The fraternity of people has to be created anew every day and translated into the language of the day. There is no use in saying “Long live socialism” every day; rather, I have to do something new for the class struggle, I have to be able to say “Long live this strike, long live this resistance.” In the same way, the “Long live the fraternity of people” only becomes meaningful if you bring “peace” onto the agenda in the Kurdish issue, if you start working on it, if you struggle for more freedom for the Kurdish language, if you collaborate with the (pro-Kurdish) Democratic Society Party (DTP). […]
When we talk about “people”, there are many struggles. Assyrians, Yezidis, Cherkes, Georgians, Laz – a struggle should include them all. They all have something to say. In the last ten years, I believe that Turkey’s relations with the world and a liberalisation have brought something positive. Take the film “Autumn”, for instance. If you watch it, you think to yourself, “Yes, this man is part of Dev Sol (a leftist movement), but he is also a Hemshin (a member of a distinct linguistic community in Turkey).” There is another story there, another issue. For instance, you can imagine singing the Internationale in Hemshin or Laz. You can’t say “People should be brothers and sisters, but they should always speak Turkish.” Only if people can come with their own languages, with their own views, then the fraternity of peoples turns into something concrete. We are not there yet, but we are on our way.
What do we have to do to get there?
What I am going to say is very simple. We have to oppose all injustices with the same force. We have to demand that those who have experienced injustices have their rights returned to them. How this is supposed to happen is a different matter. Maybe the grandchildren of Ottoman Armenians will say, “Damn it, let the soil, houses and factories be yours. Just accept what you did to us.” Or there may be some who say, “I want my grandfather’s house.” If there is such a right a s a right to property, then these people have a right to demand it. We should not be afraid of the results of our criticism, we need to be frank.
The second issue is that we need to build the basis for collaborative activities. That is why I find Agos so important, because it has allowed me to talk about these issues together. For instance, the spirit of plurality that emerged from the commemorative events at the anniversary of Hrant Dink’s death is very important; you can see all the wealth there. This leaves an educating impression on people. We have to find ways of taking this to our young people. Remember, all these things are reacted to in Turkey. Not everyone likes what we say. A 17-, 18-year-old boy can come to the point that the meaning of his life is to kill Hrant, and there are hundreds like him. We need to find a language to get them back. But most importantly of all, I believe that we need to create a clear language that protests against all injustices, injustices of origin-identity, and that we must declare that all kinds of oppression are oppression, and that workers must not hesitate to speak out on this topic, despite existing prejudices. We need to have a programme that is really, truly internationalist. In 2002, we started to see minorities and their oppressed members as subjects in our Socialist Labour Movement. Now we are in 2009, and I think we have to take this a further. These are small but meaningful steps. We need to re-make connections every day, in the region and globally. If we start to think like this, we have much more scope and we realise that we have to deal with our own prejudices that we were born with unitl the day we die. As long as nations continue to exist, these discriminations can be recreated. The only solution is to reset our mind and conscience every day to control our breath. (EK/RK/AG)