​ The Righteous memory and the Memory of the Righteous

by Gérard Malkassian

Gérard Malkassian during the Conference

Gérard Malkassian during the Conference

We hereby publish the remarks by Gérard Malkassian at the conference “Genocide prevention”, first of the four meetings planned by Gariwo in cooperation with Franco Parenti Theatre, under the patronage of the University of Milan and the Corriere della Sera Foundation, to discuss the crisis of Europe and the Righteous of our time.

Unfortunately, my testimony has little to do with the genocide prevention, as it is linked to an extermination case that was perpetrated long ago. However it provides an example of the tragic effects of impunity and oblivion of a genocide:

the silence that fell on the Armenian case after the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 was one of the factors that probably encouraged the Nazis to commit their crime. And again, despite its own will, it opened a door on the present and future. The pathway we, some Armenians of the diaspora, and they, the Righteous of memory, as saviors of the harassed Turkish memory of genocide, have undertaken, as we decided to move ahead from this abyss, leads to the prevention of today's political forms of violence, and does so by breaking away with the Turkish state tradition of violent problem resolution. It also leads to a struggle against the mass violence that is perpetrated today on Muslim lands against Islamic, Christian, and Yezidi minorities. When we are faced with the atrocities carried out by the ISIS thugs in the areas where another minority was annihilated one century ago, we strongly believe that recognition of a bloodshed perpetrated many years earlier from a Muslim power on its territory – leaving behind the victimistic rhetoric, which too often provides its governments with a coverup – would be a shock, a determinant ethical turn for the moral life of the people in those countries.

The issue of genocide prevention, in my opinion, consists of two different sets of questions. Prior to its implementation, education and culture are very important pre-emptive factors: the value of respect of the minorities, peaceful conflict resolution, knowledge of history, keeping alive the memory of the past tragedies are all useful elements that keep people and leaders far from the devil of mass violence. And yet a different thing is to know not to avert an ongoing genocide, or a genocide case in its birth. I think that only a forceful and unyielding intervention, even armed – at least in the guise of a credible threat – also from other countries can hinder leaders who have decided to engage in organized atrocity – let's not forget that the Germans could have prevented Talaat and the Young Turks from annihilating the Armenians. Let's think of Liman von Sanders, a high rank German officer. In 1916, as he forbid the Ottoman vali (prefect) to deport the Armenians from Izmir, the Sublime Door yielded and the Armenians from Izmir were not deported. We also have in mind the accusations addressed to France for its overly lenient and murky attitude toward the genocide against the Tutsis of Rwanda. Now begins the quandary: such a step would suppose the prior recognition of the right of interference in the domestic affairs of a state, a right which faces a lot of criticism and is difficult to accept in theory and in concrete cases, by many countries, starting from the great powers. A United Nations decision might perhaps work out the issue, but we know how difficult and risky it would be to wait for a deal among the great powers to step in before it is too late. Then, as soon as this obstacle is overcome, how to assess the urgency and the modality of intervention? We are often caught up in exaggerations, well-meaning or otherwise, on the gravity of situations, and pieces of calming or cynical discourse that deny blatant crimes. The recent example of the capture of Aleppo (December 2016) is self-explanatory. Then come other questions: when to step in, and how, up to which point, without running the risk of worsening people's fate or the geopolitical balance?

My experience is about the progressive reconstruction of myself and my relationship with the butchering country that was the homeland to our parents, both of which condition each other. The dialogue that started between some Armenians and Turks – still too few for some reasons, and limited to artistic or intellectual circles – opens an original pathway for various reason, and could send a message to many peoples who are threatened or have already fallen into the abyss of the relationship between an executioner and its victims. We met ten years ago, after the assassination of Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink, on one hand, there were some members of France's Armenian community, above all, seeking recognition of the truth; on the other hand, there were members of a nation, from which the Armenians expected nothing but the collapse into humiliation. Two dates need be kept in mind: The Appeal to forgiveness, a petition launched by Turkish intellectuals in December 2008, that gathered over 30,000 signatures in a few weeks. And then We dream a dream together, the call signed by hundreds Armenians and Turks in 2014, of which I was one of the initiators. Together, in the first years of the Erdogan government, we set out a reconciliation pathway based on the gradual opening of the Turkish society and state, on recognizing the Armenian identity in the Turkish Republic, and on principles of constructive reparations by including the heirs of the extermination in the diaspora and the State of Armenia. Ahmet Insel, Cengiz Aktar, Taner Akçam, Pinar Selek and Ragip Zarakolu, here are some of the names of these brave people who have stood up and have ripped the steel curtain that covered up what needs be considered as the gloomy past of the foundation of the Turkish republic. Answering the call of 2008 by the means of an open letter, launching the declaration of 2014 together, we have sought to accompany these Righteous people in their intimate, dangerous pathway toward a Righteous memory. I hereby make a reference to the concept elaborated by Paul Ricoeur in his book La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli, published in 2000 (Memory, History, Forgetting, The University of Chicago Press, 2004) and resumed by my friend Michel Marian in Le Génocide Arménien. De la Mémoire outrage à la mémoire partagée (Armenian Genocide. From Outraged Memory to Shared Memory, 2015). Ricoeur called as «just memory », an effort to feed and enrich, through dialogue between the heirs of the executioner and those of the victim, the memory of the endured and perpetrated crime, corrected and brought back to its just measure by the steady critical work on history and the philosophic-moral reflection. Only this way it could become an equal memory; in this case, a memory shared between the Turks and the Armenians, avoiding any kind of judicial extremism. This common effort has gone on, and I will offer a significant sample of it: little by little, more and more signatories have used the « G-word » (« genocide »), which remains controversial in Turkey (Member of the Parliament Garo Paylan –HDP, People’s Democratic Party – was recently suspended from the Parliament for using it in the House). And this was possible because we did not place this word and concept as absolute requirements for dialogue, as many people are still used to doing, and too many mistrusting Armenians especially still seek to do. We rather indicated it as a goal to be reached through dialogue.

Therefore I would like to mention all the Righteous of memory, all those who, in Turkey, despite silence, the heavy lies imposed for decades by the state and institutional power, have committed for over 15 years to the rediscovery and spreading of the truth, and to sharing the burden of this past of the Armenian heirs of the Catastrophe (Aghet) or the Major Crime (Mets Yeghern), and to the aim at renewing and re-establishing the values of contemporary Turkey.

With the issue of values, we are facing here the other theme of this series of meetings: Europe in crisis. As the prospect of rapprochement with the European Union looms at Turkey’s horizon, the public awareness grew in the country, besides an intrinsic moral urge. The expectations linked to Europe – the recognition of the genocide has been a part of the requirements for adhesion to the EU since 1987 – have belonged for many years to the ethical values promoted by Europe, and have acted as an incentive and guideline for the political authorities, as well as a source of hope for all circles and people who are in favor of the entry into Europe. What will happen from now on, while Europe falters little by little also on choices relating to moral and political values, and it is at a stalemate facing the internal disagreements and the wars taking place just a few kilometers away from its borders? As Europe is almost completely silent in the face of the multilateral, antidemocratic crackdown that has been unleashed in Turkey under the stimulus by President Erdogan, out of fear of being invaded by hundreds thousands refugees and displaced people from the war zones? Let’s also mention: how do the warnings from the European institutions weigh on the Turkish government, when those institutions and most of the member states have closed their doors to Europe, a which was closing more and more over the past 60 years? Today there is almost no means of pressure left, and thus no hope to get out of the dreadful mixture of nationalism and Islamism, that characterizes the current political course in Turkey.

Only a strong and united Europe, around the most important values, would reopen the way to rapprochement with the Union, setting firm terms in the field of human rights and democratic principles, and helping to counter the anti-Western wave that is spreading in Turkey and is favorable to the turns of alliances, the unnatural rapprochement with Russia and Iran. Such Europe probably requires re-establishment from the grassroots, the citizens, and a way to go on that be renewed, more oriented towards civil societies. Opportunities are there, it will suffice to find them out and exploit them. Let’s not forget the enormous transformations achieved over the recent years in Turkey, until when the AKP government accepted, maybe for obscure calculations, the game of opening to diversity.

About the matter, I would like to point out two original features of the restoration of memory in Turkey: most of the burden of the Great Crime is being increasingly weighted by various sectors of the Turkish people, the heirs of the executioners. Furthermore this process is led by prominent personalities who unite the look from within the Republic’s history and the European spirit. I will conclude my remarks by evoking three Righteous people : journalist Hrant Dink, lawyer Fethiye Çetin and writer Asli Erdogan.

Hrant Dink, Armenian-Turkish journalist, founder of Agos periodical, played a double role. In the first place he marked the awakening of the Armenian community in Turkey, a movement of «Armenian Pride », that is being carried on by the youth movement Nor Zartonk (« new Awakening » or « new Risorgimento »), after 90 years of living in silence, in a hostile or at least indifferent environment. Secondly, he linked the reopening of the dark pages of Armenian history up to a renewal of Turkish identity founded on tolerance, truth, and dignity. Thirdly, he promoted the non violent struggle in favor of all ethnic, religious and sexual minorities. His murder, on 17 January 2007, exactly 10 years ago, highlighted to which extent the life of a Righteous man is fragile, exposed to hatred and bullying. And yet, he has become a witness and a symbol of a different kind of civil engagement far beyond his tragic end.

His lawyer, Fethiye Çetin, has been engaged in civil struggles for many years. Her book, Anneannem, published in 2004 (My Grandmother: An Armenian-Turkish Memoir translated into English in 2012), was a bestseller and had a deep emotional response from the Turkish public opinion. It tells us about the fate of her maternal Grandmother, an orphan, a “remnant or a waste of the sword”, as they say in Turkey, who was adopted by a Turkish family and Islamized. Little before her death, she revealed her secret to her granddaughter. Today we know such cases are numerous and mark a peculiarity of the Turkish-Armenian case: the heritage of this tragic proximity is the existence of Islamized Armenians, more or less aware of their origins, and also many families where one victim was added to the bloodline of the executioners. The awareness of suffering, the trauma inherited from the clandestine passenger, merge with sense of guilt and the wish to weave again the broken threads of filiation.

The third Righteous of memory whom I wish to pay homage to is writer Asli Erdogan. The author of the Mucizevi Mandarin (the wonderful mandarin, until now published in Germany under the title of “der wundersame Mandarin”) has just been released from jail but still under house arrest for the very serious accusation of «incitation to disorder» and « belonging to a terrorist organization». In several articles written for the Özgür Gündem (Free Agenda) periodical, which have recently been published in France, she manages to interweave a personal poetical word, the intransigent judgment over the situation in Turkey and a call for solidarity with all world’s oppressed. And yet in her analysis there is the always outstanding awareness that the endless cycle of political violence in Turkey leads back to the founding massacre of 1915.

I would like to quote for example the last rows of an article by Asli Erdogan appeared in periodical Özgür Gündem, which caused her judicial problems because of her involvement. The article is entitled as: “We are guilty”. So it goes:

Accusing the victim of lying means letting the burden of crime fall on the shoulders of those who were the martyrs of it: this is probably why our lands are full of graves which we dig and close again unceasingly. Abysses of bones, ashes, and silence.. We are unable to look into the eyes of this woman beaten to death, then thrown on the side of the highway, nor the remnants of the partisan’s skeleton.. We get old in order to forget, we forget by killing and we always forget that we bring these corpses inside us. Coping is a totally a different thing from accepting. It means being able to face the stare of the victims, being able to let them speak. And too late maybe, too late for the dead, but we should let the survivor tell us about the Great Catastrophe. We, now have become another “us”. A last word before 1st May: Taksim square belongs to us, those who died in it are our dead.. every time we will march toward this unrecognizable square despite the truncheons, the water cannons, the teargas, every time we will resume our march, it will belong to us.

(from Asli Erdogan, « Nous sommes coupables », 2014, Le silence même n'est plus à toi, 2017, Actes Sud, France)

«We» says Asli, thus meaning a two-fold identity, the “us” we were before, the executioners who perpetrated the massacre, united to what “we” are now, denying and remaining deaf to the voices of the dead. And then a second or third « we » of those who listen to these voices, this worrying background noise. And this community that is listening to the original crime of the Turkish Republic then extends itself to become a community of resistance against the current political violence,the one that unleashed in Taksim and strengthens more and more, but is also rooted in past abuse, first in Dersim, very often against religious minorities, social and cultural movements. And it is thanks to this community of memory that it can resume ownership of the common ground that had been seized by the power.

Asli Erdogan is one of the intellectuals, artists, judges, university professors who were threatened, imprisoned, sacked, marginalized from society without any objective evidence whatsoever of danger or complicity with the inciters of the failed coup of Summer 2016. All these fighters for the freedom of thought and expression are calling us. Are we, the Europeans, ready to listen to them and find means to help them or are we determined to sacrifice these people who support our values and betray them to escape our historical and moral responsibilities? On our answer depends the Europe of tomorrow.

Gérard Malkassian

Analysis by Gérard Malkassian, historian and professor of Philosophy in Paris

26 January 2017

Don’t miss the story of the Righteous and the memory of Good

Once a month you will receive articles and events selected by Gariwo Editorial Board. Please fill out the field below and click on subscribe.

Grazie per aver dato la tua adesione!

Our Editorials

load more