Many peoples who have suffered significant devastation in the twentieth century can be said to be burdened by history. Understanding what happened in the Ottoman Empire in 1915, how the modern Turkish state was created, and both historic Armenia and Kurdistan were effaced, suffers from a disputed history, itself battered by professional falsifiers and government interference. And yet in the last decade faint rays of hope have been visible! A small group of courageous, progressive Turkish historians, working together with Armenian, Kurdish, and other scholars, have repeatedly spoken out publicly, in publications and on television, about the deportations and massacres ordered by the Young Turks. Fifteen years ago the idea of Armenian and Turkish historians sitting down together to discuss the traumatic last years of the Ottoman Empire would have been almost unthinkable. Yet the last several decades have witnessed a profound shift in how scholars have dealt with the vexed question of the deportations and mass killing of the Christian subjects of the empire. With the emergence of a vibrant civil society in Turkey, the opening of negotiations on the possible entry of the Turkish republic into the European Union, and the courageous forays by individual Turkish scholars to investigate the fate of the Armenians a fragile, along with the dogged persistence of Armenian and other scholars, a new paradigm has basically won the day, at least in the academy. A sustained dialogue has emerged that has moved beyond accusation and denial.
Ronald Suny argues that three important developments since the late 1990s have changed in positive ways the public and scholarly views on the Armenian Genocide and have turned these distant events into a contemporary weapon in the acute political debates currently raging in Turkey. Beginning with a discussion of the emergence of the Armenian-Turkish scholarly dialogue and the tentative consensus on the events of 1915, he analyzes the developments in Turkey since the coming to power of the moderately Islamist party, AKP and illustrates and evaluates the complex imbrication of the Armenian question with current Turkish politics, most importantly the Kurdish question. For Turkey today the Genocide and the struggle against its denial opens up discussion, illuminates a way forward toward a multicultural Turkey that embraces the positive sides of its Ottoman past while refusing to whitewash the darker aspects of the old empire. The “Armenian Question” once again has become a test of freedom of expression in the new Turkey, even at a moment when the process of democratization appears to be in jeopardy.
Ronald Suny is the Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of History and Political Science at the University of Michigan and author of numerous books on the history of Armenia, Russia, and the Caucasus.