History can’t be altered, however unfortunate it may be. And the recognition of it, when it hurts, when we want to make it alien but it is impossible and entails stepping on the honor of what we were, is for the brave.
Germany built on its tragedy and today exposes the Holocaust as an episode from which humanity must learn. Bosnia and Herzegovina today honors those who denounced in time -uselessly- a potential massacre.
Turkey does not. The problem is that the Turkish elite still does not feel alienated from the Ottoman custom. It was what made them. Grandparents, great-grandparents carry the tradition with them, which the children and grandchildren inherited. Turkey is, in a way, the Ottoman Empire. Or the consequence of the Empire, at least: a part of it, at last.
That’s why it has been so difficult to acknowledge Ottoman responsibility for the extermination of more than two million Armenians during the stormy years from 1915 to 1923. Turkification, at the hands of the Young Turks, had lethal consequences for minorities who were seen as tumors of a decaying empire.
It was so hard to denounce crime because, somehow or other, the Turkish elite saw in the criminals their ancestry. As journalist Bernhard Zand wrote in Der Spiegel: “In the perpetrators, they see their fathers, whose honor they seek to defend. This tradition instills a sense of identity in Turkish nationalists, both left and right, and is passed on from generation to generation.”
This Saturday, President Joe Biden became the first U.S. head of state -with the exception of Reagan, though he didn’t make it official- to call the massacre of Armenians “genocide.” This is a decades-long debt owed by the American government to the Armenian people. It was promise made by Biden’s predecessors, but never fulfilled for fear of souring relations with Ankara.
Biden did the right thing. However late, the decision is wise, and it has already provoked the first hostile reactions. “We are not going to receive lessons on our history from anyone,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on April 24. A few hours later, Turkey summoned the American ambassador.
Erdogan is furious. The White House’s decision breaks with years of an unspoken pact to avoid upsetting Turkey, an important Washington ally and NATO partner. But Biden didn’t care. Screw Ankara, which believes that, apart from relations, every U.S. president should turn his back on the legitimate demand of the Armenian people. It’s time (and bravo for Biden here) to vindicate a struggle of years.
We cannot change the past. The Armenian genocide happened and the Turkish elite was responsible. Its recognition should not offend Turkey, that great and complex nation that today faces so many challenges. On the contrary, it should be mandatory to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.