Young Turk’s Grandson Speaks In Germany

By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
Special to the Mirror-Spectator –
BERLIN — In Germany, where the largest Turkish community outside of Turkey lives, there were two special events commemorating the life and work of Hrant Dink on the sixth anniversary of his death. Along with cultural events, like the performance of the play “Anne’s Silence,” there were pre- sentations of a new book by a Turkish intel- lectual. This was not any intellectual, but Hasan Çemal, grandson of Çemal Pasha, one of the Young Turk triumvirs responsi-ble for the Armenian Genocide, who spoke in front of standing-room-only crowds on January 18 in Berlin and January 21 in Cologne. The book he presented is titled 1915 — Ermeni Soykirimi (1915 — Genocide against the Armenians).
More than a book presentation, his appearance in Germany was a courageous intervention into the dialogue process among Turks, Germans, Armenians and Kurds about the Genocide, aimed at working through the common past in the search for truth and, thereby, for understanding and reconciliation. Ilyas Kevork Uyar, chairman of the Diocese Board of the Armenian Church and also defense lawyer for the Turkish-German author Dogan Akhanli, introduced him at Cologne university, saying he hoped that Çemal’s experience, as some- one who has worked through the past and acknowledged the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians, would serve as an example for others to follow. Not only in Turkey, he said, did denial persist but also in Germany, where certain nationalistic Turkish associations have organized protests against the “Armenian lies,” etc.
Hasan Çemal, speaking in German, intro- duced himself to the audience of about 400 Germans mainly of Turkish and Armenian descent, then read a speech in Turkish which was simultaneously translated by Osman Okkam, journalist, film maker and spokesman for the KulturForum TürkeiDeutschland, which had sponsored the event. The subject was how to liberate oneself from falsified history, a process that is inti- mately tied to one’s sense of personal identi- ty. Çemal cited cases of two of his associates, who did not dare admit that their mothers were Armenian and Kurdish, respectively. That two of the best writers in Turkey had to lie about their mothers’ ethnic background, he said, was very sad; the Kurds “had to fight to prove that they existed, whereas the Armenians had to fight to prove that they had been eliminated.” In the case of the Armenians it was not only the physical elimi-
nation of the people but also the “cultural assassination,” whereby official Turkish his- tory makes no reference to the existence of their civilization.
Falsified history began with the birth of the modern Turkish republic, which was no state founded on the rule of law, but a place where everyone was forced to lie. Though he was a 1965 graduate in political science, he had been totally ignorant of the facts of 1915- 1916. He did not know that the Armenians had populated the territory earlier, nor that there had been Kurdish rebellions. It was only in 2005, when a conference on the Kurdish issue was convened, that one could talk about it. Then and thereafter, it was for- bidden however to utter the name Dersim, where an uprising had been brutally sup- pressed.
The situation he described was character- ized by “fear, fear of history, fear of phan- toms;” no one dared to challenge official his- toriography for fear of being labeled a “trai- tor.” One friend who had done so and been labeled a traitor was Taner Akçam, the lead- ing Turkish scholar of the Genocide. Akçam had insisted on questioning the taboos, prej- udices and clichés, and overcoming them.
Çemal then gave a personal account of his struggle to deal with the taboos. At the end of March 2011, he was at UCLA, preparing a speech for a conference. While sitting at his computer, he asked himself, “Should I use the word ‘genocide’ or not?” He wanted to speak of Armenians’ fears and pain and to express his empathy. “But what pain? From ‘genocide’ or in general?” he asked himself. “Why was it so difficult to use this word?” He knew, he said, that the Committee of Unity and Progress, the Young Turks, had embraced a policy to remove all non-Turks
from the Ottoman Empire. “I knew it. Why didn’t I want to use ‘genocide’ if I knew this?” he asked. He put in the word “genocide,” but then erased it.
His confrontation with this loaded term had a history. Earlier, in 2008, he had trav- elled to Yerevan and visited the Genocide monument to pay his respects to the memo- ry of Hrant Dink. He had contemplated the profound emotions felt at sundown, when reflecting on the pain of the Armenian vic- tims, and, at sunrise, had realized “how absurd it was to deny genocide.” In March 2011, in Los Angeles, the process went fur- ther. “I had mentioned the Young Turks and their crimes against humanity. I was con- vinced of the need to stop denial, but I still hesitated to use the term.” He asked himself if it was fear. Then he reflected on his age. “HowoldamIandhowlongdoIhaveleftto fight for democracy?” he asked. “How long do I have not to use this word?” Then, he related, “I put in the word. I wrote: ‘I know your pain from the Genocide.’”
He characterized the phenomenon as “self- violence,” a well-known psychological phe- nomenon. “We need to deal with prejudices,” he said and referenced the historical prece- dents in Germany, the “best example to understand taboos and also liberation from them.” He concluded his speech with an appeal, “that the truth may come to light.”
During the question-and-answer session, he elaborated on the German precedent, recall- ing the decisive role played by the so-called ‘68er generation of youth who confronted their parents about their roles under Nazism. He also highlighted the gesture of Willy Brandt, who in 1970, fell to his knees before the Warsaw Ghetto monument, to express acknowledgement and regret for the crimes
of Nazi Germany. When asked about his own family and how they dealt with his grandfa- ther’s role, he said his family was very apolit- ical. His father, Çemal Pasha’s son, was born in 1900, and the only thing discussed at home about 1915 was the official version: there was war, there had been deportations, there were massacres — nothing more.
It was only in the 1970s, after the first Turkish diplomats had been killed by ASALA, that he, then a journalist at Çumhuriyet, and his colleagues raised questions: why are they killing these diplomats? What do they want? What did our forefathers do to the Armenians? Thereafter came his first investi- gations and articles on the issue. Initially, he too “defended the raison d’état” and then, after meeting Taner Akçam and Dink, delved into more serious research and arrived at the truth. It was his contact with Dink, and then his murder, that was decisive. Dink “had to sacrifice his life for this,” he said, his murder turned the tide. Since then there have been initiatives, solidarity petitions, open discus- sions, debates and demonstrations. Asked by moderator Raffi Kantian what he expected by 2015, he said, “I cannot foresee or predict what will happen. What is important is to continue to fight for democracy and for dia- logue.”
This man’s appearance in Germany was a bombshell. And the attempts on the part of nationalist Kemalist groups to disturb the commemorations through provocations were only further proof of this fact. His personal courage deserves respect and support. Not only has he faced hostility in the Kemalist camp, but has laid bare his personal, internal confrontation with the official denialist pro- paganda in a fashion that helps others — including Armenians in the diaspora — under- stand better what kinds of psychological/political problems serious Turkish intellectuals have to work through in their search for the truth.