‘With Giant Steps into the 100th Year’: Ragip Zarakolu Honored in Berlin



By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BERLIN, Germany — No matter how meaningful it is that political institutions, whether governments or parliaments, have recognized the Armenian genocide, the most important such acknowledgement must be an act of the relevant institutions in Turkey. In this context, among the many commemorations that will take place next year in cities across the globe, it is what happens in Turkey that will be particularly telling. Ragip Zarakolu, the courageous Turkish publisher and human rights activist, chose to dedicate his remarks at an event in Berlin honoring him, precisely to this theme. On November 30, he was officially named as an honorary member of the Working Group Recognition — against Genocide, for International Understanding (AGA: Arbeitsgruppe Anerkennung — Gegen Genozid, für Völkerverständigung).

As Tessa Hofmann, chairwoman of AGA and a genocide researcher, explained in her introductory remarks, her association has honored public figures who have “pursued the aims of the organization in an outstanding manner.” In many cases this involves personal risk. “For a member of a state,” she went on, “whose leadership since the founding of the republic has stubbornly denied that the massacres and deportations of over 3 million Christians was genocide, to work through and process this incriminating history is by no means self-evident.” Among those who have met with persecution for having done so, like Taner Akçam, are Ragip Zarakolu and his late wife Aysenur, founder of the “Belge” (“Document”) publishing house in 1977. By making Turkish translations of works from Greek, English and German available, especially on the Armenian genocide, it was “the first Turkish publisher to break through the state’s monopoly on the interpretation of history and contributed fundamentally to removing the taboos on the transformation period in the first half of the 20th century.” In addition to his work at “Belge,” Zarakolu has been a leading human rights activist since 1968, a co-founder of Insan Haklar Derneg (IHD) and has been jailed 3 times, most recently in 2011 for his work. Neither imprisonment nor the bombing of his publishing house in 1996 have deterred him and over recent years he has received honors for his civil courage, including the prize of the President of the Republic of Armenia in 2012.

‘First Commemorative Event Took Place in Istanbul’

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In his acceptance speech, Zarakolu traced the history of commemorations of the Genocide and in contrast, the history of the Turkish establishment’s denial and persecution. Just six months after the end of World War I, he said, there were events in three churches in Istanbul, attended by some diplomats, and later April 24 became the date recognized as the beginning of the genocide. Arrests of intellectuals, he said, occurred repeatedly at different times, for example, after the 1971 military coup, and again after the 1980 coup. They may not have been killed, but were imprisoned and those who could left the country.

Following the 1919 trials that condemned Young Turk leaders in absentia, and later jailing of perpetrators, the tide turned with the founding of the republic. “The denial of the genocide,” he stated, “constituted from the beginning of the republic a solid component of state security policy. In 2001 denial was taken to extremes in an organized form; the ‘Committee for the Coordination of Combating Unfounded Assumptions about Genocide against the Armenians’ (ASIMKKA) was founded.” Beginning with Abdullah Gül, this Committee would be under direction of the future foreign ministers. Zarakolu explained that what prompted the establishment of this organ was a forum, sponsored by the French Senate, for dialogue among intellectuals from Armenia and Turkey, a forum with which he was associated and which influenced French support for recognition.

The response of Turkish officialdom came quickly, in the form of a discreet mobilization of academics, commissioned to draft arguments refuting the claims of genocide. Under the coalition of Bülent Ecevit and Devlet Bahceli, a Commission to combat Armenian claims was officially announced. Zarakolu identified militarism, issuing from the 1997 coup, as the “driving force” behind this. “The two traditions of the Committee of Union and Progress, namely Turanism and Kemalism, formed after World War I, came together for the first time.” Although intellectuals and human rights activists had not been taken seriously in the 1990s, with the coup this changed, and “denial of the Genocide became a central element of the new design of the Turkish state, which was to last for 1000 years.” This included “a hostile attitude towards Christendom,” expressed in hate campaigns. Denial literature was spread in conferences and seminars, while CDs and books flooded the schools. This period reached its climax in January 2007 with the assassination of Hrant Dink, which also provoked a breach in civil society. Zarakolu reported on the political infighting, in the course of which revealing documents came to light, including plans to murder leading Armenian and Greek clerics, as well as a “black list” of genocide scholars. Though somewhat low key, the Committee to combat Armenian claims continued its work, supported by deputy governors.

And 2015?

Turning to the perspectives for next year, Zarakolu said the theses that the CUP government had issued in 1916 in a position paper on the genocide would “be repeated in a rigged form.” The theses, as he summarized them, are the stock and trade of denial literature: that there was no extermination plan, no deportation order but rather a resettlement plan; losses in life were due to the Armenian revolutionaries; such war losses are “normal”; the Russian-backed Armenians also organized massacres; since no one talks about Muslims expelled from the Balkans, no need to discuss 1915, etc.

In addition, Zarakolu thinks Turkey will try to “neutralize and legalize” the memory of the genocide by “thrusting other dimensions of World War I into the foreground.” He mentioned Turkey’s attempt to focus on the Dardanelles war, and stress its fight for survival in the midst of Armenian “betrayal,” etc. He stated, however, that the Jihad proclaimed together with Germany then will be ignored, in an effort to avoid any comparison with the crimes being committed in the Near East today. “The ideology of Jihadism and ethnic cleansing or genocide display parallels,” he noted. If, he suggested, an “apology” might be forthcoming due to foreign pressure, they will be no reparations. Gestures to the diaspora might perhaps include visa facilitations and passports. In Zarakolu’s view such gestures could serve the government’s political aims domestically against the Kemalists.

A further aspect Zarakolu examined, too lengthy to deal with here extensively, concerns the diaspora’s longing for return to the lost homeland. In his final section, he addressed the “Return of the commemoration of April 24 in the country of origin.” Stating that the “mission of remembrance of April 24” has “come to stand for a human rights movement,” he listed the growing number of events taking place inside Turkey itself: In 2008, the Bilgi University hosted a round table for the IHD, in 2009 the Istanbul IHD joined with the Anatolian Cultural Center in a musical commemoration of Armenian Writers and Poets killed in April 1915, accompanied by an exhibit, in 2010 a sit-in at the historic Haydarpasha railway station featured photos of the April 1915 victims. There followed an event of the Istanbul Armenian community at Hrant Dink’s graveside, and a two-day conference in the capital on the theme of genocide, with the participation of diaspora Armenians, including Khatchig Mouradian, of Hayrenik and Armenian Weekly. In 2011, the victims of April 1915 were commemorated in Istanbul, and for the first time, also in Ankara, Diyarbakir and Bodrum. Since 2012, the events in Sultanahmet, Haydarapasha station, Galatasaray and Taksim Square “have become traditional,” and in 2013 Izmir and Adana also joined with activities. The Kurdish participation here was significant: a round table discussion on “Kurds report on the Armenian genocide” took place parallel to a conference in Diyarbakir on “The Armenians from Diyarbakir in the 98th year of the genocide.” In addition to this “first significant remembrance in Kurdistan,” there were numerous diaspora Armenians from France that year. Dersim also organized events for the first time.

This year, the commemoration again started at Haydarpasha station, where former Armenian Foreign Minister Raffi Hovanissian spoke, and more than 1,000 people gathered in Taksim Square. For 2015, Zarakolu concluded, IHD “is planning to organize commemorative events in every locality where it is represented” and a commission has come into being to coordinate plans for conferences and seminars. So much for the civil society organizations, he said. “As for the side of the state,” he thought “conferences, TV programs and books will be prepared which will continue the denial policy throughout the year in a sophisticated form. The gist will be that, with a ‘yes, but’ in the beginning, the Armenians will be made responsible directly or indirectly for the crimes committed against them in 1915.”

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