Lack of accountability and responsibility for past atrocities enables their repetition in Turkey

I was not expecting to start this piece on the shadows of the bellicose comments by Turkey’s strongman at the occasion of the centenary of what is called in Turkey the Victory and in Greece the Great Catastrophe. The end of military occupation by the victors of the WWI of large chunks of the present-day Turkish territory has led to the creation of the Turkish Republic whereas the defeat of the Greek Army has led to the end of Anatolian Hellenism.

Obviously, 1922 is commemorated very differently in both countries. But although the responsibility of the politicians in the decision of 1919 is openly discussed in Greece among other causes and consequences of the military invasion, in Turkey the unique topic of commemoration is the military victory. As it is recalled ad nauseam nowadays by Turkish officials and as it ended up in Erdogan’s speech on Saturday 3 September addressing Greece: “You occupying the islands doesn’t bind us; when the time comes, we’ll do what’s necessary. As we say, we may come down suddenly one night.” The rhetoric has not reached that level of threat since… actually 1922!

Such an outcome comes with no surprise. Turks in general, including the present-day regime’s officials, have developed over a century a peculiar mindset regarding the creation of the Turkish nation. Based exclusively on victimhood, the official narrative, approved by the public almost in its entirety, considers 1922 a sacred myth. That excludes any critical approach to 1922 and worse, forbids the search for facts and figures. To give an example, Smyrna, which was largely spared from destruction since the beginning of Ottomans’ steep decline in 1912 was almost totally destroyed by fire following the takeover of the city by Turkish Army on 9 September 1922. But the official narrative says something else and points at the Greek Army despite the fact that the latter had been far away at the start of the fire on 13 September.

Naturally within this fictitious truth countless deeds and stories vanish. Today in Turkey few know that Izmir’s famous five-star hotel The Grand Ephesus has been built on the emplacement of the Hagia Fotini Basilica destroyed by the fire and the huge International Izmir Fair (Kültürpark) right in the center of the city was the Armenian Quartier, wiped out by the fire. 

In Turkey a vast portion of the population has an erased memory about Smyrna in particular, and in general the earlier existence of non-Muslim Ottoman citizens. The black hole is filled with an overblown narrative on nationalist fervor. Today Turks don’t know anything about Rums or Greeks of Turkey but only about Greeks of Greece. This is why Erdogan in his hate speeches addresses Greece and ignores completely his fellow Ottoman/Turkish Greeks. This choice is deliberate; it leaves no room for a self-introspection.

Alas, nations who have not recognized atrocities and injustices of their past, are compelled to live with them and with their ghosts. And they seem to always pay a price, even late and indirect.

In Turkey, the instigators of crimes committed against all non-Muslim populations of the Ottoman Empire got away with three decades long ethno-religious cleansing (1894-1924). But did they really get away with it? With impunity and amnesia becoming the fundamental traits of Turkish politics, the retribution of 30-year-long state-sponsored massive crimes happened probably in another way: by perverting the entire political system as well as the society.  

Indeed, was it possible for a system that was founded on a continuum of atrocities resulting in complete liquidation of the non-Muslim citizens of the Ottoman Empire without giving the slightest account of what happened, to continue to perform in a sound way? If not, how has this huge loss of civilization determined political life?

In the Ottoman Empire and Turkey by the turn of the 20th century the nation building process has led to unseen massacres of Ottoman and then Turkish citizens, in particular of non-Muslims. These atrocities and the overall violence have never been questioned; they went unaddressed, and they were intentionally forgotten. In other words, there has been no retributive justice and no ground for it, as the facts have been denied and/or forgotten. Paradoxically, the lack of retributive justice gave way to an erosion of country’s political and social ethics. That in turn became a sort of indirect retribution for the crimes that were committed before.

Three major dynamics emerge within this legacy. 

Firstly, republican Turkey choose to disremember these acts and to make sure that they would be forgotten by the population. Such national amnesia perverted all sense of historicity.

Secondly, the fact that ethno-religious cleansing has taken place in absolute impunity for its instigators has transformed into a sort of “culture of impunity.”  

And thirdly, a logic of absolute rightfulness derived from the combination of amnesia and impunity.  

Regarding the voluntary amnesia, all present-day ideologies and political movements in Turkey with the noticeable exception of Kurdish Political Movement, reject these facts and their consequences on the victims; be it killings, spoliations, expropriations or denial of citizenship. The choice of forgetting is intimately related to the fear of material retribution more than a universal opprobrium. 

The voluntary amnesia has in turn shaped the Turkish political culture in which “learning from the past” does not exist. Past atrocities are either unknown or they constitute total abstractions for those citizens who vaguely heard about them. In any case, there are not many in present day Turkey who question the link between past atrocities and today’s social, psychological and political decay, not to mention the recurrence of violent behavior which led to atrocities of the past. This tropism is clearly witnessed in the war against Kurds, as well as in the bellicose rhetoric of Turkish politics, both within the country and abroad.  

The second dynamic emerging from the legacy of the ethno-religious cleansing is impunity. Extremely few officials have undergone judicial due process and were punished for the atrocities. The culture of impunity has in turn developed into widespread irresponsibility and non-accountability of public officials.

Concretely, that equates to widespread lack of justice through the dysfunction of the judiciary system and the collapse of the sense of justice within the population. The only exception remains the crimes against the state, which never go unpunished.

This is in fact one of the cornerstones of Turkish politics that is endorsed by everyone: the principle of not creating erstwhile offenders (devr-i sabık).

Indeed, as long as irresponsible and non-accountable officials are not punished for their acts, and to the contrary, are --kind of-- praised for these, the culture repeats itself in time, creating more lawbreakers each time. Simultaneously, the capacity of society to digest more evil acts grows, evilness becomes commonplace.

Apparently, present day’s unlawful political, economic, and social practices appear trivial compared to past genocides, pogroms, mass killings and spoliations!         

Finally, the absolute rightfulness deriving from the combination of amnesia and impunity… The more crimes go unpunished, the more perpetrators feel right in their deeds. Such mentality never apologizes, but makes others apologize. It categorically rejects empathy. Today the culture of absolute rightfulness is so common that many in Turkey are predisposed to endorse these past atrocities when they happen to hear about them.

Turkey is a museum of malicious acts, crimes that have never been questioned, whose perpetrators have always gotten away with what they have done.

Paradoxically though, it is clear that after so many years, Turkey today is going through an indirect retributive justice and paying the price of unaccounted past crimes by destroying itself, its political as well as social fabric.  


*Prof. Cengiz Aktar is a Turkish political scientist, essayist and columnist. Presently a lecturer at the University of Athens (EKPA) he worked for the United Nations and with the European Commission. His latest book "The Turkish Malaise" was published in London. 

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