PRISONERS OF HISTORY
21 December 2005
Over the last week, as things proceeded to their regrettable
denouement on Friday afternoon, I wrote and rewrote drafts for this column several times.
When you're dealing with a historical conflict in which there's a lot at stake and in
which almost everyone involved has tunnel vision, it's difficult not to get sucked into
the whirlpools of controversy.
So much is at stake in the Turkish-European Union relationship, and for both sides, that
it's important to get things right. But instead, everyone seems to be getting it wrong.
Antipathies and tensions which were laid to rest long years ago peril. Who's to blame?
Since some of the aspects are still sub judice and on others many people are in a state of
high dudgeon, I shall try and pick my words and, perhaps unfairly, take those involved.
At the center of this event lies history and people's freedom to say and think what they
like about it, but not just that: It's also about the pressures and entanglements that
sprout hideously when ancient history is allowed to reach into our own times.
On Sunday morning readers of British daily The Observer were being told by Mr. Denis
McShane, Labour MP for Rotherham, a staunch friend and defender of Turkey and one of the
visitors who endured a certain amount of physical ill-treatment (for which I hope he's
received an apology) in Istanbul on Friday, that "Turkey must not be allowed to
airbrush its past."
I'm not sure what qualifications Denis, a university contemporary of mine many years ago,
has where Turkish history is concerned. But there's a New Testament saying which is that
"One should first cast the mote out of one's own eye" before attempting to
perform the same service on someone else. There are motes on all sides.
While the head of steam over the case against author Orhan Pamuk was building up last
week, I heard a distinguished Ottoman historian, Professor Justin McCarthy, telling me how
last summer he was almost refused permission even to enter the European Parliament
building. It was actually Denis's Socialist Group, by the way, who eventually ensured that
he could step across the portals. Good for them. When he got inside, he found that the
room booked for him to speak in had been cancelled.
Nor is that the end of Professor McCarthy's difficulties. In France
he's being prosecuted and publication of his books is actually illegal, because they deny
the French version of Turkish history.
And, as we know, Professor McCarthy is not the first to suffer this fate. An even more
distinguished historian, Professor Bernard Lewis of Princeton, the U.S., was unwise enough
to write in the 1980s that he didn't believe the Armenian tragedy (and on that word I hope
we can all agree) in World War I constituted a "genocide." Professor Lewis is,
in my opinion, one of the great scholars of the 20th century. When the French authorities
launched a court case against him, he spent quite a lot of money on legal fees defending
himself. He lost and was sentenced to pay a token fine.
So in some parts of the EU if you write history the local politicians believe to be
incorrect, you end up losing a court case and being fined, even if you're great scholar
while their knowledge of history could be written on the back of a postage stamp. Is that
so very different from events elsewhere?
Now let's briefly glance at the controversy which has shot Mr. Pamuk to even greater
celebrity across the world. The Armenian controversy is part of a long and complex
tragic historical process in which millions of people died. If you're in Western
Europe, you of course think that they were Christians killed by Turks. But you're
In 1821 the Ottoman Empire was an ethnically and religiously mixed
Christian-Jewish-Muslim entity ruling Turkey, Greece, the Balkans and the Middle
East. To create the modern map of the same region, an immense amount of blood was
spilt and the greater part of it was spilt by Christians shedding the blood of
Muslims and driving people out of their homes to make way for ethnically homogeneous
nation-states such as Serbia, Greece, Armenia and others. The climax of that
conflict came in World War I when just under 2.4 million people died in Anatolia.
The greater part of them were Ottoman Muslims, though as we know very many Armenians
died too. Overall, about 5.5 million Ottoman Muslims died between 1821 and 1923 as
victims, direct or indirect, of the Christian ethno-nationalists.
Essentially Professor McCarthy is being harassed by the French legal system for
drawing attention to that inconvenient fact.
With so much violence, responsibility can hardly be one-sided, but it has to be
remembered that, whatever they claimed, the Christian nationalists were the
expansionists and very often the killers. When the victorious Balkan Christians took
over an area, they killed or evicted all the Muslims and Jews they could.
In Bulgaria, for example, when the Russians arrived to evict the Ottoman government
in 1877-78, about 200,000 Muslims died, many of them from starvation or disease, not
just warfare it's true. But also, and nobody has paid much attention to this, the
Christian liberators raped and murdered the local Jewish population wherever they
could. Until December 2005 (note the date) when Israeli scholar. Dr Zvi Keren read a
paper on this, there seems to have been no international attention given to this at
all. But everyone in Western Europe has heard of the "Bulgarian Massacres"
in which from 12,00 to 15,000 Christian Bulgarians died -- the victims of
Circassians who had themselves been evicted from their homelands in yet another
What about Britain, Mr. McShane's country and mine? It was always the most
pro-Turkish and pro-Ottoman of the western European states. But Britain too picked
up the airbrushing habit even before the events above were history. From 1878 to
1923, the British government systematically and knowingly ignored all questions
about violence against Ottoman Muslims, while energetically pursuing claims of
violence against Christians. Examine the pages of Hansard, the Parliamentary record,
during that period if you doubt this.
But about half the population of Turkey knows these things through what their
grandparents lived through and told them. Now Mr. McShane and others are saying that
they cannot "airbrush" history. But from their point of view, it's the
West which has airbrushed away their whole side of the story and their sufferings.
Western public opinion has not stopped ignoring present-day violence against Muslims in
former Ottoman lands. I know of no cases of Armenians murdered by Turks, while I have
personally met several Turks who know of people murdered by Armenians. A future historian
would never be able to guess that from reading the British media. How much attention did
Western Europe give, in the 1990s, to the expulsion of about 1 million people from the
disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh who were driven into other parts of Azerbaijan? Come
to think of it, I don't recall any protests from Mr. Pamuk on this issue. And the murders
in Bosnia only became headline news because a group of dedicated journalists and academics
bucked the trend, took up cudgels and forced the public and politicians to pay attention.
So, though none of this justified the unruly and ugly scenes in Istanbul last week, it
certainly helps explain why public opinion in Turkey is so explosively strong on this
matter. It's not just a question of some extremist bad guys causing trouble and wanting to
wreck Turkish-EU relations. It's much deeper than that. And it bodes badly for EU and
Western politicians if they can't see this.
EU Commissioner for Enlargement Olli Rehn's poorly judged eve-of-hearing remarks helped
twist the situation a little further. Yes, of course, EU norms are at stake. Could he not
have explained those norms -- and displayed a little more sensitivity and insight?
The saddest thing of all is that these historical conflicts and tensions are ones which
were fading until the EU began its march eastwards into the Balkans and let itself get
caught up in its ethnic disputes. Now perhaps we have a rupture between Turkey and the EU,
a split in the fabric of Europe, and once again we're all becoming the prisoners of
history, and perhaps even its victims. Ever hear the Turkish proverb about the idiot who
threw a stone into a well?