Several Armenian and Turkish historians met last weekend in the German town of Muelheim an der Ruhr for a ground-breaking public conference on the nature of the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War One. RFE/RL correspondent Gohar Gasparian, who attended the conference, says there was considerable discussion of whether or not the killings constitute "genocide."
Muelheim an der Ruhr, Germany; 27 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The two-day meeting (24-25 March) in the western German town of Muelheim an der Ruhr was billed as the First Turkish-Armenian Conference. There had been earlier, private gatherings of Armenian and Turkish historians on the same subject, but the Muelheim conference was the first such public conference. It brought together seven historians -- three of Turkish origin, three of Armenian origin and one German -- who spoke before an audience of some 150.
The three Turkish historians at the meeting agreed that the historical record supports Armenian charges that in 1915 the government of the Ottoman Empire committed crimes against hundreds of thousands of Armenians by ordering deportations and mass killings.
This runs counter to the official Turkish position that the killings took place amid the general unrest of World War One and its immediate aftermath, and that hundreds of thousands of people died on both sides.
At the conference's opening session, Halil Berktay of Istanbul's Sabanci University stressed that a historical event of so great a dimension cannot be the subject of bargaining among historians. The Turkish scholar said he had no doubt that the Ottoman government of so-called "Young Turks" was responsible for what he described as a great tragedy. Berktay later explained his position to our correspondent:
"Armenians from all over Anatolia were collected, gathered, and deported from places like ancient Nicomedia or Izmit for example -- as close to Istanbul as that. So it [the deportations] was not limited to the war zone, and it cannot be explained as a purely military measure of safety, preserving the Turkish army's supply line against the Armenian guerillas on the Eastern front."
Berktay then addressed the question of whether or not the mass killings were intentional or accidental:
"Was it just deportation, and if killings took place were they accidental? My answer to both these questions has been explicitly 'no.' It was not just deportations. Two sets of orders seem to have been issued by the legal state apparatus, the garrison commanders, [regional] governors, etc, for Armenians to be collected and deported en masse -- and simultaneously, illegal, or extra-legal orders through the special organization of the 'Committee and Union and Progress' to organize concerted, concentrated massacres."
But Berktay urged his colleagues not to get trapped by looking for cliches in seeking to qualify the deportations and killings. He warned them against the dangers of being pigeonholed by the use of the terms "genocide" or "non-genocide."
Another Turkish scholar, Elcin Kuersat-Ahlers -- who lives in Germany -- hardly avoided using the word "genocide." On the contrary, she says what happened in April 1915 in the Ottoman Empire was nothing but genocide. She defines this genocide as a systematic annihilation of the Armenian population that was organized by the state. "The deportation of Armenians took place not only in the war zone, but [throughout] the entire Ottoman Empire. In reality, it aimed at achieving the ethnic homogenization of Anatolia."
In the view of Richard Hovhanessian of the University of California at Los Angeles, who is of Armenian origin, there is no need to prove that the government of Ottoman Empire committed genocide against Armenians in Turkey. Hovhanessian told the conference that there are many documents and archive materials proving the genocide occurred. He called on historians on both sides to concentrate mainly on the issues of why the genocide had taken place and what were its historical and legal consequences.
Hovhanessian called the Muelheim conference an important step toward dialogue between the Turkish and Armenian communities. He said such steps are not easy to take because both sides face internal as well as external pressures.
"There is a sense of constraint, I think, a sense of being watched and indeed I think this [conference] is probably rather unique. There have been in the last one or two years small gatherings of Armenian and Turkish scholars, normally in a very closed atmosphere with 10 or 20 participants at most and no public reportage of it. To my knowledge, this is the first open forum relating to this painful issue."
A few dozen demonstrators of Turkish origin gathered outside the meeting hall to protest against the conference. The meeting's organizers, the German-Armenian society and the German-Turkish Association for Exchanges in Humanities and Social Sciences, said they believed that direct dialogue could contribute to a process of understanding and reconciliation between the Armenian and Turkish peoples.
Earlier this year, France adopted a law recognizing the 1915 killings as genocide, but the law stops short of blaming the Ottomon Turks. The government in Ankara nevertheless responded by taking punitive actions against French companies doing business in Turkey.
This month a similar bill was defeated in the Swiss parliament by a very narrow margin. Analysts believe, however, that even had the measure passed the parliament, the Swiss federal government would not have enacted it into law.
Some Turkish scholars and liberal commentators have urged their government to begin a dialogue with the Armenian government. They say that could discourage the parliaments of other Western countries from passing similar bills recognizing the mass killings as genocide.