Examining "the Denialist Habitus in Post-Genocidal Turkey"

Varak Ketsemanian

The forced eradication of the Armenians from their homeland in 1915 has generated a unique scholarship that closely examines the genocidal policies from 1915 to 1923. One aspect, however, has remained blurred: the post-genocidal period and the repercussions of the genocide on the remaining Armenian population in Turkey. In this interview with the Armenian Weekly, Talin Suciyan shows the consistency of state policies and internalization of these policies on the level of everyday life by the larger parts of the society. According to Suciyan, the normalization of denial both by the state and the society created a denialist habitus. She also presents tangible examples of how the Armenians had to become part of the denial as there was no other way of existence for them in the public sphere.

Suciyan was born in Istanbul, Turkey. She attended the Armenian elementary school in her town and the Sahakyan Nunyan Armenian High School in Samatya. She graduated from Istanbul University’s radio, TV, and cinema department and continued her studies in Germany, South Africa, and India, receiving her master’s degree in social sciences. For 10 years, she worked in the field of journalism, producing and co-directing documentaries. From 2007-08, she reported from Armenia for Agos Weekly. In October 2008, she began to work at Ludwig Maximilian University’s (LMU) Institute of Near and Middle Eastern Studies as a teaching fellow, and as a doctoral student at the university’s Chair of Turkish Studies. Currently, Suciyan teaches history of late Ottoman Turkey, Republican Turkey, and Western Armenian. Since 2010, she has organized lecture series at LMU aimed at bridging the gap between Armenian and Ottoman studies. She successfully defended her Ph.D. dissertation in June 2013.

Varak Ketsemanian: In the introduction of your dissertation, you discuss the concept of denialist habitus. What were the mechanisms of denial in the post-genocide Republic of Turkey?
Talin Suciyan: Perhaps it would be good to start with an explanation of what I mean by “post-genocide habitus of denial.” This concept encompasses all of the officially organized policies, such as the 20 Classes, Wealth Tax, Citizen Speak Turkish Campaigns, prohibitions of professions for non-Muslims, etc., and the social support provided to these policies. These have mostly been against non-Muslims or others who for some reason became the target of state. Denialist habitus constitutes our daily life with its various forms. For instance, the Talat Pasha Elementary School, Ergenekon Avenue, and all the streets named after CUP leaders are very ordinary part of our lives. These examples become striking when you imagine having a school named after Hitler in Germany. Normalized hatred in the public sphere, in the media and press against the Kurds, Armenians, Alewites, or other non-Muslim groups are all part of this habitus. Juridical system is also not exempt from it. The cases of “denigrating Turkishness” and the atmosphere created through these cases in the society—involving the confiscation of properties of non-Muslims, kidnapping Armenians girls, systematic attacks on Armenians remaining in Asia Minor and northern Mesopotamia, changing the names of the villages where non-Muslims used to live, destroying their cultural heritage in the provinces, or using their churches or monasteries as stables—are all part of the post-genocide denialist habitus in Turkey.
With all of these practices, not only is the annihilation of these people denied, but also their very existence and history. As a result, the feeling of justice in the society could not be established. In this atmosphere, racism on a daily basis becomes ordinary. This racism, both in the provinces and in Istanbul, can easily be traced in the oral histories I’ve conducted. Through their personal histories, we see how they experienced it while playing on the streets, attending funerals, weddings, Sunday masses, or gatherings in their houses—in other words, their very existence in the provinces easily turned into a reason to be attacked. Of course, this was not only against Armenians. For instance, Jews in Tokat also had to deal with racist attacks on a daily basis. In Agop Aslanyan’s book, Adım Agop Memleketim Tokat, he refers to the racist attacks against Jews on the street, where they were equated with lice. [1]
The victims had no one, no institution to count on, they were absolutely alone in the struggle for their very existence and the denial of that existence. Their complaints were not heard. The assailants consequently knew that by attacking non-Muslims, verbally and physically, there would no punitive consequences. Official state policies during the first decades of the republican era in Turkey and also later enabled and supported the establishment and normalization of this habitus.
In other words, the republican state institutionalized this habitus of denial with its official policies both on the national and local levels, and supported its internalization on the societal level. Therefore, societal peace, a feeling of justice and freedom, cannot be established unless Turkey recognizes what happened between 1915 and 1923.

V.K.: On p. 4, you write, “Armenian Sources themselves become part of the Denial.” How?
T.S.: Yes, in this habitus of denial, the Armenian press was required to write certain things in certain ways. For instance, according to the memoirs of Ara Koçunyan, the editor-in-chief of the “Aztarar” daily, Manuk Aslanyan was called by the governor Muhittin Üstündağ to his office because he failed to cover the news of the annexation of Sanjak (Hatay). Although Aslanyan published an editorial two days after this conversation, his newspaper was nevertheless closed. There are various other examples of prohibiting or closing Armenian newspapers without any reason. “Nor Or” and “Hay Gin” are just two other examples from the republican era. These newspapers were apparently not good enough in internalizing the denialist habitus.. For instance, the “Marmara” newspaper, in its reporting on the destruction of an Armenian church in Sivas in the 1940’s, put the responsibility on locum tenens Kevork Arch. Aslanyan, although the church was dynamited by Turkish officials.
Another example could be given in the context of relations with the diaspora: Armenian intellectuals and the press in Istanbul were expected to distance themselves from diaspora communities. So, they too had to use hostile language when describing other Armenian communities in the diaspora, denying the fact that those people in other parts of the world were their relatives. This continues to be an issue even today. However, I should point out that diaspora hatred is one of the oldest and deepest components of Kemalism, which can be traced in the republican archives in Turkey. The state prepared detailed reports on the Armenian newspapers and their editors-in-chief in the 1930’s and 1940’s–and, most probably, in later periods as well. In these reports, one of the most important criteria was the relation to other communities in the diaspora. In other words, for an Armenian newspaper to be regarded as “state friendly,” the first question was whether it was reporting news from other communities or not, and whether it had a network with other communities. It was in this atmosphere that the post-genocide habitus of denial was partly internalized by some Armenian community members, public opinion makers. The book-burning ceremony undertaken by Armenian community leaders of The 40 Days of Musa Dagh can be read in this context, too. [2] It is also important to emphasize that by being part of this habitus, the editors of the newspapers were hoping to have some more bargaining power with the state on other communal issues, such as the confiscation of properties or laws regulating the communal life. We can trace this very clearly in the editorials. However, this hope never turned into a reality.
 It is important to underline that I am not blaming anyone for what they did, or what they could not do, I only point out the sword of Damocles that has been hanging over their heads.

V.K.: What role did the Armenian newspapers play in the re-construction of the community’s image in post-genocide Istanbul?
T.S.: Armenian newspapers had some very difficult tasks to accomplish. In the absence of Armenian history classes and an atmosphere of absolute prohibition of all books related to Armenian history, the newspapers were trying to provide historical knowledge by publishing biographies, and series on Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, the history of Armenian Church, etc.
Secondly, they had to react to anti-Armenian campaigns in the absence of representative bodies. Turkish editors, many of whom were parliamentarians at the same time, referred to Armenian editors and journalist as the representatives of their community, although there was no notion of representation. This very political task often put their existence in danger. Armenian newspapers were translating almost all news items related to Armenians from Turkish newspapers, and they were following the Armenian press in other countries. Thus, reading Armenian newspapers meant both following the agenda of Turkey and partly the agenda of Armenians in other parts of the world. Furthermore, Armenian newspapers were following the court cases opened against the pious foundations that mostly ended up with confiscated properties, such as in the case of Sanasaryan Han, Yusufyan Han, the cemetery of Pangalti, and many others. Cases of “denigrating Turkishness,” which have been filed almost exclusively against non-Muslims, were also followed closely. One can also find information about Armenian life in the provinces in the papers. Important primary sources, such as official documents, decisions of the Patriarchate or Catholicosates were all published in the newspapers. I should add that there were tens of newspapers and journals in the first decades of the republic, and that they all had different priorities. Therefore, Armenian newspapers and yearbooks are very good sources of republican history, like the memoirs of the patriarchs and public intellectuals, minutes and reports of the General (Armenian) National Assembly, the letters of the Catholicoi, among others.

V.K.: What were the repercussions of this denialist habitus? What was its social, political, cultural, and economic impact on the writing of the history of the community?
T.S.: We cannot talk about a historiography on Armenians during the republican years. Non-Muslims only appear in historical research when it concerns attacks, such as the pogroms of Sept. 6-7 1955, the Wealth Tax, 20 Classes, and others. Of course, the literature in these fields helps us a lot, but these are peak moments. One should look at the practices of daily life to understand how these tax policies, pogroms, or organized attacks affected them. How did the circumstances enable these attacks or policies against which there was no opposition? The denialist habitus as a concept helps us understand everyday life, which kept the society ready for provocations and reproductions of racism. I should perhaps add that republican elite, from 1923 onwards, was trying to “solve the problem” of the non-Muslims remaining in the country. In the memoirs of Patriarch Zaven Der Yeghiayan, we can see the process of negotiations with Refet Pasha [Bele] on this issue. This was also discussed during the deliberations prior to the signing of the Lausanne Treaty. In the minutes of secret parliament hearings we read how the presence of non-Muslims has been problematized. [3] Consequently, through the absolute prohibition of opening Armenian schools, the kidnapping Armenian girls throughout the republican period, the raiding of homes, the dynamiting or confiscation of cultural monuments, republican governments wanted to push the remaining Armenians out of Asia Minor and northern Mesopotamia, while at the same time, imagining Istanbul as a panopticon, a strict zone of control where all non-Muslims should be concentrated. A similar policy was implemented on the island of Imroz, where Greeks were allowed to remain after 1923. First, in the 1960s, an open-air prison was established there: criminals were brought to the island with their families. Consequently, the crime rate increased considerably. Then, Muslim settlers from the Black Sea region were brought to the island. Constant demographic engineering attempts were made in order to push the remaining Greeks out of the island. The consequences of these policies were disastrous. Both in Imroz and in the provinces republican governments pursued the same aim: Creating a society without non-Muslims, breaking the link between the people and the geography they lived in, and in the long run, eradicating the memory of their existence.

V.K.: How did the first post-genocide generation of intellectuals reflect on the image of the Armenian community of Istanbul in the 1930’s and 1940’s?
T.S.: It is difficult to talk about one image. However, there was one very important characteristic about the “Nor Or” generation: They were the first generation of intellectuals who were born right after 1915 and were mostly active in leftist politics in Turkey. Why did they feel the need to publish an Armenian language newspaper? I think this is an important question to ask. It is quite clear that they had no other place to bring up the issues that were related to the community. They were urging for a more democratic community administration, with more participation and, on the other hand, they were very expressive about the anti-Armenian state policies and anti-Armenian campaigns reproduced by the public opinion-makers. Avedis Aliksanyan, Aram Pehlivanyan, Zaven Biberyan, Vartan and Jak Ihmalyan brothers, and others were pointing out the changing conjuncture after World War II and the need for equality for non-Muslims, in particular for Armenians in Turkey. “Nor Or” was one of the most outspoken and courageous newspapers in the republican history of Turkey. For instance, Zaven Biberyan advocated the right to immigrate to Soviet Armenia for Armenians in Turkey, which was quite dangerous; or he drew parallels between Jews and Armenians while responding to the anti-Armenian campaigns in the Turkish press. Most likely, these were the reasons behind the prohibition of “Nor Or” in December 1946, by Martial Law. Although there were other newspapers that were banned for a certain period, “Nor Or” was the only Armenian newspaper that was prohibited for good. The editors were imprisoned, and later left the country. Zaven Biberyan returned in the mid-1950’s, but all the others lost their contact with the society they were born and raised in.

V.K.: In your dissertation, you write that “Another international crisis parallel to the issue of Patriarchal election crisis was the territorial claim of  the Armenian political organizations at the San Francisco Conference. This claim was pushed further by the USSR government.” How did Turkey deal with the territorial claims presented by the Armenian political organizations?
T.S.: This was one of the most challenging issues for the Armenian community in Turkey. Turkey had sent a group of editors to San Francisco, and they remained there for quite long, around three months. Their task was to lobby for Turkey. The territorial claims presented by the Armenian organizations in the San Francisco Conference had a shocking impact on the Turkish delegation, especially when this claim was coupled with the call for immigration to Soviet Armenia by Stalin. With the call for immigration to Soviet Armenia, it was quite easy to blame all Armenians for being communists, especially the ones in Turkey, since they were queued in front of the USSR Embassy in Istanbul to register for immigration. At the end, Armenians from Turkey only waved to the ships passing through the Bosporus, and none of them were able to go to Soviet Armenia in 1946. The reason is not yet clear to me, there was always a question mark in the minds of Soviet officials regarding the Armenians in Turkey. After World War II, hatred against communism in Turkey was heightened to a great extent as a result of the territorial claims and immigration call for Armenians.
 The anti-Armenian campaign in Turkey was launched by the editors who reported from San Francisco. The newspapers “Yeni Sabah,” [4] “Gece Postası,” [5] “Vatan,” [6] “Cumhuriyet,” [7] “Akşam,” [8] “Tasvir,” [9] the abovementioned daily from Adana, “Keloğlan,” [10] “Son Telgraf,” [11] and “Tanin” all used quite a bit of racist language against Armenians. Asım Us, for instance, in his editorial for “Vakıt” asked Armenian intellectuals “to be conscientious and fulfill their duties.” [12] However, this was not typical to that period only. Throughout the year, after the San Francisco numerous conference articles were published along the same lines. In September 1945, Peyami Safa called the Armenians of Turkey to duty with an article entitled, “Armenians of Turkey, where are you?” published in “Tasvir” in September 1945. [13] The editors of the Armenian newspapers tried to respond to all these attacks. Aram Pehlivanyan, who penned a Turkish editorial published in “Nor Or,” in order to be heard by Turkish public opinion makers, thus explained the situation: “We are witnessing attacks of some of the Turkish newspapers against Armenians. The Armenian press is trying to respond to these attacks as much as it can. However, we have to admit that Armenian newspapers can have only a little impact on Turkish public opinion. Therefore, this self-defense is as ridiculous as fighting with a pin as opposed to a sword.” [14]

V.K.: How did the Patriarchal Election Crisis of 1944-1950 discuss the changing power relations on the post-World War II international scene?
T.S.: With the sudden death of Patriarch Mesrob Naroyan in 1944, Archbishop Kevork Arslanyan was appointed as locum tenens. First, this was the period when a conflict turned into a court case between Arch. Arslanyan and the Armenian Hospital Sourp Prgich over the inheritance of Patriarch Naroyan. Second, the Turkish government was hindering the gatherings of the General (Armenian) National Assembly (GNA) and this was paralyzing the whole community administration, for the patriarchal elections could only take place with the GNA meeting. This had already been a problem starting in the 1930’s, when the whole community administration (i.e., Nizamname of Armenian millet) had started to be undermined systematically. Kemalist secularism of the new Turkish state had targeted the administrations of non-Muslim communities, since they had the right to administer their communities based on Nizamnames, and the republican state had nothing to offer instead of these communal rights. In the last analysis, this policy was enabling the state to create de facto regulations according to its own will and interest. Coming back to the topic of patriarchal elections, not being able to organize the elections resulted in a split in the community: those who were for and those who were against Arch. Arslanyan. Almost every week, attacks and quarrels between the two groups took place in various churches.
Thirdly, the Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin, which was becoming active in the diaspora with Stalin’s immigration call, was also involved in this crisis, as well as the Catholicosate of Cilicia in Antelias, Lebanon, and other communities in the diaspora. This was the first communal crisis that turned into an international one during the republican years, leaving the Armenian community in Turkey in a very fragile position, since there were no mechanisms of representation and no real mechanisms of solving the problem. In other words, this crisis was a result of the eradication of the community’s legal basis, which had continued after 1915 and taken a systematic character with the republican policies. If the Ottoman state until 1915 had some kind of responsibility towards its non-Muslim millets, citizens or subjects, there was a complete evaporation of this responsibility during the republican period. Communities were told to no longer be communities, but equal citizens of the republic, like any other citizen of Turkey, which in reality did not apply and, more importantly, meant that Armenians no longer had the rights stemming from Nizamname. Thus, the legal basis of the communities, gained during the 19th century, was first problematized by the republican governments and then systematically eradicated, leaving the communities alone with the problems created as a result of this eradication.
Armenian newspapers, public opinion-makers, and the reports prepared by the GNA, eventually gathered by December 1950, are very rich sources to understand this very problematic period. The following comment was made in the report prepared by the investigative committee:
“This is not a history of a period, since it does not include all the incidents with their reasons and results. This is not a biographical account of someone. This is only 1 page of the overall crisis that our community has been going through for the last 30 years.” [15]
Last but not least, it is important to emphasize that this is not only the history of the Armenian community, but the history of Turkey during the first decades of the republican period. Single-party years and also decades that followed should be re-read in light of these sources, which would eventually radically change the historiography.

V.K.: Why did you dedicate your dissertation to the memory of Varujan Köseyan?
T.S.: Most of the Armenian newspapers that I referenced in my dissertation (“Nor Lur,” “Aysor,” “Tebi Luys,” “Marmara,” “Ngar,” “Panper,” and others) were located in the archives of the Sourp Prgich Armenian Hospital in Istanbul. This archive was put together by the late Varujan Köseyan (1920-2011), who rescued hundreds of volumes of Armenian newspapers from recycling. I spent quite a bit of time with him during the last two years of his life conducting interviews, and I was honored to enjoy his friendship. The room that I was working in was like a storage room. Thanks to the efforts of the hospital administration, especially of Arsen Yarman and Zakarya Mildanoğlu, the archive room has been recently renovated and is now waiting for its researchers. Unfortunately, Köseyan could not see it. Yet, without his efforts, this research could not have been done by using such a wide range of sources, nor could the archive have been established. We owe our history to Köseyan.


[1] “Yahudi illeti, yutar bütün milleti–Yahudi yaka biti, bizim sokağın iti.” See Agop Aslanyan, Adım Agop Memleketim Tokat (Istanbul: Aras Publ.), 88.
[2] See Ayda Erbal and Talin Suciyan, “One Hundred Year of Abandonment,” The Armenian Weekly, April 2011.
[3] See TBMM-Gizli Celse Zabıtları, 1934: vol. 4. 7-8
[4] Yeni Sabah, quoted in Marmara, Dec. 18, 1945, no. 1133.
[5] Gece Postası, quoted in Marmara, Dec. 17, 1945, no. 1132. The editor-in-chief of Gece Postası, Ethem İzzet Benice, a former representative of Kars, wrote an article on the issue entitled, “Armenians of Turkey and the Invitation of Soviets.” In that article, he said that the ones who would like to go, should go, and “good bye.”
[6] Vatan, quoted in Marmara, Dec. 18, 1945, no. 1133. The editor-in-chief of Vatan, Ahmet Emin Yalman, wrote that any decision that went against the honor and the interests of Turkey should take people’s opposition into consideration. His statement referred to the issue of the eastern borders.
[7] Cumhuriyet, quoted in Marmara, Dec. 18, 1945, no. 1133. According to the translation in Marmara, Cumhuriyet described the crowd in front of the Soviet Embassy in Istanbul, trying to make a social analysis of the applicants regarding their ages—whether they seemed to be unemployed or not, or whether their existence was purposeful at all, etc. In Marmara (Dec. 26, 1945, no. 1141), Suren Şamlıyan mentioned an article written by Ahmed Halil in Cumhuriyet the day before, entitled “İkinci Dünya Harbinde Ermeni Meselesi” (The Armenian Question During the Second World War). Aram Pehlivanyan responded to this same article with a Turkish editorial in Nor Or on Jan. 26, 1946.
[8] Akşam, quoted in Marmara, Dec. 18, 1945, no. 1133. The editor-in-chief of Akşam, Necmeddin Sadak, who was at the same time a representative of Sivas, wrote: “Whoever would like to go, should go, and whoever would like to stay, should stay.” He wrote his column under the penname, “Democrat.” Sadak stated that Armenians preferred to remain as minorities, speaking their own language, and attending their own schools, and thus, they chose to be foreigners.
[9] Tasvir, quoted in Marmara, Dec. 24, 1945, no. 1139, where the translation was: “We have a right to be suspicious of the entire Armenian community… Armenians stabbed the Turkish Army in the back, which found its most legitimate response.”
[10] Keloğlan, quoted in Marmara, June 24, 1945, no. 700 (written in Armeno-Turkish). According to Marmara, Keloğlan published this piece on Dec. 20, 1945: “Bazı kopuk Ermeniler İstanbul’daki Moskof elçiliğine başvurup, Moskof büyükelçiliğine gitmek istediklerini bildirmişler. Bu haber bizleri mutlu etti. İster oynayarak, ister gülerek gitsinler, yeter ki gitsinler.” Keloğlan, quoted in Marmara, Dec. 24, 1945, no. 1139.
[11] Son Telgraf, quoted in Marmara, Dec. 25, 1945, no. 1140. Son Telgraf had interviewed some Armenians who had reportedly said, “We are Turks. What business do we have in Russia? It is a stupidity to go there.”
[12] Vakıt, quoted in Marmara, Dec. 25, 1945, no. 1140.
[13] Tasvir, quoted in Marmara, Sept. 22, 1945, no. 1046.
[14] Aram Pehlivanyan, “Hakikat,” Nor Or, Jan. 26, 1946.
[15] Deghegakir Ĕnthanur Zhoghovo K‘nnich‘ Hantsnazhoghovi (Istanbul: Foti Basımevi, 1951), 94.

"The Armenian Weekly," November 11, 2013

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