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The Strength Found from Admitting to Genocide

A recent Foreign Policy article argued that official German recognition of the Armenian genocide in Turkey came, if not at a bad time, at least at a “counterproductive time.” Nevertheless, the article recognized that Turkey has the power to stop foreign countries from using this issue “to attack Ankara for foreign or domestic political gain.” The Foreign Policy article argues that Turkey has been always at a disadvantage with respect to Germany or the United States (although they have genocides and slavery as stains on their history), because the foreign occupation of Anatolia before Turkish independence undermined the self-confidence necessary to have an open and honest debate in Turkey. However, it is not only a question of self-confidence, but also one of “ontological insecurity.” Turkey not only started from an uneasy position, but constructed its founding identity from a position of low “ontological security,” which has made it difficult for this country, even today, to come to terms with its past.

British sociologist Anthony Giddens first created the ontological security concept, and Jennifer Mitzen and Brent J. Steele later transferred to the International Relations (IR) field.. Ontological security in IR refers to the needs of the states to have a “secure’”notion of the “self”, i.e., a secure national state identity. Every state has different ontological interpretations of its “self-security”depending on history, geography, and culture. Moreover, ontological security can change over time, depending on the domestic and international conjuncture. Thus a state can feel a higher level of ontological security during some periods, while during others that same state may feel a lower one, depending on its internal or external threats.

After the implosion of an empire or a federation of states, such as after the end of the Ottoman Empire or the Soviet Union, the heir of the previously powerful actor feels a low level of ontological security: it fears its own dismemberment and disappearance. In fact, Russia today also possesses a low level of ontological security , and it is not by chance that the two countries have had skirmishes recently. Internationally isolated countries also feel a low level of ontological security, mistrustful because of a lack of iterative engagement with the international community, and so they tend to react with a threatening attitude; we can see this in particular with North Korea, but also with Venezuela and Iran until recently. Ontological security can also be affected by the level of internal social conflict that the state experiences , feeling its social peace threatened and, by extension, its safety and very existence when new internal conflicts appear. A state experiencing a civil war, like Syria today, or a separatist conflict, like Turkey with the Kurds, obviously has a low level of ontological security.

We can say that Turkey has experienced unstable ontological security since the foundation of its Republic, with role of foreign intervention in the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and with the risk of destruction of Turkey itself before the Turkish war of independence. The experience of this “siege paranoia” created what is called the “Sèvres syndrome,” the fear of dismemberment at the hand of an external power that is often affiliated with internal enemies, and which takes its name from the Treaty of Sèvres that marked the beginning of the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire.

Sèvres syndrome has strongly impacted the actions of Turkey during the history of its republic, from the military coups to the Turkish “deep state,” leading to irrational overreactions and apparently irrational behaviors, by politicians in particular. This syndrome is what we are observing today in the aggressive declarations of President Erdogan and the Turkish government every time an external power, especially one from the EU, criticizes the country. This is also what we are observing in officials’ tense reactions to the historical faults that Turkey may have, including the Armenian genocide.

The fact that Turkey threatens serious economic, political and security consequences—withdrawing the ambassador every time a state declares the existence of the genocide—cannot be considered a very rational behavior; rather, it is an impulsive and emotional reaction based on this Sèvres syndrome and the nation’s low ontological security. Turkey cannot accept that its founding fathers may have committed mistakes or even atrocities, but this refusal keeps the country in a vicious circle: only through admitting past errors can we really reconcile with our own past and thereby increase our ontological security, for individuals as well as for countries. No country in the world can claim to have been born of only good intentions and righteous actions– and the United States had its own “original sin” after all, and Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner—and the point at which a country can admit its historic failings is the point at which it starts to behave more rationally, in terms of costs and benefits.

Moreover, open recognition of errors can suddenly reduce international pressure, even on economic reparations. Greece asked Germany for reparations recently, during the debt crisis, but no one took Greece seriously and the issue simply faded away. It might have gone differently if Germany had yet to recognize the Holocaust. This holds true not only for the Holocaust, however: since Germany apologized, more than 10 years ago, for the genocide in Namibia, the first genocide of the nineteenth century, no one has pressured Germany on the repatriation for which the Ovaherero people keep asking, even today.  It seems, then, that self-acceptance of Turkey’s own errors will not only boost its self-confidence and the security of its self-identity, but will also increase  Turkey’s soft power, since the international community can no longer target its denial of a tragedy, whatever the exact number of casualties might be, that happened one century ago during a world war. This will give Turkey more power of attraction, as well as international legitimacy to become a real world power. This is the path that Turkey needs to take if wants to become a full member of the EU and the international community of modern democracies.

Image: “Armenians deported in Turkey” (credit: Narek/Flickr)


Maurizio Geri

Maurizio Geri is a research assistant and PhD candidate in International Studies at Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA, and an independent analyst on political, security and democratic issues. Originally from Italy, where he earned a BA in Political Science and MA in Cultural Studies, he worked on human rights and peace issues in Latin America and South Asia with Nonviolent Peaceforce and Peace Brigades International. He currently studies democratizing Muslim countries and their treatment of ethnic minorities after armed conflict. His blog is
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