- Denial of Violence—Ottoman Past, Turkish Present, and Collective Violence against the Armenians, 1789–2009 by Fatma Müge Göcek
For more than one hundred years the battle between denial and recognition of the Armenian Genocide has raged, with limited success for the latter. A key problem is the variance in availability of information worldwide and the lack of consensus about that information among audiences “Turkish,” “Armenian,” and “international.” That the most strident promoter of denialism is the Turkish government itself poses a problem. The resulting discrepancy in discourses is staggering. But, as the book [End Page 497] under review illustrates, a plethora of information is available, as are alternative narratives, even in Turkey and even in works by Turkish authors.
Unlike some academic and popular contributions whose authors rushed them into print for the Genocide’s 2015/2016 centennial, Göcek’s volume had been in the works for twelve years. Nor is this surprising, given its scope: a grand analysis of denial, memory, and acknowledgment, as well as the construction of an entirely new narrative. Not a history of denial per se, nor yet a history of violence and memory, the volume is an experiment in historical discourse analysis. Göcek sets out to narrate the history of violence and subsequent rationalizations, denial, and forgetting almost exclusively through memoirs published in modern Turkish: covering the last two centuries of Turkish and Ottoman history, Göcek bases her analysis on a very large corpus of work: “I decided to systematically read all books printed in Turkey in Turkish after the Latin script reform of 1928 that contained people’s recollections of what went on around them from the year 1789 to 2009.” Her selection came down to about 310 “memoir writers’ accounts” (p. 54), freely accessible books by both ethnic Turks and minority authors. This combination allows Göcek to contrast fruitfully various perspectives on common events or contexts.
Given the source base, the density of the text, the book’s vast scope, and the desirability of further contextualization and discussion—each of the four resultant hundred-page chapters easily could have (and perhaps should have) constituted its own interesting book. The first chapter deals with violence and denial from the late eighteenth century to the Young Turk revolution of 1908, and the second covers the core period 1908–1918. The Republican era from 1919 until 2009 is treated in the two final chapters, chapter three extending to 1973 and chapter four starting with 1974. Throughout, Göcek traces denial as a process “layered through history” (p. 3). As the author perceptively observes, the often self-censored writings facilitated the transition in memory from the Ottoman to the Republican periods, both for the authors themselves and for society as a whole (p. 64).
It is impossible to summarize here the narrative that Göcek tried to construct from two hundred years of history and more than three hundred texts. That Göcek offers little guidance or interpretation, and that she offers only a short conclusion, makes summary difficult. Her book is densely packed with eyewitness accounts, rationalizations by witnesses, and explanations—often subjective and slanted—of violence and various aspects of inter- and multi-ethnic history. Her narrative must be read as a counter-script to official Turkish histories and doctrines of denial. And for this her book is of immense value. In her own words, she seeks to circumvent official documents to uncover a new, more important dimension of denial (p. 53). The writings were never entirely under state control (p. 56), the author points out, and thus represent an arena in which more personal forms of coming to terms with the past played themselves out. While this makes for a truly fascinating contribution, however, readers unfamiliar with official Turkish narratives (however we define and [End Page 498] classify them) will be challenged to fully appreciate what Göcek has accomplished. In large part this...