Independent and cutting-edge analysis on Turkey and its neighborhood

Two articles that recently appeared in Turkish Policy Quarterly (TPQ) – one written by then Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey Ahmet Davutoğlu[1] and the response paper to Davutoğlu’s article by US-based Armenian historian Gerard Libaridian[2] – are remarkable not only because they touch upon a historical issue that is highly sensitive for both parties, but also because they deal with fundamental problems that exist in the relationship between history, memory, narrative, and politics.

In what follows, I analyze some of these problems with the hope of developing a discussion in a productive manner. Let me begin with Davutoğlu’s article. The gist of his article can be summed up in the following:

Nationalisms, which arose in the 19th century (the “epoch of nationalism”), required new historical accounts that distorted history (the Ottoman era) for their own nation-building purposes. In the case of Armenian nationalism, it was the Ottoman era that was distorted in order to create a new national identity. In order to reconcile Armenians and Turks, Davutoğlu argues, both parties should make certain changes to their memories and thus achieve a “just memory.” The grounds for such a change of memory are the following: (a) Armenians and Turks had good relations and an intertwined culture prior to the events in 1915, and therefore both parties should recollect this positive history instead of focusing exclusively on the hardships that Armenians experienced in 1915; (b) not only Armenians but also Turks experienced great suffering and loss during that historical period and therefore more balanced accounts are required. In order to reach a “just memory,” a joint truth commission composed of historians from both parties should be established. 

Responding to this article, Libaridian wrote a commentary that offers an Armenian perspective on this issue. Libaridian disagrees with almost all suggestions presented in Davutoğlu’s article. In particular, he rejects the thesis that Armenian identity was constructed in the age of nationalism. In opposition to this constructivist concept of the nation, he views Armenians in terms of being an “ancient nation.” Libaridian also disputes Davutoğlu’s characterization of the relationship between Turks and Armenians during the Ottoman era, arguing that Armenians were treated like “second class subjects at best, and victims of massacres at worst, even before 1915.” Finally, Libaridian disagrees with the Turkish perception of the events of 1915, regarding them instead as a “genocide.”

It seems there is only one point on which both sides agree – the importance of developing a dialogue.  But, it seems quite difficult - if not impossible-  to develop a dialogue if one cannot make sense of the points of opposition noted above. Is there a way to rationalize these oppositions in order to find avenues to overcome them in a productive manner and start a dialogue on a new level? In what follows I consider the arguments of both sides in an academic framework, with the hope of advancing dialogue and mutual understanding.

The Interplay of Memory, Narrative, and Conflict

Both articles refer to such concepts as memory, narratives, trauma, and conflict, which are complexly interrelated. Clarifying these concepts is important. Let me start with the concept of “narrative,” which is considered as a specific kind of cultural tool that can shape our thinking and processes of remembering in multiple, complex ways.[3] 

Recently, scholars have turned to analyzing the role of narratives in conflict resolution, thus giving birth to a narrative approach to inter-ethnic conflict.[4] Within the “narrative” framework, conflicts in some essential ways are considered as competing stories.[5] Supporters of the narrative approach believe that for effective conflict resolution to take place, competing narratives should undergo certain transformations that can bring them towards a common narrative.[6]

Put within this framework, Davutoğlu’s propositions can be considered as a suggestion to alter the Armenian and Turkish memories of the troubling past via some kind of narrative transformation. In particular, the author suggests the transformation of two narratives that can be identified as: “shared, intertwined cultures” and “common suffering.” He believes such a transformation of narratives could shift the ways in which social groups remember events toward a “just memory” and bring reconciliation between the two nations.

However, the possibility of narrative shifts is not as simple as one might think. There are extremely powerful forces that can constrain the narrative change deemed essential for resolving past tensions between groups.

Collective Memory as Mediated by a Narrative Toolkit

More thorough analysis of the role of narratives in shaping memory indicates that the certain properties of narratives affect the collective remembering process in very specific ways. [7]  In clarifying this idea, James Wertsch proposed making a distinction between “specific narratives” and “schematic narrative templates” (SNTs).[8] According to Wertsch, specific narratives are surface texts that include concrete information about the particular times, places, and actors involved in events from the past. In contrast, SNTs provide the recurrent constants of a narrative tradition. They do not include any concrete information, but are instead cookie-cutter plots that can be used to generate multiple specific narratives.

Following this line of reasoning we can postulate that Turkish and Armenian memory, thinking, and perceptions of the past are to a great extent shaped by their national narratives. Indeed, Libaridian, in his commentary on Davutoğlu’s article, makes both explicit and implicit references to the Turkish national narrative. In this connection it seems reasonable to look at the narrative toolkit of the Armenian “mnemonic community” (i.e. a group that shares a common memory of the past) that is underlying Libaridian’s arguments. [9]

One of the most important shared narratives that binds the Armenian mnemonic community together concerns Armenians’ repeated “sufferings” at the hands of the “infidels”: first the Persian fire-worshippers, then the Muslim Arabs, followed by the Mongol “pagans” and later the Turks. The Armenian historical writing tradition has a well-developed and specific schematic narrative template that I term “a faithful people though surrounded and tormented by enemies.” [10]

This narrative toolkit is underlying Libaridian’s disagreement with two of Davutoğlu’s claims noted above: the Armenians’ “good life” in the Ottoman Empire and the constructivist approach to nations as applied to Armenians. My point here is to indicate the power of the narrative toolkit that mediates thinking and perceptions of the past.

This influence is also evident in the most troubling, core issue of the Armenian-Turkish dispute – the events of 1915. Davutoğlu refers to these events as the “relocation of Armenians” accompanied by their huge losses and sufferings, while Libaridian terms them the “Armenian genocide” committed by Turks.

Libaridian believes that “to face the reality of what happened in 1915 (…) there is no better word to characterize what happened than the word genocide.”[11] However, the problem with this argument is that the perception of “the reality of what happened in 1915” is to a great extent defined by the narrative toolkit specific to members of Turkish and Armenian mnemonic communities. One may argue that when it comes to 1915, not everything falls in the same category of memory; there are also archival documents, which can be fallible and are open to various interpretations. Additionally, there is nothing particular to these documents that leads to a clear-cut diagnosis of “genocide” in a way that medical symptoms are diagnosed. There is ample narrative evidence about Armenian suffering, losses, and death; however how to term this narrative evidence depends on how events are emplotted into a single narrative. In a sense, opening all archives may not essentially change the situation with regard to the “Armenian genocide.”

Debating the events of 1915 is beyond the scope of this essay. My point here is to establish the perspective within which we could better understand the Turkish-Armenian mnemonic standoff. The impact of the Turkish national narrative on the Turkish perception of the 1915 events has been analyzed by Libaridian to a certain extent in an earlier article, also for TPQ.[12]  According to his analysis, the problem of the Turkish stance on the “Armenian genocide” issue has not only narrative but also political dimensions. But the same is true regarding the Armenian position.

To be sure, the political processes involved in this issue are complex and in some aspects are unique. In other aspects, they are similar to how Peter Novick described the political context that conditioned the Holocaust issue in the United States.[13] Novick suggests that the rise of identity politics and a “culture of victimization” made it acceptable, even fashionable, for American Jews “to embrace a victim identity based on the Holocaust.”[14] In the same vein, identity and memory politics are among the forces that define the Armenians’ agenda of the “Armenian genocide.” I am not going into detailed consideration of its political dimensions as it is beyond the scope of this article. Instead, I will consider the concept of cultural trauma, which is connected in some essential ways with collective memory and, to certain extent, is defined by political context as well.

Cultural Trauma

The notion of cultural trauma should be distinguished from psychological trauma. If psychological trauma refers to a distressing or life-threatening event experienced by an individual,[15] cultural trauma is shared by a community, irrespective of whether an individual of that community is an immediate witness to or victim of the act of violence.[16]

Unlike psychological trauma, which is diagnosed by psychiatrists or psychologists, cultural trauma is often determined or established by cultural, religious, social, or political figures.[17] Cultural trauma can play a particular role in generating new ideologies, collective memory, and identity constructions. In this way, cultural trauma often serves as the cornerstone for shaping painful collective memory, which can surpass individual memory in yielding strong emotions among individuals, even for those who do not have the painful individual experience.[18]

Taken from this perspective, the issue of the “Armenian genocide” can be considered as a deliberate construction that reframed the Armenian tragedy of 1915 within a certain narrative that is currently at the core of Armenian memory politics. This is not to suggest that this tragedy is simply a fabrication or product of the imagination of the Armenian mnemonic community. Instead, I suggest that politics (including memory and identity politics) is playing a decisive role in reframing historical events in certain ways.

Concluding Remarks

In his article, Ahmet Davutoğlu asks: “Is ‘just memory’ possible?” Responding to this question, Libaridian argues that there is no such thing as “just memory” as these two words have different natures: one is a moral category, while the other refers to a fallible category of knowledge regarding the past.[19] Philosophically speaking, the answer cannot be so straightforward because it depends subjectively on what is understood by “justice” and “memory.”[20] In any case, collective memory is viewed as susceptible to manipulations, distortions, and manufacturing. Some scholars even discuss the “syndrome of false collective memory.”[21]

Within this line of reasoning, the collective memories that are distinct to Armenian and Turkish mnemonic communities can be characterized as selective and painful. But if Turks and Armenians are attached to such memories then it will be hard for them to come to terms with each other. To this end, I would reformulate Davutoğlu’s original question into: “Is a more widely shared collective memory possible?” Obviously, this is harder to achieve. In a complex region in which memories are so strongly entangled with politics, history, and numerous conflicts – including the long-running Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh struggle – political and cultural elites in Armenia, Turkey and Azerbaijan, with support from the international community, need to develop a comprehensive and multileveled approach that embraces the resolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, the opening of Turkish-Armenian borders, and a program of profound narrative transformation towards fashioning a shared, consistent vision of the past, present, and future for the nations of the region.




Editorial Note: An extended version of this article will be published in the March issue of Armenian Studies. See:

[1] Ahmet Davutoğlu, “Turkish-Armenian Relations in the Process of De-Ottomanization or ‘Dehistoricization’: Is a ‘Just Memory’ possible?,” Turkish Policy Quarterly, Vol.13, No. 1 (Spring 2014), memory-possible-spring-2014/

[2] Gerald Libaridian, “Commentary on FM Davutoğlu’s TPQ article on the Armenian Issue,” Turkish Policy Quarterly, 2014, 

[3] James V. Wertsch, Voices of Collective Remembering (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

[4] John Winslade and Gerald Monk, Narrative Mediation. A new approach to conflict resolution (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000).

[5] Sarah Cobb, “Fostering coexistence in identity-based conflicts: Towards a narrative approach” in A.Chayes and M. Minow (Eds.), Imagine Coexistence (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), p. 294-310.

[6] Sarah Cobb, “Empowerment and mediation: A narrative perspective,” Negotiation Journal, Vol. 9, No. 3 (1993), p. 245-259.

[7] James V. Wertsch, Voices of collective remembering (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

[8] Wertsch, (2002).

[9] Eviatar Zerubavel. Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 2003).

[10] Rauf Garagozov, Collective Memory: How Collective Representations about the Past are Created, Preserved and Reproduced (New-York: Nova Science Publishers, 2015).

[11] Libaridian, (2014).

[12] Gerald Libaridian, “Erdoğan and His Armenian problem,” Turkish Policy Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring 2013),

[13] Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999).

[14] Michiko Kakutani, “Vexing New Book,” Rev. of  The Holocaust in American Life by Peter Novick (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999),

[15] Foa, E.B., Keane, T.M., Friedman, M.J., & Cohen, J.A. (eds), Effective treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder: Practice guidelines from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (Second Edition. New York: Guilford Publications, 2009).

[16] Jeffery C. Alexander, “Toward a Theory of Cultural trauma,” in Jeffrey C. Alexander et al., Cultural trauma and Collective Identity (A: University of California Press, 2004), p.1-10.

[17] Alexander, (2004).

[18] Rauf Garagozov, Painful collective memory: measuring negative affect in the Karabakh conflict, (2014).Manuscript submitted for publication.

[19] Libaridian, (2014)

[20] For instance if we acknowledge the socially construed, instrumental character of the kind of collective memory that is “invented” or created for purposes that include eliminating the old images of enmity that feed collective experience and understand justice as “cultivating virtue and common good” (Michael J. Sandel, Justice. What's the right thing to do? New-York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009, p. 260.) then we can probably arrive to kind of memory that can be tentatively called a “just memory.”

[21] David Lowenthal, Preface to The Art of Forgetting, ed. Adrain Forty and Susanne Kuchler (Oxford: Berg, 1999), p. xiii.

Rauf R. Garagozov
Rauf R. GaragozovRauf R. Garagozov is a Senior Research Fellow at Center for Strategic Studies (SAM) Baku, Azerbaijan.
This issue was published in collaboration with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation Turkey Office.
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