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’Meds Yeghern’

mercredi 6 mai 2009, par Hans-Peter Geissen

After the official statement of American President Barack Obama, which once more expressed strong emotions and convictions about history and morality, a majority of Turkey’s commentators seems to have taken down the gloriole of this newest Messiah of the West. Disappointment and a healthy dose of sceptizism result basically from the wordless passing over the Muslim victims of the same period, as the contrast, naturally, hints at an emotionless and amoral attitude when the issue are Muslim victims.

Nonetheless, a number of writers took the use of the Armenian term « Meds Yeghern », which is translated as « Great Disaster » or « Great Catastrophe », as an opportunity to discuss whether this term might provide a piece of common ground for Turks and Armenians, as well as Greeks or Kurds, to express their common grief about the Great Catastrophe that befell the Anatolian peoples during WW1, or more generally during the process of dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.

Personally I find these to be quite adequate ideas, though I’m not party in those matters and, of course, do not know how it will be perceived among them.

I want to add something which I think is the other side of the coin, so to speak, yet may be somewhat difficult to handle.

Namely, I feel that the passive side, the suffering and dissolution, should not be the only thing to accentuate. It is true. It must be mentioned. It must be acknowledged and mourned. But it is not the future. The seed of the future lies predominantly in the active side.


Let me start with the European experience. It is at the core of the matter.

From our current position, we may see the European Union, and in this context we may locate Greece, Turkey, and Armenia. What we are facing as « Meds Yeghern » is in the same context some time earlier, late 19th and early 20th century.

So let’s start with the idea of a united Europe of free and democratic nations. It did not start with the foundation of the European Communities in 1948-58. In fact, the appeal went out from the French Revolution, 1789. During the « Hambach Feast », 1832, it was repeated by activists from several upcoming nations, notably German, Polish and French ; two years later the « Young Europe » association was founded in Bern, Switzerland, with participants from still more peoples from Spain to Italy and Hungary. But the actual political manifestation were the national-democratic revolutions spreading over Europe in 1848.

All these suffered defeat ; yet, one and a half century later we see that those democratic nations finally succeeded and united in the European Union.

It was a long and bloody century.

Look into the four corners of Europe, and their history : For instance Spain (SW), Ireland (NW), Finland (NE) ; and all the lands between them.

What we have to face now is the southeastern corner, in what first was the Ottoman Empire. For practical reasons I shall focus on the northern parts, the Balkans, Anatolia and the Caucasus, which include the Ottoman (and Byzantine, Seljuk etc.) heartlands and capital(s).

This distinction is in parallel to other historical empires like the Portuguese, Spanish, British, and French ; and the rather shortlived or smaller examples of German, Italian, Dutch or Belgian territories overseas. It is essentially geographical, yet has a political implication : The lands of geographical Europe may run under the title of « European Unity », those outside under « Decolonization ».

It is not an absolute distinction, naturally. All this happens on the same planet, and it was and remains connected one way or another. And yet there is an empirical difference. Don’t bother if I include Anatolia and the Southern Caucasus in geographical Europe. In this I follow, as in previous essays, the explanations of an eminent German geographer, Herbert Louis [1].

A different context ?

Naturally, the ideas of the French Revolution had not fallen out of the blue, either ; they were rooting in a long development of interconnected European cultures, so their spread over Europe is by no means surprising. Yet it may be notable that this spread took roots in the Ottoman sphere almost immediately, because there is a widespread perception that the Ottoman Empire belonged to a completely different context, the « Islamic World ». But empirically it did not.

There is no doubt that it was Islamic, to a large degree. Yet it was not a « different world ». We may see that the revolutionary impulse first took roots among the Greek population, which was Christian ; and recognize the reformation period starting with Selim III., who like his successors was Muslim. Soon we may see reform movements among Ottoman Muslims and Armenians, like the « Young Ottomans ».

As in all of Europe, a race started between reform and revolution, and they felt the counterstrikes of reactionary moves, feudal and imperial. Impulses splitted into ideological lines - national, liberal, anarchic, democratic ; capitalism, socialism, religious movements, women’s movements, regionalisms. Along with political and economic developments, cultural expressions and sciences spread and evolved.

There can hardly be a doubt that particularly the Muslim element in the Ottoman sphere was rather slow, though it took part in all these developments. I guess that in first line there was a simple technical reason : Printing technology. From the 15th to the 18th century, the Ottomans had failed to use it. And a giant gap had emerged between the language of the educated and that of the masses. Though most reforms came relatively late and hesitant, they were still not easily understandable for those masses. It was however a bit different for the speakers of Greek and Armenian, and for the urban Jews, who had established printing houses much earlier in the Ottoman Empire and/or abroad.

Drifting apart

The main impulse of the French Revolution was the collective self-rule of the people, the sovereignty of the people, then called the nation. Its basic implications are that everybody is personally free as any sovereign ruler can be ; and that in the national collective all are equals ; and that their self-rule, thus, can only be by mutual agreement on the rules. Liberté, egalité, fraternité.

The simple formula is based on a large body of philosophy developed over centuries, and it required a lot of further work to find correct and applicable methods of implementation. We may find some traces of the Ottomans in these cultural bodies, too, particularly in the former. Yet, the extended lack of printing and the gap to popular language put the Muslim population in disadvantage. A problem whose repercussions persisted well into republican times.
(There are also some other reasons in the polit-economic sphere, see Göcek [2].)

Along those lines, the Ottoman peoples were drifting apart ; we may still assume that they were moved and moving in the same direction, but with grossly different speed. Of course, we must not forget the involvement of foreign powers ; this was still a world in which competing empires dominated, and the Ottoman Empire was the weakest among them, as far as Europe was concerned. But this viewpoint may not be allowed to conceal the internal dynamics of the peoples involved.

And you’ll get a totally confused picture of the inter-imperial dynamics if you neglect the coalitions of the Crimean War, the various Balkan wars, and WW1. Not to forget the later constellations, WW2 and the Cold War. Please allow me to point to the two constants : Of all major powers of the 18th to 20th ct.s, only Russia was almost constantly at war with « Turkey », and only Germany was never. I think it would be misleading to construct any special cultural affinities here ; if there are some, they are not bigger than those between any other pair of European states. Durable as it is, this is a geopolitical feature.

Quite to the opposite, there can be no doubt about the cultural affinities of Turks, Greeks and Armenians. Remarkably, it is obviously not a religious bond. Such is even a bit doubful between Turkey and Albania or Azerbaijan, though it may exist with Bosnia. Obviously it is not « Turkishness », either, which certainly applies to Azerbaijan and Northern Cyprus. There may be something specifically « Anatolian », though, which transcedes religions. It involves Kurds. That may be in the culture of daily life, developed over almost a millenium, and it is almost unknown to myself. But there is also something political. In a way, in bitter controversies, Turks, Greeks and Armenians (and in a limited way, Kurds) relate to the Ottoman Empire as a kind of « us ». Something that Arabs usually do not, nor do Bulgarians or Georgians or, naturally, Azeris.

And here comes « Meds Yeghern ». In a broad meaning, it relates to the fight for sovereignty in Anatolia. The people’s or the Sultan’s ? And if the former, which people ? Who was when on which side ? Who attempted what ? Who did what ? There is an immense pluralism of actors and viewpoints, from Armenian Ottoman Loyalists to revolutionary national-socialists, for instance.

Naturally, I cannot offer a final solution for all this. This is what the peoples and their historians must discuss.

Historical irony, and whose common ground ?

In my opinion, the issue of partition became virulent when the first Ottoman constitution was abolished, 1878 I guess. The constitution opened a way for an Ottoman nation ; as it was shelved, the way was essentially shut, things turned into different pathes. Several rebellions followed. Then, the Armenian exodus, between « dislocation » and « genocide ». The Greek « Megali Idea », the Turkish (-Kurdish) « War of Independence ». It would be a terrible mistake not to mention the « terrorism » or « freedom fight » of the Kurdish rebellions. There is still no really democratic constitution !

So, whatever the final analysis,

- there was an Armenian rebellion, and

- there were reasons for this rebellion.

You see the actual difficulty for both sides ?

But there is no easy escape. If both sides arrive at this point of understanding, I feel the chances are good to find the common ground. Otherwise I don’t know.

The Armenian nation becomes manifest in this rebellion. How can they deny their rebellion, on which this nation is founded, in order to become a mere -well, deplorable- victim ? Yet, can the Republic of Turkey insist on the sacredness of the Empire ? What republic, then ?

And it’s quite the same between Kurds and Turks. The difference : In this case, the point of no return for statial/national unity is not yet surpassed. Not yet, to be sure, it is approaching. There is no time to waste with distractions, foreign powers or the like.

Consider the parallels. Obviously, religion is neither cause nor remedy here. Democracy or the lack thereof is the key. Consider the merits of rebellion !

That of Atatürk. The Armenian, the Kurdish rebellion. That’s common ground. Not only common ground for Turks, Kurds and Armenians. Remember 1848 !

The common ground of the European Union, as well, lies in such rebellions.

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[1LOUIS, Herbert (1954) : Über den geographischen Europabegriff. - Mitteilungen der Geographischen Gesellschaft in München 39 : 73-93. München.

LOUIS, Herbert (1985) : Landeskunde der Türkei, vornehmlich aufgrund eigener Reisen. – 268 S., Karten. – Stuttgart (Franz Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden, Geographische Zeitschrift, Beiheft Erdkundliches Wissen 73)

LOUIS, Herbert (1939) : Das natürliche Pflanzenkleid Anatoliens, geographisch gesehen. – Geographische Abhandlungen, 3. Reihe, Heft 12 : 132 S., Karten, Tafeln. – Stuttgart.

[2GÖCEK, Fatma Müge (1996) : Rise of the Bourgeoisie, Demise of Empire. – 220 S., New York, N.Y. (Oxford University Press)

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