Fatma Müge Göçek, Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present, and Collective Violence against the Armenians, 1789-2009 (Oxford University Press, 2015). Denial of Violence is an important contribution to the history of state violence against ethnic and religious minorities in the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic due to its scope, theoretical rigor, unusual source material (memoir and oral history), and the subject position of its author, an ethnic Turk who who came of age in Turkey until she emigrated to the United States at the age of twenty-five. As an academic of Turkish origin, Göçek exposed herself to ostracism and harassment by speaking and writing honestly about the genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire. Göçek's expatriate status give her some insulation from direct Turkish state violence or imprisonment, and yet Denial of Violence is first and foremost a scholarly work of moral courage. Because the archives of the Ottoman Empire are tightly controlled, scholars of the Armenian genocide have had to be innovative in locating source materials. Göçek makes excellent use of memoirs, letters, and oral histories--often from the mouths of the perpetrators of collective violence themselves--to reconstruct a rich counternarrative to Turkey's unsurpassed state mythology of denial and forgetting.
Denial of Violence is a work of sociological history--I would say, historical sociology--and, as such, it begins with a rather long theory-and-methods chapter that maps Göçek's focus on memory, nationalism, and silence, drawing heavily on Benedict Anderson's concept of "imagined communities" and closely tracking narratives of the empire and the nation-state. Göçek attempts, more or less successfully, to thread the needle between the qualitative and the empirical. It is a thought-provoking, though somewhat messy, introduction, one that provides a flexible interpretive framework for Göçek's wide-ranging and comprehensive analysis and justifies her primary concern with emotions, the affective domain, and structures of feeling. Of particular interest is Göçek's sustained analysis of situated modernity, which, in essence, means that patterns of modernization are radically contingent on context; Ottoman modernity was in many ways a dark and inverted image of the typical patterns of Western European nations. Göçek's main point is that Turkey's institutionalized and self-replicating denial of collective violence has stunted Turkey's economic and moral development and has perpetuated cycles of violence that have persisted over centuries, spread, deepened, and, tragically, have prevented healing for generations of victims and their descendants and those of perpetrators as well.
Göçek divides her analysis of cultural and historical memory into four periods: 1) Imperial Denial of Violence, 1789-1907; Young Turk Denial of the Act of Violence, 1908-1918; Early Republican Denial of Actors of Violence, 1919-1973; and Late Republican Denial of Responsibility for Violence, 1974-2009. The cycle of violence is extended to the Greek Rum and Kurdish minorities of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey with nightmarish repetition and brutal efficiency. In the last section, Göçek writes herself into the story, including her own process of coming of age and awakening and optimistically suggests the ways in which an organic counterdenial narrative is emerging, though in fit and starts, in present-day Turkey. Denial of Violence is a patchwork of memory, analysis, and synthesis with some transcendent moments. One example is the memoir of Bayar Karakas, "an Armenian of Turkey now settled in the United States and writing about his father's past" (466). This from the introduction of the memoir:
The humane warmth of this [Armenian] family, the way distanced themselves from that rancor, their ability to surpass the pain and anger created by the injustices they experienced always impressed me. Those who commit injustices never say "I am unjust." Unfortunately, it is often the case that those suffering injustice demonstrate greatness by first extending their hand toward those who have committed the injustice. Both pain and pride of being human are embedded in this truth . . . [of] human enlightenment. Despite all the darkness that surrounds us, we should not be afraid of our light, our luminosity. Yet we are afraid of even [that]. It is so sad that we are not afraid of our darkness instead. Our darkness does not scare us, frightening us even when dark and uncaring people and systems surround us. Being unafraid of light out to be the sole criteria of humanity. Next to deeply felt pain, such an attitude bestows upon one the distinction of feeling the dignity of being human. (466-467).
Gems like this elevate Denial of Violence to the level of ethically-grounded universal history. Göçek leaves us with a scholarly work of critical vision, great humanity, and hope. As valuable as this book is, it does have one or two very avoidable shortcomings. Göçek's interpretation of these very rich sources is, at times, two-dimensional and overly literal. More significantly, the editing and proofreading of the book seem rushed and careless. Oxford University Press has done the author a great disservice here. The text really should have been edited for redundancy (50 pages or so could easily have been eliminated) and for very basic errors at the sentence level, of which there were far too many. As a sympathetic reader, I found these oversights very disappointing. Perhaps a final and better-edited version of this important book will be forthcoming in the future. I do hope so.