Excuses op het wereldtoneel (publication in Rekto:Verso magazine)

In September 2020, Juliette Schaafsma and Marieke Zoodsma contributed to the #SorryNotSorry theme magazine of the Belgian magazine Rekto:Verso. The piece focuses on the ritualistic and transformative aspects of political apologies. The full version of the article can be read here.

The Armenian Genocide: Acknowledgment and denial

Dzidzernagapert, the memorial in Yerevan, Armenia (Wikimedia Commons)

The 24th of April marked the 105th anniversary of the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, when the Ottoman government implemented the organized extermination of the Armenian people living in Turkey at the time, carrying out mass deportations and killing an approximate 1 – 1.5 million Armenians between 1914-1916. Although the COVID-19 pandemic meant that the customary commemoration services could not take place this year, people were invited to commemorate in other ways, including virtually visiting the memorial in Yerevan, Armenia (Asbarez Staff, 2020).

In the decades since this genocide, the discourse among survivors and their descendants has included a focus on remembering the facts of the events and demanding recognition of the genocide by Turkey and by powerful third parties such as the United States. Indeed, one of the key needs of victims in the aftermath of genocide is acknowledgement. But contested facts over what exactly constitutes acknowledgement and over the account of events by both victim and perpetrator groups mean that acknowledgement itself is complex (Vollhardt & Twali, 2019). In our own research on political apologies, we examine the contents of apologetic discourse and people’s evaluations of these ‘statements of acknowledgment and expressions of remorse’. Interestingly, on the eve of the 99th anniversary of the commemoration of the Genocide, then Prime Minister Erdogan offered his condolences to the families of the Armenians who had “lost their lives” (“The unofficial translation”, 2014). His statement prompted mixed reactions from Armenians around the world (Letsch, 2014). As an academic who studies apologies, I regard Mr. Erdogan’s statement as a non-apology. It falls short of the kind of statement that could be accepted by most descendants of Armenian victims.

First, Mr. Erdogan did not acknowledge the wrongdoing. He referred to the transgression of genocide as “the events of 1915”, later stating that millions of people lost their lives in the First World War which resulted in inhumane consequences such as relocation. By situating the Genocide in the context of the First World War, Mr. Erdogan avoided making any real reference to genocide. He portrayed the genocide as an inevitable and uncontrollable consequence of the war. Second, Mr. Erdogan made what some would regard as a statement of remorse: “we wish that the Armenians who lost their lives in the context of the early twentieth century rest in peace, and we convey our condolences to their grandchildren”. This seems conciliatory, but is indirect and somewhat implicit in meaning. By offering condolences, Mr. Erdogan evaded taking any further responsibility. Without the context of explicit acknowledgement and direct acceptance of responsibility for genocide, his words are perceived as insincere and shallow. Third, Mr. Erdogan did express a recognition of Armenian suffering (“It is a duty of humanity to acknowledge that Armenians remember the suffering experienced in that period”). However, this sentence was immediately followed by “…just like every other citizen of the Ottoman Empire”. Elsewhere, he referred to the suffering of many, shifting the blame from the Turkish powers to an inclusive construal of framing: “Any conscientious, fair and humanistic approach to these issues requires an understanding of all the sufferings endured in this period, without discriminating as to religion or ethnicity”. This type of framing (when done by the perpetrator group) consequently avoids responsibility and detracts from the victims’ suffering (Vollhardt & Twali, 2019). 

Turkey has an unhidden history of denying the genocide and her involvement in it (Balakian, 2005). Mr. Erdogan may not have explicitly denied the genocide in this particular statement, but his rhetoric conveyed a message in line with the culture of denial. For victims and survivors of genocide, denial is a continuation of the genocidal process (Stanton, 2016). Mr. Erdogan’s statement reiterates the complexities of how apologetic discourse is constructed and can be used to avoid acknowledgment and perpetuate denial. 

Studying the Armenian Genocide and its aftermath is more than an exercise of academic and moral concern for me. My paternal grandfather and my paternal grandmother’s parents were survivors of this genocide. I grew up in a community where – if asked ‘Where are you from?’ – one gave the name of the historical Armenian town in modern-day Turkey from which their family had been deported. My grandfather’s village was Hasanbeyli. One afternoon, he told me his story: how he, along with his mother and brother were deported from their home; how they were forced to walk in the desert until they eventually reached Aleppo; and how his mother found creative ways to feed her young children when there was no food source. I was ten years old at the time, but I recognized the weight of my grandfather’s words. It was a personal testimony, the witness of one whose story has been multiplied a million times over.

Medzbaba with J&T: The author with her grandfather

Thia Sagherian-Dickey

Balakian, P. (2005). The burning Tigress: A history of the Armenian Genocide. London: Pimlico.

Letsch, C. (2014, April 23). Turkish PM offers condolences over 1915 Armenian massacre. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/23/turkey-erdogan-condolences-armenian-massacre

Asbarez Staff (2020, April 23). Make a virtual pilgrimage. Asbarez. Retrieved from http://asbarez.com/193773/make-a-virtual-pilgrimage-to-dzidzernagapert/

Stanton, G. (2016). 10 stages of genocide. Genocide Watch. Retrieved from http://genocidewatch.net/genocide-2/8-stages-of-genocide/ .

The unofficial translation of the message of H.E. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the then Prime Minister of the Republic of Turkey, on the events of 1915 (2014, April 23). http://www.mfa.gov.tr/turkish-prime-minister-mr_-recep-tayyip-erdoğan-published-a-message-on-the-events-of-1915_-23-april-2014.en.mfa

Vollhardt, J. R., & Twali, M. S. (2019). The Aftermath of Genocide. In L. S. Newman (Ed.), Confronting humanity at its worst: Social psychological perspectives on genocide (pp. 249–283). https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780190685942.003.0010


Rutte’s Apology and the Importance of Acknowledgement

These last days, in the run-up to and aftermath of the International Commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz, there has been a lot of (media) attention for the apology Prime Minister Mark Rutte has made for the Dutch government actions during the Holocaust. Or, perhaps we could phrase it as an apology for the failure of government actions during that time. Some media report on the fact that Rutte kept his decision to apologize ‘silent’ until the very end, that even the Dutch Jewish community was surprised, while others point out that it is an important and necessary step that “marks a definitive turn in thinking about the Dutch attitude to and relationship with the German occupier” (“markeren de definitieve omslag in het denken over de verhouding tussen Nederland en de Duitse bezetter”).

What we see in the public reaction to this apology, from victims as well as non-victims, is similar to what we have seen during our research in the United Kingdom, South Korea, and El Salvador on how people evaluate apologies for past wrongdoings. In the interviews that we conducted in these countries, we asked people what they saw as the most important aspect of the apology that was offered to them by their respective leaders for past human rights violations (in all three cases state violence against unarmed civilians). Across the three countries, participants stressed that for them, it was crucial that the crimes were finally acknowledged and that their suffering was recognized in public by their government.

The importance given by people to the public acknowledgment of the crimes fits quite well with the idea of an apology representing a threshold or a moral turning point, where a political leader or a government – sometimes more explicitly and sometimes more implicitly – changes the way certain collective crimes are being spoken of. This makes, by definition, such an act a contestation in historical narrative. But potentially, it could open up debate and dialogue.  As one male participant from South Korea told us: “I don’t see an apology as a way to escape from responsibilities. Because this apology has put things in motion, a discussion like this today can happen. Now everyone can discuss things freely”.

Time will show whether or not Rutte’s speech last Sunday will mark a (moral) turning point in the way the Dutch view their history of collaboration. It is at least a big step further from the apology made by Prime Minister Wim Kok in 2000 for the ‘chilly response’ Jewish people and other persecuted minority groups received when returning to the Netherlands after the war. But in a European perspective, the Dutch are taking their time in this process of ‘dealing with and facing up the past’. Representatives of countries such as Belgium, Norway, and Poland have already expressed words of apology for their country’s role during the Holocaust. In that sense, Rutte was definitely right by emphasizing the importance that “now that the last remaining survivors are still with us, I apologize” – it just took the Dutch government 75 years to realize that fact.

Marieke Zoodsma

Belgian Prime Minister Apologizes for Treatment of ´Metissen´

The Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel has formally apologized on April 4, 2019 for the treatment of children out of mixed relations, so-called ´Metissen´. Hundreds of children were taken from their mothers in Congo, Rwanda and Burundi and placed in orphanages in Belgium during the 1940s and 1950s. Many mothers and their children are still searching for each other. The Roman Catholic church apologized for its role years ago but Belgium has always been unresponsive to calls for apologies and reparations.

The Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, established in 2002 by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, visited Belgium in February 2019 at the invitation of the Belgian Government. The Working Group will publish its full report in September 2019 but advised the Belgian Government on a number of points and urged it ´to issue an apology for the atrocities committed during colonization´.

New Apologies for the Jeju Island Massacre, South Korea

On the day of the yearly commemorations on Jeju Island, April 3, 2019, of the massacre of civilians the commissioner general of the Korean National Police Agency apologized and the Ministry of Defense expressed ‘deep regret and condolences to the Jeju people who were sacrificed in the process of a crackdown.’ This has never been said before by neither of them. Juliette Schaafsma and Marieke Zoodsma were in in South Korea and attended to the commemorations on the island.

April 3, 1948 was the start of the Jeju uprising, which was violently suppressed by the South Korean Government, killing between ten thousand and thirty thousand civilians over a period of six years. The South Korean Government apologized for its role in the killings in 2003. President Roh Moo-hyun spoke of ‘a tragedy of the modern history of Korea’.

Apologies asked by Mexico for ‘Conquista’ 500 years ago

Mexico has formally asked apologies from Spain and the Vatican for human rights abuses during the conquest of the region, 500 years ago.
The Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has written letters to the Spanish King Felipe VI and Pope Franciscus some weeks ago, he told during a visit on March 26, 2019 to the ruins of the Maya city near Comalcalco. The President stated that ‘(t)he time has come to reconcile. But let us ask forgiveness first.’ He did not ask for financial compensation.
The Spanish Government has already ‘firmly rejected’ the plead for apologies.

Murder Charges Following Formal Apologies

Former British ‘Soldier F’ faces murder charges over the killing of two people during ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Londonderry in 1972, the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) stated on March 14, 2019. Soldier F also faces charges of attempted murder on five people. The PPS said there was insufficient evidence to prosecute 16 other soldiers and two Official IRA men.
Prime minister David Cameron issued formal apologies in 2010 after the Saville Inquiry into the death of 14 people by British Paratroopers. The Saville Inquiry concluded that none of those killed was armed with firearms and no warning was given by the soldiers. David Cameron said the casualties were caused by the soldiers ‘losing their self control’.

Dutch Government Called to Apologize for Mistreatment of ‘Moffenmeiden’

In a letter to Prime Minister Rutte, a foundation (‘Werkgroep Herkenning’) has asked the Dutch Government to apologize for the mistreatment of women after the Nazi occupation in May 1945. These women had been involved with German soldiers during the war.

Since 1981, the Foundation strives for ‘Herkenning’ (acknowledgement) of this ‘last taboo’. It states that, while angry mobs humiliated the women and shaved them bold, the government did not intervene.

In its letter, the Foundation refers to the recent apologies of Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg to the so-called ‘German Girls’. In the Netherlands, the plight of the ‘Moffenmeiden’ (‘Mof’ is a derogatory word for German) and of the offspring of ‘colaborators’ is still a controversial topic.

Canadian Apologies for Rejection of Jewish Refugees in 1939

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has apologized on November 9, 2018 in Ottowa for the decision of the Canadian Government in 1939 to turn away the M.S. St. Louis, an ocean liner carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. Many ended in concentration camps; 254 were killed in the Holocaust. Trudeau met the only surviving Canadian passenger from the ship.

The apologies were long overdue, Trudeau stated: ‘We used our laws to mask our anti-Semitism, our antipathy, our resentment. We are sorry for the callousness of Canada’s response. And we are sorry for not apologizing sooner.’ He spoke about the need to fight anti-semitism, ten days after a deadly shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Some critics, after four formal apologies since Trudeau’s election in 2015, have called ‘I’m sorry’ Canadian’s ‘second national anthem’ and wonder if the often used words are losing their meaning.