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evolution of human psychology. He speaks of the existence of a mental construct within both individuals and communities, which shows change as dependent upon the evolution of social relations. In Über den Prozess der Zivilisation Elias admits that this issue occupies a central position in his works:

In the course of all my labors, I have attempted to show that the structures deriving from psychological functions and the behavioral standards specific to each period are closely related to the structures created by social functions, the transformation of these functions and the changes in human relationships.18

In order to understand how this mental construct in humans actually functions, there is a need for long-range models of analysis.

Whether to aid in the comprehension of the mental construct of the individual, or to better understand historical development over a number of generations, it is necessary to take under observation a succession of generations much longer than is today possible.19

In essence, long-range psychological analysis is the fundamental point distinguishing Elias’s work from that of other social scientists who use psychology to analyze historical events.

This is the dimension that is directly concerned with the Armenian Genocide. During the 19th century, there were rapid changes in the social structure of the Ottoman Empire. These rapid changes caused a certain change in the mental attitude of people who responded to these changes. The culmination of these changes and changing attitudes had a direct bearing on the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

Defining National Identity as a Mode of Behavior

National character develops within a close relationship with each nation’s process of nation-state building. With this approach, national identity is defined as ‘a way of behaving’ or mental state and actually takes shape within the process of nation-state building. By reason of this direct relationship between national identity and the national state, the question of which ethnic, religious or language groups the national identity comprises is a secondary one. What is important is the formation of a common mindset, and for this to manifest itself in shared modes of behavior.

These theoretical premises serve as the starting point of my analysis of how the mentality that was formed during the process of Ottoman collapse and the formation of the Turkish national state influenced the manner in which Turkey responds to contemporary problems. When the subject is the Kurds, the situation is very easy to observe. Not only the rulers, but ordinary citizens also display reactions that closely resemble those of their predecessors in Turkish history. Here I would like to draw a parallel



between the discussions regarding the non-Muslim population of the Ottoman Empire, who were defined as the ‘other’ during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the current discourse surrounding the Kurds.

The standard claims heard daily in discussions in Turkey are that the real motive behind Kurdish demands for greater democracy is the partition of land and ultimately Kurdish secession from Turkey; that the West is consciously attempting to resurrect the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres by playing the ‘Kurdish card’;20 that the Turkish nation is surrounded by hostile enemies who wish to topple and partition it; and so on. All of these views date from a century ago. To a large degree these feelings are a reflection of the mindset of that period.

Eighty years ago, those who ‘forged relationships with our enemies’ and tried to ‘divide the nation’ were the non-Muslims. The use of violence was a ‘natural’ response against those elements harboring such aims. In 1991 and 1992, the Turkish armed forces fired upon the city of Cizre in eastern Anatolia. The civilian population fled for their lives into the mountains. A tiny newspaper article on the incident caught my attention. In it, an elderly Kurdish man from the city asked the following question when being interviewed: ‘Are we Armenians that you do this to us?’ Although such sentiments are not always expressed openly, they are a reflection of subconscious mental processes at work, of a mentality that allows for such automatic, spontaneous reactions. What I hope to achieve is to bring these processes, this mentality out into the open; to have them acknowledged openly.

The Five Main Elements

for Understanding Turkish National Identity

I present the development of the Turkish national state as a fabric in which five different processes are interwoven. Four of these are drawn from Elias’s analysis of German national identity. I will explain these processes by way of a comparative analysis. What is important is not to ascertain the points of similarity and difference in the histories of these two peoples, but to broaden our perspective for understanding the subject at hand.

National Identity and Location: ‘The Middle Position’

Elias defines Germany’s middle position as one of the decisive factors in the formation of German national identity. But the expression ‘middle position’ is being used here not merely to denote a geographical location. Rather, it defines the feeling created by the nature of Germany’s relations with the other nations in its region.

The process of German nation-state building has been deeply influenced by its position of having been in the middle of three ethno-linguistic national blocs.



The Latinized and Slavic groups continually felt themselves threatened by the more heavily populated German state. At the same time, the representatives of the newly-formed German state felt themselves threatened in turn by those groups on their borders. Each side exploited every opportunity to expand their territory without regard for any other considerations. From the perspective of the centrally-located German state, the need for states to acquire territory in such a manner would mean the constant threat of its border areas being lopped off to form independent states.21

One aspect of the mental state produced by being in the middle is the perception of the states on one’s borders as threats to one’s existence. There is a belief that one is surrounded by enemies bent on one’s destruction. It would be no exaggeration to characterize Turkey’s relationship with its neighbors today as similar. Turkish national identity already contains an aspect of siege mentality and sees Anatolia as the last refuge against the hostile environment surrounding it and the bloodletting that it has experienced on its borders. It was this siege mentality and perception of Anatolia as the last refuge that played an important role in Turkey’s policies towards the Armenians that were different from those taken toward other nationalities, and their culmination in genocide.

Problems Arising from the Loss of Superiority

The second significant factor in the formation of the Turkish national mindset was the Ottomans’ loss of their previous hegemony within the international hierarchy of states. Just as in relations between individuals, claims Elias, the issue of status is the most important of those factors motivating and influencing individuals on the level of inter-state relations. Differences in status, the tensions related to these differences and the fear of loss of status can be seen not just in modern societies but throughout history, and they are the source of a great many problems.22

States that have fallen from positions of great power often find their new, lowered status difficult to digest.

Down to our day it has been a proven fact in human history that the members of states or other units of social organization that have lost their position of superiority—or their claims thereto—during the final days of their wars have usually had difficulty in reconciling themselves with the new situation, and most importantly, in overcoming the sense of loss to their own self-esteem. A lengthy period—sometimes an entire century—must often pass before this can be accomplished. And perhaps they never will succeed [in overcoming this].23

The situation most likely to come about as a result is that the members of society perceive this loss as a form of humiliation. Rather than accept the reality of a new, reduced status, they prefer to behave as if nothing has



changed. Fantasies are created—often completely at odds with their new reality. Demonstrations of power are held, wars are even waged in order to prove to the world that nothing has changed. Along with the change in the state’s place in the world hierarchy, members of society often experience an observable state of depression. This depression manifests itself as a profound sorrow over the loss of greatness. The prevailing sentiment among such a group will be ‘the desire to struggle against fate and to turn the clock back by a resort to violence.’24

Traces of this situation can be seen in two important cultures of behavior. The first is the culture of drinking to forget, wherein the individual tries to drown his/her pain in alcohol. The second is the culture of bellicosity. The relative weakness of a state, and the great ease with which other states can make military incursions across its borders, leads to militaristic behavior within that society and a heightened level of bellicosity. A poignant expression of this mental state was related by the Hungarian orientalist Arminius Vambéry when recounting his discussions in London with Namik Kemal and Ziya Pa¸sa, prominent members of the Young Turks group, which was an early opponent of the Ottoman regime:

The discourse during the day…was somnolent. But when the glasses of anisette (rakı) were brought out at night, the air became livelier. The esteemed gentlemen’s eyes would begin to sparkle…the pain and longing they felt at the decline of the once-powerful Ottoman State, a state which, in their opinion, could once again return to its previous strength, would grow sharper in tone and more forceful. The reverence and admiration that they felt towards the successes of their warlike forefathers and the deep regard in which they held the heroes of Islam, whose names they recounted…appeared perfectly natural to me.25

This mental condition is one of the main causes of violence in societies. Elias explains it thus: ‘When a person’s own state is weak relative to other states, it creates special, extraordinary conditions. Psychologically, such persons become crushed by feelings of self-doubt. They become consumed with doubt over all their values; they feel themselves humiliated and that their honor has been toyed with. They yearn to take revenge on those who have created these conditions.’26 To say that many wars have begun as a result of this condition would not be incorrect.

[O]nly in rare cases when others are growing stronger and they are growing weaker do powerful social formations submit peacefully to a narrowing of their power, to a lowering of their social status and, with it, to a change in their selfimage, their we-ideal, their identity…Like wild animals, powerful nations or other powerful social formations are at their most dangerous when they feel concerned—when they have the feeling that the balance of power is going against them, that the power resources of potential rivals and enemies are becoming greater than theirs, that their values are threatened and their



superiority slipping away. Under past and present conditions of human social life, developments of this kind are one of the most typical and frequent situations in which people are driven to use of violence; they are one of the situations which lead to war.

Instability and Late Nationalization

in the Process of Nation-State Formation

One of the most important factors in the development of German national identity is that, in comparison with France and England, the German state followed a particularly unstable path during its formative stages. Compared to these other countries German history is full of many more twists, turns and breaks in continuity, which in turn created barriers to the development of national self-confidence and security. It could be said that the fact that London maintained its identity as a capital city for over a thousand years is a sign of stability in England’s development of its statehood, culture and civilization. One can observe the same linear progression and continuity in regard to France. But as for Berlin, it was not until the late 18th and 19th centuries that it became the major German city and capital city that we know today. The meaning of this break in historical continuity was an inability to establish strong cultural traditions that could find their symbolic reflection in an urban center.

Even Istanbul served as a capital city for the Ottomans for centuries. The historical process of the late 18th and 19th centuries, however, created a strong sense of insecurity in the Ottomans. Due to the multiethnic character of the Empire, the Ottoman ruling elite was unable to offer a stable national identity to replace this insecurity. Turkish nationalism, as a political movement, arrived only in the 20th century. This late arrival of the national identity created chronic self-doubt and constant vacillation between exaggerated praise of one’s value on the one hand, and suffering from an inferiority complex on the other.

Military-Bureaucratic Caste and National Values

Elias claims that, to a great extent, ‘military models’ determined German national identity. This was the result of a conflict whose roots lay in the tensions between the German feudal classes and the bourgeoisie. From our standpoint, what is important is that two main tendencies were present within the developing German bourgeoisie: a liberal/idealist current and a conservative/nationalist current. Both shared the political goal of a united Germany, but in the end German unity did not come about by way of the bourgeoisie; it was won on the field of battle by the Prussian, feudal class of Junkers. The German military victory in 1871 over France was simultaneously a victory of the German aristocracy over the bourgeoisie. It



consolidated the power of the German military and aristocracy, and a large part of the German bourgeoisie subsequently fell into line with the military state and adopted its values and behavioral norms. The fact that a culture took root in Germany that gave birth to Hitler, a culture in which violence was seen as a means of solving political problems, can be understood in light of this background.

It is also possible to understand the processes of Turkish modernization and formation of national identity through the framework of this model. In Turkey the main problem was how to save the declining Empire, or state, from collapse. The Ottoman bourgeoisie, which had been created by modernization, essentially consisted of members of the non-Muslim population. Due to the fact that the centrifugal forces of nationalism received support from the Western powers, the liberal and decentralized model for future Ottoman administrations that had been developed by these nonMuslim groups was transformed from a model for salvation into one of dissolution. The Ottoman military and bureaucratic elites became the main vehicle of Turkish national identity and, later, of the development of the state. As a result, militarist values were decisive in the development within Turkish culture of an inclination to solve problems through violence.

The Longing for Unity and the Search for a Leader Who Could Achieve It

The fifth element of the development of Turkish national identity is the sentiment of longing for unity resulting from the nature of the process of nation-state formation, and the concomitant search for a leader who can fulfill this longing. In the German case, the geographically dispersed and politically fractured nature of the polities in which the Germans lived made it impossible to defend their territories as a single region. What’s more, the area under imperial sovereignty and ruled by the first Holy Roman Emperors, and which was the starting point for the first German national state, was vast. A direct result of this lack of a single center of power was a long history of protracted wars between the different German feudal entities over these broad tracts of land, and a very weak and delayed process of centralization relative to its neighbors. The perception of being dispersed had a fundamental role in forming the Germans’ understanding of both themselves and the nations around them.

As a result of this historical dispersion, the Germans came to believe that they were a collective that ‘could not manage to stop fighting amongst themselves.’ The longing therefore developed, almost a national yearning, for a strong leader who could put an end to their internal strife and bring about national unity and togetherness. Since it did not seem possible of their own accord to live together in peace, perhaps a strong, centralized administration could bring about such unity.



One important result of this desire for a strong leader and administration was a continued lack of confidence in the country’s parliamentary system, because such a system can only take root in societies in which problems are considered a natural part of life, in which they are solved through debate and discourse, and the ability to arrive at a consensus is considered a talent. In contrast, the Germans, as a result of their centuries-long experience, had come to view conflicts and disputes between different social groups and struggle among different parties as a negative phenomenon. In their view these were precisely what destroyed unity and togetherness. The longing for external control or pressure—in other words, for a powerful leader— was great indeed.

Based on the arguments set forth above, Elias attempted to explain the emergence of Hitler and his rise to power, as part of a greater effort to place Hitler within the purview of general German history. From his perspective, Hitler is a bearer of the fundamental characteristics of German national identity. The existence of these general traits shows that the phenomenon of Nazism was not a deviation from the general lines of German history. On the contrary, Nazism is seen as having been entirely within the realm of the possible. Nevertheless, it would be incorrect to present the Holocaust as a natural result of these general traits which make up the German national character. What led to the Jewish Holocaust was the combination of these characteristics with other factors in a special type of nexus. Elias posits that there were, at that time, certain specific socio-pathological elements, which, when combined with the general factors already in place, led to Genocide. Likewise, specific socio-pathological factors played as great a role as did certain fundamental characteristics of Turkish national identity in the decisions leading to the Armenian Genocide. I define these special factors as the ‘desperate fear of annihilation.’

‘Annihilation Psychosis’ and the Decision for Genocide

In both the German and Turkish experiences, it can be said that we are confronted with a particular scenario: one in which the perception of being threatened from across one’s borders due to the situation of being in the middle, and of having tumbled from a position of high status among nations to one of humiliation produced a condition wherein both countries found themselves unable to accept the existing socio-political situation. The imbalance between a former position of strength and a present one of weakness results in more than just an inferiority complex and anger: it transforms into a reactive impulse in the form of an excessive focus on past greatness and strength. Feelings of longing for former greatness grow increasingly strong, to the point that it becomes impossible to acknowledge



that the ‘glorious past’ has passed into history. Instead, it is re-created as an ideal to be realized.28

The immensity of the abyss between a state’s former grandeur and its current debased and devalued condition does more than just increase the desire for the glorious past. It brings with it a desire to wreak vengeance upon those who have brought about this situation. When this desire merges with a prevalence of militaristic values and behavioral norms, what emerges are ‘rescue strategies’ which promise to restore the former greatness through wars and other acts of violence. We can argue that this mindset was the principal reason for the Ottoman decision to enter into the First World War.29 The war seemed a last hope, though, as it turned out, it was a final exit.

When the hoped-for victory led instead to defeat, the situation took on a more dramatic character. There was a direct relationship between the speed with which the regime and Empire began to crumble and the heavyhandedness of the means employed to block this.

As their power, their sense of security and their hope faded on the road to defeat, and as they felt themselves increasingly to be fighting with their backs against a wall in their struggle for power, the standards of behavior that had been their source of pride grew increasingly crude; in fact, they began to ignore and even destroy them.30

The situation became perceived as a ‘do or die’ struggle for the existence for the nation. As feelings of sinking, of being besieged by enemies and of utter hopelessness reached the chronic level, the conviction became sharper that the only way to save oneself from this situation was through an absolute intolerance and complete disregard of others and their needs. If the process of decline fails to follow a gradual, linear course, and if hopes of emerging from the condition in which the nation finds itself fluctuate greatly, the result is even more severe. The nation that feels itself to be in free fall is more likely not to accept that it has hit rock bottom, and the further off the prospect of achieving a glorious future becomes, the more likely that nation is blindly to hitch its hopes to that prospect’s realization. In short,

The stronger the downward tendency toward decline, the greater the coarseness of means used to stop this progression…Having their backs against the wall turns the fierce defenders of civilization into its greatest destroyers. They quickly become barbarians.31

I believe that this was the Ottoman mindset before and during the First World War. For that reason, it appears to me no coincidence that the decision behind the Armenian Genocide was made during the fierce battles of the Gallipoli campaign, when the Ottoman Empire’s very existence seemed to balance between life and death. The hopeless situation into



which Ottomans had fallen produced a willingness to rely on extraordinary acts of cruelty.

In summary, as in the case of Germany, Turkish national identity was imprinted by the long experience of military defeats and the resulting losses of power. This process, which occurred over a long period of time, had the cumulative effect of producing a national identity replete with wounded honor and self-doubt. A nostalgic national ideal emerged that held forth the vision of a glorious past as a future goal. This condition, in turn, facilitated the emergence of particularly pernicious tendencies in thought and behavior. When repeated defeats made this ideal impossible to attain, recourse to the most barbaric methods became inevitable.

The conclusion and warning that may be extracted from all this is that the mindset that emerges as a result of a series of past defeats, can, under similar circumstances, resurface in the future. There is no inherent obstacle to its re-emergence. Elias stresses this point.

A great number of events that have occurred in our time have shown us the conditions of today’s societies [that] can produce certain untoward tendencies in 20th-century thought and behavior, of which National Socialism is perhaps the clearest example, and that these conditions may well appear in other places as well.32

That being the case, it makes more sense to examine the societal conditions that give rise to massacres and genocide than to assuage one’s conscience

and take comfort in the thought that the actions of the Nazis or the crimes of


the Ottoman Unionist (Ittihatçı) leaders will never be repeated in the same way or manner.

The fact is, methods such as ‘specially constructed concentration camps, forced starvation, deaths in gas chambers or by firing squads, along with the subjecting of an entire population group to a highly organized and planned scientific annihilation,’ all of which reached their apex in the Nazi example, have not lost their relevance for humanity.33 A simple glance at what has transpired in Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Chechnya over the past decade, I believe, makes any further defense of this point unnecessary. These examples show that there are certain patterns in the occurrence of genocide. In numerous scholarly works, scholars try to develop models of these patterns, which can be subsumed as psychological and cultural bases of genocide.34

No theoretical explanation can fully and adequately account for the organization of mass murder. Emerging crises and a set of singular opportunities attending these crises facilitate the successful organization of mass murder. In Chapter 3, an attempt is made to interconnect the peculiar characteristics in the formation of Turkish national identity with the



targeting of the Armenians for wholesale annihilation. Ideological developments, lethal doctrines depicting the victim group not only as an internal foe in the midst of a war for existence but also as dehumanized and utterly degraded creatures, are part of a comprehensive framework through which the perpetrator group sees itself saved by the elimination of the targeted victim group. Chapter 3 examines this type of targeting in a broad context of international relations and conflicts in which Turkish images of European disdain towards Turkey, and awareness of designs for the eventual partition of Ottoman Turkey, are seen as key determinants in the formative episodes of Turkish national identity, along with a strong dose of anti-Christian animus.


1.Norbert Elias, Studien über die Deutschen (Frankfurt 1990), pp.196–7; and Elias, Die Gesellschaft der Individuellen (Frankfurt 1987), pp. 246ff.

2.Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Was bedeutet: Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit,’ Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 10.2 (Frankfurt 1977), p. 569.

3.Walter Benjamin quoted in Jan Philipp Reemtsma,’Vergangenheit als Prolog,’ Mittelweg 36, August/September 1992.

4.Immanuel Geiss, ‘Massaker in der Weltgeschichte, Ein Versuch über Grenzen der Menschlichkeit,’ in: Uwe Backes/Eckard Jesse/Rainer Zitelmann, eds, Die Schatten der Vergangenheit, Impulse zur Historisierung des Nationalsozialismus (Frankfurt 1990), p. 111.

5.Dan Diner, ‘Die Wahl der Perspektive. Bedarf es einer besonderen Historik des Nationalsozialismus?’, in W. Schneider, ed., ‘Vernichtungspolitik’: Eine Debatte über den Zusammenhang von Sozialpolitik und Genozid im nationalsozialistischen Deutschland (Hamburg 1991), pp. 65–75.

6.Since in Studien über die Deutschen Elias modifies many of the views he advanced in his previous work Über den Prozeß der Zivilisation (The Process of Civilization), the former is considered by many to be a tacit self-criticism. Elias’s concept of civilization remains a point of controversy and argument. The earlier work has been criticized for the manner in which civilization is presented as an ‘optimistic progression,’ in which mass barbarities like massacres and genocide are evaluated as ‘partial and temporary deviations from the process of civilization.’ Studien über die Deutschen appears to be a response to those criticisms.

7.Elias, Studien über die Deutschen, p. 412.

8.This will be explored in greater detail in Chapter 3.

9.For further information see Ian Kershaw, Der NS Staat, Geschichtsinterpretationen und Kontroversen im Überblick (Hamburg 1994).

10.For further information see Wolfgang Schneider (ed.), ‘Vernichtungspolitik: Eine Debatte über den Zusammenhang von Sozialpolitik und Genozid im nationalsozialistischen Deutschland (Hamburg 1991).

11.For a documentation of ‘Historikerstreit’, see Der Verlag (ed.), ‘Historikerstreit’, Die Dokumentation der Kontroverse um die Einzigartigkeit der nationalsozialistischen Judenvernichtung, Serie Piper, vol. 816 (München, Zurich 1987).

12.Elias, Studien über die Deutschen, pp. 8 and 165.

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