'We haven't said our last word yet': Traces of genocide, silence on the streets

We are going through times when it is vital to build alliances given the fact that the representatives of organisations that make written statements about the genocide are being sued for insulting Turkishness. We should not give up trying to think together about the "surplus" left to us by Armenian Genocide survivor Missak Manouchian. As one of the activists I interviewed said, "We haven't said our last word yet" and we will only find this word through a collective effort.

*Dr Özgür Sevgi Göral

On 18 June 2023, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that the bodies of Missak Manouchian and his comrade, partner and resistance fighter Mélinée Manouchian would be buried in the Panthéon, where the mausoleums of France's "national heroes" are located.1 Historian Annette Wieviorka underlines that, ironically, we owe the recognition of Misak Manouchian first in French politics and then in the field of memory to the Nazis and the collaborating French state. According to Wieviorka, we learn about Manouchian and the partisans who organised armed resistance in the Manouchian group mainly through the "Red Banner" printed by the Nazis in occupied France.2

The Red Banner was intended to propagandise the decision to execute 23 partisans of the Resistance and Partisans - Migrant Workers' Group (Francs-Tireurs et Partisans - Main-d'Œuvre Immigrée, FTP-MOI) who organised the anti-fascist armed resistance in the Paris region. On the poster, the names and origins of the 10 partisans, including Manouchian, all of them immigrants, some Polish, some Hungarian, some Italian, and some Hungarian, and the total number of attacks on the Nazis were given. Misak Manouchian is introduced as the leader of the partisans, with photographs, as follows: "Manouchian, Armenian, chief of the gang, 56 attacks, 150 killed, 600 wounded".

In her lecture on Manouchian, historian Wieviorka makes one more point. The crucial role of the Resistance and Partisans - Migrant Workers' Group, the resistance army of the French Communist Party (FCP), of which Manouchian was a member, in the anti-fascist armed resistance was not emphasised by the FCP itself during the Cold War years. During the 1920s, when Spanish, Polish and Italian workers first migrated to France for economic reasons, these units, organised internally by the FCP through publications in the mother tongue of migrant workers, became an irregular army of special resistance during the Nazi occupation and formed the backbone of anti-fascist resistance.

Wieviorka argues that the limited mention of this partisan group during the Cold War years was a requirement of the political line of the FCP; the post-1945 FCP is above all patriotic, French. Its political goal is to become a powerful institution of the post-war reconstruction process. Thorez, the leader of the party, made this clear in a speech on his return from Moscow: "Production is today the highest form of the class task, the task of the French people. Yesterday our weapon against the enemy was sabotage, armed action, today our weapon to foil the plans of the reactionary forces will be production."3

Manouchian's traces gradually fade in the FKP's imagination of the productive, hard-working, factory-working French proletarian. Those who wanted to emphasise this international heritage remained in the minority within the party. Nevertheless, in the 1950s, Manouchian's anti-fascist memory began to partially surface. In 1950, a street in 20th Paris was named "Manouchian Group". Then, in 1955, Louis Aragon wrote the poem Strophes pour se souvenir for the Manouchian group, which Léo Ferré performed in 1961 as a song called The Red Banner.4

Born in 1906 in Besni, Adıyaman, Missak Manouchian, a revolutionary and poet, carpenter and partisan, whose entire family, except for his older brother, was massacred during the Armenian Genocide5, and the name of the partisan group of migrant communist workers became more frequently heard in the French memory field with the release of Mosco Boucault's documentary Des terroristes à la retraite (Retired Terrorists) in 1985. Misak Manoushian, who was first sent to an orphanage in Syria with his older brother after the Genocide and then moved to Marseille and then to Paris and settled in France, became a frequently mentioned figure in the French memory field from the 90s onwards.

This year, it was announced that the bodies of Missak Manouchian and Mélinée Manouchian will be buried at the Panthéon. In the announcement, Macron refers to Missak Manouchian as follows: "His unrivalled courage, his patriotic spirit that transcended all borders, his tranquil heroism expressed in his last letter to his wife Mélinée, in which he stated that he did not hate the German people, are a special source of inspiration for our Republic."6  

Macron's way of commemorating Manouchian [and his group], while it may sound nice at first, actually represents a particular political approach and situates Manouchian within the national narrative. In the letters written by Manouchian and his comrades, in the notes they left before they were killed, there is hardly any mention of France or the French Republic; most of them describe themselves with adjectives such as internationalist, communist, none of them are French citizens, and they express themselves with concepts such as peace, freedom, liberation.7

Macron's use of the term "tranquil heroism" for Manouchian is particularly striking because it is difficult to describe the partisans, who should be remembered for their sabotage and armed struggle against fascism, as tranquil. The philosopher Pierre Tevanian argues that to portray Manouchean posthumously as a part of the French national narrative and as someone who died for "love of France" is to distort his political legacy and historical experience. Moreover, this way of portrayal not only falsifies Manouchean's experience, but also, in a double move, defines France as the place Manouchean fell in love with. He describes France as if a very large part of it did not silently collaborate with German fascism, as if there was no systematic racism and xenophobia, and as if the anti-fascist resistance was not actually a handful.

Diluting, taming, absorbing the radical content of a revolutionary, partisan, militant or struggler after their death and making them a part of the official and national story is not unique to Macron's commemoration of Manouchian, but we can say that this approach is valid in almost all state commemorations. In particular, the political legacy of many figures who have become part of the "national pantheon" and whose memory has been nationalised by the state is coopted by diluting their radical content in a similar way.

For example, if we look at how the political legacy and memory of Martin Luther King has been interpreted after his official recognition and inclusion by the US, we see that elements of King's political position that emphasise the importance of class relations and poverty, the systemic nature and impact of racial capitalism, and the vital nature of self-organisation for the black community have been carefully erased. Thus King is remembered not as one of the leaders of the black radical movement, but as a moderate and rule-abiding democrat, although there are many other concepts that could be emphasised while commemorating Martin Luther King.8 

In Turkey, where Missak Manouchian was born and where the 1915 Armenian Assyrian Genocide took place, the official ideology still insists on the denial of the genocide. Considering that this rigid denial cannot be cracked to a great extent, that commemorations of the Armenian Genocide, which could be held on the streets 10 years ago, can now only be held inside institutions, and that even the most basic forms of democratic action are banned in Turkey, is it not a "luxury" to criticise France's commemoration of Manouchian? After all, isn't it positive that the political legacy and memory of a revolutionary is recognised by the state? These and similar questions can be increased; in my opinion, with a similar logic, all of these questions can also be asked about the urgency of Turkey's memory field. In a country where even the most basic rights are sometimes not exercised, is it meaningful to remember the commemorations of the Armenian Genocide based on Manouchian's transfer to the Panthéon?

Is it possible to make the recognition of the genocide an agenda at a time when there is a massive attack on the working class and it is becoming increasingly difficult to raise an organised voice against it? What is the benefit of insisting on commemorating the genocide in a geography where denial is so structural and strong, when street mobilisations are so dampened? I think that the deepening debate on how to remember Manouchian's anti-fascist, immigrant and internationalist political legacy and a political debate on the space opened up by genocide commemorations in Turkey and the political meanings of their absence today point to a similar place: What is the meaning of "democratic action", "street action" and "gestures of memory" in a moment where there is an increasingly right-wing centre, where "mainstreaming of the fascism and fascisation of the mainstrem "9, where Kurdish hostility, racism and xenophobia/immigrant hostility are constantly fuelled, where misogyny and hatred against LGBTI+ people are pumped, and where there is an all-out attack on all the gains of the working class? What is the use of a call for rights, law, equality and remembrance that is increasingly uninspiring next to the exciting and emotionally stirring voices of neo-fascisms?

In the research I conducted this year, I tried to find some clues to answer these questions. By reflecting on the accumulated experience of the Armenian Genocide commemorations in Turkey, I tried to analyse the different forms of the struggle for the recognition of the genocide took, the relationship of this struggle with other political movements in Turkey, and the political meanings of not being able to hold these commemorations today. While thinking about why I started this research, I realised that the research I was conducting was also an effort to remind myself. In Istanbul, in the not too distant past, genocide commemorations could be held on the streets.

Of course, the flow of political time is not the same as the flow of chronological time, and many studies looking at the commemorations rightly point out that that time was a period of different expectations in the axis of what we can roughly call "democratisation" in Turkey, the government's political programme emphasised other things, and the macro-level impact of the European Union harmonisation process. In my opinion, another factor that is at least as important as these is the fact that genocide commemorations can be organised at a time when many different political movements in Turkey are on the streets with a very wide repertoire, and street protests can be carried out with different political objectives.

The commemorations of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey, after the first years when the Armenian community organised the commemorations in Istanbul immediately after the genocide, started with different actions in Istanbul on 24 April since 2010, first with the pioneering struggle of the Human Rights Association, especially the IHD - Commission Against Racism and Discrimination, and then with the efforts of the Stop Racism and Nationalism Initiative.

The profile of the organisers of these commemorations can be defined in 3 different groups: Activists who commemorate the genocide by its name and by emphasising the concrete demands of recognition, reparation and coming to terms with the past, and who attach importance to the expression of the political definition and demands, which I call "memory militants"; intellectuals from the left and liberal thought who argue that commemorations can be held without necessarily calling it genocide, by alluding to the concept and partially expressing what happened during the genocide process, and that this would be more inclusive; and moderate conservatives who frame genocide as a "common pain", who believe that this issue can only be discussed if the pain of all parties is emphasised, and who claim that the important thing is to make the issue talkable. Of course, there are many different aspects of these different commemoration approaches that can be discussed, but what draws my attention is the political danger posed by the approach of "the issue is not the commemoration of the genocide by name" in a geography where denial is so strong.

Commemorating the Armenian Assyrian Genocide by its name does not only indicate an intellectual and political attitude towards the genocide itself, but also reminds us that denial ensures the continuation of genocide, that the effects of genocide continue today and in the present, and that only through the widespread discussion and acceptance of certain demands for recognition, compensation and reparation can denial be broken.10   

On the other hand, I believe that the coexistence of these different forms of commemoration, despite all the debates, conflicting confrontations and sometimes frictions it harbours, opens up a very important intellectual and political space. I think that being eclectic in this field, which we call the field of memory, but in which different ways of processing the past are actually related to the political climate of today and the present, can open up some spaces.

A discourse analysis that looks at the language of the statements of the commemorations and the words they use is of course very meaningful, but it is also necessary to look at the total conflicted political accumulation created by all these commemorations, rethink the methods used and draw conclusions from this. For example, everyone I interviewed agreed that there was a significant intellectual and political accumulation on the genocide, but they were almost unanimous that the panels organised with the approach of "we sit a leftist, a Muslim, a liberal and a democrat at the table and discuss it" failed to create a radical change in the participants' own political circles. The younger generation of activists were more critical of their struggle and emphasised the importance of building alliances and ties with different political movements more enthusiastically.

Therefore, without giving up on forcing street commemorations, this period can also be used to abandon the forms of activity that are not working in the struggle for the recognition of the genocide and to establish new forms that work instead. We can think about which political movements, local initiatives and grassroots organisations we can establish relations with in order to crack the "post-genocidal habitus of denial"11, as Talin Suciyan puts it. One can work on the political possibilities opened up by the struggle for the recognition of the genocide through the recognition of the international nature of the Ottoman-Turkish working class in the past and present.

Throughout the 20th century it can be recalled that it was internationalists, immigrants, and stateless people who fought against fascism, pushed it back and ultimately defeated it. Instead of narratives that always centre on the survivors or those who were murdered12, studies can be conducted on how the mechanisms of denial work and how the structural pillars of denial function. Without instrumentalising the genocide, the struggle for the recognition of the genocide can be thought of not only as an act of "solidarity" with the minorities in Turkey, but also as being at the heart of a political programme on how to realise the perspective of "living together " in Turkey, and with which movements this programme can be formed in alliance.13

We are going through times when it is vital to build alliances given the fact that the representatives of organisations that make written statements about the genocide or commemorate the genocide in any way are being sued for insulting Turkishness. Norayr Olgar from the Nor Zartonk Initiative, which carries out very important work on how the genocide continues today and in the present, explains the importance of political remembrance very well in his article about Misak Manouchian: "Today, what remains of Manouchian and his comrades is more than just streets named after them, busts erected, books and songs written about them. What the 23 migrant partisans who came together left us is the hope of living together and the internationalist struggle. The courage and determination of Manouchian and his comrades will grow and live on in solidarity with the Kurdish people struggling against massacres from Gezi to Kamp Armen, in Lice, Nusayibin and Sur."14

I believe that we should not give up trying to think together about the "surplus" left to us by Manouchian and to deepen on it. As one of the activists I interviewed said, "We haven't said our last word yet" and I am almost certain that we will only find this word through a collective effort, by building alliances and expanding our existing alliances.

*Dr Özgür Sevgi Göral

Visiting Scholar at the University of Cambridge and researcher of the research project on Turkey-Armenia Relations organised by the Cambridge Interfaith Programme and funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation   

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

[1] On 18 June 1940, General Charles de Gaulle made his famous speech on BBC Radio in London, calling on the French people to resist. This is why today has become a day to commemorate the anti-Nazi resistance in France.
[2] France Inter, podcast recording, Missak Manouchian, au nom des autres, 25 February 2023, https://www.radiofrance.fr/franceinter/podcasts/autant-en-emporte-l-histoire/autant-en-emporte-l-histoire-du-samedi-25-fevrier-2023-7362639
[3] Christian Stoffaes, Le rôle du Corps des Mines dans la politique industrielle française : deux siècles d'action et d'influence, Réalités Industrielles, November 2011, p. 57.
[4] Listen to the song at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1nqyPVPDtcY
[5] It is actually accurate to describe the great massacre of 1915 as the Armenian Assyrian Genocide, I will use this term from time to time in this article to emphasise this politically, but I will mostly use the term Armenian Genocide as I am specifically analysing the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide on 24 April.
[6] For the  full statement published on 18 June 2023, see https://www.elysee.fr/emmanuel-macron/2023/06/18/ceremonie-du-18-juin-2023
[7] Pierre Tevanian, Manouchian n'est pas un héros de " roman national ", les mots sont importants, 18 June 2023 https://lmsi.net/Manouchian-n-est-pas-un-heros-de-roman-national 
[8] Andrew J. Douglas, Jared A. Loggins, Prophet of Discontent. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Critique of Racial Capitalism, University of Georgia Press, 2021
[9] Ugo Palheta, La Nouvelle Internationale Fasciste, Textuel, 2022.
[10] There are many studies evaluating genocide commemorations, it is not possible to mention them all in this article in an exhaustive manner, I will only point out three studies that I have used: Talin Suciyan, Toplumsal Anma Pratikleri Şekillenirken, Bölüm II: İstanbul 24 Nisan 2015 [While Social Remembrance Practices Take Shape, Part II: Istanbul 24 April 2015], Azad Alik, 21 June 2015, https://azadalik.com/2015/06/21/toplumsal-anma-pratikleri-sekillenirken-bolum-ii-istanbul-24-nisan-2015/; Egemen Özbek, Yeni bir Hatırlama Kültürü ve Ermeni Soykırımı Anmaları [A New Culture of Remembrance and Armenian Genocide Commemorations], Birikim, no. 392, December 202: 60 - 69; Adnan Çelik, Geçmeyen Bir Geçmişle Yüzleşmenin Zorlukları: Ermeni Soykırımı ve Kürt Müdahil Öznelliğinin Dönüşümü [The Difficulties of Confronting an Impermanent Past: The Armenian Genocide and the Transformation of Kurdish Interventionist Subjectivity], Birikim, no. 392, December 2022: 34 -52. Although this article I wrote in 2013 on the use of the term genocide is outdated in many respects, politically I think it is roughly close to this: Özgür Sevgi Göral, Ermeni Soykırımını Tanımak [Recognising the Armenian Genocide], Özgür Gündem, 25 April 2013, https://www.academia.edu/6604017/Ermeni_Soykırımını_Tanımak
[11] Talin Suciyan, Armenians in Modern Turkey: Post-Genocide Society, Politics and History, 2016.
[12] For nuanced critiques of these narratives, see Umut Tümay Arslan, Kesik’in Açtığı Yerden: Kat Kat Notlar [From the Place that Kesik'in Opens: Kat Kat Notlar], Altyazı, 27 March 2015 https://altyazi.net/yazilar/elestiriler/kesikin-actigi-yerden-kat-kat-notlar/, Nora Tataryan Aslan, Facing the Past. Aesthetic Possibility and the Image of "Super-Survivor", Journal of Middle East Women's Studies, 17:3, November 2021, 348 - 365.
[13] For an important article explaining the importance of the concept of "alliance" and why it should be used instead of "solidarity" in some cases, see Nazan Üstündağ, Dayanışmanın bazı sorunlarına dair [On some problems of solidarity], Yeni Özgür Politika, 12 April 2023, https://www.ozgurpolitika.com/haberi-dayanismanin-bazi-sorunlarina-dair-175436
[14] Norayr Olgar, Manuşyan, 23’ler ve Nazizme karşı mücadele [Manouchian, the 23s and the struggle against Nazism], Avlaremoz, 24 January 2016.