At first glance, the three-minute video featuring Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day seems indistinguishable from the many messages of commemoration and solidarity offered by world leaders.
Erdogan describes how the racism and hate crimes that led to the genocides of the Holocaust, Bosnia, Rwanda and Cambodia are still thriving today; he mentions the UN Genocide Convention; he ends with the hope for a future without discrimination and crimes against humanity.
But on further examination, it’s clear Erdogan’s words were far less anodyne, and far more cynical. Erdogan commemorated the Holocaust in order to instrumentalize its usefulness to his own stark political agenda. Rather than engaging with the Holocaust per se, he presented it in such a generalized context that he didn’t even mention the word "Jew."
The same definitional revisionism, of a "Holocaust" alienated from its Jewish victims, is repeated on Turkey's new state "We Remember" website: Its précis of the Holocaust is "the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately 11 million people by the Nazi regime in Germany and its collaborators during the Second World War."
And, of course, one genocide was notably missing from Erdogan's conveniently selective framing of history: that of the Armenians, by the Turkish state’s predecessor, the Ottoman Empire.
Sp what were Erdogan’s "real" messages?
First, part of Erdogan’s efforts to be recognized as the de facto leader of the Islamic world requires an overarching narrative of Europe’s hostility to Muslims, and of Erdogan as the savior of suffering Muslims.
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That fuels his ongoing campaign to prioritize combating Islamophobia in the West, and his aggressive diplomatic language particularly against the EU In the video, he specifically referred to online hate crimes against Muslims. Why now?
It’s not only because of Erdogan’s pragmatic approach, which takes advantage of any event that advances his agenda, but also because he is still surfing on the wave he helped incite of anti-French, anti-European feeling in parts of the Muslim world triggered by claims of blasphemy against Islam.
The latest wave began when French teacher Samuel Patti showed cartoons of Muhammad in his class; his throat was then cut by an outraged Muslim extremist. The teacher’s "provocation" provided a ready opportunity for Erdogan to intensify his criticism of Europe and strengthen his fearless, defender of the faith legacy at home and abroad.
An integral part of Erdogan’s assault on Europe and social media companies has been his equation of contemporary Islamophobia with the Holocaust, the same form of soft revisionism, if not supersessionism, evident in the Holocaust Day video. Indeed, Erdogan has declared that Muslims in Europe are subject to a "lynch campaign similar to that against Jews before World War II."
Secondly, as is now a mainstream convention, Erdogan mentioned in his address the Bosnian, Rwandan, and Cambodian genocides alongside the Holocaust, while noting that "all of these genocides remind the international community of its responsibility." That was a nod to the failure of the West to prevent those atrocities, some of which were products of European colonialism and imperialism.
Thirdly, what is most striking about Erdogan’s address is what he chose to omit: the Armenian genocide of 1915. The Ottoman Empire’s dislocation, ethnic cleansing and mass killing of approximately 1.5 million Armenians, acknowledged by many historians and parliaments worldwide, has been denied by Turkey ever since.
The legalistic logic of Turkish denialism rejects ex post facto recognitions of pre-WWII events as genocides, as the Convention was not yet in force. But it encourages the noisy virtue-signaling of outrage over subsequent genocides just as long as the Armenians are out of the equation.
Turkey’s new "We Remember" website doesn’t just deny the Armenian genocide but seeks to whitewash wholesale the Ottoman Empire’s behavior towards minorities, with the modern Turkish state as an equal beneficiary: It reads, "Turkey is firmly dedicated to the legacy of multi-faith tolerance and cultural pluralism inherited from the Ottoman Empire."
Fourthly, Erdogan puts his finger firmly on the scale towards a universal, not particular, understanding of the Holocaust.
In Israel, which marks Yom HaShoah (the national day of Holocaust remembrance) in late April every year, the Holocaust is commemorated as a "unique" genocide: it is almost impossible in Israel’s memory culture and public sphere to compare between the Holocaust and Jewish suffering to other genocides and their victims. In other words, there is a hierarchy of genocide victims. Jews first, and then all the rest.
In contrast, powerful vectors of international commemoration, such as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and, to a lesser extent, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, lean towards the universalistic: That the lasting lessons of the Holocaust are its similarities with other mass atrocities, and the similar role of stoking racial hatred – and both stand as a warning to the future. This was exactly the stated objective of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
That Erdogan doesn’t mention that the Holocaust’s victims were Jewish is clearly an extreme take on this universalizing dynamic. But when he flattens the "hierarchy of victimhood," equalizing all victims of genocide, he is less distorting Holocaust memory than joining a mainstream view of the purposes of commemoration – comparative, not hierarchical, focusing on the threat and prevention of genocide against any group – albeit with a spin that suits him.
Finally, Erdogan talked with pride about Turkey’s "open-door policy" for refugees. His immediate reference point is to the over three million Syrian refugees fleeing civil war who found sanctuary in Turkey. Erdogan famously used the Syrian refugees as political capital against Europe. As is his wont, Erdogan referred to the glorious heritage of the Ottoman Empire which, he declared, had an open-door policy for refugees.
Spanish and Portuguese Jews, given shelter by the Sultan after their 1492 expulsion from Spain are often used as a prime example that Turkey has not only never countenanced antisemitism, but that it protects its minorities; the Turkish state has often used this as a counter-argument against Armenian genocide "allegation" and an explanation for why Israel has never formally recognized the Armenian genocide as such.
Clearly, the diplomatic history is somewhat murkier; Israeli governments and the Knesset have, despite pushback from opposing politicians, serially refused to discomfort Turkey by endorsing that recognition. Specific incidents have fortified that position: for instance, Turkey’s political elite claim they helped Jewish refugees fleeing the 1979 Iranian Revolution to cross the Turkish border, with the trade-off: that Israel would not recognize the Armenian genocide, to which Israel complied.
In a three-minute video addressing International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Erdogan barely engaged with Holocaust memory or with antisemitism. But he engaged abundantly with the selective values – framed as universalism and respect for human rights – that bolster his own Islamist global leadership ambitions, while controlling the genocide "canon" to exclude whatever doesn’t fit that narrative.
But although Erdogan’s video was both contradictory and cynical, the Turkish president was knocking on an open door. Commemorating the genocide of one group as a global lesson always runs the risk that it will be exploited for totally different objectives, even by antisemites.
Paradoxically, global Holocaust memory, especially during the age of pandemic, is ripe to be leveraged by authoritarian leaders to justify both repressive policies and historical revisionism.
Dr. Eldad Ben Aharon is a Minerva Fellow and Associate Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) and a lecturer at Leiden University. His research focuses on Israel's diplomatic history, Turkey’s foreign policy, intelligence history and counter-terrorism, Jewish and Armenian transnationalism and memory of the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide. Twitter: @EldadBenAharon