The New York Times
Jan 30 2012

PARIS - At a time when Europe's future seems so murkily ill-defined,
when people fret about paychecks and their abrupt disappearance, a
jittery currency and suffocating debt, the past might seem the last
place to look for salvation.

Yet, in recent days, history has tugged at national debates from
Istanbul to Edinburgh like some gravitational force, and with it
has come a question: what risks do politicians court by evoking the
chimera of the past to score points in the present?

That question intruded most brazenly, perhaps, in the acrimonious
exchanges over a vote in the French Senate to outlaw denial of genocide
in the mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey a century ago.

The vote was portrayed by many analysts here as an act of expediency
to win support among hundreds of thousands of French citizens of
Armenian descent ahead of the presidential elections this spring.

"One by one, to prepare the ground for his campaign, Nicolas Sarkozy
seems to have decided to win over the 'communities"' of voters,
the editor Pascal Riche wrote on the Rue89 news Web site.

Foreign policy, of course, is rarely decoupled from its effect at home.

As an article in Le Monde said of the lingering effect of French
political maneuvering in the tangled events that led 18 years ago
to genocide in Rwanda, only the bloody Algerian war of independence
could inspire "accusations of a similar gravity, such a gulf between
two camps that could be characterized as the 'anti-France' and the
'eternal France."'

In Scotland, history's totems arose anew as Alex Salmond, the first
minister, fired opening salvos toward a referendum on independence,
which he wants to hold in 2014 - the 700th anniversary of England's
defeat at the Battle of Bannockburn.

And in Berlin, where the past seems undying, a new legal battle
prevented the publication, once again, of excerpts of Adolf Hitler's
"Mein Kampf," even as the land began an unusual commemoration of the
300th anniversary of the birth of Frederick the Great.

Those separate episodes pointed to a common conclusion: the way the
past is depicted helps mold the founding myths and taboos of national
identity, enabling successor generations to live with their past;
history, in other words, is a time bomb, and its fuse burns brightest
in the half-light of competing versions where truth has different
meanings for victor and vanquished.

That was most evident in the harsh exchanges between Ankara and Paris
over the bloody events as modern Turkey struggled to emerge from
the Ottoman ruins almost a century ago, a new republic built on such
unbending pillars of Turkishness that the hankering for a different
notion of identity became synonymous with treachery (a conflation
that also drove long years of repression of Turkey's large Kurdish
minority). Hundreds of thousands of Armenians died in what is now
eastern Turkey. An Ottoman document made public in 2009 said 972,000
Armenians had disappeared from the population records between 1915
and 1916. But the tally is disputed - modern Turkey says the figure
of 1.5 million claimed by Armenians is an exaggeration. Armenians
call the bloodshed, forced marches and executions a result of a
genocidal Ottoman design; Turks call it an outcome of war and of
Armenian collaboration with the Russian foe.

By criminalizing the denial of genocide in Armenia, France followed
the examples of Switzerland and Slovenia and helped sharpen a
parallel debate in Israel. But in alienating Turkey - an increasingly
sharp-elbowed NATO ally and regional player - the French authorities
seemed to place political considerations at home ahead of perils
abroad, risking criticism of their own cherished identity as a bastion
of liberte.

"This bill, if implemented, would have a chilling effect on public
debate and contravene France's international obligation to uphold
freedom of expression," said Nicola Duckworth of Amnesty International.

The legislation, providing for penalties of as much as a year in
jail and a fine of [email protected],000, or about $59,000, opened a sluice-gate
of Turkish reprisals, threats, rage and recrimination.

Why, Turkish leaders said, did France not scrutinize its own colonial
history, as Mr. Sarkozy was finally reported to have done in a leaked
letter to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Why, some Armenians
asked, did Turkish leaders not examine their own parlous record on
free speech, well illustrated by provisions in its penal code to outlaw
affirmation of the Armenian genocide as an insult to Turkishness?

"Everybody should look at themselves in the mirror," said Orhan Dink,
the brother of a Turkish-Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink, murdered
by a far right teenager in 2007.

Indeed, said Francois Bayrou, a candidate in the French presidential
elections, "it is not for the law to write history, still less the
history of another country," drawing a distinction between the newest
vote and an older French law criminalizing denial of the Holocaust.

"Those, alas, were things that happened on our own soil," he said,
apparently referring to the deportation of French Jews during World
War II, a topic that was long taboo.

The debate is not simply academic.

Turkey sometimes seems to resemble a house whose front door faces
a prosperous, tranquil West, while its back door looks out onto
a rougher, unstable neighborhood bordering Iran, Iraq and Syria,
among others.

The more Turkey is isolated, some Turkish analysts say, the more its
national center of gravity will shift to the east. Ankara's dream
of becoming the first Muslim nation to join the European Union -
an embrace opposed implacably by France and Germany - will recede
yet further, with unknowable consequences.

An old adage says that those who ignore the past are condemned to
repeat it. As France has discovered, reopening history's unhealed
wounds has its perils, too.