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The British historian Dr David Irving is currently in prison in Austria after being found guilty of denying the Holocaust. But the Nazis weren't the only ones responsible for genocide in the 20th century, nor is Irving alone in denying the truth. Psychologist Dr Mike Drayton examines what happens when a whole nation turns its back on a shameful episode in its history.

The Turkish government and many Turkish people continue to deny the 1915 genocide of 1.5 million Armenian Christians by the Ottoman Turks. The systematic and officially sanctioned nature of the killings have led many Armenians to describe this as a Holocaust -a precursor to the Jewish Holocaust.

Armenian victims were killed with daggers, swords, hammers and axes to save ammunition. Massive drowning operations were carried out in the Black Sea and the Euphrates river, mostly of women and children; so many that the Euphrates became clogged with corpses and changed its course for up to half a mile. Tens of thousands of Armenians were also burned alive in haylofts.

This denial has greatly troubled some European politicians. French President Jacques Chirac and his interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy have both announced that Turkey will have to recognise the Armenian genocide before it is allowed to join the European Union. France has a powerful half-million-strong Armenian community. France's lower house of parliament approved a Bill making it a crime to deny that Armenians suffered genocide. Blair is characteristically silent on the issue.

The Armenian Holocaust, is now so unmentionable in Turkey that it can (and has) led to people being prosecuted and jailed for the infamous law 301 that prohibits ‘insulting Turkishness'.

However, the genocide, was no secret to the country's population in 1918. Millions of Muslim Turks had witnessed the mass deportation of Armenians three years earlier; and many Turkish Muslims with great courage, protected their Armenian neighbours and friends at the risk of the lives of their own lives. The genocide was even discussed in parliament on 19 October 1918 when Ahmed Riza, the elected president of the Turkish senate, stated in his inaugural speech: "Let's face it, we Turks savagely killed off the Armenians."

How extraordinary then that Turkish politicians could speak such truths in 1918, and could fully admit in their own parliament to the genocide of the Armenians, while anyone making the same comments today would risk prosecution. The official line today is that the Armenian Holocaust is a myth, and that the deaths were caused by a ‘civil war'.

How can we understand the psychology of this extraordinary situation? Fifteen years before the genocide, Anna Freud (daughter of Sigmund) began to develop and clarify her father's theory of defence mechanisms, including that of Denial. These defence mechanisms were described as being properties of individuals. However, the are frequently used by organisations and countries.

Denial is a defence mechanism in which a person is faced with a fact that is too painful to accept and rejects it instead, insisting that it is not true despite what may be overwhelming evidence.

The person may deny the reality of the unpleasant fact altogether, admit the fact but deny its seriousness (known in the jargon as ‘minimization') or admit both the fact and seriousness but deny responsibility (‘projection'). Turkey has indulged in each of these variants. The `Turkish people are not unique in there use of Denial. Every time a person lights up a cigarette they are using denial to protect themselves from the unpleasant reality of the long-term consequences of smoking.

Denial is a defence mechanism I frequently encounter when assessing parents who have mistreated their children.

Denial is a sign of immaturity and is dangerous because it disables the individuals and nations ability to learn from and cope with reality. Engaging in denial of the Armenian Holocaust is as dangerous as denying the Jewish Holocaust. Freud rightly pointed out that if one cannot accept, acknowledge and understand the denied action, then we are doomed to repeat it. Indeed the Turkish government's poor record of human rights abuses attests to this notion.


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