Garton Ash: 'Truth commissions better than courts to deal with difficult past' in Turkey

Historians in the News

A distinguished professor of contemporary history has said that truth commissions are better than courts for dealing with difficult past events, such as Turkey's Sept. 12, 1980 coup d'état,  many people are responsible to different degrees.

“The problem with the prosecution is that it just takes a few individuals to account for criminal responsibility, whereas if you have a truth commission, a larger process, then you can explore the whole historical background and understand all the connections without having to do with [the] very specific thing of proving ... criminal responsibility,” said Timothy Garton Ash, the Isaiah Berlin professorial fellow at St. Antony's College, Oxford, for Monday Talk....

During his working visit to İstanbul, Garton Ash answered our questions on the coup trial and elaborated on other topics.

You're in Turkey at the time of an important process; more than 30 years after the Sept. 12, 1980 military takeover, a criminal court has begun to hear the case against two retired, surviving leaders of the 1980 coup. Would you share your thoughts with us regarding this process?

It's something I thought about a great deal, because the general question is how ... countries deal with [a] difficult past, and almost every country in Europe and in the world have some difficult past -- a dictatorship, a military regime, an occupation, a war, a genocide, a civil war. We have Northern Ireland in Britain, the Basque Country in Spain, and Poland's relations with Jewish and Ukrainian citizens. Wherever you look, there is some such difficult issue. And it is important for a democracy that it knows its own history and faces up to [its] difficult past. In principle, it is a good thing. I myself think that putting very old men and women on trial can be a rather problematic way to go about this, because there are many individuals, many officers in a structure, in a system; that's what you have to get at. And unless it was one charismatic individual -- Adolf Hitler, [Francisco] Franco, Idi Amin or whoever it might be -- I worry about the use of a criminal trial many many years later for that purpose. To give you another example, something I personally experienced directly was the imposition of [a] so-called state of war in Poland in 1981, when General [Wojciech Witold] Jaruzelski used the Polish Army to crush the Solidarity movement. So I'm no friend of General Jaruzelski. Do I think that at the age of -- whatever it is, high 80s, early 90s -- he should still be in court? No, I think he should be in a truth commission where he's forced under oath to tell the truth, to apologize [for] what was done....

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