Early in 2011, while visiting the Turkish city of Kars, less than 20 miles (30 kilometres) from the Armenian frontier. the country's neo-fundamentalist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the Justice and Development Party (known by its local initials as AKP), discovered a memorial to the Armenian victims of Turkish massacres in 1915.
The stone sculpture, 115 feet (35 metres) high, entitled "A Statue of Humanity," represented a human body severed from top to bottom, with the two halves facing each other. It was intended to include a hand reaching between the separated forms.
Its creator, artist Mehmet Aksoy, believed the art installation would symbolize relations between Armenians and Turks, and their reconciliation. The former mayor of Kars, Naif Alibeyoglu, had commissioned the art piece in 2006, when Turkish-Armenian relations were, as so often before, at a low point, so it would be visible across the border.
Armenians and their supporters have long called on Turkey to recognize the mass slayings and deadly deportations of Armenians to the Syrian desert during the first world war as a genocide; and, as the legal successor to the Ottoman empire, to accept responsibility for these crimes.
In recent years, attitudes have changed in Turkey. It is no longer taboo to discuss the tragedy inflicted on the Armenians. Politicians have shifted position: in 2009 a plan was adopted to establish diplomatic relations with Armenia and open the borders between the two countries. But such a normalization has been delayed.
When Erdogan saw the Kars memorial, however, he professed shock. The monument, he said, was "monstrous;" he issued a categorical order for its demolition to the Kars mayor, Nevzat Bozkus, a member of Erdogan's AKP. The minister of culture and tourism, Ertugrul Gunay, who accompanied Erdogan on his excursion in the eastern districts, tried to calm the resulting uproar, noting that the creator of the piece, Aksoy, is his friend. But Erdogan shut him up, repeating, "Yes, I said the monument is monstrous and the responsible mayor should make sure it disappears as quickly as possible."
Erdogan argued that the memorial overshadowed the tomb of a spiritual Sufi, Ebul Hasan Harakani, who lived in the 10th century CE, and a mosque associated with him, both rebuilt in 1996.
The artist Aksoy replied that when he selected the location the authorities responsible for preservation of historic buildings and monuments had approved the proposal without problems.
Aksoy also had recourse to the legal system. He obtained a court order against the razing of his work, but the decision was ignored. The Kars town council continued with its vandalism. Hundreds of supporters of the artist held a protest in Kars. Aksoy compared Erdogan to a totalitarian dictator and declared that most citizens of Kars opposed wrecking the monument.
For many opponents of Erdogan and the AKP, the disagreement about a sculpture revealed several negative aspects of the prime minister's personality. Erdogan has been accused repeatedly of autocratic and increasingly dictatorial traits. He is held responsible for the arrests of Turkish journalists under the AKP administration, whether he did or did not order the detentions. In addition, the Turkish secular elite point to the removal of the Kars memorial as evidence that members of the new, Islamist governing class that Erdogan placed in power lacks education and culture. Removal of the Kars statue is further seen as a vindictive act against ex-mayor Alibeyoglu, who left the AKP and joined the secularist opposition in the Republican People's Party (CHP).
The painter Bedri Baykam, a leading exponent for secularist artists in Turkey, had demonstrated years before against the Islamist trend of the Erdogan regime. During the debate over Aksoy's statue, a year ago, Baykam joined a meeting in Istanbul defending the Kars memorial. After the event, Baykam and art gallery director Tugba Kurtulmus, who was with him, were stabbed by Mehmet Celikel, a mental patient who said he "disliked people of that kind." Celikel had been imprisoned for stabbing two other people in 1998. Both Baykam and Kurtulmus survived.
Erdogan claimed his criticism involved aesthetics, not human rights. According to him, the memorial was "monstrous." But can any monument to the victims of terrible atrocities be uglier than the incidents they commemorate?
The expulsion of the Armenians, in death marches running here and there across Turkey, was a precedent for the Holocaust of European Jews. In Germany, historians are committed permanently to research about the involvement of the military, other state institutions, and ordinary people in the horrors of the second world war.
But in Turkey, the prime minister is terrified at the sight of stones erected one upon another. The stones themselves neither declare Turkish guilt nor refer to the suffering of Armenians explicitly. But the monument is gone, and some part of collective memory will have vanished with it. Erdogan's action was wrong: it just illustrates his preference for demolition over reconciliation.