Historical evidence indicates that during World War I, Ottoman leaders — specifically Mehmet Talat, Ismail Enver and Ahmet Cemal, the Young Turk triumvirate — decided to eliminate Anatolia’s Armenians. On April 24, 1915, the day before Britain and France attacked at Gallipoli, some 250 Armenian notables in Istanbul were arrested, packed into trains and sent to join the hundreds of thousands of other Armenians soon to be massacred or driven out to their deaths in the Syrian desert. Children were kidnapped. Property was seized. Many people were shot dead. Many died of thirst. Between 800,000 and 1.5 million Armenians perished, and Anatolia was effectively emptied of the community.
Turkey has said the Armenian victims were simply one part of the hundreds of thousands of Ottoman civilians of various ethnicities killed in war violence, thus avoiding the question of whether a decision had been taken to annihilate the Armenians.
But to understand Turkey’s position today, it is important to understand what has happened there since 1915.
The Ottoman Empire lost the war. With Istanbul occupied, Ottoman territory was being parceled out to Western powers. But a Turkish nationalist army, led by Mustafa Kemal (later Ataturk), eventually liberated Anatolia; modern Turkey was founded in 1923. Abolishing the sultanate and caliphate, Ataturk and his associates established a Western-oriented, secular republic. But the remarkable, avant-garde creation of a Turkish nationality and nation-state required drastic social engineering to repudiate the Ottoman past and give the new republic a new, Turkish identity.
The Lausanne Treaty of 1923 legalized a forced “population exchange” — Greeks out of Anatolia, Muslims in. Any remaining Greeks, Armenians or Jews have largely disappeared over the years, suffering pogroms, tax persecution and dispossession. The state took control of and remains the sole administrator of Sunni Islam in the country, marginalizing other Muslim traditions such as Alevism. Non-Turkish Muslims — Kurds for example — were expected to assimilate. Ataturk by edict changed the Turkish alphabet and adopted Latin script, leaving later generations unable to read Ottoman and Islamic texts. The official Turkish History Thesis essentially invented a past for the Turks.
This provoked challengers, of course, and the Turkish state has long responded as if deeper and wider knowledge of the cost of the Turkish national project — in terms of the oppression and control of historical knowledge required — could undermine it. The Turkish army has deposed four Turkish governments since 1960, each time setting the country’s democratic development back and reinforcing the laws and mechanisms of this control. The country’s human rights activists like to say that the Turkish state and its national project has always been well protected from its citizens.
What happened to the Armenians — and Turkey’s obfuscation — is inseparable from this national project. It is the mother of Turkey’s Pandora’s boxes, the opening of which would mean re-evaluating, reinterpreting, uncovering and unsilencing all the aspects of Turkey’s history heretofore protected by taboos, laws, state-written textbooks and state-serving academics. Confronting the the stains of the past is integral to the project of Turkey’s democratization.
Davutoglu, responding to the European Parliament’s exhortation to recognize an Armenian genocide, said, “What was done in Africa during colonialism? What was done in Asia? What was done in Australia? … Where are the Aborigines?”
But the answers to those questions are no longer secrets — because in democracies, the state is unable to control knowledge and memory.
That’s why commemorating 1915 has been so important to so many Turkish activists, and it helps explain the more open attitude toward the topic in Turkey since the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, came to power in 2002 and succeeded in pushing the Turkish military out of politics. When the army ruled, talking about anything other than the “so-called genocide” or “Armenian lies” meant prosecution and harassment. Today, exhibitions, conferences, talk shows, films, books and newspaper columns all broach the subject in explicit terms. In 2009, Turkey sought to reconcile with Armenia; the deal called for a historical commission. Tens of thousands of Turks have signed their names to an “I apologize” campaign. Journalist Hasan Cemal, Ahmet Cemal’s grandson, is a major voice calling for Turkey to understand what happened to the Armenians. Since 2010, activists — mostly Turkish — have commemorated the tragedy on April 24 in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. And last year, on the 99th anniversary, Erdogan used remarkable language, extending “condolences” to Armenians.
It looks unlikely Turkish leaders will go further for the centenary, not least because it is a campaign season in Turkey. The June 7 general election is high-stakes, and in Turkey, campaigns are fought with nationalism. Seething rivalries aside, the AKP and two opposition parties jointly condemned the European Parliament’s resolution. Many Turkish politicians seize chances to deny foreign accusations of genocide like free money. And most important, whatever democratic optimism the end of military tutelage brought has long expired.
The government is using the centenary of the Gallipoli landings to deflect attention from commemorations in Armenia. Geopolitical logic appears to have again saved Turkey from the eventuality of the White House uttering the word “genocide.”
Most Turks’ denial was learned in school and reinforced by various media emphasizing the treachery of those Armenians who backed the invading Russians, foreign powers’ manipulation of Ottoman minorities, conspiracy, possible loss of territory to “Greater Armenia,” greed for reparations and the dozens of murdered Turkish diplomats killed by the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia.
Many simply cannot accept that their forefathers may have committed such a crime — a position that becomes more unyielding the more that shaming Turkey becomes the goal and the more that the Turkish government plays this up. Less appreciated is the chance here for empathy. Hrant Dink, a Armenian-Turkish journalist assassinated in 2007, once said, “To the Armenians I say, Try to see some honor in the Turks’ position. They say, ‘No, there was no genocide, because genocide is a goddamned thing that my ancestors never could have done.’ And to the Turks I say, Dwell for a moment on what the Armenians are saying and ask yourself why they insist so much.”