The Guardian view on Turkey and the Armenians: history matters

The battle over the word genocide is all but won, but the official Turkish state remains in denial

April 23, 2015
Source: The Guardian

It is a hard thing to admit that the state to which you belong was founded on a crime and that the history taught in your schools is full of lies. Yet there is no redemption without repentance and, on the centenary of the beginning of the genocidal campaign against the Armenians, it is sad to record that Turkey has still not faced the facts about what happened in 1915. The answer is quite simple in outline, if complex in its dreadful detail. The Armenians, who had lived in Anatolia since long before Turks arrived from central Asia, were killed, deported, or forcibly converted to Islam. Estimates suggest that at least 600,000 perished, while hundreds of thousands were expelled from or fled the Turkish lands, never to return.

For a shamefully long time the world was complicit in Turkey’s insistence that the suffering of the Armenians, and of Assyrian Christians as well, was not different in kind from that of other peoples, including ethnic Turks, during the convulsions caused by the first world war across Europe, and, in particular, that it was unfair to call it genocide. But scholarship, including some distinguished Turkish work, has increasingly ruled out the “bad things happen in war” thesis, while an extraordinary effort among Armenians of the diaspora to rescue and deepen their own national memory of events and to pass that on to others has gradually changed public opinion in Europe and America. The United States still avoids the word genocide, as does Britain. But legislature after legislature has passed resolutions using the word, with Austria and Germany, which had long resisted its use, the latest to do so. The German formulation is still equivocal, and so is the position of Pope Francis, who pronounced on the issue earlier this month. But the battle over the name has essentially been won.

This struggle has mattered intensely to Armenians and Turks, but it has also sometimes stood in the way of a more historically grounded understanding of events. The Armenian-American writer William Saroyan has a character in one of his plays say: “The world is amok … Life is on fire; caught in hurricanes; submerged in deep and blind waters …” He might have coined those words to describe the Ottoman empire as it drifted towards a final shipwreck in the late 19th century. It is not too much to say that those who were in charge of the empire were for most of the time in a state of despair, or that they hardly understood the forces that were changing their once multiethnic state into something else.

By the middle of the world war “a government had come to believe that among its subject peoples whole nations presented an immediate threat to the security of the state,” the historian Ronald Suny writes. “Defence of the empire and of the nation became the rationale for mass murder.” And there was tinder available: Armenians and Kurds had for a long time been in competition for power and land in territory they both thought was theirs. The empire, when it worked, had kept that rivalry, in which the Kurds were the persistent aggressors, below a certain level of violence. But when the reins were slipped, the Turkish government had eager executors of its will to hand.

The Kurds, ironically, then suffered from Turkish ethnic chauvinism in their turn. There was no attempt to physically destroy them as a people, but their language was suppressed and their identity denied. They were supposed to turn into Turks, but refused to do so, a refusal that recent Turkish governments have reluctantly come to accept. The Kurds now, after their own bitter experience, are well to the fore in recognising and regretting their role in 1915. Some, perhaps many, ethnic Turks also know that the national narrative is problematic.

But the official Turkish state remains wedded to its threadbare myth, fulminating and recalling ambassadors whenever the word genocide is pronounced. This year it has even moved the anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign so it coincides with the Armenian anniversary, hoping to obscure one remembrance with another. Ministers will attend some other, tamer ceremonies. But the Erdoğan government, which in earlier years gave some cause for hope on this issue, has essentially decided that its distorted version of the origins of the state will remain in place.