Turkey's historical amnesia

September 1, 2007
Source: The Boston Globe (Massachusetts)

NINETY-TWO years ago, the legal term "genocide" had yet to be adopted, but foreign missionaries and diplomats knew that a campaign of unprecedented savagery was destroying the Armenians of eastern Anatolia, in what was then the Ottoman empire. "The ultimate objective of the actions against the Armenians is complete annihilation," said Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter, a German vice consul. "They're mowing them all down," a police officer told Thora Wedel-Jarlsberg, a nurse from Norway. "This barbaric policy will be a source of shame for Turkey," said Huseyin Kazim Kadri, an Ottoman official who tried to help the Armenians.

These eyewitnesses were describing the forced removal and murder of Armenians from provinces where they might threaten the homogeneity of the Turkish state that was being born from the remnants of the empire. The 1915-1917 campaign against the Armenians was amply documented at the time, and more evidence became available from trials held briefly in allied-occupied Istanbul in 1919. No one knows exactly how many Armenians were killed, but the figure cited at the trials was 800,000.

Why and how the Ottoman government undertook this genocide has been comprehensively examined by the Turkish historian Taner Akcam, who teaches at the University of Minnesota. The three quotations are taken from his book "A Shameful Act; The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility." And yet the Turkish government keeps insisting that the historical record is in doubt. The Foreign Ministry said last month it objected to the use of the word genocide because it is "historically and legally baseless" and "there is no consensus among the historians on how to qualify the events."

The word didn't enter the lexicon of international law until 1948, but by the legal definition of the term - "Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part" - this was a genocide. So why did the Ottoman government commit this atrocity, and why does the present government deny it?

Before 1915, The Ottoman Empire had been under intense pressure from nationalities within its borders to grant them independence. It allied itself with Germany in World War I to remake itself as a predominantly Turkish state, but large Armenian and Greek populations interfered with that transformation. The Armenians could expect help from the Russian empire, which had a large Armenian population in its lands just north of the border.

After the Russians defeated an Ottoman army on the frontier in January 1915, the government put the genocide in motion. While it would have been understandable if Armenians who supported the Russian cause were imprisoned, there can be no justification for the mass murders that resulted.

With the allied victory in 1918 came trials for war crimes. And the allies enraged the Turks with the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, which gave a substantial section of western Turkey to the Greeks and created an Armenian state from Ottoman and Russian lands. Under the leadership of General Mustafa Kemal, the Turks repudiated the treaty, defeated the Greek Army, and formed the Turkish state the world knows today.

Kemal took no part in the genocide, and in 1920 called it a series of "shameful acts." But he had been a member of the ruling Ottoman party, whose leaders masterminded the killings. When Kemal formed a government, he put many of the perpetrators in important positions. And there were no reparations or resettlement of any Armenians that might have survived the killing but were displaced to other countries. "A new class of 'notables' had been created... as a result of the genocide and attendant looting," Akcam writes. "To return the looted property was unthinkable for them."

Kemal ruled until his death until 1938, and under the surname Ataturk is considered the father of his country. Turkey, operating under the political framework he established, has never apologized for the genocide, and the Armenian survivors and their descendants, including many who have resettled in the United States, have felt aggrieved as a result.

The Jewish Anti-Defamation League got caught up in the controversy last month when its leadership at first seemed to adopt the Turkish position. The national ADL subsequently agreed to recognize the genocide as such. "Using the word 'genocide' is a moral issue," said Abe Foxman, director of the ADL last week. "I looked for a way to lower the rhetoric and unite us."

It's unfortunate that the Turkish government won't show the same flexibility. In a telephone interview last week, Nabi Sensoy, Turkey's ambassador to the United States, affirmed the government's denial. "It was wartime," he said. "It's a known fact that the Armenian population living in the east sided with the Russians." The ambassador did endorse the notion of a committee of historians to sift through the facts, but given the overwhelming eyewitness evidence of mass killings, this is unnecessary.

Many Armenian-Americans want Congress to approve a resolution acknowledging the genocide. Sensoy warned that this might complicate relations between Turkey and the Republic of Armenia, which was created out of the old Russian territories. Congress has to be careful before complicating relations in this volatile section of the world, but the resolution acknowledging a historical reality shouldn't cause controversy today.

Vice Consul Scheubner-Richter wrote in 1915 that "a broad section of the Turkish people, those blessed with common sense and reason... do not support the annihilation policy." In their spirit, and to honor the hundreds of thousands of victims of the Ottoman government, modern Turkey should acknowledge this crime and move on.