Turkey, Republic of, and the Armenian Genocide

Turkey is the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, and its official policy on the Armenian Genocide is the denial of its occurrence. Whereas the convening of courts-martial to try the Young Turks for war crimes by the post-World War I Ottoman government amounted to an admission of guilt on the part of the state, the Nationalist government based in Ankara rejected Turkish responsibility for the acts committed against the Armenian population. After gaining military mastery over Turkey, the Nationalists, led by Mustafa Kemal, obtained a series of concessions from France and England which absolved Turkey of any further political or material responsibilities vis-à-vis the surviving Armenians. These concessions were formalized in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne which extended international recognition to the Turkish Republic.

The Treaty of Lausanne marked a watershed because it legitimized the Turkish Nationalist program of ethnic consolidation by expelling or repressing minorities. It reversed all terms agreed upon by the Ottoman Empire in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres which had legally obligated the Turkish government to bring accused war criminals to justice. It provided for the transfer of populations between Greece and Turkey thus completing the exodus of the Greeks from Anatolia.

Turkey immediately turned its attention to the suppression of the Kurds, whose language was banned in 1924 and whose ethnic identity was officially denied by the Turkish state until the 1980s. By forcefully promoting Turkism, the Ankara government sought to create an ethnically homogeneous state. In the course of the following decades its treatment of the remnant minorities oscillated from neglect to repression. As it remained neutral during World War II and continued trading with Nazi Germany until nearly the end of the war, Turkey used the occasion of the world crisis to impose extraordinary taxes upon Greeks, Jews and Armenians. The discriminatory exactions economically ruined these small minority communities already confined mostly to Istanbul by the 1940s. In a more violent episode, such as the 1955 rampage in Istanbul, the government encouraged the expulsion of the majority of Greeks remaining in Turkey. Many Jews emigrated to Israel after independence, and the Armenian population dwindled from an estimated 150,000 after World War I to less than half that number by the 1990s.

Soon after its founding, the Turkish Nationalist government adopted a policy of denying the Armenian Genocide and in increasingly more strident steps sought to suppress discussion of the Armenian Genocide in international and public forums. In the 1930s it prevented the making of the film version of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, and successfully stamped out all mention of the Armenian atrocities in any government setting until the 1960s. Since the 1970s Turkey has waged a vociferous campaign to prevent official recognition of the Armenian Genocide or the adoption of commemorative legislation in countries such as the United States and Canada by threatening to cancel business contracts and reduce levels of military cooperation. In view of Turkey's NATO membership in the context of the Cold War, the threats were taken seriously.

Turkey has also sponsored publications challenging the basic facts of the Armenian Genocide in a well-financed campaign to spread confusion and plant seeds of doubt even among informed circles. Turkey's overseas embassies have been engaged as its primary instruments for the dissemination of this denial literature. Its ambassadors regularly challenge mention of the Armenian Genocide by the media. Turkey has also pressured governments in an attempt to prevent the convening of international conferences, such as one planned in Israel in 1982, where despite strong pressures to cancel it, the Armenian Genocide was one of the topics presented. This campaign to rewrite history extends to the point of seeking to influence universities worldwide through sophisticated grant-making programs attendant with the expectation of generating scholarship placing Turkey in a better light. These programs constitute part of the overall design to legitimate internationally the viewpoint denying the Armenian Genocide through purportedly disinterested academic production.

Turkey's policy of denial has had more than an obstructionist character. For example, while Turkey continues to interfere in the construction of memorial monuments by Armenian diaspora communities, it also regularly misinforms its own citizenry by raising the false specter and accusations of atrocities committed by Armenians. Turkey has gone so far as to rehabilitate the Young Turk criminals by according them posthumous honors and reburials. It has repatriated the remains of the masterminds of the Armenian Genocide, Talaat from Nazi Germany in 1943 and Enver from Tajikistan in 1996 after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Indicative of the destructive dimension of denial and the uninterrupted policy of erasing even the record of a once-Armenian presence in Turkey, historical Armenian structures ranging from thousand-year-old churches to entire ancient cities have been subjected to willful vandalism and in numerous instances to complete obliteration. Despite the three-thousand-year existence of the Armenians and their continuous construction of civilization in their historic homeland, no archeological site in Turkey is permitted designation as historically Armenian. While Ottoman Turkey persecuted and sought to destroy the living Armenian population, Republican Turkey has been methodically erasing the physical record of an extinguished civilization with the goal of blotting out even the memory of its existence.

--Rouben Paul Adalian