Turkey’s Century-Old Denial still Going strong. But for how long?

“Whatever decision the European Parliament takes on Armenian genocide claims, it will go in one ear and out the other,” stated the Turkish President Erdogan just hours before the European Parliament voted to call the massacre of the Armenians a genocide on April 15. The Turkish head of state added that “it is not possible for Turkey to accept such a crime, such a sin.”


When the European Parliament indeed voted in favor the Turkish foreign ministry issued a statement referring to the resolution as a “preposterous text … which literally repeats the anti-Turkish clichés of the Armenian propaganda,” while accusing the European Parliament of aspiring to rewrite history.

On the eve of the centenary of the Armenian genocide, the statements of both the Turkish president and the foreign ministry echo a century-old discourse of denial. A hundred years on, the terminology used to describe the massacre of Armenian citizens of the Ottoman Empire is still cause for heated debate and political conflict.

Although the current government headed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has made more efforts than any other ruling party in the past hundred years to reconcile with the country’s past – in 2014 Erdogan issued a statement in which he offered condolences to the grandchildren of the Armenians “who lost their lives” – labeling the massacres a genocide is still a bridge too far, and in many cases cause for intimidation and even prosecution.

Kristallnacht in Constantinople

As is the case with all religious and ethnic conflicts, the roots of the Armenian genocide can be traced back hundreds of years, to the 11th century when the first Muslim Turks arrived in Anatolia which at that time had already been home to the Christian Armenians for more than a thousand years. Despite countless incidents that might have signaled what lay ahead, one case has been singled out as the start of the genocide; the Armenian Kristallnacht, locally known as ‘Red Sunday’.

On the evening of Sunday April 24, 1915, Ottoman troops marched through the streets of the besieged country’s capital Constantinople on a secretive mission. It were critical times for the crumbling empire which in recent years had lost most of its territory to independence movements and European powers intent on expanding their colonial empires. Only a day later the French and English Allied forces would land at Gallipoli with the intention to push towards the capital and in November the Russians had declared war on the Ottoman Empire, launching a military campaign in the east.

Under the coverage of darkness the troops carried out the orders of Talaat Pasha, the Minister of Interior, and rounded up 270 Armenian intellectuals – all prominent members of the intelligentsia that together made up the social and cultural leadership of the Armenian community. Few of the men arrested on that day would survive the state-orchestrated terror of the following years; some would be executed or succumbed to fatigue during the deportations, others simply disappeared.

The deportation of the Armenian intelligentsia from the Ottoman capital lauded the start of a campaign of ethnic cleansing that would effectively rid the empire of its two million-strong Armenian population in just three years. Forced deportations, mass executions, massacres carried out by so-called “Special Organization” groups and the fleeing of those who managed to escape the horrors drastically decreased the Armenian population until only a fraction of the original remained.

Threatening the unity of the state

The fact that many Armenians have died in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War is something that has never been denied by the Turkish authorities. But whereas Armenians – backed by the majority of international scholars of the subject – claim that the massacres have been carried out with the intention to wipe out the entire population, and thus constitute genocide, the Turkish version of the events reads that the killings took place in the context of a civil war, and that both sides bear equal responsibility.

An often-heard explanation is that the Armenians were eager to see the downfall of the Ottoman Empire so that they could carve out their own independent state in the east of the country – just like what had happened in the Balkans where not even ten years before the Christian nations Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and Montenegro had joined forces and defeated the Ottoman Empire.

To realize their dream – so the Turkish story goes – the Christian Armenians fought alongside the Russian invaders, while massacring villages of Muslim Turks and planning terror attacks in the regions still under Ottoman control. One Turkish scholar recently went so far as to claim that Armenians massacred their own people to provoke a popular uprising against Ottoman authorities.

It is true that there were Armenians who fought on the side of the Russians, but the Turkish version ignores the fact that many Armenians loyal to the Ottoman Empire fought with the imperial army too – before being disarmed, sent off to hard labor battalions and eventually executed.

In the early months of 1915 after the local governor had demanded the extradition of thousands of young Armenian men from the city of Van, a town in eastern Turkey, its local Armenian population rose up. The uprising was perceived as a stab in the back by the ruling Committee of Union and Progress who then continued to use it as “proof” that the Armenian population posed a threat to the unity of the state. From then on, the Van uprising would be used as the motive, cause and legitimization for the persecution of the entire Armenian population.

A republic founded by criminals? Never!

Many people have wondered why it is so difficult for Turkey to come to grips with its past, to “accept such a crime,” in Erdogan’s words. The modern Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, five years after the genocide was brought to an end. As such, the current Turkish government can hardly be held accountable for the crimes committed by the Ottomans.

The missing link between the Ottoman Empire and the modern Turkish Republic is formed by the Young Turks, a movement of nationalist, militaristic politicians which had risen to power in two separate coup d’états, in 1908 and 1909 respectively. The Committee of Union and Progress was the political organization which had grown out of the Young Turk movement, and over the course of their time in power it had become increasingly radical, xenophobic and nationalist. Where the reference to ‘unity’ at first was meant to include all the different peoples living in the Ottoman Empire, over time it became more and more a reference to the need for a united Turkish front against both internal and external threats.

The Committee of Union and Progress was headed by the triumvirate of the “Three Pashas”: Enver, the Minister of War, Talaat, the Minister of Interior and Cemal, the Minister of the Navy. Together, they ruled the Ottoman Empire in a dictatorial manner until the country’s defeat in 1918, when they fled abroad.

The Three Pashas were condemned in absentia by a Turkish courts-martial under pressure from the British for plunging the country into war and the forced deportation of the Armenians. Whereas the role of the Three Pashas was played out post-WWI many of their subordinates were allowed to either keep their positions or return to their former positions of power after brief periods of exile.

It were these very same men, who in many cases had been directly involved with the massacres and the deportations, that after 1923 would become the ruling elites of the newly founded Turkish Republic. The founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was at no point involved with the ethnic cleansing of the Armenians, but neither did he condemn them or distance himself from the acts of his Ottoman predecessors. This can be partially explained from the fact that these had to a great extent facilitated his work in creating the Turkish nation-state from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, in which the appeal to people’s “Turkish” identity had played such a key role.

The need to compromise

There have been few instances in history where such a diverse group of people have been so successfully made into one nation, all enthusiastically declaring themselves Turks. Ottoman identity had been very eclectic, drawing elements from all the different people that together made up the empire, using religion rather than ethnicity as its common denominator.

The modern Turkish state was founded upon this artificially created identity of the “Turk”, and as such has become an inherent part of it. To admit that the republic was in part founded by the perpetrators of a genocide would deal a severe blow to the myth of the heroic Turk that till this day plays such an important part in keeping the country from falling apart.

Ironically, nowadays it are the Kurds – whose ancestors were mobilized by the Ottoman authorities to carry out many of the killings after the Armenians had been driven from their homes – who are faced with the dire consequences of sharing their country with a people whose identity is so much entangled with the very state itself. However, despite the Kurds having been some of the cruelest perpetrators of the genocide they are now playing an exemplary role in how to deal with one’s criminal past.

In 2008 the main pro-Kurdish political party offered an official apology for the 1915 genocide and in Diyarbakir, the de-facto capital of the Kurdish regions in Turkey, the largest Armenian church of Turkey was restored and reopened for the first time after it was closed during the genocide. The restoration was in part an initiative by the local Kurdish authorities who are now encouraging Armenians in the diaspora to turn back to their roots.

In order for a Turkish-Armenian reconciliation to take place both sides will have to compromise. Taking into account the outrageousness of asking a group who has been at the receiving end of one of the worst crimes committed in the last hundred years to compromise, it is important to keep the final goals in mind – which in this case are the normalization of relations between the two countries and reconciliation between the two peoples.

If Armenia and the Armenians have as their ultimate goal the recognition of the massacres perpetrated against their people as a genocide by Turkey, then, of course, there is no reason to compromise. However, if the goal is to normalize the relations on all levels of society – from the streets all the way up to the government – than it has to recognize that Turkey has very little to loose in continuing their current policy of denial.

From the Turkish side, recognition of the crimes committed, without necessarily going so far as to call it a genocide, and an official apology are absolutely imperative in order to recognize the collective suffering of a people native to the land the Turks now call their home. It requires bravery to admit ones mistakes, especially after they have been denied for so long, but if there is an inch of truth to the myth of the heroic Turk, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

This article was originally published at TeleSUR English.


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