On the Centenary of Armenian Genocide
Again a war of Words and Anniversaries
Matteo Tacconi 15 April 2015

It is situated on the Dardanelle Straits, and it was there, on March 18th one hundred years ago, that French and British forces, backed up by Australian and New Zealand troops, began a  bombardment to start an offensive that in their intentions was to break through the straits, thereby opening the road to Istanbul, forcing the German Reich’s Ottoman allies to surrender. This would have abruptly changed events of the Great War. But the operation failed.

Troops landed after a few weeks on April 25th, the day after the first act of the Armenian genocide. In Istanbul, at the time still called Constantinople, Ottoman authorities arrested hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and deported them to Anatolia. That event marked the beginning of violent political persecution that spread and led to the deaths of one and a half million people.

The Metz Yeghern, the “Great Crime” as the Armenians call it, was the extreme consequence of policies applied by the Young Turks. This was the name used for the group in power in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, the multi-century long size of which had by then faded, due to territorial losses originating in the Balkan Wars. These were, in turn, fuelled by the predatory policies of Western powers and Russia. This void opened the gates to an ethnic and nationalist vision, based on the idea of national purification and the need to close ranks when faced with the European powers’ offensive. These two factors were intertwined. The Young Turks took charge of implementing all this in theory and in fact. In other words, the Ottoman Empire was to be reborn Turkish.

The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a member of the Young Turks before he distanced himself from them and enacted the great republic rift, continued with the creation and narration of an identity founded on a new and radical vision of the Turkish people. The massacre of the Armenians became a taboo.

This genocide conditions both modern Turkey’s most inner essence and that of Armenia. In the first case bearing the burden of negation, and in the second, that of screams of pain and accusations. These will not be put to rest until the Turks acknowledge the genocide, in writing. There is the risk that in the meantime  accusations will be made heard even louder than the pain, perhaps also depending on a loss of a sense of balance.

The battle of the anniversaries

So what has Gallipoli got to do with the Armenian Genocide? The fact is that this year there will be a singular paradox, with the two centenaries celebrated on the same day, April 24th. Turkey has moved commemorations for Gallipoli by a month, at least compared to the first Anglo-French bombardments, or by one day, if one considers the beginning of the ground offensive.

“Diplomatic folly” wrote Robert Fisk, an influential editorialist for the London-based Independent. Fisk wrote that this is nothing but an artificial and shameful attempt to hide the Armenian Genocide, also explaining that two years ago, Turkey marked the anniversary on March 18th, adding that Australia and New Zealand, who consider the Gallipoli Campaign one of the founding moments of their nations, honour their dead every year on April 25th. After all, it makes no sense to change the dates of remembrance.

The Turkish journalist Merve Sebnem Oruc expressed a different opinion on the Al Jazeera website. The theory expressed was that the decision taken by authorities in Ankara was based on a wish to express a gesture of compassion and continue on a path that, although it has not yet resulted in an acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide, has at least seen some progress. On this subject, Merve Sebnem Oruc quotes a speech made on April 23rd last year by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, when he was still prime minister. Turkey’s current president highlighted the “shared pain” endured during the events of 1915, expressing condolences on behalf of the Turkish state and speaking of the need for reconciliation. It is in view of this, adds the journalist on Al Jazeera, that Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan “decided to reject the invitation to attend ceremonies in Gallipoli, which would have helped lead us one step closer to understanding and reaching closure on the tragic events of 1915.”

Generalisation is forbidden

The Armenians instead interpreted the invitation as a serious provocation, a superimposition of Gallipoli and the “Great Crime”. While the speech made by Erdogan the previous year was labelled as a false rift with the past, since the word genocide was not even mentioned and the speaker generalised events using the words “shared suffering”, as if Turks and Armenians had experienced the same events during those very violent times in the 20th century.

There is nothing strange in this. There are conflicting interpretations of history. Just like there is conflicting reporting as proved by the articles in The Independent and on the Al Jazeera website. However, Fisk’s editorial, although clearly set out, is not totally precise. The Turkish government is accused of toying with this genocide while avoiding a simplistic and unfair conclusion, according to which the Turks are collectively negationist. In his article, Fisk mentions the brave battle undertaken by a number of Turkish historians, who, defying taboos and laws, researched the matter and, based on sources available, managed to clarify what was kept secret or manipulated for “reasons of state.

This is not the only expert example. One must remember that of the author Ohran Pamuk, who, in 2005, spoke of the Armenian genocide and was charged for violating Article 301 of the Penal Code. There were also the thousands of people who attended the funeral of Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian journalist assassinated in 2007. Then last year, there was an important event with the release of the film entitled “The Cut” directed by the internationally-known director Fatih Akin, and centred specifically on the Armenian Genocide. Turkish society is not static. The Armenian Genocide remains a huge weight that is hard to move, but some have attempted to push it away and the awareness that many Turks are of Armenian origin – origins denied often and for a long time – is now generally acknowledged by society.

Turkish government institutions themselves, albeit with far greater caution, have changed things that until very recently were considered unchangeable. In 2011 the government returned to religious minorities all assets seized during the Thirties, and that same year, the Armenian Church of St. Giragos, in Dyarbakir, was reopened. For a long time left in ruins in an area of Anatolia representing the cradle of Armenian culture, this building became the symbol of a season that cannot be described as new, but that perhaps is in some ways different compared to the past. In this sense, Erdogan’s  speech in 2014 was important. There was no lack of limitations or reticence, nor can the Armenian president’s refusal to travel to Gallipoli be defined as a missed opportunity (in this the Al Jazeera article is weak). Turkey, however, does not stand still.

Erdogan and the Armenians

One can discuss the reasons that have led the current Islamic political establishment to take such steps. One may be the process involving the harmonisation of laws with those in Europe, a process that has as many ups and downs as a roller coaster, but has, however, achieved some results. One was the restitution of assets to religious minorities, another was the reformulation of the Penal Code concerning the law under which Pamuk was once charged.

Another factor is the dialogue with the Kurds. For some time there has been talk of a peace plan, without, however, achieving results. This process has encouraged a liberalisation of Kurdish rights, mainly in the cultural sector, and the Armenians too have benefitted from this. The case involving the church in Diyarbakir is, in this sense, an example, situated as said, in the cradle of Armenian culture. It is also the “capital” of Kurds living in Turkey.

Finally, Erdogan’s repeated references to Ottoman feats, characterised by a multinational culture and coexistence regardless of the Muslim majority, may also have an effect. Although Erdogan’s Ottoman rhetoric is basically inspired by a desire for grandeur and issues concerning political religiosity, it is a legacy that cannot easily be ignored.

Leaving aside the current crisis, all this might even lead one to think that, as far as the Armenian Genocide is concerned, Turkey is making enormous progress and that little separates the country from an unexpected revolution and consequently normalised diplomatic relations with Armenia which are conditioned by the genocide issue. But one should not fall into temptation. An acknowledgement of the genocide is something still distant, if and when it should ever happen.

Translation by Francesca Simmons