Centenary of a genocide

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The Turkish president's attempts to detract attention from the centennial of the massacre of around 1.5 million Armenian looks set to fail. Ron Margulies recalls the genocide and its gradual unveiling.

The Turkish victory at Gallipoli is celebrated every year on its anniversary, 18 March. Not because it gave a bloody nose to the Winston Churchill, about whom Turks know and care little, but because it launched the career of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as great hero and “nation-builder” of modern Turkey.

This year the use of history for the purposes of current nationalism and politics took a new and particularly disgusting turn. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced at the beginning of January that the centenary celebrations would take place on 24 April. Odd, you might think. Has he got his dates mixed up? Was he using a faulty calendar? No, he is hoping to distract attention from another centenary, rather like a kid closing his eyes and thinking that no one can see him.

On 24 April 1915 around 250 leading figures of the Armenian community in Istanbul were rounded up and sent to their deaths in what is considered to be the beginning of the Armenian genocide. It ended with up to 1.5 million people dead, and an ancient culture utterly destroyed in its homeland.

The genocide was not motivated by notions of racial superiority or ethnic cleansing, but by the attempt to prevent the break-up of the Ottoman Empire in the face of rising national movements. The empire had already lost all of its Balkan provinces, and there were stirrings of Arab nationalism in its Middle Eastern provinces.

The heady days of the Young Turk revolution of 1908 with its slogans of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” were gone. Ottomanism, aiming to unite all the ethnic and national groups of the empire as equal citizens, was long dead, replaced by Turkish nationalism. By 1915 Armenians were the largest non-Turkish, non-Muslim group remaining within the borders of the empire, and they were seen as a threat, much as the Kurds were later to be.

Armenians lived throughout the empire. There are no clear figures either on the total Armenian population or on the numbers who perished. A notebook kept by Talat Pasha, one of the triumvirate who led the Young Turks and minister of the interior at the time, indicates that there were some 1,250,000 Armenians in 1915, of whom 250,000 remained a year later. Following the initial round-up in Istanbul, the government passed a Law on Deportation, giving it the authority to deport people it deemed a threat to national security.

Orders were sent by Talat to provincial governors and the shadowy Special Organisation (set up under military control and manned largely by criminals released from prison specifically for the purpose) to round up the Armenian population and march them to the Syrian town of Deir el-Zor and the surrounding desert.

Hundreds of thousands died on the forced marches. They were killed by their escorts and dumped into unmarked mass graves. They were attacked by brigands and local people. They died of hunger and illness. Those who made it to the inhospitable Deir el-Zor desert, then part of an Ottoman province, perished there in inhuman conditions.

The houses, workplaces, lands and other wealth left behind by the deportees were confiscated by the government and local notables. Laws were passed about how this wealth was to be distributed. Clearly, it was not intended that any Armenian would return. They were not, in fact, “deported”. They were knowingly and systematically condemned to death.

Every Turkish government since the empire gave way to the republic in 1923 has denied the genocide. Denial has ranged from “Nothing happened” to “These things happen in war”. For many decades there was complete silence, and Hitler seemed to have been proved right: it is said that when told that there may be a price to pay in the future about what was being done to the Jews, Hitler responded, “Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?”

These days, given that the whole world outside Turkey’s borders knows and recognises the truth, and complete denial looks stupid, the official line tends to be to admit that many Armenians died, but to question the numbers and claim that people died on both sides in fighting between Turks and Armenians. The taboo on even referring to the genocide is now broken. There has been a struggle within Turkey for some years to get official recognition of and an apology for the Armenian genocide.

It started with a petition signed by more than 30,000 people offering a personal apology and asking the government to follow suit. Then, on 24 April five years ago and every year since, a memorial event has been held in Istanbul’s main square for the victims of the genocide, attended by several thousand. This year, the centennial, many events are planned for the day, including a conference, visits by international delegations of Armenians, and a visit to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.

Erdogan’s attempt to distract attention from all this by bringing Gallipoli to the fore is unlikely to have much success, at home or abroad.