Turkey, the Armenian genocide and the politics of memory

This article was originally published by The Conversation on 3 January 2017 under a Creative Commons license. The original can be found here.

By Colin Tatz, Australian National University

Victims of genocide die twice: first in the killing fields and then in the texts of denialists who insist that “nothing happened” or that what happened was something “different”.

On the eve of two centennial anniversaries in 2015 — the Gallipoli landings, and the start of the genocide of long-settled Armenians, Assyrians and Hellenes in Ottoman Turkey – the Turkish denial of events of the latter continues to evoke serious political debate in Australia.

The South Australian and New South Wales state parliaments have officially recognised the genocide of these three minorities. After the NSW parliament’s vote recognising the Assyrians and Pontian Greeks as genocide victims (the genocide of Armenians was recognised earlier), the Turkish foreign affairs ministry announced that parliamentarians will not get visas to attend the centenary commemorations at Anzac Cove.

Led by NSW premier Barry O’Farrell, the response to this announcement has been one of outrage at the politicisation of Anzac memory.

For all Turkey’s threats that officially recognising the genocide would destroy the Australian–Turkish friendship, elaborate plans to mark the Anzac centenary continue, with Turkey set to reap rich financial rewards from battlefield tourism.

At this stage, the Australian federal government does not officially recognise the genocide, but may well do so after Gallipoli 2015.

‘Demographic’ change

The Ottoman Empire (and, later, the Republic of Turkey) implemented a plan of unprecedented forced demographic change from 1914 to 1924. It sought the physical elimination of the long-settled non-Muslim populations as the only way of securing their territorial, cultural, religious and linguistic integrity.

The Turkish imperial parliament adopted the Tehcir Law in May 1915. It squarely blamed the Armenians, Assyrians and Hellenes for their own destruction: those living near the war zones had hindered the movements of – and logistical support for – the Ottoman armed forces. It said they had collaborated with the enemy, attacked the Ottoman troops and innocent Muslim civilians, and so on.

The international community acknowledged the events at the time. In the words of British Secretary of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, this “administrative holocaust” prompted immediate international reaction. Relief committees arose worldwide. A Joint Allied Declaration in May 1915 stated:

In view of these new crimes of Turkey against humanity and civilization, the Allied governments announce publicly … that they will hold personally responsible … all members of the Ottoman government and those of their agents who are implicated in such massacres.

In a decade, between two and three million Armenian, Assyrian and Hellene men, women and children were murdered, while another two million became destitute refugees. Tens of thousands of female teenagers and children were abducted and forcibly assimilated. The Christian minorities of Anatolia were virtually wiped out.

Armenians are marched out of Harput by Turkish soldiers. (Image: American Red Cross)

Denialism in Turkey

Since president Kemal Ataturk came to office in 1923, the official Turkish position has been constant: there was no plan to destroy the long-settled Christian populations of Anatolia. Those who died were “merely” and “only” victims of international war, civil war, famine and disease.

Article 301 was Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk.

The battle for the memory of the destruction of non-Muslim minorities rages on, with the denialists now very much on the defensive, inside and outside Turkey.

International responses: France

France’s parliament not only recognised the genocide, but under former president Nicolas Sarkozy, denial of the Jewish and Armenian genocides was criminalised. Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan attacked the statute as a “discriminatory, racist” bill, and a:

… grave, unacceptable and historic mistake … which denigrates Turkish history.

That bill was declared unconstitutional in February 2012, though current French president Francois Hollande asserts he will re-introduce the legislation.

When France officially recognised the genocide in 1998, Turkish sanctions were threatened. In 2012, France retained its position yet bilateral trade with Turkey was worth US$13.5 billion.

The Australian context

With Turkey using the 2015 Gallipoli event to threaten Australia not to further recognise the genocide, the relevance and sensitivity of the issue even today is clearly on display.

Recently, controversial history professor Justin McCarthy was invited by the Australian Turkish Advisory Alliance (Stand Up Against Armenian Lies) to give lectures in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra on “What Happened During 1915–1923? The Armenian Question”.

Melbourne University’s Faculty of Arts and the NSW Art Gallery cancelled the events scheduled there when apprised of the tenor of the lectures. McCarthy is known for arguing that there is:

… no evidence, no proof that the Turks wanted to act in this way. What is said is based on emotion in this case and a desire to prove there is genocide instead of first looking at the facts.

McCarthy did address a very small “invitation-only” gathering in a federal parliament committee room, organised by Labor MP Laurie Ferguson. Two MPs and one senator attended.

These genocides are recognised by 22 nation states, 60 regional governments and a dozen world bodies. It’s time for the Australian government to do the same.The Conversation

Colin Tatz, ANU Visiting Fellow, Politics and International Relations, Australian National University