It’s funny how history can catch up with you.
While the old maxim of "those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it" is well known amongst people, and hopefully our policymakers as well, we find in the modern political world a real ignorance of this truth. In Iraq, the Americans are getting a first-hand refresher course of their Vietnam days. The Lebanese are seeing flashbacks of the ’80s. Pakistan has been stuck in its own sad loop of corruption and military government for years now, as has its former branch Bangladesh.
Yet for one country, the history that they have been trying to forget has caught up with them at perhaps the worst possible moment. Turkey, the Muslim nation of about 70 million in Asia Minor, has been trying to become a member of the European Union (EU) for several years now. Yet it has faced many obstacles on its road to membership. Key talking points include the issue of the massacres of ethnic Armenians during World War I. While many countries, including Canada, have recognized these massacres as genocide, the Turkish government has tried desperately hard to bury this chapter of its history. However, it is precisely this issue, along with the Cyprus question, that has emerged and been thrust into the spotlight as EU negotiations take place.
To this day however, more than 90 years after the genocide began, there is still a great deal of controversy. Historians continue to debate just what happened all those years ago in what was then the Ottoman Empire. While both sides acknowledge that hundreds of thousands of Armenians and Kurds were killed, skeptics say that the deaths were the result of inter-ethnic fighting and famine. Turkish authorities also insist that the deaths were partly due to the notion that Armenian volunteers were aiding the Russians, against whom the Ottoman Empire was fighting, and that they were caught up in the fighting. The French nevertheless, have taken the bold move of trying to outlaw anyone who denies the Armenian genocide.
The deniers and skeptics’ major error comes though when faced with countless eyewitness accounts and the memories seared into the survivors’ minds. Journalist/author Robert Fisk of the Independent wrote in his book The Great War For Civilisation that the Armenian genocide was "the First Holocaust".
The similarities between these two seminal events in early 20th century history are disturbing. The Ottoman Empire organized mass deportation campaigns against the Armenian people. For a large number of these deportees, they established camps, which invariably became death camps.
On April 24, 1915, the government rounded up hundreds of Armenian scholars and intellectuals. All manners of killing methods were implemented, such as the usual starvation and shootings, as well as burnings and injections of morphine. Though figures vary, the usual number touted by the Armenians is that by the end of it 1.5 million people had died.
Laws have been enacted in Turkey to ban the "denigration of Turkishness", merely an underhanded way of curtailing freedom of speech concerning the genocide. Article 301 in particular of the Turkish Penal Code has been used to muzzle attempts by university professors and others to reveal the full extent of the atrocities. Yet as the country strives for EU membership, it has been forced to soften these restraints and inevitably face its history.
Another factor in this struggle are the suspicions of many that resistance to Turkey’s membership comes not from its inglorious past (Germany and Italy are both full-fledged members) but its Muslim identity. The addition of such a large, non-Christian EU member would most certainly take the balance of power away from the classical western Europe members. Yet this hardly excuses Turkey from coming to terms with the actions of its predecessors.
The mere apology and acknowledgement of the genocide would mean the start of a new day for the Armenian people and go a long way towards making a case for membership. History can be buried, and it is written by the victors, but victims carry long memories. Before we can progress from the conflicts of these times, we must try to remember the past, and learn from it.
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