The spectre that haunts Turkey
The death of hundreds of thousands of Armenians between 1915 and 1917 continues to affect the country’s domestic and international affairs
Thursday October 11, 2007
"Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians ?" said Adolf Hitler, before ordering storm troopers to kill men, women and children in Poland so Germany could have Lebensraum, or living space. Hitler was wrong about the killings of Armenians as about so many things.
The death of hundreds of thousands of Armenians between 1915 and 1917 after the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the emergence of modern Turkey in 1923 has not been forgotten and now bedevils US-Turkey relations.
Turkey has condemned a vote by the House of Representatives foreign affairs committee yesterday that recognises the massacres as genocide - the deliberate and systematic destruction of an ethnic, religious or national group. Turkish governments have consistently denied the accusation ; they say the killings occurred at a time of civil unrest as the Ottoman empire fell apart and that the numbers are inflated.
To say that claims of Armenian genocide touch a raw nerve in Turkey is an understatement.
When the French parliament decreed last year that criminal charges be filed against anyone who denied genocide was committed against the Armenians, Turkey cut off military contacts with France and cancelled some contracts.
In January, Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist, was shot dead outside his newspaper, Agos, after he called the killing of Armenians genocide. More than 100,000 people marched at his funeral procession, chanting : "We are all Armenians."
Yet, although an outspoken critic of Turkey’s denial that the events of 1915 amounted to genocide, Dink was equally opposed to international attempts to politicise the issue.
When the French parliament made denying the Armenian genocide a crime, he vowed to travel there to deny it.
Orhan Pamuk, the winner of last year’s Nobel prize for literature, was hauled before an Istanbul court in 2005 for "belittling Turkishness" - a criminal offence - by raising the issue of genocide.
Pamuk was taken to court after telling a Swiss newspaper that the massacres of more than one million Armenians and of more than 30,000 Kurds in Turkey [in the 1990s] were taboo topics in his country.
The trial in Istanbul turned ugly, with a mob of baying nationalists scuffling with the writer’s supporters as riot police looked on.
Pamuk was acquitted on a technicality, but the case damaged Turkey’s efforts to project itself as an increasingly liberal country seeking to join the EU.
The notorious article of the penal code remains.
Turkey’s harsh reaction to those who dare to break political taboos by wanting to discuss the Armenian genocide comes despite the fact that 22 countries and organisations, such as the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, recognise it as such.
The mass killings of Armenians, one of the largest minorities in the Ottoman empire, followed Turkey’s disastrous military campaign against the Russians in the Caucasus in 1914 after Ankara sided with Germany.
The Turks blamed the defeat on the Armenians living in the region siding with the Russians.
In 1915 Armenian intellectuals were rounded up and laws were passed authorising the deportation of Armenians and the confiscation of their homes and property.
Over the next two years the Armenian population of Ottoman Turkey was uprooted and expelled to the desert regions of Mesopotamia.
In the process between 500,000 and a million Armenians were killed or died of exposure or disease.
President Theodore Roosevelt would later call the episode "the greatest crime of the war".
Turkey’s official position is that deaths occurred during the "relocation" or "deportation" and cannot be called "genocide".
Guardian Unlimited - UK
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