Turkey and the Politics of Memory


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 evokes serious political debate here.

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 indigenous non-Muslim populations as the only way of securing their territorial, cultural, religious and linguistic integrity. In 1911, one of the governing Committee of Union and Progress, chaired by Talaat Pasha, declared: “The nations that remain from the old times in our empire are akin to foreign and harmful weeds that must be uprooted … to clear our land…” (“The Salonika Congress, The Young Turks and their Programme”, The Times 3 October 1911, p. 3.)

In the words of Secretary of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, this “administrative holocaust” prompted immediate international reaction. Relief committees arose world-wide. A Joint Allied Declaration of 24 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. (Churchill, The World Crisis: The Aftermath 1929, p.158).

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

The imperial parliament adopted the “Tehcir Law” (27 May 1915).It squarely blamed the indigenous 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; they had collaborate with the enemy; attacked the Ottoman troops and innocent Muslim civilians; and so on.

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

Article 301 of the current Turkish constitution – though no longer enforced – makes criminal any discussion of the genocides as “denigrating Turkishness”. Amongst those prosecuted 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.

France’s parliament not only recognised the genocide, but under President Nicolas Sarkozy, denial of the Jewish and Armenian genocides was criminalised. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan attacked the statute as a “discriminatory, racist” bill, a “grave, unacceptable and historic mistake … which denigrates Turkish history”. That bill was declared unconstitutional in February 2012, though current leader 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. For all the threats about destroying the Australian–Turkish friendship, elaborate plans to mark the ANZAC centenary continue, with Turkey set to reap rich financial rewards from battlefield tourism.

Yet even in this “sacred” moment of a shared history, the genocide issue consumes Turkey to a point of near absurdity. South Australia and New South Wales 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 Premier Barry O’Farrell, the response has been outrage at the politicisation of Anzac memory.

Australian journalists have been invited to Ankara and American denialist 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 [in November 2013]when apprised of the tenor of the lectures. McCarthy did address a very small gathering of “invitation only” in a federal Parliament committee room, organised by the pro-Turkish advocate, Labor’s Laurie Ferguson. Three MPs attended. It was left to journalist Andre Bolt to berate the ABCs Lateline for broadcasting these conflicts. McCarthy, Bolt claims, is not a denialist: he only denies that the genocide was planned. These genocides are recognised by 22 nation states, 60 regional governments and a dozen world bodies. Those who recognise genocide do, indeed, recognise the intent involved.

Denialists very rarely illustrate, demonstrate or prove their points. They simply assert, leaving opponent on the back foot, reaching for the heavy supporting texts in the “debate”. There are several events that are beyond debate of any kind: the realities of the Holocaust, the atomic bombs on Japan, and the events in Turkey from 1915.

Dr. Colin Tatz; Professor in Australian National University, Canberra

Dr. Panayiotis F. Diamadis; Professor in University of Technology, Sydney