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The old lies of the Young Turks


Reflections on the Armenian Genocide on the 100th anniversary.

armenianThe Armenian church in Trabzon, vandalized and used by the Young Turks as an auction site
for confiscated Armenian goods during the war and after the Armenian Genocide in 1918.

Elie Wiesel has said that denial is the final phase of genocide, a second killing.  Between 1915 and 1923, the Young Turks cleansed the former Ottoman Empire of 3 million Christians, including two-thirds of its Armenian population.  For a little over one hundred years now, Armenians throughout the world have been living with the stress and anger created by the systematic and sometimes repulsive contortions that the Turkish state has continued to exercise in order to deny the planned mass execution of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915, which included the confiscation of their goods and property.  No Turkish head of state has ever properly apologized to the Armenians or indicated that he truly understands the scope of the tragedy that befell Ottoman Christians from 1915–1923 (for the record, along with 1.5 million Armenians, another 1 to 1.5 million Pontic Greeks and Assyrians were also massacred).

I can vividly remember in the early 1990s, having recently graduated from Harvard, standing in Times Square at an April 24th commemoration of the Armenian Genocide along with some 5,000 other Armenian Americans.  April 24th commemorates the night that the Young Turks swept through the homes of leading Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople: the latter were led to ships in the capital's harbor and then loaded onto carts and transferred to concentration camps in Ayash and Chankiri where they were systematically tortured and brutally murdered.  As I gazed across Forty-second Street, it was hard not to notice a smaller but equally vocal crowd of Turks sporting banners that read "1915 Never Happened" (last year the messages that Turkish lobbies paid for were more subtle and actually spread across posters that read "The Armenian Genocide: Check Your Sources.") A chill went down my back.  As I can speak some Turkish, I walked across the street and engaged a young Turkish girl in dialogue.  She appeared grief-stricken and in all seriousness looked at me and exclaimed, "Isn't it terrible?  First the Armenians massacred us, now they accuse us of a Genocide."  I was stunned.  I felt like Alice through the looking glass.

The standard government line in Turkey, the one that Turks grow up being taught in school, is that Armenians and Turks lived happily together for hundreds of years and then suddenly out of nowhere the Armenians, who were very wealthy and educated, decided to side with the Russians during World War I, thus forming a sort of fifth column within the poor and defenseless Ottoman Empire.  (The reality is that Turks invaded and conquered Armenia at some time around the thirteenth century and that the Armenians lived as dhimmior second-class minorities in the Ottoman Empire.  Armenians also lived in the Persian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires and so served in the armies of all three.) The Turkish argument continues that in 1915 the cup, or Committee of Union and Progress, led by Enver Pasha, Talaat Pasha, and Jemal Pasha, couldn't avoid deporting the Armenians safely to Syria.

That this "safe passage" involved treks of as many as 500 miles through deserts and mountains with no food and water; that the Armenians were purposefully exposed to rape and murder by Kurdish tribes; that women were abducted and put into harems; and that the men had all been executed, sometimes rounded up in churches and caves lit on fire with sulfur and burned alive inside primitive gas chambers — all this is absent from any Turkish history book.  That this genocide was systematically planned by the Turkish state and that it followed on pogroms in 1894–1896 by Sultan Abdul Hamid (known as The Bloody Sultan) which claimed another 300,000 Armenian lives is also never mentioned.  That what some scholars approximate to be close to a trillion dollars' worth of property and goods was stolen by the Turkish government and by average Turkish citizens in towns and cities throughout the Empire — that an entire Turkish middle class was in fact founded on the expropriation of Armenian (and Greek) goods — is something that the Turkish elite still has not come to terms with either.  Perhaps the shame is too great.

Part of the reason for this continued denial is the result of how the Turkish State was founded by Mustafa Kemal or Ataturk — the so-called Father of All Turks — in 1923 on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.

The Armenians — who among other things founded the Ottoman Opera, Conservatory, and Ballet and built nearly all of the great Ottoman monuments including the Dolmabahçe Palace and the Hagia Sofia (Trdat the Armenian was one of its three major architects), not to mention who powered the Ottoman economy for centuries — disappeared virtually overnight, victims of economic jealousy and the fear that the Ottoman Empire would lose its eastern provinces if the Armenians seceded the way the Greeks, Bulgarians, and Serbs had to the West.  In the end, the Armenians fell victim not just to ethnic hatred, but also to bad timing, politics, and internal incompetence — but that is a story for another day.

Part of the reason for this continued denial is the result of how the Turkish State was founded by Mustafa Kemal or Ataturk — the so-called Father of All Turks — in 1923 on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.  To understand the depth of the denial — and its complexity — one must turn not only to the fact that many of Turkey's billionaires today owe their fortunes to goods illegally confiscated by their grandparents two or three generations ago.  The reasons for the denial run even deeper.  As the Turkish scholar Taner Akçam has noted in his book From Empire to Republic: Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide, there are several founding myths to Turkish nationalism and to the founding of the Turkish Republic — a supposedly mono-ethnic (read: Turkish) monoreligious (read: Sunni Muslim) state on the ashes of the multiethnic, pluralistic Ottoman Empire.  One of these founding myths is that Armenians never existed in Turkey; another is that Kurds never existed — they were just "mountain Kurds."

These myths were necessary to building a Turkish ethnic identity in 1923 when Mustafa Kemal founded the Modern Republic and they have been propped up by what the theorist Habermas has called "hidden violence" — a set of beliefs that a society goes along with subconsciously in order to justify certain of its precepts and institutions.  In Turkey, history books were rewritten, a moratorium on discussing the Christians of the Empire was established, the Arabic alphabet was replaced by the Latin alphabet, the fez was abolished.  The country sank into 100 years of mind-boggling ignorance about its own past.  And for good cause, as no one could even read Ottoman Turkish anymore.  And violence against the few remaining Christians and Jews — seen as internal enemies although the Christian Greeks, Assyrians, and Armenians are the indigenous peoples of Turkey — continued.  In 1955, in a Turkish Kristallnacht, stores along Istiklal Street in Istanbul which belonged to Turkey's remaining 100,000 or so Greeks and Armenians were vandalized and its proprietors killed.  The Varlik Vargisi or wealth taxes further reduced the population of Christians and Jews in Turkey, and as many as 50,000 Jews were murdered in the Rumeli region in the past century.  All this was made possible by the fact that since Turks had never been taught the truth about the Armenian Genocide or about the minority presence in the Empire, these groups remain hated inside Turkey and easily scapegoated.  No one in Turkey raised any objections to these continued persecutions.  And because Turkey now bordered the ussrand was considered a key ally, the United States and the West once again did nothing to help the victims.

As the twenty-first century dawned, signs of progress seemed to loom on the horizon.  Armenia was now an independent Republic and its diaspora increasingly strong and able to apply pressure for Genocide recognition mainly through lobbying and scholarship.  In 1965 on the occasion of the fiftieth annual commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, Moscow permitted the Armenians to build a Genocide memorial in Yerevan.  Turkey became wealthier and, as the Kurds continued to agitate for their rights, a Turkish civil society began to form that was also aware that something wasn't quite right with the version of history that they had been taught.

For his honesty he was thrice persecuted for "insulting Turkishness" under Penal Code 301 of the Turkish Constitution, an honor shared by Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, among others.

Then at the end of the 1990s, a brave Armenian named Hrant Dink, born in Malatya in the Anatolian interior and the editor of Agos, a leading Armenian-Turkish newspaper increasingly read by both Armenians and Turks, began to speak openly inside Turkey about the Armenian Genocide.  Critical of the Armenian Diaspora as well, Dink felt that change had to come from within Turkey.  For his honesty he was thrice persecuted for "insulting Turkishness" under Penal Code 301 of the Turkish Constitution, an honor shared by Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, among others.  On September 15, 2007, Dink paid for his bravery with his life, gunned down in broad daylight in front of Agos's headquarters in Istanbul by a seventeen-year-old gunman from the right-wing city of Trebizond by the name of Ogun Samast.  Samast, it is clear, was backed by elements of what is referred to as the "Turkish Deep State," a military shadow force that exists within Turkey and which has been responsible for several such attacks — but the people behind the killing have yet to be sentenced.  (Samast is currently serving a ten-year jail sentence).  In the days following the murder, close to one hundred thousand Turks jammed the streets of Istanbul bearing signs and chanting "We are all Armenian, We are all Hrant Dink."  An official apology for the Armenian Genocide was signed by 30,000 Turks and distributed through the internet.  (A counter-apology, it should be noted, that actually read "We Do Not Apologize" garnered several times more signatures.)

At the same time, a growing movement of "Armenian grandmothers" has been developing in Turkey, among the nation's "hidden Armenians" — Armenians whose grandmothers were taken in by Turkish families in 1915 and forcibly converted to Islam.  One such descendant, Fethiye Çetin (coincidentally a jurist and now the Dink family lawyer), published a book in 2008 called simply My Grandmother, which became a bestseller in Turkey.  Çetin grew up thinking she was a Muslim Turk.  Then one day her maternal grandmother, Seher, revealed to her that she had been born an Armenian Christian and that her real name was Heranus Gadaryan.  Çetin's grandparents Hovannes and Isguhi Gadaryan had been sent on a death march during the Armenian Genocide where they became separated from their mother.  They were later adopted by a member of the Turkish military, Hüseyin Çavus.  As Hugh Pope wrote in the leading Turkish newspaper Today's Zaman, the book is "part of a trend in Turkey that is grappling with a history of denial, nationalism and fears of political consequences" with regards to "the lost Armenians."  Over two million Turks are said to really be converted Armenians and many are starting to come out of the woodwork.  The question is: how many and how fast?  And will they be welcomed by either Turks (who see them as traitors) or by Armenians who still see them as Muslim Turks even as they race to be baptized and "re-Armenianized"?

Yet the word "Armenian" is still used as a commonplace insult inside Turkey today, and Armenians are still depicted as traitors and a foreign element dead set on destroying the Republic of Turk.  In 2014, President Erdogan became the first Turkish President seemingly to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide when he spoke of the "common pain" experienced by Armenians and Turks in 1915.  It was a murky statement at best — and one that equated Turkish wartime losses with a full-scale state-sponsored genocide.  Several months later, with his party starting to lose votes in the polls and elections coming up, Erdogan did a surprising about-face, stating that the Republic of Turkey was being undermined by a trifecta of "journalists, homosexuals and Armenians."  Even for a man as hideously vulgar as Erdogan, it was a surprising statement.  But Erdogan's anti-Armenian coup de grâce came in April 2015, when he purposefully re-scheduled the 100th commemoration of the Battle of Gallipoli to coincide with the worldwide 100th Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide.  It is a slight that many Armenians won't soon forget.  Since then, although three Armenians were recently elected to Parliament in Turkey — the first, since Armenians actually had their own parliament at the end of the Ottoman Empire and since the great jurist and parliamentarian Krikor Zohrab was murdered in 1915 — no apology or words of condolence have been uttered towards the Armenians by official Ankara.

At the same time, a growing movement of "Armenian grandmothers" has been developing in Turkey, among the nation's "hidden Armenians" — Armenians whose grandmothers were taken in by Turkish families in 1915 and forcibly converted to Islam.

So as 2015 comes and goes, where are we with regards to the Armenian Genocide and the Republic of Turkey?  In a recent poll, well over 50 percent of Turks still believe that the Armenian Genocide is a figment of the Armenian imagination, some type of historical boogeyman erected to destroy the Republic of Turkey and Turkish identity.  Though Sourp Giragos church in Diyarbakir and a few Armenian monuments have been recently rebuilt and sanctified, signs of change are still slow.  This is in spite of statements made by Pope Francis and an increasing number of world leaders recognizing and acknowledging the events of 1915 as the twentieth century's first mass genocide.  Turkey continues to blockade Armenia and to support Azerbaijan in the conflict over Nagorno Karabagh; Turkish textbooks continue to refer to Armenians as traitors; and the government of Turkey has yet to return property such as churches to the Armenian Patriarchate or individual properties (such as the Turkish White House in Ankara) to the descendants of Armenian Genocide victims. 

More ominously, it has supported daech and begun to bomb Kurdish positions again, leading some to fear a civil war that the government would eventually lose given the presence of some 20 million Kurds in Turkey.  The solution to this ongoing ethnic quagmire seems obvious: admission and restitution, at least of a substantial part of Armenian belongings; an end to the blockade of Armenia and a rewriting of textbooks; and a sincere apology to the Armenian people.  The idea of federating Turkey into Armenian, Kurdish, and Turkish parts à la Switzerland, for example, seems like such anathema to Turkish nationalists — although it would almost certainly lead to a prosperous and peaceful state — that it is not even on the negotiating table.  And given the decades of poisonous diatribe by the Turkish state against these minorities, it is doubtful that they would greet federation with open arms, either.

At the end of the Armenian writer Raffi's 1880 classic novel The Fool, the hero Vartan describes Western Armenia, circa 2078, its land bustling with the energies of Armenians, Turks, and Kurds alike, looking bravely into a future of peaceful cooperation:

"You were talking about the sad times of the Kurds and the Turks," Vartan's host continued with a special happiness in his voice.  "But after those days, a great many changes took place.  Do you see those breathtaking mountains?  Well, a century and a half ago, they were totally bare, without so much as a shrub on them.  In those days the trees were destroyed . . . with the same cruelty that our people were destroyed.  Everything was gone; the people used dried dung for food, for there wasn't any fuel left, and they were forced to dig into the earth to live.  But when peace returned, hosts of people came back to their destroyed towns and the mountains became covered with forests, all planted by our hard-working villagers."

It's a future, I would bet, that most people inside and outside Turkey, whether Armenian, Kurdish, or Turkish would welcome.  It comes at a price however: the dismantling of the hatred and denial that has powered the Turkish State for over a hundred years now.  Once again the ball, as the expression goes, is in the Turkish court.  Let's hope that, this time around, the Turkish state and people make the right decision. 



newcritChristopher Atamian. "The old lies of the Young Turks." The New Criterion (October, 2015).

Reprinted with permission of Roger Kimball for The New Criterion and the author, Christopher Atamian.

The Author

atamianChristopher Atamian is a writer, translator, director, and creative producer. He co-produced the OBIE Award–winning play Trouble in Paradise, as well as several music videos and short films. Christopher has been awarded two Tölölyan Literary prizes and was selected for the 2009 Venice Biennale on the basis of his video Sarafian’s Desire and received a 2015 Ellis Island Medal of Honor. He continues to contribute critical pieces to publications such as The New York Times Book Review, The Huffington Post, and Scenes Media while working on other creative endeavors in film and theater. He is currently finishing a novel Manhattan Boy and working on several film and theatrical projects.

Copyright © 2015 The New Criterion
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