13 Apr 2015

Time for Turkey to come to terms with its Ottoman past

The Pope has called the massacre of Armenians a hundred years ago “the first genocide of the 20th century”, ensuring that this year’s centenary of the killings between 1915 and 1923 is making headlines the Turkish authorities would rather not read.

The Turks would prefer to focus on the centenary of the Gallipoli landings this year, a great Ottoman victory which left over well over 100,000 dead in battle.

How many Turks died defending the Dardanelles is another matter of dispute – probably more than some Turkish historians claim. But the truth of both incidents – the killings of Armenians and the Gallipoli campaign – exposes a fragility at the heart of modern Turkey, dating back to the era of Ataturk, the country’s founder, which has never gone away.

The Turks have long struggled to come to terms with the facts of the violent birth of their country from the ruins of the Ottoman empire. There has always been a degree of myth-making about modern Turkey. Much of that myth was deemed necessary to create a single, unitary state from competing nationalities, languages and creeds – Greeks, Kurds, Armenians and so on.


And, by and large, that project of Turkish nationhood has been a phenomenal success, not always acknowledged by what we might now call the liberation movements which went to war with the Turks as the empire collapsed. (Compare Turkey’s success with its southern neighbours today, Syria and Iraq, or with the Caucasus, including Armenia, under the Soviet yoke.)

Nevertheless, it is hard for those who are not Armenian to appreciate how significant Turkey’s acknowledgement of what happened would be. This argument about “genocide” is not, as it has sometimes been in the past, a political stick with which to beat the Turks. If anything, modern Turkey as a vibrant free market democracy has the opportunity to disassociate itself from the crimes of its Ottoman forebears, although this may now be harder since President Erdogan harks back to the glories of the Ottoman empire and is therefore less likely to dwell on its mistakes.

That said, Erdogan has gone further than his predecessors. And the timing of the Pope’s remarks could be deemed inappropriate, given the vast number of refugees from modern-day massacres in Syria and Iraq now seeking refuge in Turkey – far, far more refugees than any nominally Christian nation has taken in.

In fact, the present-day plight of Christians in the turbulent Middle East may well have been on the Pope’s mind when he spoke about the Armenians yesterday – and, in that sense, upsetting the Turks, however unintentionally,  was perhaps not the best idea.

Still, this Pope is inclined to speak his mind, and now he has. And it is time that Turks came to terms with the Ottoman past. A past which is not, after all, entirely theirs. Meanwhile, the bones of many Armenians who died on forced marches across Syria 100 ago now reside in territory not occupied by Turkey but by ruthless jihadists of “Islamic State”.

Jonathan Rugman is the author of Ataturk’s Children

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