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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3 reader comments

  1. PhilD says:

    I agree but most countries find this level of honesty difficult. Facts would suggest that the British Empire and the efforts to create it was disastrous for many peoples and probably caused very many deaths. The genocide of native peoples, slavery, acts of military repression, concentration camps, they all feature. However, most media present that history through a gentle soft focus which permits the British to continue to see their effect on the World as generally benign. It also allows us to continue some of the aggressive practice’s well beyond the time of Empire into the present. We still seem to think we can decide it is OK for us to impose our will (or the US will) via brutal military campaigns.

  2. Siobhàn Victorian says:

    I agree with what the Pope stated. Though, I would of used the word ”holocaust” instead of ”genocide” (though, I know both words mean the same), the word holocaust, seems more……fitting. After all, Israel doesn’t recognise Armenia’s ”genocide”.

  3. W L Banks says:

    I feel I really must protest about the Popes treatment of incidents in Turkey
    which took place over a century ago
    I feel modern Turkey is quite right to
    object and I feel the pope should apologise.
    The Turkey he is referring to is
    now very westernised and is a member of NATO
    Why antagonise the modern regime
    with this unwanted attack .
    True the Ottoman sultans had a lot to answer for.
    That is why the new regime got rid of them
    The pope has to think about the
    perception attacks like this have on people who do not follow Islam.
    We could
    all go on about atrocities of the past, remember the Catholic churches support
    for Hitler that got Hitler elected, and the silence from Rome during the second
    world war.
    Just tell the pope not to antagonise the people of Turkey. He should
    praise Turkey for defending the border against IS. He should praise Turkey for
    the refugee camps in Turkey and the Humanitarian way those refugees are being
    treated. It’s not great being a Christian in the Muslim world, but in Turkey
    Christians are better treated than any ware else in the Islamic world.
    Lots of
    people from western countries love Turkey as it is now, I feel the catholic
    church should recognise the fact and work for better relations with Turkey and
    not cause divisions of this nature. I feel the pontiff is wrong on this aspect
    and he should take immediate steps to rectify a situation that should never have
    I was disappointed that in this news story no one from Turkey was asked about this.
    News media should give a balanced view Turkey must be given credit for being in Nato

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