12:59 â[email protected]¢ 24.04.15

It is a hard thing to admit that the state to which you belong was
founded on a crime and that the history taught in your schools is
full of lies.

Yet there is no redemption without repentance and, on the centenary
of the beginning of the genocidal campaign against the Armenians, it
is sad to record that Turkey has still not faced the facts about what
happened in 1915. The answer is quite simple in outline, if complex
in its dreadful detail. The Armenians, who had lived in Anatolia since
long before Turks arrived from central Asia, were killed, deported, or
forcibly converted to Islam. Estimates suggest that at least 600,000
perished, while hundreds of thousands were expelled from or fled the
Turkish lands, never to return.

For a shamefully long time the world was complicit in Turkey's
insistence that the suffering of the Armenians, and of Assyrian
Christians as well, was not different in kind from that of other
peoples, including ethnic Turks, during the convulsions caused by the
first world war across Europe, and, in particular, that it was unfair
to call it genocide. But scholarship, including some distinguished
Turkish work, has increasingly ruled out the "bad things happen in war"
thesis, while an extraordinary effort among Armenians of the diaspora
to rescue and deepen their own national memory of events and to pass
that on to others has gradually changed public opinion in Europe and
America. The United States still avoids the word genocide, as does
Britain. But legislature after legislature has passed resolutions using
the word, with Austria and Germany, which had long resisted its use,
the latest to do so. The German formulation is still equivocal, and so
is the position of Pope Francis, who pronounced on the issue earlier
this month. But the battle over the name has essentially been won.

This struggle has mattered intensely to Armenians and Turks, but it
has also sometimes stood in the way of a more historically grounded
understanding of events. The Armenian-American writer William Saroyan
has a character in one of his plays say: "The world is amok ... Life is
on fire; caught in hurricanes; submerged in deep and blind waters ..."

He might have coined those words to describe the Ottoman empire as
it drifted towards a final shipwreck in the late 19th century. It
is not too much to say that those who were in charge of the empire
were for most of the time in a state of despair, or that they hardly
understood the forces that were changing their once multiethnic state
into something else.

By the middle of the world war "a government had come to believe that
among its subject peoples whole nations presented an immediate threat
to the security of the state," the historian Ronald Suny writes.

"Defence of the empire and of the nation became the rationale for
mass murder." And there was tinder available: Armenians and Kurds had
for a long time been in competition for power and land in territory
they both thought was theirs. The empire, when it worked, had kept
that rivalry, in which the Kurds were the persistent aggressors,
below a certain level of violence. But when the reins were slipped,
the Turkish government had eager executors of its will to hand.

The Kurds, ironically, then suffered from Turkish ethnic chauvinism
in their turn. There was no attempt to physically destroy them as a
people, but their language was suppressed and their identity denied.

They were supposed to turn into Turks, but refused to do so, a refusal
that recent Turkish governments have reluctantly come to accept. The
Kurds now, after their own bitter experience, are well to the fore
in recognising and regretting their role in 1915. Some, perhaps many,
ethnic Turks also know that the national narrative is problematic.

But the official Turkish state remains wedded to its threadbare myth,
fulminating and recalling ambassadors whenever the word genocide
is pronounced. This year it has even moved the anniversary of the
Gallipoli campaign so it coincides with the Armenian anniversary,
hoping to obscure one remembrance with another. Ministers will attend
some other, tamer ceremonies. But the Erdogan government, which in
earlier years gave some cause for hope on this issue, has essentially
decided that its distorted version of the origins of the state will
remain in place.

From: A. Papazian