1915 and all that

1915 and all that

It is a pity the French National Assembly has decided to criminalize denial of the Armenian genocide, because once again Turkey has formed a united front. This makes it more difficult to conduct a reasoned debate about this controversial topic.

In a landmark speech in Diyarbakır in 2005 Prime Minister Erdoğan acknowledged there was a Kurdish question, and his recent apology for the massacre in Dersim was another step forward in the process of Turkey coming to terms with its past.

Former editor-in-chief of Hürriyet Ertuğrul Özkök has already asked the question which arose when CHP’s Onur Öymen opened the debate over the Dersim revolt two years ago. “If the Dersim incident was a massacre, then what was the Armenian incident? Is it called a big massacre, a huge one or a tremendous mass killing?” Unfortunately the French vote has stifled what could be a fruitful debate. 
Throughout history the powers that be have had the habit of blocking the search for scientific and historical truth. Galileo was sentenced as a heretic by the Roman Inquisition for claiming the earth moved around the sun, and Darwin certainly put the cat among the pigeons with his theory of evolution. 

This topic is still hotly debated today. Witness the Scopes trial in Tennessee in 1925 or the fact that in 2009 TÜBITAK, Turkey’s Scientific and Technological Research Council, removed a picture of Darwin from the cover of “Bilim ve Teknik” (Science and Technology) as well as a 16-page article commemorating the 200th anniversary of his birth. For good measure, TÜBITAK also fired the editor-in-chief responsible. 

Holocaust denial has been criminalized in a number of countries, including Germany and Austria. However, the most effective response was in the libel case brought by the British Holocaust denier and revisionist, David Irving, in 1996 against American author Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books. The British High Court found Irving had “for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence” and awarded Penguin costs amounting to 2 million pounds. 

In addition to Holocaust denial, many countries also penalize genocide denial. For this reason the Turkish leader of the Workers’ Party (İP), Doğru Perinçek, was four years ago convicted by a Swiss court for calling the Armenian genocide “an imperialist lie.” So far, 20 countries have recognized the events of 1915 as genocide, but no matter how hard politicians huff and puff, this is not going to change public opinion where it matters most – in Turkey.

As far as I am concerned, the jury was out for a number of years, but what finally convinced me was a map in Der Spiegel in 2005 that showed that the death marches took place all over Turkey, in the west as well as the east. All the evidence I have seen put forward from scholarly sources indicates the CUP (Committee of Union and Progress) under the leadership of Talat, Enver and Cemal in April 1915 embarked on a systematic and organized campaign of racial extermination. 

Here I should point out “exterminate” is a British term coming from the Latin “exterminare,” to drive beyond the boundaries. It was used in South Africa in the 1820s when the original Xhosa people were driven eastwards in Cape Colony and “exterminated” to make room for British settlers. This is reflected in the Turkish deportation law (Tehcir Kanunu) of May 27, 1915. 

I am also well aware there is a Turkish side to the story, dealing with the massacres perpetrated by Armenians against the Turks. What also complicates the issue is a number of those who were involved in the events of 1915 later came to play a prominent role in the nationalist movement which succeeded the CUP.

As I have pointed out, the French resolution only muddies the waters and constitutes an impediment to a long-due examination of Turkey’s past. 

Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press.