Remembering 1915

Remembering 1915

What happened to the Armenians in 1915, just as the First World War was heating up, is for historians to research and reveal. Much has already been revealed and the general outline of the story is known.

There is clearly more to be researched, though, since no historical narrative is constant and fixed.

There is always one more document, one more revelation that surfaces and has to be factored in.

Some might see this as revisionism, but historiography is a fluid discipline. What is certain is that millions of people perished across the lands that were once the Ottoman Empire at the time, and the Armenians are undoubtedly among those who suffered the most.

Whether it was genocide or not is for jurists to decide, though, with official evidence and historic evaluations. While there are many historians who say that it was, there are also those who dispute this. Such a legal decision has never been arrived at in the way it was for the Holocaust and other genocides, even though Turkey lost the war.

Pope Francis also acknowledged this indirectly in his commemorative message of sympathy to the Armenians that has angered Ankara. He qualified his remarks by referring to “what many consider to be genocide.” He could have used the term without any qualification, but he didn’t.

However, this does not diminish the importance of the tragedy of the Armenians, and their grandchildren rightly want to remember what they clearly see as genocide perpetrated against their ancestors. The problem today is that the whole question has been dragged out of the domains of history and law into the domain of international politics.

Armenia is demanding political recognition of what it sees as genocide, and Turkey is using its weight to prevent this. The Armenian side has made serious headway in alerting the international public to its cause, and it must be acknowledged that the deadly terror campaign against Turkish diplomats in the 1970s and 1980s by vengeance-seeking Armenian groups played a role in this.

The Armenia side has not, however, taken the matter up in an international court, most probably because the 1948 Genocide Convention is not retroactive. It also opposes all calls for a panel of international historians to research the matter objectively, no doubt concerned that this might produce unwelcome facts.

Turkey, for its part, while losing the publicity war, has mostly been successful in blocking efforts to get the term “Armenian Genocide” recognized politically in the international arena. Hardly any country that matters has done so, given Turkey’s importance on many counts.

Eyes are now on President Barack Obama to see if he will use “genocide” in his annual Armenian message. The chances are he will not because if he does this will signal a fundamental change in policy towards a key ally. Turkey will also be forced to take steps that will ensure that Turkish-U.S. ties are not the same as before. Whether that will be good for Turkey is another question.

One has to also question the sense in Ankara’s approach to the centenary of the 1915 events, which also coincides with seminally important historic events for modern Turkey. It is hard to understand how the government could not foresee that shifting the traditional commemorations of the Dardanelles campaign from 18 March to April 24 - the day of the Armenian remembrance - would be considered a cynical move.

The important thing for many Turks is not the politics, but the fact that the Armenian genocide, or tragedy – call it what you will - is discussed openly today. Even films are being made about it by Turkish directors. This is a fundamental change from the past, when the topic was shrouded by a seemingly impenetrable taboo.

This centenary will pass, but what will remain is a growing awareness by Turks that their past is not just made up of heroic moments, but also dark ones. This is part of the national maturing process. Turks will also see that they are no different to any other nation in this respect.