Armenia, genocide, and Australia

Apr 29, 2021

For all our talk about not forgetting, Australia has a selective memory about Armenia and other atrocities.

On Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day President Biden made good his campaign promise by recognising that the killing of Armenians in 1915 was genocide. Although some 1.5 million of 2 million deported Armenians died at the hands of Young Turks and others, most Western nations have avoided calling these events ‘genocide’. Predictably, Biden’s statement was followed by the outraged reaction they expected from Turkey.

There’s a long history of antipathy between the Armenians and their Turkish-backed Muslim neighbours in Azerbaijan. Control over the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh was not resolved by the war in the Caucasus in the 1980s and 1990s between the two  Soviet provinces. It re-erupted briefly on their border in July last year. By November the fighting was over and although both states declared victory, Armenia backed down.

The Armenians, many of whom are Christians, have much more to be bitter about. A day before the allied Gallipoli landings in 1915, the Turkish authorities began rounding up Armenians in Constantinople (now Istanbul) and sending them east by train to Ankara (Angora). Few survived Turkey’s systematic campaign to eradicate Armenian civilians everywhere in the Ottoman empire. Orders were sent from Constantinople to the provinces, where Armenian men were killed. Armenian women, children and old people were deported, some becoming slaves in Turkish and Arab families. Across the region Armenian clergy were massacred, mediaeval manuscripts were burnt, and churches and cemeteries were destroyed.

Australian soldiers reported seeing Armenian villages where the population had been reduced to a few women and children, and witnessed others being herded by Turkish soldiers onto trains. Armenians were among several ethnic groups serving in the Ottoman Army, including Greeks, Kurds, and Arabs. They were referred to generically by the allies as ‘Turks’. Several Armenians taken prisoner had studied in American mission schools and, having good English, willingly served the allies as guides and interpreters and as trench diggers (For much more, see Vicken Babkenian and Judith Crispin in Stephens and Broinowski, The Honest History Book, 2017).

This year’s ceremonies at ANZAC cove (Ari Burnu)  were modest compared to those which drew thousands of Australian visitors to Turkey before the pandemic struck and before terrorism scared them off. But whether many or few are present, the Armenian Genocide anniversary which occurs the next day is never front of mind for the visitors. Instead, they hear the usual mantra about Gallipoli (Gelibolu) being the birthplace of our nation, and they thank their Turkish hosts for letting Australia have its secular shrine there.

Sooner or later, someone usually recites the ‘Atatürk words’. Inscribed in English translation on the memorial to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, they have brought tears to many visitors’ eyes.

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.

One problem with the ‘Atatürk words’ is that the original Turkish version was written not by the national hero but by Atatürk’s associate Şükrü Kaya in 1953. They have been trotted out at intervals ever since.

Kaya was imprisoned by the British in 1918 for alleged involvement in Armenian genocide and was also linked to killing of Kurds in the 1930s. For political and diplomatic purposes, the West and particularly Australia have gone along with what seems harmless historical sleight of hand, or poetic license, on the part of a NATO ally.

A more serious problem comes back to bite Australia. We recognise that the fighting and dying we venerate on ANZAC day was done by allied invaders and Turks defending their homeland. But the Turks were also engaged simultaneously in a deliberate, continuing effort to rid their empire of the Armenians. If Australia acknowledges the Armenian genocide, then what becomes of ANZAC cove, our national site for ‘ritual acts of war commemoration’ (as ANU historian Adam Hughes Henry calls it in his Reflections on War, Diplomacy, Human rights and Liberalism, 2020)? Turkey is unlikely to welcome Australians any longer.

Australia follows the Americans’ lead in most things apart from action on climate change and to some extent, gun control. What shall we do now? This is for Question Time:

  • Will the Prime Minister say when Australia will recognise the assaults on Armenians by the government of Turkey as genocide?
  • Will he admit that the recurrent, organised attacks on the First Australians which began with the first British settlers, and continued well into the twentieth century, were an effort to exterminate them?
  • Will he say why this is not genocide?

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