The Gallipoli battle aside, you can be sure that Turkey will not be commemorating the centenary of another major event in its history this month. A few hours before Australian, New Zealand and other allied forces landed at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915, what has become widely known as the Armenian genocide got under way in Constantinople (Istanbul). But Australians visiting Gallipoli for the other centenary should be careful about what they say. For a Turk to say it was genocide is enough to get punished for insulting the country.
It is a bitter and contentious argument which has been going on for more than 70 years since the word ‘genocide’ was coined. That was by a Polish jurist to describe not only what the Nazis were doing to the Jewish peoples, but also what Turkey had inflicted on the Armenians starting in 1915.
Turkey strenuously denies that it was genocide even though it concedes 600,000 Armenians perished. As far as Ankara is concerned, they were victims of wartime action, deportation marches, isolated massacres, disease and malnourishment. They were exiled because the Ottomans regarded the Armenians as war-time allies of the Tsarist Russians who were active along Turkey’s eastern border where so many Armenians lived.
But independent estimates have put the death toll at between 1 and 1.5 million based on eye-witness accounts. Turkey’s WW1 ally, Germany, told Berlin that something terrible was happening to the Armenians. Australian POWs thought so as well. Even Hitler later referred to their ‘annihilation’.
Geoffrey Robertson, QC, the Australian human rights lawyer, is the author of a new book called An Inconvenient Genocide: Who Now Remembers the Armenians? He writes: ‘The Young Turks who ran the Ottoman government did not use gas ovens, but they did massacre the men and sent the women, children and elders on death marches through the desert to places we hear of now only because they are overrun by Islamic State. They died en route in their hundreds and thousands from starvation or attack and many survivors died of typhus in the concentration camps at the end of the line’.
Tony Abbott, as opposition leader, said it was genocide and condemned it. So did the SA and NSW parliaments. But when Turkey in retaliation threatened to ban MPs from visiting Gallipoli, Canberra buckled. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop last year conceded that the events of 1915 were a ‘tragedy’. But, she added, ‘we do not recognise the events as genocide’.
Pope Francis thinks otherwise. Only this week he infuriated the Turkish government by referring to genocide. The official line from countries like Russia, France, Spain and Canada is that it was genocide, while in Greece, Slovakia and Switzerland among others it is a criminal offence to deny it was genocide.
Barack Obama in 2008, when campaigning for the US presidency, also condemned the genocide and promised to reiterate that if elected. But he thought better of it following geopolitical pressure from Turkey about the future of US bases and support for American interests in the region. It is much the same story with the British government when so many refugees are camped in Turkey and eager to live elsewhere.
The Armenians had long been persecuted in Turkey and were the victims of massacres from time to time. They were ancient Christians and generally better educated and wealthier than the Islamic Turks. It was the usual brew for violent resentment of a minority. The 1915 events began with the round-up and deportation or execution of Armenian community leaders and intellectuals. Documents and statements at the time made it clear that Turkey planned and carried out a massive pogrom against the Armenians.
The Australian author, Louis Nowra, wrote a play for the BBC based on the memoirs of a US diplomat, who witnessed deportations, death marches and atrocities. He says: ‘Led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a cynical populist, Turkey is doing all within its power not to confront its own past and also to stop the truth being heard. This is, of course, not unusual (witness Japan’s refusal to acknowledge its horrific crimes in WW2 and Australia’s deliberate amnesia about its treatment of Aborigines), but the evidence of the genocide is so overwhelming that the Turkish denial of what happened is breathtaking in its immaturity and lack of pity’.
Robertson says: ‘The mental scars and trauma for the children and grandchildren of survivors throughout the diaspora will continue until Turkey makes some sort of acknowledgement and offers an apology’.
In 2014, Erdogan, then Prime Minister, offered an unprecedented expression of condolence for the massacres of Armenians, saying the events of 1915 had ‘inhumane consequences’. But Armenians want them recognised as genocide. This is unlikely to happen when a recent poll showed that only 9% of Turks questioned believe the events set in train 100 years ago amounted to genocide.
While thousands of Australians and New Zealanders descend on Gallipoli this month, hundreds and thousands of Armenians will fill the streets of their capital, Yerevan, to observe the centenary of the most terrible event in their history. It is unlikely Australia will be represented. ‘The approach of the Australian government has been not to become involved in this sensitive debate’, Julie Bishop said last year.
But it has not stopped us from becoming involved in just as sensitive matters just to the south of Armenia on Turkey’s borders, namely Iraq.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.