The Armenian massacre: 100 years on
For the past century Turkey has kept a not-so-secret memory under wraps — the mass killing of Armenians who lived under the Ottoman Empire. Turkish leaders have always insisted these were victims of war; the international consensus is that this was genocide. Stephen Starr asks whether either side can move on until the brutal reality is faced.
The neo-Renaissance-styled Haydarpasa train station in Istanbul is a hulking, ghostlike building. No trains have run here since 2012 because of line renovations. A barber peers idly from his window at passing ferries; next door an empty bar displays the sign “free beer tomorrow.”
Before its closing, Haydarpasa station served for over a hundred years as the point of departure for European travellers and merchants going onwards to Iran, the Arabian Gulf and even India. But it holds a dark secret, one that will come to light this year more than ever.
On April 24, 1915 — exactly 100 years ago this month — the first of around 2,300 notable Armenian intellectuals from Istanbul were marched across the famed Galata bridge and detained in the city’s historical district of Sultanahmet. Two days later, the detainees — newspapermen, artists and clergymen of Istiklal Street — were put on a boat and taken on a short trip across the Bosphorus Strait to Haydarpasa. From there they were shipped hundreds of kilometres across Anatolia to camps and exile in present-day Syria. The majority died en route.
The Ottoman Empire was coming apart at the seams during the early years of the last century. Its dominant political figures — Talaat Pasha (Minister of the Interior), Enver Pasha (Minister of War) and Djemal Pasha (Minister of the Navy) — were known as “the three Pashas”, and it was they who controlled the de facto ruling Committee of Union and Progress. The trio deemed that Armenians, Assyrians and other minorities under their rule were being controlled by outside powers and were thus a threat to the fragile state. At the time, around 1.2 million Armenians lived in the geographic area that makes up present-day Turkey. A small number were fighting with Russian forces against the Turks in eastern Anatolia, where territory for a future Armenian state was up for grabs.
Within half a dozen years, the territory that occupies present-day Turkey was almost emptied of its Christian population. Around a million-and-a-half Armenians, Assyrians and other minorities were murdered, sent on death marches into the Syrian desert or had their children taken by Turkish Muslim families. Experts in the field of mass murder and holocaust overwhelmingly agree the events of 1915 to 1917 constitute genocide. And with much of the Western world at war with the Ottoman Empire, the massacres were roundly condemned soon afterwards. But in the aftermath of World War One, they slipped from public attention to the extent that Hitler partly justified his invasion of Poland with the remark, “Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?”.
Sustained lobbying by Armenians, pressure groups and prominent individuals since then has refocused attention, with a growing number of countries, US states and EU institutions recognising the events as genocide. But any further action has often been tempered by the need to keep Turkey as an ally. This was especially true during America’s War on Terror.
Most mass killings of the twentieth century have been documented and scrutinised, if not always wholly agreed upon. The populations of Germany, South Africa and Argentina have been able to discuss the uncomfortable truths of their dark histories, which has often helped to ease resentment. But Turkey, a European Union accession state that’s regularly held up as an aspirational model for Muslim countries around the world, has swept the darkest era of its own history under the carpet. The official line is that no genocide took place. The Turkish ministry of foreign affairs says on its website that “the tragic experience of the Ottoman Armenians of Eastern Anatolia” must be understood through the context of an empire on its knees facing multiple invading threats. It says at the time, Armenian militias slaughtered Muslim Turks and that the crumbling empire was simply trying to stop communities as far away as Bosnia and Oman from seceding.
“Yet Armenians [today] have attempted to extricate and isolate their history from the complex circumstances in which their ancestors were embroiled,” reads the report. “In doing so, they describe a world populated by white-hatted heroes and black-hatted villains. The heroes are always Christian and the villains are always Muslim.”
The result is that today millions of Turks walk around every day with little or no knowledge of the devastating violence that preceded the founding of their country after World War One. Ultra-nationalists violently oppose any and all criticism of Turkey and Turkishness. They are represented by the country’s third-largest political party, with 53 deputies in parliament and millions of supporters. Some among them have been accused of killing Christian missionaries and members of religious minorities. The majority of Turks, however, don’t deny mass murder took place and are instead unaware, or at least ill-informed, of the events of a hundred years ago. But they are all subject to a law that prohibits the insult of Turkishness”.
Experts say the idea of a completely homogenous Turkish state started out as a government project during the early twentieth century as patriotism flourished in Western Europe. “Nationalists thought a mono-culture was the only way to secure the Turkish state as was happening in France, Germany and elsewhere. Turkey tried the same but their society was much more diverse,” says Ugur Ungor, a professor of genocide studies at Utrecht University in The Netherlands. “A hundred years ago, Istanbul was completely unrecognisable from today: there would have been synagogues, and churches of various orthodoxies everywhere.”
Today, non-Muslims are often seen as something of a novelty. The Christmas tree is known as a New Year’s tree, such has been the cleansing of Christian identity, which stands at 0.2 percent of the population — down from 20 percent in 1915. A 2014 survey of 2,300 Turks found that 61 percent said “being a member of the Turkish nation” was their chief identity marker. “Ethnic affiliation” ranked at just eight percent.
Perhaps the best-known victim of hostility towards those questioning Turkishness and its tenants was journalist Hrant Dink. He was heading to his Armenian-language Agos newspaper office in Istanbul on January 17, 2007, when a 19-year-old man from Trabzon shot him three times. At the time of his assassination, Dink was being prosecuted under the “denigrating Turkishness” law. He was also regularly having his life threatened by ultranationalists. The killer reportedly shouted: “I shot the infidel!” Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister between 2003 and 2014 and president since last year, didn’t attend the funeral as he was inaugurating a highway tunnel 280 kilometres away. The steppes of northeast Turkey are located high in the Pontic Mountains, so-named for the Greek merchants who lived here for three thousand years until World War I. At the turn of the 20th century this region, which spreads from the Black Sea to the Syrian border in the south, was home to hundreds of Armenian towns and villages replete with churches, monasteries and languages. In the east, the predominantly Kurdish cities of Diyarbakir and Van were once full of diverse cultures, languages and religions. Assyrian Christians, Kurds, Jews and Arabs travelled and traded together across Anatolia, the Levant and Arabia. The synagogues and churches of eastern Turkey once stood countless and proud. But today they are a novelty. Armenian history is everywhere and nowhere.
A search by your correspondent for the ruins of the Varzahan monastery outside the city of Bayburt, where it is claimed a massacre of Armenians took place during the 18th century, proves fruitless. The monastery is geo-located on online maps, but it’s not where it’s supposed to be. “There are churches down there,” a farmer in the wind-swept hamlet of Ugrak says, pointing up the road towards the next village. “But first, come over here.”
Inside a cattle shed, he pulls back stacks of animal feed and tools. In almost complete darkness, the faint shape of Christian crosses carved into a stone wall appear above what was hundreds of years ago a windowsill. Small apses painted in a faint blue — made fainter by time — reveal themselves behind decades-old dust. This building was once a Christian place of worship.
A farmer making use of an abandoned religious building may seem insignificant, but in eastern Turkey doing so is common. Over 12,000 villages, towns and cities bearing Arabic, Persian and Armenian names were renamed with Turkish titles during the first half of the 20th century as part of the government-led Turkification process. As massacres proliferated between 1915 and 1917, the children of minority groups, whose parents had been deported or murdered, were absorbed into Muslim families, their names and Armenian identities lost forever. The Committee of Union and Progress outsourced the killings to Kurdish tribes who were told they could keep whatever was left — land, money, property — upon killing their Armenian neighbours. Many were crucified; hundreds of thousands were deported to camps in the Syrian desert to die.
Recently, Turkey’s ruling AK Party has made some efforts to readdress the past, spurred, in part, by neighbour Armenia’s push to have the genocide recognised by the international community, and by now-stalled accession talks with the European Union. Government institutions have supported the opening of Armenian and Christian churches and monasteries right across the country. Turkish authorities say there are 87 churches run by foreigners and that a new law on foundations adopted in 2008 has allowed for the return of property to custodians of churches and land once owned by religious organisations.
By June 2014, the Turkish authorities had paid compensation to religious groups for 21 properties while Istanbul’s Syriac Orthodox community was granted permission to build a new church in 2012. Last year, Prime Minister Erdogan offered condolences to Turkey’s Armenians for what happened in 1915, which he referred to as “events which had inhumane consequences — such as relocation.” This was something unheard of from a top politician.
“They [the government] have moved to an unprecedented extent to allow an open discussion; there’s an atmosphere that was completely unheard of during the 1990s. The government is much better than previous ones in addressing the events,” says Professor Ungur of Utrecht University. “But there are clear limits to opening churches and monasteries. Armenian churches are being opened as museums. The government wants them to be in the historical landscape but not in active life.”
Promises often remain just that. The AK Party first supported the idea for a new Syriac Orthodox church for Istanbul six years ago, but not a sod has been turned since then. And this year, on the centenary of the onset of the massacres, Turkish authorities appear to have reverted to form. The government has chosen to commemorate the centenary of World War I’s Gallipoli landings by inviting over one hundred world leaders. But instead of doing so during March, when the campaign has traditionally been marked, the government has set it for the same date as the Armenian commemorations.
Armenia’s president, Serzh Sargsyan, was invited to Turkey’s Gallipoli tribute this spring. His foreign ministry’s response was: “How can we speak of a ‘new beginning’ if the starting point is an aggressive denial of the Armenian genocide — a double crime!”
An agreed-upon understanding of the past appears as far off as ever, especially with Sargsyan cancelling peace talks aimed at bringing the two countries together in February.
Part of the reason for Turkey’s backtracking has been down to the whims of President Erdogan, who feels threatened in the wake of mass anti-government protests in 2013 and graft charges (that have since been dismissed) against his family members and close associates the same year.
Haydarpasa station is expected to reopen later this year, yet Turkish society and its political class appear unready to do similarly, and the history of the station and of the outhouses in eastern Turkey are likely to remain buried for years to come. Until Turkey wakes up to the past, few will really understand their country.
Stephen Starr is a journalist and author based in Istanbul. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising.