It began nearly 100 years ago, when notable Armenians across Turkey — then the Ottoman Empire — were rounded up and scheduled for deportation on April 24, 1915. It ended with the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians who had been rounded up, forced into camps, beaten, starved, shot, and burned.
Contemporary accounts and images are nothing short of horrific, and even today, bones linger in Turkey’s deceptively peaceful and majestic landscape. For the Armenian community worldwide, it’s known as the Armenian Genocide, and many genocide scholars as well as nations agree. For Turkey, however, it has long been a sore point, with the nation refusing to acknowledge the events that took place at the twilight of the Ottoman Empire as a genocide.
It was part of a larger policy of expelling ethnic, religious, and cultural minorities from the region as Turkey rose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire and started asserting itself. Ethnic Greeks, Assyrians and Christians in the region were also expelled, forced on death marches, and subjected to mass killings and mob attacks in what many scholars point to as a systematic attempt to eliminate targeted minority groups.
Turkish officials have spent nearly a century holding their ground, with very specific policy guidance on discussing these events that strongly encourages Turks to use their language carefully — what much of the world calls a genocide, for example, Turks are instructed to call the “1915 events.”
This is actually a step up from the former official phrase, which was “the so-called Armenian genocide.” Globally, the labeling of this event has proved a source of sour relations with Turkey, as nations who label it a genocide have found themselves censured and drubbed in the Turkish press while advocates within Turkey have faced libel and slander suits, and even assassination. Only in 2009 did Armenia and Turkey tentatively agree to a historic rapprochement with an agreement to explore the events of the genocide in more detail and try to come to an agreement.
That signaled a radical shift for Turkey and the possibility that the nation might be reconsidering its previous stance on the issue. Another indicator that a change in thinking might be underway came this April, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tyyip Erdogan issued a statement on the anniversary of the start of the genocide, recognizing the suffering of the victims. While the statement didn’t go so far as to call it a genocide, Turkish-American journalist Hayko Bagdat feels it’s a good start when it comes to addressing the issue.
“For 99 years, it has been of vital national interest in Turkey to deny the genocide and, thus, to protect a crime. This policy of denial affects not only the Armenians. For decades, people in our country were tortured, executed and expelled, and no one was allowed to speak about it publicly,” he told German publication Der Spiegel. “[H]is statement of condolence is a fundamentally positive thing. Both countries are still far from a normalization of relations, not to mention reconciliation. We have been working to put the Armenian matter on Turkey’s agenda for a long time and we will continue to do so.”
Could this be the beginning of a new era in Turkish-Armenian relations, with Turkey ready to come to the table and talk seriously about its dark 20th century past?
Photo credit: Ashnag.