By Colin Tatz
Sydney Morning Herald
The idea that Australia was born as a nation on Gallipoli’s shores is now deeply cemented in our history books and national psyche. We are about to see the annual holding of hands by the former combatants on Armistice Day, when thousands will visit the “sacred site”. Turks and Australians will join in understandable commemoration but less comprehensible celebration; and friendship societies will become tearful and lyrical during this anniversary of the shedding of brotherly blood.
But intruding on this mourning ritual is the growing world recognition of the Ottoman (and, later, Kemalist) Turkish genocide committed between 1915 and 1922. Some 26 nation states and more than 50 regional governments, including NSW and South Australia, formally recognise the Turkish attempts to annihilate 3 million Armenians and possibly 1 million Pontian Greeks and Christian Assyrians. At least 1.5 million Armenians were killed by bayoneting, beheading, bullets, butchering, crucifixion, drowning, elementary gas chambers, forced death marches, hanging, hot horseshoes, medical experiments, and other unprintable atrocities.
Turkey is totally dedicated, at home and abroad, to having every hint or mention of an Armenian genocide contradicted, countered, explained, justified, mitigated, rationalised, relativised, removed or trivialised. The entire apparatus of the Turkish state is tuned to denial, with officers appointed abroad for that purpose. Their actions are spectacular, often bizarre, and without distinction between the serious and the silly, including: pressures to dilute or even remove any mention of the genocide in the Armenian entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica; threats to sever diplomatic relations with France over the latter’s parliamentary declaration that there was such a genocide; replacing the Turkish Prime Minister’s Renault with an inferior Russian limo; Sydney Turks demanding that the broadcaster SBS pulp its 25th anniversary history for twice making passing reference to an event they claim “never happened”; and, more recently, frenetic Turkish efforts to stop a memorial to the dead Assyrians in the western Sydney district of Fairfield.
Explanations abound. One is that Turkey is the victim of the single greatest conspiracy in world history, with states such as Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Northern Ireland, Poland, Russia, Scotland, Sweden, Switzerland, the Vatican and Wales conniving to falsely brand Turkey as a genocidaire. Another is that somehow 11 million Armenians around the globe have subverted the truth, history and dozens of nations to “frame” innocent Turkey. Yet another is that witnesses — such as British historians Arnold Toynbee and Viscount Bryce, German missionary Dr Johannes Lepsius and German medico Armin Wegner, the American ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau and his Swedish diplomatic colleagues — invented their sometimes daily conversations with the major perpetrators, Talaat Pasha and Enver Pasha, and lied to besmirch Turkish honour. Another is that the dozens of Australian PoWs, isolated and often grossly maltreated in remote villages rather than in camps, deliberately faked the photographs and invented the atrocity stories they brought back home. They assert that the special Turkish military courts-martial held in Istanbul in 1919 only sentenced several perpetrators to death in absentia and imprisoned some 30 others for war crimes only because of duress from the Allies. The best explanation is that the Turks did precisely what they were recorded and filmed as doing, for which their own tribunals convicted them.
We are approaching a serious junction: the path to Gallipoli grows in scale and traffic each year, but so does the avenue to official recognition that what occurred was genocide, one in so many ways the prologue to, and template for, the Holocaust less than 20 years later. Sooner rather than later the US Congress will find the numbers for the two-thirds majority needed for recognition. The British government won’t be far behind. More Australian states will follow and, inevitably, an unwilling (and very unhappy) federal government will have to do so. Our dilemma will be profound.
There is, of course, a way forward: an admission of truth about the events; a genuine opening of all the Ottoman archives to obviate the old Turkish chestnuts about “awaiting the verdict of historians” and “Armenian revolutionaries engaged in civil war”; an offer of regret, or apology, even one leavened by a limitation on reparations. That way Turkey can more readily enter the European Union and the comity of nations. But the hysterical and obsessive denialism of the Batak massacres in Bulgaria in 1876, the 200,000 Armenians dead at the hands of Sultan Abdul Hamid II between 1894 and 1896, the 1.5 million dead at the hands of the Young Turks from 1915, will always get in the way of “normal” relationships.
Even if today’s Turkey decided to become more rather than less secular, more West-oriented, less cosy with Syria, Iran and Hezbollah in a jihadist worldview, more willing to address its past in relation to Christians generally, the juggernaut of the denialism industry is such that it simply cannot stop.
The machine has developed its own mind, its own convulsive and reflexive responses. Turks see genocide as a blot on their escutcheon and honour; they see themselves as decent people, and decent people don’t commit genocide. Wrong. “Decent people” — like Americans, Canadians, Belgians, Italians, Germans, Austrians, Spaniards and Australians — have all done just that.
Colin Tatz is a visiting fellow in the College of Arts & Social Sciences, Australian National University. He is the author of With Intent to Destroy: Reflecting on Genocide.