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Gallipoli and the Armenian genocide: The battle for history and understanding (Part 1)

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(Image courtesy armeniangenocideblog)

A hundred years since Gallipoli and a hundred years since the Armenian genocide in Turkey. How many of us can honestly say we knew about the second centenary? Prompted by David Boyajian and Vicken Babkenian who opened the door on this bloodshed, Dr Evan Jones investigates this little reported “holocaust”.

The ruling classes have in their hands the army, money, the schools, the churches, and the press. In the schools, they kindle patriotism in the children by means of histories describing their own people as the best of all peoples and always in the right. Among adults they kindle it by spectacles, jubilees, monuments, and by a lying patriotic press. Above all, they inflame patriotism in this way: perpetrating every kind of harshness and injustice against other nations, they provoke in them enmity towards their own people, and then in turn exploit that enmity to embitter their people against the foreigner.

      ~ Leo Tolstoy, Patriotism and Government, 1900.

A HUNDRED years since Gallipoli. A hundred years since the Armenian genocide. The what?

David Boyajian and Vicken Babkenian have opened the door on the bloodshed by which ‘modern’ Turkey was built.

For those as ignorant as I am, a chapter in Robert Fisk’s 2005 The Great War for Civilisation is a useful primer.

The decrepit Ottoman Empire is at war, on the other side. A “Young Turk” movement takes control, acquiring “a nationalistic, racist, pan-Turkic creed”. According to Fisk:

‘Encouraged by their victory over the Allies at the Dardanelles, the Turks fell upon the Armenians with the same fury as the Nazis were to turn upon the Jews of Europe two decades later. Aware of his own disastrous role in the Allied campaign against Turkey, Winston Churchill was to write in The Aftermath … that ‘it may well be that the British attack on the Gallipoli Peninsula stimulated the merciless fury of the Turkish government.’

Certainly, the Turkish victory at the Dardanelles over the British and Australian armies … gave a new and ruthless self-confidence to the Turkish regime. It chose 24 April 1915 … to arrest and murder all the leading Armenian intellectuals of Constantinople. They followed this pogrom with the wholesale and systematic destruction of the Armenian race in Turkey. …

For Margada [Margadeh, Syria] and the Syrian desert around it – like thousands of villages in what was Turkish Armenia – are the Auschwitz of the Armenian people, the place of the world’s first, forgotten, Holocaust.’

An estimated one million and a half Armenians died from strategically devised and calculated slaughter. In this barbarism, the Turks enlisted the Kurds (latter day victims of Turkish and other tyrannies) to expedite the massacres, given the sheer scale of the undertaking, a task they took on brutally. Churchill, presumably without a hint of self-castigation, was the first to call this genocide a “holocaust”.

 

The massacres and its genocidal character were reported on immediately by European residents in the Empire, and the information disseminated widely. Babkenian highlights that some Australian soldiers were witnesses and that the Australian public also became aware via local media reporting. To no effect for the victims.

There were others observing the event. German military personnel had a substantial presence in organising the Sultan’s armed forces, and some participated in the slaughter. Thus Franz von Papen 'was chief of staff of the Fourth Turkish Army', later Chancellor in 1932 and Vice-Chancellor under Hitler in 1933-34. He later became the Third Reich’s ambassador to Turkey. (He died of old age in 1969.)

Lieutenant General Hans von Seeckt 'was chief of the Ottoman General Staff in 1917. He laid the groundwork for the Wehrmacht in the 1920s … Rudolf Hoess 'joined the German forces in Turkey as a teenager. In 1940, he was appointed commandant of Auschwitz, and he became deputy inspector of all Nazi concentration camps at SS headquarters in 1944'.

Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter 'was German vice-consul in Erzurum and witnessed Turkish massacres of Armenians in Bitlis province, writing a long report [and many subsequently, in great detail] on the killings for the German chancellor [von Bethmann Hollweg]'. Post-war, Scheubner-Richter befriended Hitler and became a racist polemicist calling for a campaign against Jews so that Germany could be “cleansed”.

The battle for history

Half of Fisk’s chapter is devoted not to the genocide itself but to the violent fight over its representation. The Turkish state has criminalised an accurate rendition of the events. The most courageous of recent truth-tellers, Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, was murdered in Istanbul in 2007.

Turkey has perennially threatened other governments with reprisals and has funded Western academic positions to push a most un-academic “correct line” official version of the period.

The western media, by contrast with its contemporaneous reporting, has fallen into line.

Hrant Dink's funeral procession in Istanbul sparked mass marches with protestors carrying banners saying "We are all Armenians".

The representation of the genocide has become that the facts are "controversial" and their meaning “hotly debated”.

Thus the Wall Street Journal Europe, 20 November 2000:

'… whether the majority of these deaths [an estimated 600,000 Armenians, possible more] were the result of a deliberate policy of extermination or of other factors is a matter of contentious scholarly debate.'

A variation on the “controversy” is the account in the just published The War with the Ottoman Empire, by Jeffrey Grey. The account is a mere couple of paragraphs, because the book is about Australian involvement in the War. But the analysis sets on the notion that the deaths were “understandable”, in the context.

Thousands of Armenians were fighting with the Tsarist forces. Moreover, the Brits decided to reconnoitre around the coast in late 1914 and early 1915 near the Armenian town of Alexandretta (now Turkish Iskenderun), with the possibility that Armenians might join an Allied assault. Did the Allies consider the implications?

The Turks were thus paranoid of a “fifth column” in their midst, and reacted to quell this internal “threat”. Understandable”. Shades of Stalin’s ethnic cleansing during and after World War II (which no-one, to my knowledge, has sought to interpret as understandable).

It is true that Britain, France and Russia, even Greece and Italy, had their eyes on parcels of the decrepit Empire. Well might the young Turks be paranoid. But was genocide the way to shore up territory and invent nationality?

The Turks went first for the Armenian urban bourgeoisie. A prospective fifth column? Moreoever, there was an entrée to 1915 in the mid 1890s when large-scale massacres of Armenians and other Christians occurred (the “Hamidian” massacres), initiated by the then Sultan in a bizarre reaction to Ottoman decline. Babkenian also notes:

'Just two weeks prior to the Anzac landings, the Ottoman authorities deported about 22,000 of the peninsula’s native Greek population into the interior of Anatolia (current day Turkey). Many would die of harsh conditions. This was only a precursor to the larger persecutions to follow.'

 

An article in memory of the 1915 massacres by Vicken Cheterian, a Geneva-based author, has been published in the April English edition of Le Monde Diplomatique (unfortunately, subscriber only). Cheterian notes:

'When genocide takes place in the shadows of war, and the world behaves as if nothing had happened, what then? A crime that goes unrecognised also goes on.'

The ethnic cleansing (of Christian communities) continued post-War, as Boyajian notes. Particularly at Smyrna in 1922, Greeks and Armenians were victims. Allied vessels looked on, but the western powers were more interested in oil than humanitarian principles, and that meant rapprochement with Atatürk.

In the 1930s it was the turn of the Turkish Jewish community. Then it was the turn of the previously accommodating Kurds, who rebelled after Turkey reneged on promised autonomy.

In 1939, the French, post-World War I colonial rulers over what became Syria, including the province surrounding Alexandretta, abandoned the latter area (and its inhabitants to death, destitution and renewed exile) in the hope of enticing Turkey to join the Allies in the forthcoming war.

During World War II, the Turkish authorities imposed a prohibitive wealth tax on minorities, destroying their economic viability. In 1955, further ethnic cleansing of minorities (especially Greeks) took place in Istanbul.

Turkey set about systematically obliterating the physical and cultural embodiment of the Armenian presence. It did the same for the Greek community with the total destruction of the previously vibrant city of Smyrna (now Turkish Izmir) in 1922. Notes Cheterian:

'Thousands of churches and monasteries were dynamited. In 1914, according to the Armenian patriarchate, the Ottoman empire had an Armenian population of nearly 2 million, out of 16-20 million. Today there are only around 60,000 Armenians in Turkey. Out of 2,500 Armenian churches, only 40 have survived, 34 of them in Istanbul. …'

[To repeat]

'When genocide takes place in the shadows of war, and the world behaves as if nothing had happened, what then? A crime that goes unrecognised also goes on.'

In August 1939, in preparation for his invasion of Poland, Hitler declaimed to his generals:

"Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formations in readiness — for the present only in the East — with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

Quite. When Fisk first started writing about the Armenian genocide in 1993 he faced a tidal wave of condemnation from Turkish sources, official, unofficial and personal. According to Fisk:

"This flood of mail was performing something very disturbing: it was turning the perpetrators of the Armenian genocide into the victims and the victims into murderers and liars."

Thus we have the ongoing war over controlling the facts, controlling the interpretation, controlling history, controlling understanding, controlling political and civic responses.

Raison d’état trumps humanity and integrity

And the response of the (self-)righteous amongst the nations?

Israel?

In April 2001, prior to an official visit to Ankara, Shimon Peres, then foreign minister, claimed:

"… we reject attempts to create a similarity between the Holocaust and the Armenian allegations. Nothing similar to the Holocaust occurred. It is a tragedy what the Armenians went through but not a genocide. [Regarding any consideration of the ‘allegations’] it should be done with great care not to distort the historical realities."

Historical realities indeed. The recent reaffirmation by Pope Francis of the Armenian genocide has been reported in the Jerusalem Post under the category ‘Christian News’ (!), where the emphasis is not on the genocide but on the problematic impact of the Pope’s statement on Turkish relations.

The Pope’s reaffirmation shares billing with the JP’s attention to the Kardashian sisters’ (of Armenian origin) stop-off at Yerevan (compulsory photo-op) on their way to Israel and the Western Wall. Charming.

Israel’s cheer squads lobby globally to have made compulsory in national educational syllabuses the study of the Jewish holocaust. But how can such study occur out of context? Out of context, understanding of the Jewish holocaust is denied, distorted. That is the intention. The Jewish experience is, after all, claimed to be unique whereas it is built on the bones of the Ottoman Christian populations.

Not unique also is the Zionist’s treatment of the indigenous Palestinians (then a majority of the population). Just as Germany took inspiration from the Turks, so also did the Zionists absorb the spirit of the Turks in the ethnic cleansing of the Nakba and in the subsequent obliteration, where possible, of the physical and cultural embodiments of Palestinian presence, and in the ongoing denial that any such ethnic cleansing took place. Which history gets to be official?

Great Britain?

In 1999, a Blair Government spokesperson claimed:

'… in the absence of unequivocal evidence to show that the Ottoman administration took a specific decision to eliminate the Armenians under their control at the time, British governments have not recognised the events of 1915 and 1916 as ‘genocide’. … [Armenia and Turkey should] resolve between themselves the issues which divide them … we could not play the role of supportive friend to both countries were we to take an essentially political position on an issue so sensitive for both.'

Yet the ‘unequivocal evidence’ was in the documentation by contemporary observers, now in British archives.

In 2000, Blair decreed that there would be an annual Holocaust Memorial Day in Britain. A Jewish Holocaust Memorial Day that is. In response to Armenian community objections to its selective focus, the Home Office’s Race Equality Unit claimed that the organisers wanted

'… to avoid the risk of the message becoming too diluted if we try to include too much history. … [The purpose of the Holocaust Day was to] ensure a better understanding of the issues and promote a democratic and tolerant society that respects and celebrates diversity and is free of the influence of prejudice and racism.'

The U.S.?

In 2000, the US Congress proposed a resolution acknowledging the Armenian genocide. Congress asked President Clinton to use the term ‘genocide’ in his forthcoming Armenian commemoration address. Fisk notes:

'Turkey warned Washington that it would close its airbases to American aircraft flying over the Iraqi ‘no-fly’ zones. The Turkish defence minister, Sabahattin Çakmakoğlu, said that Turkey was prepared to cancel arms contracts with the United States. The Israeli foreign ministry took Turkey’s side and President Clinton shamefully gave in and asked that the bill be killed. It was. All across the United States, this same pressure operates.'

France?

In France, genocide denial is an offence – but which genocide? In 1999 (in Beirut, home to tens of thousands of descendants of the 1915 holocaust) and in 2000, then President Jacques Chirac dodged the Armenian question. But in late 2000 the French Senate and in early 2001 the Assembly (reaffirming a 1998 vote) voted to acknowledge the Armenian genocide. Prime Minister Jospin and President Chirac signed a single-sentence law – ‘France publicly recognises the Armenian Genocide of 1915’. According to Fisk:

'In revenge, the Turkish government cancelled a $200 million spy satellite deal with the French company Alcatel and threw the arms company Giat out of a $7 billion tank contract.'

The Turks also retaliated with publicity of dark periods of France’s recent past – the crimes of the Vichy regime and France’s sins in Algeria during the Algerian War, adding to the list the French massacre of Algerians in 1945 (Sétif).

But the 100 year anniversary of both Gallipoli and the genocide has renewed afresh France’s ‘diplomatic’ difficulties, for internal as well as external reasons.

A law criminalising holocaust denial was passed in 1990 (the Gayssot Law). Basing its wobbly legitimacy (the law required an amendment to a 1881 law on the Freedom of the Press) on Nuremberg Tribunal edicts, the law de facto proscribed denial of the "Jewish" holocaust. Penalties were attached to denial. No penalties were attached to the 2001 law regarding the Armenian genocide. Persistent attempts to remedy this asymmetry have failed.

However, with the commitment of Marseille Deputy Valérie Boyer, a "penalisation" law was passed in early 2012. (Turkey was furious.) It was soon overturned by the Constitutional Council. Two weights, two measures? President Hollande has formally claimed his support for penalisation, but is in no hurry to further the agenda.

The Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has invited 100 world leaders to join Turkey in a commemoration of Gallipoli where, according to legend, the ‘founding father’ of Turkey, Mustapha Kemal (Atatürk), distinguished himself in battle. Erdogan has strategically and grotesquely chosen the 24 April as the day of remembrance to ‘head off at the pass’ the Armenian memorialising. Surprisingly, Hollande has committed himself to travel to Yerevan for the 24 April commemoration of the genocide.

For Hollande’s almost comprehensively gutless performance as President to date, this is a significant gesture.

Its significance can be gauged by the fact that France has long played footsies with Turkey and Israel (as well as disabling Lebanon through cementing sectarian divisions). According to journalist René Naba (in French), in return Turkey accommodated France’s attempt to retain Algeria. France has never apologised for the abandonment of Armenians in 1939.

More, Iran has long been an ally of the Armenian population, and Syria has protected the Armenian’s most significant shrine at Deir-ez-Zor, scene of an annual pilgrimage on 23 April. But France has chosen to treat Iran as a pariah and to contribute to dismantling Syria to destroy the current regime. The Armenians and other Christian populations have thus suffered from the vacuity and myopia of France’s realpolitik.

To keep Turkey onside for France’s uncharacteristic gesture on 24 April, Hollande has promised a stand-in, "at the highest level", at Gallipoli. The excuse is the remembrance of the 10,000 French dead on the Eastern Front. But the straddling is also rooted in the commercial calculus.

In 2013, a Franco-Japanese consortium (Areva, GDF Suez and Mitsubishi) was granted the contract for the construction of Turkey’s second nuclear power facility. Areva is currently in meltdown (sic), running up massive losses, and desperately needs the business. An anti-missile battery contract hangs in the balance for a Franco-Italian consortium (Thales and MBDA). And a long planned giant bridge spanning the Dardanelles is in the sights of the French construction giants.

Raison d’état is entrenched just beneath the thin veneer of principle.

Apart from the filthy lucre, Turkey is essentially part of ‘our’ team. An erratic ally, however, as it transparently supports the various Islamic State groups (funneling Western would-be jihadis into the ranks) and it stood by during the IS attack on Kurdish Kobane. It also plays knees-up with Russia on a prospective gas line.

No matter. Turkey is an integral part of NATO, and is implacably oriented towards the vanquishment of the Assad regime in Syria (hence the support of IS). It has also made up with Israel, effectively excusing the latter for the murder of Turkish nationals on the Gaza-bound flotilla in May 2010. So, on balance, from "our" perspective, a force for the right outcomes in that troubled region.

Of what relevance is this long skirmish over an event of 100 years vintage to the average Australian punter?

Read Part 2: Bread and circuses.

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