Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
On April 20th 2021, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated that “any move by the U.S. President Joe Biden to recognise the 1915 mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire as a genocide will further harm already strained ties between the NATO allies.” The term ‘genocide’ was first officially recorded by Lemkin in 1943[GL1] , in reference to the Holocaust. But of course, genocides existed prior to their definition. In fact, the Armenians were the victims of one of the first genocides in the 20th century.
From 1915-1920, the Turkish nationalist movement committed the Armenian genocide. The killings of more than a million people, serious bodily harms, sexual violations, transferring of children, and physical destruction clearly characterise their actions as genocide. However, the Turks deny the claim, stating that only 300,00 people died and accuse those who recognise the genocide as being discriminatory to the Turks, including Pope Francis and president Joseph Biden. By using this example of a “Genocide denied” by the Turks, I want to examine two things: firstly, how much violence is justified in nationalistic discourse and secondly, how important it is to separate nationalist propaganda from memoirs, education syllabuses and historical films.
The nationalist movement offered the Turks a gateway to restore both Islam and the power and opportunities lost throughout the Ottoman empire. Therefore, elimination of non-Muslims was the pressing issue, not the morality of the Turks’ actions. The brunt of the genocide fell upon the remaining post-war civilian population, made up overwhelmingly of women, children, and elderly. During this ethnic cleansing, rape, kidnapping, sex slavery and forced re-marriage became war instruments, with marriage serving as a means of survival. In 1915, The New York Times wrote 145 articles recording the events in Turkey with headlines such as “Appeal to Turkey to Stop Massacres.” It was and is recognised as a genocide by 31 countries,
In 1922, the Turkish nationalism movement continued to massacre tens of thousands of Greeks and Armenians in Smyrna, with a fire designed to wipe out any non-Muslim building, human and animal. Eye-witness accounts including Armenian priests, Greek teachers, American Red Cross associates, and impartial accounts (even some Turks) testify to the role of Turkish troops in starting the fire. However, Turkish official history denies responsibility. Turkish high-school history textbooks, television and radio programmes preaches that the city was burnt by the Greeks and Armenians. It seems that most Turks still choose to believe the narrative of their heroic soldiers marching into the city to save them from the “infidel” in a war of liberation.
It is deeply shameful that nationalism has stopped the Turks commemorating the innocent civilians who were harmed at their ancestors’ hands. For their own political gain, they have changed their narrative of the past to the extent of denying ethnic-cleansing and genocide. Most Turkish children will grow up believing in the heroic soldiers of the past who formed the Turkish Republic in ‘battle,’ rather than genocide.
This contortion of history mirrors how the British education syllabus preaches the abolition of slavery in 1833, rather than the 400 years of slavery prior to this, in the same way that the American education syllabus preaches that Rosa Parks did not give up her seat on the bus because she was exhausted, rather than in protest.
The truth of the Armenian genocide was manipulated by the Turks to protect their Republic and the Great fire was forgotten to glorify their soldiers. We need a clearer, more thorough way of viewing history that pays close attention to any hidden agenda that the source, website, or teacher might have. The information could be, and often is, built on centuries of racism and nationalist propaganda.