The Armenians’ late revenge

The outrage with which the Turks greeted a US congressional committee resolution last Wednesday to recognize the Armenian genocide indicates the vital importance of the issue. The greatest problems that Turkey is facing today are the increasing pressure from abroad to acknowledge the Armenian genocide of 1915, the Kurdish guerrilla war, the relationship between the state and religion and between the state and the military, relations with the United States and the European Union and relations with Turkey’s neighbors. In this last issue, there is a section devoted to Greece and Cyprus (a sobering detail for those Greeks who are obsessed with Turkey’s behavior). All nations have a hard time dealing with the revision of their history, with a change in how they see themselves. We experienced this recently in Greece with the tumult provoked by the stillborn effort to provide sixth-grade school pupils with a history textbook that played down the sense of victimhood that constitutes a large part of our common identity. The national identity is forged by the clashes and cohabitation with neighboring nations and by domestic dynamics. Consider, then, what forces come to the fore when a nation is pressed from abroad to acknowledge that its forefathers were the merciless killers of other people. For the Turks, the history of their modern state begins with Kemal Ataturk’s victory over the Greeks and the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923. They see the years before this as a long, heroic march in which their nation was born out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, beat back various foreign enemies and set course for accession into the Western world. The Armenian question is a bomb deep in the heart of this foundation myth. The Turkish authorities claim that the slaughter of 1915, in which 1.5 million Armenians are believed to have been massacred, was no more than an unfortunate consequence of a turbulent time. They add that there were victims on both sides. The Armenians, of course, and the archives of many countries, have the documents to prove that this was part of an organized Turkish effort to «cleanse» the country of Armenians. The German historian Ulrich Trumpener notes a dispatch that the ambassador of Germany (a Turkish ally at the time) sent to his chancellor in July 1915 declaring that there was no doubt that the Turks were trying to «exterminate the Armenian race in the Turkish empire.» Ambassador Hans von Wangenheim and other foreign officials tried to stop the Turks from continuing the slaughter, but in vain. («Germany and the Ottoman Empire 1914-1918,» cited in David Fromkin’s «A Peace to End All Peace.») In the Turks’ favor at the time was the fact that despite the countless eyewitness accounts, the global slaughter of World War I obscured the horrendous events in Anatolia. But the Turks finally fell victim to their own successes: The Armenian presence was eliminated from the nation’s ancestral homeland and the survivors of the genocide scattered across the world. Many took root in the great democracies of the United States, Canada, France, Australia and so on. As their living standards rose, they and their children gained increasing political leverage in their new homelands and were thus able to press with increasing stridency for the genocide of their people to be acknowledged. Today this demand is at the core of the Armenian identity, along with the wounds of the slaughter. The Turks, who seem never to have fully compromised with their neighbors and former subjects, now have to face demands from abroad that they change the way they see themselves. Today’s Turks have nothing to do with the events of nearly a century ago, but the sins of their forefathers and their fathers’ denial of events have brought about a most painful collision between the Turks’ past and their future. Among the many unsolved problems that Turkey faces, at a time when its troops are massing on the border to fight the Kurds in Iraq, the Armenian issue could become the greatest obstacle the country has to face in its long march Westward. The Turks, like everyone else, have no option but to try reconcile themselves with their past as it is and not as they would like it to be.