Every year on the 25th of April, New Zealand and Australia commemorate ANZAC day. This day was chosen as it was the first day of the ill fated Gallipoli campaign of 1915, the ill conceived and executed attempt to wrest the Dardanelles from Turkish hands.
Most New Zealanders are not aware of horrifying and brutal event that is commemorated the day before, also dating from 1915 – the Armenian Genocide. While the New Zealand, Australian and Turkish governments actively promote and mythologise the carnage that took place at Gallipoli there is never a mention made of the concurrent, systematic extermination of over a million men, women and children of Armenian descent by a mixture of Turkish regular forces, “special operations” groups of criminals, Kurdish and Turkish “irregulars”. Despite 20 other countries and 44 US states recognizing the genocide, neither New Zealand nor Australia has done so and Turkey denies genocide even happened, merely some regrettable incidents.
As Turkish academic Taner Akcam, author or the 2006 book, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility has noted, “Denial of the Armenian Genocide has developed over the decades to become a complex and far-reaching machine that rivals the Nazi Germany propaganda ministry. This machine runs on academic dishonesty, fabricated information, political pressure, intimidation and threats, all funded or supported, directly or indirectly, by the Turkish state. It has become a huge industry.”
Not only that but under Article 301 of the Turkish penal code numerous journalists and scholars have been prosecuted for “denigrating Turkishness” by criticising Turkish actions during and after the genocide.
This is all the more remarkable for unlike the Holocaust inflicted on the Jews, the Armenian slaughter was well documented and reported at the time, particularly by American diplomats and newspapers including The New York Times. But as Akcam pointed out the Turkish denial has been so strident and intense that combined with their willingness to use their new found strategic importance to Western governments, has allowed them to downgrade genocide to a series of unfortunate events.
Is this the sort of government we as New Zealanders are proud to stand along side on April 25, 2015? Would we commemorate for instance the Battle of El Alamein or Crete with a future German government that decided to revise German culpability for the Jewish Holocaust? By ignoring the Armenian commemoration the day before aren’t New Zealand and Australia tacitly complicit in Holocaust denial, for it was indeed the 20th century’s first Holocaust, equal to any that preceded or followed it in its savagery and intent. Winston Churchill himself used the H word and mused that the defeat at Gallipoli may have emboldened the Young Turk leaders and exacerbated the violence.
Turkish denials coalese around multiple arguments that the mass deportations and deaths were not planned and co-ordinated by the government; the deaths were mostly from starvation due to famine during war; that the Armenians were a fifth column threat to the Turkish Army and had to be removed from areas of battle; that in the civil disorder created by war massacres happened but some of them were by Armenians too and that millions of Muslims of the Ottoman Empire had been killed in the previous century so there was some unpleasant but understandable revenge being taken by local groups.
There is of course an element of truth to some of these claims and others. The ethnic animosity in the region was often violent. But the fact remains there was a secret, organised programme of extermination of the Armenians planned by the Young Turk Government. A cable from Interior Minister Taalat Pasha to a regional prefect states: “You have already been informed that the Government…has decided to destroy completely all the indicated persons living in Turkey…Their existence must be terminated, however tragic the measures taken may be, and no regard must be paid to either age or sex, or to any scruples of conscience.”
And ‘tragic” the measures were. Long forced marches without food and water culled the old and very young, children were burnt alive, groups roped together and pushed into rivers, boat loads taken out to sea and pushed overboard, vast caves in the desert filled with thousands to be burnt or suffocated by fire and smoke. Along the way there was mass rape and pillage of belongings and young women by bands of Kurds (a sad irony given Turkey’s current violent persecution of its Kurdish minority)
The academic research seems overwhelming in favour of genocide. For example in 2005 The International Association of Genocide Scholars declared as part of a letter to the Turkish Government: “On April 24, 1915, under cover of World War I, the Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire began a systematic genocide of its Armenian citizens — an unarmed Christian minority population. More than a million Armenians were exterminated through direct killing, starvation, torture, and forced death marches.”
No one is suggesting that modern Turks are responsible for genocide any more than modern Germans but the denial and radical nationalism of Turkey is a blot on their conscience. They steadfastly refuse to face their historical demons the way the Germans have.
The question is whether made aware of the circumstances of the Armenian Genocide and the continued Turkish denials we think our government should recognise the tragedy and face Turkish wrath and possible blow back on Gallipoli or decide that our commemorations are more important and the Armenian Genocide is none of our business. 2700 New Zealanders and 8700 Australians died at Gallipoli. Somewhere between 1-1.5 million Armenians were killed between late 1914 and 1923.
I suggest if you have any empathy for your fellow human being the answer will be an easy one.