Still victims of politics.

Photographer: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

Gallipoli and Genocide Shouldn't Mix

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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All political leaders manipulate history, but the decision by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to shift the 100th anniversary commemoration of the allied landings at Gallipoli forward 24 hours to Friday -- the same day as the anniversary of the Armenian genocide -- is unusually crass.

Erdogan means among other things to suggest that, although a tragic slaughter of Christian Armenians took place in 1915, it was part of the chaos of war -- not a genocide. According to this narrative, the Empire's Turkish Muslims suffered as much at the hands of the allied forces that attacked from Gallipoli, Russia and Syria.

It is, indeed, no coincidence the first act of the genocide -- the arrests of 250 ethnic Armenian leaders in Istanbul on April 24 -- took place just hours before a British-led force arrived in the Dardanelles strait to capture the city. The three "pashas" who ran the Empire -- Cemal, Enver and Talaat -- in their paranoia saw all Christian Armenians as a potential fifth column.

It's that paranoia that needs to be recognized and confined to history. And yet it lives on.

For the Gallipoli occasion, Erdogan made a Hollywood-style video that highlights the religious aspect of the defense of Istanbul. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the general who made his reputation there and later founded the Turkish Republic, is relegated to a photographic flicker -- a huge shift from past tellings of Turkey's history. Erdogan prays, the troops kneel to Mecca, and then his voice intones a patriotic poem that includes these lines:

Do not leave this country, which was kneaded by Muslims, 
with no Muslims, my God 
Give us strength ... Do not leave the field of jihad 
without its wrestler, My God!

I don't doubt that religion played a much larger role for the defenders of Istanbul in 1915 than Turkish history books, shaped by the cult of Ataturk, allowed. Istanbul in 1915 was still nominally the seat of the caliphate. Yet by double-booking the commemorations, Erdogan is overlaying political and religious debates onto a systematic civilian slaughter, sending exactly the wrong message. 

Erdogan has placed this kind of religious filter on genocide before. In 2009, he said of the mass murder and rape occurring in Sudan's Darfur region, “It’s not possible for a Muslim to commit genocide.” Unfortunately, however, genocide has proved possible for humans of all religions.

Tom de Waal, the Carnegie Endowment's Caucasus expert, has a new book -- "Great Catastrophe" -- that everyone involved in this seemingly endless political battle over the Armenian genocide should read, including Erdogan and the Western leaders deciding whether or not to call it what it was. De Waal traces how the word "genocide," coined for the Jewish Holocaust and written into international law in 1948 with the best intentions, was immediately abused.

Joseph Stalin ensured that the treaty enshrining the law couldn't be used to condemn his crimes; Soviet literature on the subject then largely ignored the Holocaust and focused on the U.S. treatment of its black citizens, and Korea. The U.S. returned the favor: Senator Herbert Lehman of New York gave a speech to Armenians in 1955 that accused the Soviet Union of committing genocide against Armenians, while glossing over 1915. Republican Turkey simply sought to forget.

These political games devalued the human misery of 1915 -- the mass murders, rapes and orphans left behind (18,000 in a single camp) -- and since. De Waal describes the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of Armenian women and children taken in by neighbors during the genocide (usually, though not always, for protection), who have lived as Muslim Turks ever since.

Now some of these people are coming out as Armenians, and attempting to reconnect with lost family connections abroad. Some are visiting the few Armenian churches that are being restored in Eastern Turkey, not necessarily because they have reverted to Christianity, but to feel Armenian. These people need the genocide dispute, and the hostility and paranoia that go with it, to end.

Whether a genocide is acknowledged matters, of course (President Barack Obama again this year avoided the word in his annual commemorative statement). But as de Waal demonstrates, the exclusive focus on the word has been damaging. It's far more important to reopen the border between Armenia and Turkey and let the descendants of the two sides reconnect, without seeing each other as combatants in a political -- or religious -- debate.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net