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A Century After Armenian Genocide, Turkey’s Denial Only Deepens

A Century After Armenian Genocide, Turkey’s Denial Only Deepens

Nearly 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in 1915, during World War I. Turks by and large do not believe mass killings were planned.

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CUNGUS, Turkey — The crumbling stone monastery, built into the hillside, stands as a forlorn monument to an awful past. So, too, does the decaying church on the other side of this mountain village. Farther out, a crevice is sliced into the earth, so deep that peering into it, one sees only blackness. Haunting for its history, it was there that a century ago, an untold number of Armenians were tossed to their deaths.

“They threw them in that hole, all the men,” said Vahit Sahin, 78, sitting at a cafe in the center of the village, reciting the stories that have passed through generations.

Mr. Sahin turned in his chair and pointed toward the monastery. “That side was Armenian.” He turned back. “This side was Muslim. At first, they were really friendly with each other.”

A hundred years ago, amid the upheaval of World War I, this village and countless others across eastern Anatolia became killing fields as the desperate leadership of the Ottoman Empire, having lost the Balkans and facing the prospect of losing its Arab territories as well, saw a threat closer to home.

Worried that the Christian Armenian population was planning to align with Russia, a primary enemy of the Ottoman Turks, officials embarked on what historians have called the first genocide of the 20th century: Nearly 1.5 million Armenians were killed, some in massacres like the one here, others in forced marches to the Syrian desert that left them starved to death.

The genocide was the greatest atrocity of the Great War. It also remains that conflict’s most bitterly contested legacy, having been met by the Turkish authorities with 100 years of silence and denial. For surviving Armenians and their descendants, the genocide became a central marker of their identity, the psychic wounds passed through generations.

“Armenians have passed one whole century, screaming to the world that this happened,” said Gaffur Turkay, whose grandfather, as a young boy, survived the genocide and was taken in by a Muslim family. Mr. Turkay, in recent years, after discovering his heritage, began identifying as an Armenian and converted to Christianity. “We want to be part of this country with our original identities, just as we were a century ago,” he said.

Memorials Worldwide

The 100th anniversary will be commemorated on April 24, the date the Ottomans rounded up a group of Armenian notables in Istanbul in 1915 as the first step in what historians now agree was a wider plan of annihilation. Armenians from Turkey and the diaspora are preparing to gather in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square to honor the dead. They will also hold a concert featuring Armenian and Turkish musicians.

Similar ceremonies will be held in capitals around the world, including in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, where Kim Kardashian, who is of Armenian descent, recently visited with her husband, the rapper Kanye West, to highlight the genocide. That the European Parliament and Pope Francis recently described the massacres as a genocide adds to the pressure on Ankara.

The Turkish government acknowledges that atrocities were committed, but says they happened in wartime, when plenty of other people were dying. Officials stoutly deny there was ever any plan to systematically wipe out the Armenian population — the commonly accepted definition of genocide.

Ankara is not participating in any of the memorials, nor does it appear ready to meet Armenian demands for an apology. Instead, on the same day of the genocide anniversary, the Turkish authorities scheduled a centennial commemoration of the Battle of Gallipoli, an event that helped lay the foundation of modern Turkish identity.

The anniversary comes after several years in which the Turkish government seemed to be softening its position. With the flourishing of new civic society organizations, the government became more tolerant of views of history that differed from the official one. Last year, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in offering condolences to the Armenians, went further than any Turkish leader ever had in acknowledging the painful history.

Yet as the anniversary has drawn near, the situation has fallen back into well-established patterns: Turkish denial, Armenian anger and little sign of reconciliation. Mr. Erdogan has turned combative, embracing the traditional narrative.

“The Armenian diaspora is trying to instill hatred against Turkey through a worldwide campaign on genocide claims ahead of the centennial anniversary of 1915,” Mr. Erdogan said recently. “If we examine what our nation had to go through over the past 100 to 150 years, we would find far more suffering than what the Armenians went through.”

In a country defined by its divisions, between the secular and the religious, rich and poor, liberal and conservative, the legacy of the Armenian genocide is a unifying issue for Turks. A recent poll conducted by the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, an Istanbul research organization, found that only 9 percent of Turks thought the government should label the atrocities a genocide and apologize for them.

Turkey’s ossified position, so at odds with the historical scholarship, is a legacy of how the Turkish republic was established after World War I. Under its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, society here underwent a process of Turkification: a feat of social engineering based on an erasure of the past and the denial of a multiethnic history. The Armenian massacres were wiped from the country’s history, only to emerge for ordinary Turks in the 1970s after an Armenian terrorist campaign against Turkish diplomats.

Even now, Turkish textbooks describe the Armenians as traitors, call the Armenian genocide a lie and say that the Ottoman Turks took “necessary measures” to counter Armenian separatism. A room at the Istanbul Military Museum is devoted to the suffering of Muslims at the hands of Armenian militants.

“There clearly were Armenian revolutionaries and rebels who were intending to side with Russia,” said Thomas de Waal, a historian with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who recently wrote a book on the genocide titled “The Great Catastrophe.” “This is a case of punishing the whole for the perceived disloyalty of a few.”

New York Times

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