Centennial Anniversaries, Fresh Aspirations: Dragging Conflicts through Centuries

Thousands from Australia, New Zealand and the UK gather in Turkey each year to commemorate the Battle of Gallipoli

BY SOFIA MANUKYAN

While for some 2015 might not seem to be an outstanding year, for two Republics in the Anatolian region, Armenia and Turkey, 2015 promises to be filled with a “race” of whose voice will be louder and whose claims will be stronger.

For Armenians, 2015 is a remarkable year, as it will mark the 100th anniversary of the first genocide of the 20th century – the Armenian Genocide – committed by Ottoman Turkey. For Turks, 2015 also promises to be remarkable, but for another reason. In 2015, the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gallipoli (Canakkale) will be celebrated – an occasion worth celebrating, considering that the Ottoman Empire smashed British, French, Australian, and New Zealand troops, crushing their hopes for controlling the Dardanelles Strait.

On the other hand, this is a brilliant occasion to cast a shadow on its notorious past and present, taking into account the government’s continuous denial of the Armenian Genocide. For some Turks, the celebration of victory at Gallipoli will probably be a commemoration of such significance that it will stand at no comparison with the events of the Genocide. After all, this battle gave the future father of the Turkish Republic, Ataturk, the opportunity to unveil his skills as a colonel, and as a result, set the path towards his politics of establishing the Republic of Turkey. So for many, the issues of genocide will be quite irrelevant upon this background.

But to what extent is the past that haunts Turkey up until now irrelevant? How many more centuries are the Turkish politicians ready to drag their predecessors’ mistakes and let the past formulate their current and future relations with their neighbors and the region? Apparently longer than we expected.

The policy of denial of the genocide continues being peppered with revisionist history. In May 2013, an interesting article appeared in The Independent written by its correspondent Robert Fisk: “The Armenian Hero Turkey Would Prefer to Forget.” This article raises two interesting points worth our attention.

The first interesting point is about the loyalist academics’ meticulous work aimed at changing the history and erasing the participation of not only Arab troops in the 1915 battle of Gallipoli, but also the role of the Armenian artillery officer Captain Sarkis Torossian in this battle, calling it nothing but fabrication of own biography.

“In fact, Captain Sarkis Torossian was personally awarded medals for his courage by Enver Pasha, Turkey’s war minister and the most powerful man in the Ottoman hierarchy. The greatest hero of Gallipoli was Mustafa Kemal, who, as Ataturk, founded the modern Turkish state. But in view of the desire of some of Turkey’s most prominent historians to brand Torossian a fraud, the word ‘modern’ should perhaps be used in inverted commas”, writes Fisk.

While some academics are truly determined to prove that the Armenian captain made up stories from the battlefield and his whole experience on the battleground was fake, another historian Taner Akcam in his turn shows in his research that not only are Torossian’s stories not fake, but that also one of his two medals bears Enver Pasha’s original signature.

Sarkis Torossian (left) encounters his sister Bayzar in the Syrian desert near Tell Halaf

It is indeed amazing to discover that, while the whole Armenian population was being slaughtered or deported from its own lands by the Ottoman authorities, there were officers of Armenian origin serving in the Ottoman army. The picture, however, gets clearer when Akcam’s efforts of tracking down Torossian’s family bring him to America. It turns out that after Torossian found his sister among Armenians on the death convoys to Syria and Palestine, he fled to the French side, and eventually travelled to the US, where he died.

Although this is one such example, there were other Armenians serving in the Ottoman army. This episode, as well as the fact that around 60 thousand Armenian men were serving in the Ottoman army during the World War I (until the order of disarmament), also the incident in which the Armenian soldiers saved the military minister Enver Pasha from being taken as war prisoner during the war, who on this occasion sent a letter of gratitude to the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople, all these episodes pull up controversy in the general perception of history among the Turkish population, in which the widespread propaganda makes Armenians traitors who had initially planned and therefore had taken the side of Russia during the war, thus deserved all the “punishment” the Ottoman Empire had prepared for them.

This episode poses uncomfortable questions, which the wider masses may or may not be willing or ready to think about and question the already known “truth”. This laziness and fear is advantageous for the government, which uses the chance to further its ambitions of changing history.

This ambition, which is the second interesting point raised in Fisk’s article, has been confirmed by Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who in his speech in Gallipoli in 2011 announced, “We are going to make the year of 1915 known the whole world over not as an anniversary of a genocide as some people claimed and slandered (sic), but we shall make it known as a glorious resistance of a nation – in other words, a commemoration of our defense of Gallipoli”.

And while Robert Fisk poses a question on what the Turkish government will answer to descendants of those who fought for British, French, Australian and New Zealand troops in Gallipoli (descendants have of course been invited to the commemorative celebrations) concerning non-honoring of Christian and Arab soldiers who fought among Ottoman forces, curious events have taken place between Turkish and Australian diplomats which seem to mar the commemoration.

The tensions began after the New South Wales (NSW) Parliament passed a motion recognizing the Armenian genocide committed by Ottoman Turkey. The motion was unanimously passed in both houses of the NSW Parliament, supported by eyewitness reports from Australian and New Zealand prisoners of war, who had witnessed the forced evictions of Armenian villages.

The reaction didn’t make itself wait long. Erdogan’s government, despite some calls to separate the Gallipoli commemorations from the Armenian issue, threatened to ban all members of the NSW Parliament from attending the centenary commemorations at Gallipoli, which is an important pilgrimage place for Australians, as thousands make the trip each year on the day the first troops landed. After all, the eight month battle for Gallipoli, through which Churchill hoped to capture the Ottoman capital of Constantinople for its convenient location surrounding Dardanelle, ended in disaster for ANZAC forces, causing huge losses for Australian troops as well.

The Turkish foreign minister confirmed the position of the government, announcing, “These persons who try to damage the spirit of Canakkale/Gallipoli will also not have their place in the Canakkale ceremonies where we commemorate our sons lying side by side in our soil. We announce to the public that we will not forgive those who are behind these decisions and that we don’t want to see them in Canakkale anymore.”

Although such radical steps of the Turkish government may seem expected, as The Diplomat’s correspondent Luke Hunt notes, even for Erdogan’s policy supporters it seems strange that he uses Gallipoli commemorations to “punish” initiatives of the Genocide recognition, unless, as Hunt notices, he has another agenda.

What other agenda could Erdogan and his government have? Attracting worldwide attention to the Gallipoli events at any expense, even at the expense of continuing its Genocide-denying position? Or maybe he wants to blame the major powers for raising the issue of the Armenian Genocide for manipulation and undermining the pillars of the Turkish Republic every time Turkey tries to show the world its clout in world politics.
Uncertain about the answer, but certain that there will be a follow up, it will be interesting to observe what Armenia is planning to initiate for the centennial anniversary of the Genocide – a tragedy, which the world has already discarded once and paid for with negative consequences.

Sofia Manukyan is a human rights graduate from the University of Essex (UK). She received her M.A. in European Studies at Yerevan State Linguistic University. Manukyan has previously worked as coordinator and journalist for the “Human Rights in Armenia” website (Civil Society Institute). She has taken part in several conflict management and reconciliation projects, the most outstanding of which has been the Armenian and Turkish Reconciliation Project, “Speaking to One Another,” which produced the book Moush, Sweet Moush: Mapping Memories from Armenia and Turkey.

Sources
1. Akcam, T., The Captain Torossian Debates: A Tacit Agreement Over Silence, Clark University, 2013.
2. Armenians in the Ottoman Army: Service and Destruction, The Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute, 2013
3. Fisk, R., T
he Armenian hero Turkey would prefer to forget, The Independent, May 2013.
4. Gallipoli and the ANZAC Commemorations, New Zealand Embassy Ankara, 2012.
5. Hunt, L.,
Turkey Threatens to Ban Australian Politicians from Gallipoli, The Diplomat. September, 2013.

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5 Comments

  1. Sebouh Z Tashjian said:

    GALLIPOLI
    The world history is calling it a “fight” but for the Turks it
    was’nt a real fight. Britain withdrew its forces leaving the Anzacs
    (the Australia and New Zealand Armed Corps) in the lurch, to fight
    for themselves, and those gallant heroes were massacred by the
    Turks, about 10,000 of them. That is what Prof. Dadrian writes:
    “It was up to Turkey to take the initiative and to strike the first blow”.

    While the British government with considerable hesitation was debating the option of offering substantial concessions to Turkey to avert its joining the camp of the Triple Alliance under German inducements as well as pressures, “the violently anti-Turk Winston Churchill, who was the Lord of the Admiralty in a “most bellicose” mood urged the sending of a torpedo
    flotilla through the Dardanelle to sink the two German cruisers.
    But Kitchener, at the time Secretary of State for War, overruled Churchill arguing that England could not afford to alienate the Muslims by taking the offensive against Muslim Turkey.”
    It was up to Turkey to take the initiative and to strike the first blow.

    It was the fault of Kitchener Secretary of State for War and not the Lord of Admiralty Winston Churchill.

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