This year as thousands of Australians, led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, prepared to commemorate the Anzac Day centenary at Gallipoli, a smaller group of Turkish and Armenian men and women were holding their own centenary gathering in Istanbul to commemorate the worst crime of the First World War. They defied the Turkish government and risked being jailed to remember and demand recognition for the Armenian Holocaust.
Many of those who gathered in front of the old prison – where 250 intellectuals were imprisoned 100 years ago – were descendants of both the victims and the perpetrators. They then trekked across the Bosporus to sit in front of what was once Anatolia Station, holding signs that simply read ‘Soykirim’ (Genocide) – a crime against humanity that Turkey still refuses to acknowledge responsibility for.
There is no question more likely to make a politician advocating for free speech squirm than: ‘Do you propose to give Holocaust deniers the right to speak their mind?’ The answer must obviously be yes if, as politicians often claim, they truly believe in the unrestrained freedom of expression. So despite claiming that ‘everyone has the right to be a bigot’ last year, Australia’s Attorney-General, George Brandis assured the public a few days later that that right wouldn’t be extended to Holocaust deniers under then proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.
The thing that makes Holocaust denial so vile is that it’s never grounded in the study of history – despite what its most vocal proponent David Irving may claim – but, rather, it’s born out of a deep-seated anti-Semitism. Indeed, the same irrational and sinister conspiracy theories put forth by garden-variety Holocaust deniers are usually nothing more than recycled Nazi piffle.
The same respect isn’t, however, extended by the government to those affected by the Armenian Holocaust – a crime that prefigured the Nazi industrial mass murder. In fact, it was Winston Churchill who, long before the attempted extirpation of Europe’s Jewish population, described the Armenian genocide as a holocaust: listing the Turks’ wartime atrocities, he included the ‘massacring [of] uncounted thousands of helpless Armenians, men, women and children together, whole districts blotted out in one administrative holocaust [sic]…beyond human redress.’
What many don’t know is that Australia’s history is entwined with the Turks’ crimes. As Australia’s sense of nationhood was being born on the shores of Gallipoli, further inland soldiers of the Ottoman Empire were trying to destroy the Armenian people.
Australia commemorates Anzac Day – the most revered national day – on 25 April, one day after the Armenians remember the mass murder of 1.5 million of their people.*
Yet these two historical events are almost never reflected upon together, despite being so closely connected. According to Turkish-German historian Taner Akçam, it ‘was not a coincidence that the Armenian genocide…was contemporaneous with the [Ottoman] empire’s struggle at Gallipoli.’
It’s sometimes difficult to separate the myth from the historical reality, but by April 1915 the collapse of the Ottoman Empire – referred to at the time as ‘the sick man of Europe’ – was inevitable. The once great Empire had spanned the Balkans, Eastern Europe and Greece over to the Caucasus, North Africa, through present-day Iraq, Syria and Yemen and down to the Horn of Africa. But by the beginning of the twentieth century the Empire was disintegrating and Western powers were keen to capitalise on independence movements, like that in Cyprus, and exert influence in the newly liberated nations, like Romania and Bulgaria.
The Ottoman Empire was a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural land, with Jews and Christians living alongside Muslims; however, non-Muslims always remained second-class citizens. These ‘infidels’ were required to wear distinguishing clothes, laws restricted their education and property rights, the Sharia courts regularly discriminated against them and they were expected to remain subservient to their Muslim superiors.
At the outbreak of the First World War many non-Turkish Muslims also felt alienated from the Sublime Porte, the central government of the Ottoman Empire, which seemed to serve its own (read Turkish) narrow interests. Even the Young Turk government – responsible for replacing the absolute monarchy with the constitutional monarchy in 1908 – knew that the widespread disaffection would make it difficult to hold the Empire together during the Great War. They wagered that Germany was likely to win the war and, in a cynical effort to prevent the Empire breaking up, signed a secret agreement with the Kaiser on 2 August, 1914 and began mobilising its army.
Needless to say, the war didn’t go as predicted and the decline and eventual collapse of the Ottoman Empire was accelerated.
The context of the declining Ottoman Empire is important because it meant the Gallipoli campaign was expected to be a relatively easy victory for the Allies. For those who make the pilgrimage to Australia’s most sacred of sites today, explanations as to why the campaign proved instead to be such a monumental failure are close at hand. The exposed beach and near vertical cliff faces make it seem that any assault on the Ottoman Turks was doomed to fail.
For Australia, the inevitability of this defeat has become an important part of the legend: despite facing impossible odds, fearless Australian ‘diggers’ – sacrificed by their British superiors – carried out their duty to the British Empire with courage and vim. And, equally as important, they remained true to their defining characteristics: mateship and larrikinism.
The Allies had planned to land at Gallipoli and advance to Constantinople (now Istanbul), at which point they assumed the Turks would ask for an armistice. This wasn’t a minority view or wishful thinking; indeed, many Turkish officials also believed this was how events were likely to unfold.
It is, therefore, unsurprising that the Gallipoli landing – the point at which the Ottoman Empire’s collapse seemed imminent – coincided with an escalation in the slaughter of Armenians.
As Taner Akçam explains: ‘A nation that feels itself on the verge of destruction will not hesitate to destroy another group it holds responsible for its situation.’ For the predominantly Muslim Turks this group was the Christian Armenians, between whom there’d long been tension. For many Ottoman Turks, the Armenians came to represent the internal manifestation of the external threat posed by the other Christian Empires; thus, their destruction came to be seen as an important element of saving the Empire.
The Ottoman government began conscripting able-bodied Armenian men between the ages of twenty and forty-five – most of who lived in eastern Anatolia – the day after they signed their secret agreement with Germany. The order was soon expanded to include those aged 18–20 and 45–60 and by February 1915 the Armenian conscripts had been disarmed and moved into labour battalions.
Armenian intellectuals, writers, teachers and thinkers were slaughtered over the coming months and any men that had managed to escape conscription were massacred. With villages cleared of their men of fighting age, the Ottoman government turned their attention to the children, women and elderly; they ordered their deportation to desert camps in Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor in present-day Syria.
These convoys of Armenians were forced to march through the desert without food or water, many succumbing to exhaustion, dehydration and malnutrition. They were often guarded by just a couple of Turkish police officers, who stood by as they were attacked by chettis – released prisoners under Special Organisation (Ottoman imperial government special forces) control – and Kurdish gangs. The Armenians were robbed of whatever goods they had, many were murdered, women were raped and girls stolen into sexual slavery.
Those that managed to survive these death marches found themselves imprisoned in un-provisioned and unsanitary camps. There are eyewitness accounts that speak of entire communities being liquidated in these camps: mass burnings, drowning and asphyxiation are all attested to. The majority, however, either starved or succumbed to disease, most commonly typhus and dysentery.
The Ottoman government claimed these deportations – or, as the Turkish governments continue to euphemistically call them, ‘relocations’ – were necessary to prevent Armenian fifth columnists siding with the Russian army who had defeated Ottoman troops in January and who were now lined up on the eastern border.
But this is little more than revisionist obscurantism. Geoffrey Robertson QC, in his recent book, An Inconvenient Genocide, meticulously lays out the evidence that overwhelmingly supports the claim that the Ottoman government committed genocide against the Armenian people.
Perhaps most damning is the testimony of the German ambassador, who, on 17 June 1915, reported that the Interior Minister, Talaat Pasha – the man who ordered the deportations – wished ‘to use the world war as a pretext for cleansing the country of its internal enemies – namely the Armenian population.’ This is just one of a bevy of diplomatic reports, cables and conversations that establishes the Young Turks’ genocidal intent.
That this coincides with the Allies’ assault on the Dardanelles is not to suggest they bear any moral responsibility for the Armenian Holocaust. Rather, it’s a tragedy that has a direct link with one of the most important events in Australian history, yet is largely ignored.
Culturally, any acknowledgement of the Armenian Holocaust detracts from what’s become Australia’s foundation legend. Anzac Day has morphed into a celebration of the ‘Anzac spirit’ and the birth of a nation. It’s an event – inevitably, one could argue – imbued with parochialism and nationalism. There is simply no room for a historical narrative more complex than the one commonly mythologised – any deviation from it would attack the very heart of what it means to be Australian.
In his book, Sense and Nonsense in Australian History, historian John Hirst explains why the Gallipoli landing has assumed such prominence in the minds of Australians:
The history of colonial psyche is the struggle to manage the disdain of the metropolis. For Australians this was particularly difficult because of their convict origins. As was common in that era, they believed in blood and breeding and even those concepts called so firmly into question their own physical and moral capacity. When the Australian troops fought so magnificently in the tangle of the hills and gullies at Gallipoli – and when all the world acknowledged it – there was an almost palpable settling of the national mind. Not everything was resolved of course, but the greatest uncertainty, that Australia would be tried and found wanting, that the worst suspicions of the metropolis would be confirmed, was now behind them. Australians said that they became a nation at Gallipoli and this was because the greatest obstacle to their feeling themselves to be such had suddenly been removed.
Thus, in the struggle for identity and meaning, the enemy was not the Ottoman Turks, but the British Empire itself. It’s not the battle that’s most important, but the values embodied by those fighting it.
The mutual respect between the ‘diggers’ and the Turks – coupled with the disdain for their British commanding officers – is an important element to the myth and has often elevated the Turks to the role of an idealised enemy. Much has been made of the friendship and camaraderie formed between the troops on the battlefield: during truces they often fraternised, swapping token gifts and cigarettes, and when the Anzacs were evacuated some left letters and whiskey behind for the Turks they’d fought.
On the shores of Gallipoli a mutual respect and bond was formed between Turkey and Australia. In his poem ‘Anzac’, Lieutenant Oliver Hogue penned the words:
I reckon the Turk respects us, as we respect the Turk; Abdul’s a good, clean fighter – we’ve fought him, and we know.
Those that weren’t respected were the political leaders and commanding officers who’d led many to their deaths without risking their own lives. This was integral to Australia’s conception of itself as a nation that had left the pomp and inflexible class-based society of the Empire behind.
The goodwill between the two nations extends until the present day and commemorations are often joint affairs. Significantly, located on Anzac Parade, directly opposite the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, stands the Mustafa Kemal Atatürk Memorial in honour of Turkey’s first president and the man who led the Gallipoli campaign; it stands alone as the only memorial to an enemy commander.
The memorial was commissioned following the Turkish government’s official recognition and naming of Anzac Cove at Gallipoli – the scene which now fills the backdrop of the annual remembrance ceremonies. So, more than anything else, the Atatürk Memorial can be seen as a gesture of thanks to the Turkish government for continuing to venerate and preserve the closest thing Australian culture has to a site of pilgrimage. Many Australian soldiers lost their lives on the shores of Gallipoli and their bodies – some in marked graves, others never recovered – remain there.
In 1934, in an expression of genuine solidarity, Atatürk wrote: ‘Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.’
He was never, however, as sympathetic towards the Armenians that were murdered en masse while he was ‘dug in’ fighting the Anzac forces. Atatürk’s attitude towards the Armenian Holocaust was, nevertheless, more complex than modern day Turkish nationalists and leaders like the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who deny such a crime ever took place.
Atatürk acknowledged the crimes – referring most often to them as a ‘massacre’. The title of Taner Akçam’s history, A Shameful Act, comes from a phrase used by the republic’s first leader.
One of the most significant legal challenges at the time was that there was no international jurisdiction for prosecuting government officials for crimes perpetrated against their subjects. However, from February 1919, under British occupation some of the Young Turk leaders were brought to trial in Constantinople.
Three of the architects of the Armenian Holocaust – Interior Minister Talaat, Minister of War Enver and the Minister of the Navy Cemal – were tried in absentia because, fearing retribution, they had earlier escaped to Germany. They were all found guilty of premeditated ‘first-degree mass murder’, carried out by the Special Organisation, who’d freed prisoners in full knowledge that they’d attack the Armenian convoys.
The new government also managed to try and convict some lower level party officials and apparatchiks in Constantinople. Then, in 1920, the British – frustrated with delays and the release of some prisoners – took most of the remaining indictees to Malta, where they carried out two death sentences. But, with little support from its allies and no legal jurisdiction, Britain struggled to prosecute the Ottoman officials.
After a brief Turkish civil war in 1920, in which a number of British officers and soldiers were captured, Atatürk came to power. Shortly after his victory he organised a prisoner swap with the British and closed down the tribunal.
Atatürk took over government, declared the Turkish Republic and, with that, any hope of justice for the Armenians was extinguished. The new nationalist leader set about building a strong secular nation out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.
The new government – short of men with administrative experience – eventually enlisted some of the Young Turks who had been implicated in the Armenian Holocaust to fill positions within Atatürk’s Republican People’s Party. Their presence within the nationalistic State apparatus meant that to admit their guilt was, in a sense, to undermine the very people and institutions that had liberated Turkey from British occupation and founded the republic. Tragically, this remains the thinking behind the current Turkish government’s refusal to acknowledge the great crimes committed against the Armenians.
In a way, Australia’s foundation myth has also become reliant on denying the Armenian Holocaust. On a cultural level, Turkish soldiers need to hold the mantle of respected foe, not perpetrators of a crime that prefigured the Jewish Holocaust, which makes comparisons with the Nazis impossible to avoid.
But, perhaps of more significance now, Australia relies on Turkey’s goodwill to participate in Anzac Day commemorations. What would people say if Turkey decided to deny visas to Australians hoping to make the pilgrimage to Gallipoli on 25 April? There is precedent for this: in 2013 the New South Wales parliament recognised the Armenian Holocaust and, in response, Turkey banned all NSW MPs from attending this year’s centenary commemoration.
This was likely on the mind of Julie Bishop when she made what must be one of the most contemptible – not to mention unequivocally false – statements ever by an Australian foreign minister. In a letter dated 4 June, 2014, she wrote to the CEO of the Australian Turkish Advocacy-Alliance (ATA-A), Ertunc Ozen, denying the crimes against the Armenians:
The Australian Government acknowledges the devastating effects which the tragic events at the end of the Ottoman Empire have had on later generations, and on their identity, heritage and culture. We do not, however, recognise these events as ‘genocide.’ […] While respecting the rights of individuals and groups to have strong views on the matter, the long-standing and clear approach of the Australian Government has been not to become involved in the sensitive debate.
But there is no debate to be had on this question among historians and legal experts. Like the Jewish Holocaust, the crimes against the Armenians are undeniable. In a tragic forewarning of what was to come, Adolf Hitler, on the eve of his Polish invasion, told his generals:
Thus for the time being I have sent to the East only my ‘Death’s Head Units’ with the orders to kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish name or language. […] Who still talks nowadays about the Armenians?
And in many ways his point still holds: The Armenians, one hundred years on, remain the forgotten victims of the Great War. And they are still refused the respect, dignity and justice that holding those responsible for these crimes would go some way towards addressing.
In her letter Foreign Minister Bishop offers this exhortation: ‘We encourage all parties to resolve these issues through dialogue…’ But how can these ‘issues’ be resolved if Turkey refuses to acknowledges its crimes? There can be no way through this impasse until, at a very minimum, Turkey recognises her guilt in the Armenian Holocaust.
As a nation, we’re rightly abhorred when we hear state-ments out of Iran making light of the Jewish Holocaust. David Irving’s revisionist Nazi history ought to disgust us. Any nation or political leader that denies the crimes committed against the Jewish people should be ostracised. But this should also hold true of the crimes committed against the Armenian people.
Yet the Australian government makes light of these crimes, is complicit in Turkey’s attempt to cover them up and, rather than be ostracised, is lauded and rewarded for it.
* This figure is the most commonly agreed upon among impartial historians; however, it remains a point of serious contention for the Turkish government who claim there were fewer than 1.5 million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire in 1915. They continue to insist that only 1.05 million Armenians resided in the Empire and the death toll totalled 600,000 – still 60 per cent of the population. The Armenian Church – who’d have been in a better position to judge these things – estimated a population of 2.1 million Armenians, of whom 1.5 million died. Other credible historians put the number of dead between 800,000 and 1.2 million.
Image credit: Chris Phutully