‘Open Wounds: Armenians, Turks, and a Century of Genocide,’ By Vicken Cheterian
For Armenians around the word, April 24 is perhaps the most significant day of the year. This April 24 marked the centenary of the forced expulsions and killings of Armenians by the Ottoman state. The day, chosen in remembrance of the deportation of 260 Armenian intellectuals -- including teachers, parliamentarians, poets and musicians -- from the Ottoman capital of Constantinople in 1915 has been a day of commemoration since 1919. For most of the last century, this episode -- in which the Armenian population was reduced from over 2 million at the start of the war to a mere 300,000 mostly women and children by the end of it -- has remained one of the most controversial aspects of the violent last throes of the dying empire.
By 1915, the struggling Ottoman Empire, long since labeled the “sick man of Europe,” had in the preceding years lost vast swathes of land. The bitterest loss was that of the Balkan territories to various incipient nationalisms. These were once the beating heart of the empire and from where a large number of the Young Turk leadership, who shaped the trajectory of the empire in its last years, originated. The loss of the heavily Christian Balkan territories left only the Armenians as the major Christian minority in the empire. Though the Armenians had long been regarded as the most loyal Christian minority in the empire, Russian advances into Ottoman territory in the east of the empire (where a large segment of the Armenian population was concentrated), growing nationalism and conflict over land increased anti-Armenian sentiment to such an extent that the community was increasingly seen as a fifth column. To uproot this potential threat within, the Ottoman state embarked on what many historians say was the first genocide of the 20th century.
Modern Turkey -- the most direct successor state of the Ottoman Empire -- has consistently and categorically rejected any claim that the atrocities against the Armenians were a carefully planned and orchestrated by the state, i.e. genocide. Turkey has long flexed its muscles to ensure that there is no international consensus or acknowledgement of the genocide. Instead, explanations for the events have included a strong strain of victim-blaming. Even if there is acknowledgement that atrocities were committed, a common argument has been that the Armenians were inciting rebellion against the state and the violent repression of the state was a natural outcome. This culture of denial has been so deep-rooted that only now is its grasp being slowly weakened. But as diplomatic, academic and political debates over 1915 continue, what impact have the events and their denial over the last century had on Turks and Armenians? That is the subject of Vicken Cheterian’s recent book, “Open Wounds: Armenians, Turks, and a Century of Genocide,” which is a probing examination of the
Modern Turkey has consistently rejected any claim that the atrocities against the Armenians were planned by the state
impact of 1915 and its aftermath on not just the victims but also the perpetrators of the atrocities.
In the century that has followed their near destruction, it is hardly surprising that for Armenians “genocide” has become the central marker of their identity. Mount Ararat, a central icon in Armenian culture and where Noah’s Ark supposedly landed, is today in Turkish territory. Armenians are completely forbidden from climbing or even walking on the mountain. An hour’s drive from Yerevan, its peak looming over Armenia, it is almost as if Ararat casts a shadow of the past over modern Armenia.
People often wonder why it matters so intensely to the Armenian community whether the events of 1915 were officially a genocide (the term was not coined until World War II). It is worth remembering that the memory of 1915 is intensely personal to almost all Armenian families from the former empire, and a way of keeping both family and community history alive. Moreover, it is unsurprising for victims to seek acknowledgement of what they have gone through. This issue of acknowledgement is also important because it opens up questions about the ways in which the victimization of the Armenians continued well after the foundation of modern Turkey, a point that Cheterian makes repeatedly throughout the book.
When the Turkish Republic was established in 1923 under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, its official historiography stressed the many ways in which the republic was a radical, modern departure from the Ottoman past. In fact, there was a large degree of continuity of both leadership and ideology from the Ottoman era. Most of the new Kemalist leadership -- including Kemal himself -- were themselves deeply complicit in the Young Turk movement that had been at the helm of affairs during the war.
Cheterian argues that one thing the denial of the crime allowed the Turkish state to do was to continue repressing its religious minorities’ scholars who worked on the Armenian genocide, with the state arguing that the killing of Armenians was not industrial in the way the Holocaust was. Small numbers of Armenians did survive across the
People often wonder why it matters so intensely to the Armenian community whether the events of 1915 were officially a genocide
empire and also in metropolitan cities such as İstanbul and İzmir (where they had been a central pillar of the empire’s commercial classes) because the brutal weakening of a numerically and economically important minority rather than its total annihilation seemed to be the end goal. This victimization was continued even after the empire was abolished. Armenians were dispossessed by the new state, which despite adopting secularism also forged a national identity where Islam was a central tenant. The confiscation of Armenian assets and properties, including some 2,500 churches, was one way the state continued to target the Armenians in ways other than through sheer physical violence.
Some of the most moving chapters and episodes of the book are where Cheterian scratches the surface of today’s Turkey. A slightly closer look begins to reveal traces of a vibrant population in parts of Turkey where one might forget it had ever existed. Traveling across eastern and southeastern Turkey, Cheterian visits ruined Armenian monuments (though a number of these have undergone restoration in recent years due to the lure of tourist money and the relative openness of the existing Turkish government on the issue) or finds Armenian histories in buildings that seem at first totally nondescript. Perhaps even more amazing than the remnants of the physical history of the Armenians is the history of crypto- or Islamized Armenians in Turkey. By some claims, they are almost 2 million Turks of Armenian extraction. Famously, Atatürk’s best- known adopted daughter, the pilot Sabiha Gökçen, was born to an Armenian family. Many trace their roots to ancestors who converted to Islam to avoid persecution. A large number of these family histories have only recently come to light as more curious younger generations have probed their past, or survivors, confronting their mortality, opened up to tentatively share their secrets.
Cheterian begins “Open Wounds” by recounting the assassination of Hrant Dink, the extraordinary editor-in-chief of the
Cheterian also traces other changes in the political environment that have allowed for more open discussion of the events of 1915
bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos. Dink had established Agos in 1996 as an instrument to open up and convey the reality of the Armenian community to the broader Turkish public and to speak more openly about the challenges minorities faced in Turkey. The Armenian population outside Turkey had been politicized since soon after the genocide. For example, key Young Turk figures associated with the genocide were assassinated by Armenian terrorist groups. Later, around the 50th anniversary commemorations, the international apathy over remembering the events of 1915 further politicized a generation of Armenians. However, in Turkey itself, the Armenian minority was reduced to silence or self-denial and was primarily concerned with self-preservation. Politicized Armenian youth would join left-wing parties, but even such organizations did not have a differentiated take on the Armenian killings than the official view. Agos became the first proper channel to bring Armenian history to the forefront in Turkey. Cheterian provides valuable insight into Dink’s own political evolvement and also analyses how his murder by ultranationalist forces became a tipping point that opened up a wider discussion about the events of 1915 and the condition of the Armenian community in Turkey. Even today, Dink’s death anniversary is marked by throngs of people silently holding placard saying “We are all Hrant Dink. We are all Armenian” as they had in the immediate aftermath of his assassination.
Another major cause for the broadening of the discussion of an Armenian genocide Cheterian references has been the role of the Kurds -- in 1915 brutal competitors with the Armenians over land resources -- in speaking up openly about their part in the events of 1915. The elimination of the Armenians led to the emergence of the Kurds as a problematic minority within the parameters of the Turkish state. The repression by the state the Kurds in Turkey’s southeast have faced has led to a sensitization of the kind of violence the state is able to
visit upon minority communities. Kurdish leaders and municipalities in towns such as Diyarbakır, which witnessed intense Armenian bloodletting, have been at the forefront of opening conversations about what happened in 1915 and even restoring the Armenian heritage of their towns. For the Kurds, this engagement with the past is an important exercise in selfcritique and spreading awareness of past mistakes in an effort to build a more inclusive society for the future.
Cheterian also sensitively traces other changes in the political environment in Turkey that have allowed for a more open discussion about the events of 1915. Last year, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan went further than any Turkish leader ever had in acknowledging and apologizing for the massacres. But as in any society, countervailing forces are always at play. In particular, there still seems to be some concern on the part of the state about the nebulous consequences of acknowledging that what happened in 1915 was genocide. Further, there is concern about what such an acknowledgment might mean in terms of Turkey’s international standing and in terms of the events of the genocide overshadowing other more familiar nationalist landmark dates.
This year the Turkish government brought forward its commemoration of the victory at Gallipoli (also marking its centenary this year) by a day from the original April 25 date. As world leaders gathered in the Gallipoli Peninsula to commemorate the disastrous amphibious campaign fought by the Allies, descendants of Armenians victims and sympathetic Turks gathered at the Sirkeci station in İstanbul, from where a number of the arrested Armenian intellectuals were deported to the hell of death marches through the Syrian desert. They held up red carnations and placards reading, “genocide recognize, genocide apologize.” On Twitter, young Turks posted messages of apology for the events of 1915. It was almost as if a century on, after decades of suppression and after the efforts of a number of brave Armenians and Turks, the issue of 1915 could no longer be contained. There’s still a long way until the issue reaches any sort of conclusion, but Cheterian’s book is a timely, detailed and intensely moving account of how important even this small amount of progress is and how it has happened, in many ways, against all odds.
Although Mount Ararat is of great significance to Armenians, it lies within Turkey’s borders.
Atatürk’s bestknown adopted daughter, the late pilot Sabiha Gökçen (C), was born to an Armenian family.