‘Open Wounds: Ar­me­ni­ans, Turks, and a Cen­tury of Geno­cide,’ By Vicken Chete­rian

Turkish Review - - CONTENTS - VED­ICA KANT

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.

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