On August 22, 1939, just a week before the invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II, Adolf Hitler gave a speech to German Army commanders Obersalzberg, his home in the Bavarian mountains. In the speech, he is reputed to have said, “Who after all today speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?” In light of the Holocaust that Hitler fomented against the Jews in the coming years, his quote that day has been seen as a harbinger of not only what was to come, but what the world had largely forgotten. Namely the historical amnesia concerning the massacre of approximately one and half a million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during the First World War.
The words of Hitler that fateful day had the ring of truth. It was one of the few times that he ever told the truth about anything. The mass killing of the Armenians languished in obscurity less than twenty-five years after it took place. Today, it’s entirely another story when it comes to remembrance of an event that a majority of historians regard as genocide. The Armenian Genocide is second only to the Holocaust for scholarly as well as popularly studied examples of 20th century genocide. Despite this fact or maybe because of it, a virulent debate still rages today about whether to define what happened to the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire during World War One as genocide. To an outsider such as myself, such a debate seems esoteric. If one and half million Armenians lost their lives because of Ottoman policies to marginalize, blame and terrorize them for the Ottoman state’s failures during the First World War, than the state which carried out such actions and the citizens who were party to this act are to blame. If the Armenian community was consciously targeted than it certainly sounds like genocide. If so, then this squarely lays blame at the foot of the Turks, in the same way that blame for the Holocaust is placed upon the Germans. The difference is though, that the Turkish state resists shouldering such blame.
The situation is complicated by several factors, first of which is that the Ottoman Empire no longer exists. The Republic of Turkey which followed it is part of the legacy of that empire, but is also a very different entity. It is national, unlike the multi-cultural Ottoman state it replaced. Secondly, recognition of the Armenian Genocide is interwoven with international politics. Turkey, as a member of NATO and located at one of the most critical strategic points in the world, is a valuable ally that the western world does not want to upset or lose. Thirdly, some Armenians in the Ottoman Empire either actively or passively supported the Russian Empire against their own state. In defense of the Armenians who did this, they were constantly persecuted by the Ottoman state in the decades prior to the war. Nonetheless, this adds a complicating element to the picture. To further muddy the waters, the Turks do not deny that Armenians were massacred. What they deny is that the massacres were genocide. The Turkish position is that it was a product of the war. Of course, massacres occurred, but they were not premeditated. Without going into a long recitation of the historical details, it is enough to say that in sum what we have here is a situation fraught with controversy, vitriol and that has even turned violent at times. The debate continues today.
This brings me to my recent visit to the Turkish Military Museum. There, deep in the museum, on an upper floor, beyond the exhibits displaying artifacts from centuries of Turkish military conquest, past room after room filled with weaponry used to defeat both eastern and western armies, there is an exhibit area called the “Hall of the Armenian Issue With Documents.” Here I found a retelling of the conflict between the Ottoman Turks and their Armenian subjects that can only be described as horrifying. I think that horror was intended, but not the kind that I experienced.
The exhibition presented provocative documentary evidence of Armenian atrocities against the Turkish population. Photos of the most brutal carried out on Turkish men, women and children. Even in grainy black and white these photos were hard to look at. One showed several children frozen to death, their legs bound to their heads. The exhibition would have us believe that Armenians were attacking defenseless Turkish populations. An uninformed observer would think the Armenians had carried out atrocities of the most brutal nature to ethnically cleanse parts of Anatolia. While I am pretty sure that Armenians did commit violent acts shown in the photos, the exhibition lacks any context whatsoever. The Armenians were a minority under constant threat and were being provoked. They were robbed, pillaged and murdered as scapegoats for an empire in an irreperable state of decay.
My reaction to the “evidence” presented was one of horror, but not so much at the scenes displayed in the photos (sadly I’ve seen the same types of photos in museums detailing the Holocaust and other ethnic cleansing episodes). Instead, I was horrified at how far removed the exhibition was from presenting both sides of the story. It eschewed any contextual information or opposing viewpoint. The vehement one-sided presentation made me actually want to argue the Armenian cause. This is really saying something since I have no Armenian acquaintances or friends. Furthermore, I have always found the Turkish people to be overwhelmingly likable, hospitable and helpful. Nonetheless, this “Hall” with its radically revisionist agitprop displays was a sad commentary on the current state of denial that still plagues Turkish society when it comes to “the Armenian Issue.”
The last casualty of the Armenian Genocide, at least in the Turkish Military Museum, continues to be the truth. The ferocity of denial on display in that exhibition hall would be enough to make even the most ignorant observer suspicious of what was being presented. If the truth is so easily established then why the need to provoke. I certainly hope that the Turkish people take this exhibition down until both sides of the issue can be presented in a dispassionate manner. It is a hallmark of a self-confident society that it can confront even the most uncomfortable truths of its past in a forthright and honest fashion. I spend a lot of time in Eastern Europe and have seen this done well in countries as different as Poland, Hungary and the Ukraine when dealing with the Holocaust and/or the Communist past. The Turkish people certainly have the ability to do the same. They can find the truth about what really happened by studying a wide variety of historical sources. A good place to start would be anywhere outside of this museum.