The Turkish government is going to allow its Armenian citizens to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the (let’s call it what it was) Armenian Genocide on Friday, in an officially permitted religious service. Turkey has long resisted any suggestion that the Ottoman Empire’s brutalization of its Armenian population in 1915 was a “genocide,” despite the fact that as many as 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians were killed in an imperial program of mass arrests, deportations, executions, death marches, concentration camps, and outright massacres. The official line from Ankara has always been that the Armenians who died (officially they insist that the number was closer to 800,000) died either in battle or as a result of the massive, region-wide population movements that took place immediately after WWI. They have engaged in heated diplomacy over the years to ensure that other countries around the world do not officially designate the events of 1915 as a genocide, to the extent that only 24 countries (as well as 43 individual US states) have done so.
Hundreds of thousands of Turks did die during and after the war as well, some fighting Armenian liberation forces, others fighting similar liberation forces in Europe, and many more when they were forcibly deported from the Balkans when the war ended. Part of Ankara’s justification for refusing to reckon with the Armenian Genocide is that nobody talks about a “Turkish Genocide” despite all those Turkish deaths. Of course, the reason nobody talks about a “Turkish Genocide” is that words like “genocide” mean specific things. In this case, “genocide” means “the intent to destroy a discrete [racial/ethnic/religious/etc.] group,” and that definition simply doesn’t apply to those Turkish deaths, tragic as they were (the post-WWI forced relocation of Balkan Turks and Anatolian Greeks was a genuine crime against humanity that rarely gets the attention it deserves). However, when you had a pre-war Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire of upwards of 2 million and a post-war Armenian population in the Republic of Turkey of a couple hundred thousand, and this massive population reduction came about a result of a specifically calculated imperial effort to systematically eliminate the Armenian population (as it was feared they might aid a Russian invasion of the empire through the Caucasus), that’s genocide.
In hindsight, Turkey could have saved itself some trouble by simply acknowledging the genocide and blaming it on the empire. After all, Turkey took several steps in its early years to show that it was not simply an extension of the empire under a different name. It abolished the Ottoman “caliphate,” moved the capital from Istanbul to Ankara, embraced its Turkish-ness where the empire had been multi-ethnic, and even changed the Turkish language, switching the alphabet from Arabic to Latin and attempting, with mixed success, to purge Arabic and Persian words from the vocabulary. But Ankara has clung to its denialism for decades now, for two big reasons. For one thing, many of the Ottoman officials who helped perpetrate the Armenian Genocide moved on to high-ranking positions under the Republic of Turkey after the empire was dissolved. More fundamentally, though, the decision to target the Armenians was inextricably tied up in the ethnic fracturing of the formerly multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire, which itself produced the idea of the empire, then the republic, as a “Turkish” state. Imagine if the founding ideology of your country were the fruit of the same poisoned tree that helped motivate a genocide. You wouldn’t want to cop to that, either.
If anything, you’d expect the current AKP-led government to be more resistant to acknowledging what happened in 1915 than past CHP-led governments, since AKP is frequently accused of practicing “neo-Ottomanism.” That’s a pejorative that the Greeks invented in the 1970s to ridicule the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, but it’s been adopted by AKP’s Turkish opposition and foreign critics to describe the party’s increased reverence for Ottoman symbols and history (including accusations that PM-turned-President Tayyip Erdoğan is living large like an Ottoman sultan), as well as its movement away from the CHP’s very Euro-centric foreign policy toward a foreign policy that pays more attention to the Middle East and southeastern Europe (coincidentally, I guess, the places that used to belong to the Ottomans).
But in fact, in the last two years the AKP has taken more steps to remember 1915 than any Turkish government before it. Last year, then-PM Erdoğan formally offered “condolences” for the Armenian killings, which he further described as “inhumane.” Current PM Ahmet Davutoğlu made another statement of condolence yesterday when he announced the plans for the religious service. Don’t get me wrong; Turkey still isn’t about to admit that what happened in 1915 was a genocide, and they’re still prepared to harshly dispute that characterization with any world leader who says that it was, even if that world leader happens to be the Pope. There has been a push in recent years for more countries to openly acknowledge the genocide, and it looks like Germany will soon become the 25th nation to do so, which suggests that Ankara is being pulled toward acknowledging what happened in 1915 rather than doing so of its own accord. Still, in my view every small step that Turkey takes toward reckoning with that dark event is important.