One night in November, 2009, I heard Gerda Weissmann Klein speak at the University of Texas. A Holocaust survivor, Gerda’s 1957 memoir, “All But My Life,” chronicles her harrowing ordeal in labor camps and death marches during World War II. During the question and answer period, someone asked, “What do you say to Holocaust deniers?” She shrugged and said, “I really don’t have to say much. I simply tell them to ask Germany. Germany doesn’t deny it.”
I recalled that exchange last month when President Recep Erdogan of Turkey was asked about the Armenian genocide. He responded, “Let’s remove the 1915 events from the area of politics and refer to science and scientists.” He then chastised the Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan for rejecting his invitation to visit Turkey on April 24 for the centennial commemoration of the Battle of Gallipoli, saying the rebuff “violated protocols of courtesy.”
Why did the Armenian president pass on the chance to join Erdogan on the site of the battle? Because April 24 is also the centennial of the start of the Armenian genocide, and he will be at the Armenian Genocide Memorial that day. It was the night of April 24, 1915, when the Armenian intellectuals, professionals, editors, and religious leaders in Constantinople were rounded up by the Ottoman authorities, and almost all of them were executed. In the years that followed, three out of every four Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were systematically annihilated by their own government: 1.5 million people. The majority of Armenians alive today are descendants of those few who survived.
But Turkey denies the facts — as does oil-rich Azerbaijan. (Moreover, some of Turkey’s allies, including the United States, find euphemisms for the word “genocide.”) And while there are many thousands of Turkish citizens who want their country to face its past and acknowledge the crimes of its World War I leaders, no one expects Ankara to follow Berlin’s lead anytime soon and build — to use the name of the poignant and powerful Holocaust monument near the Brandenburg Gate — a Memorial to the Murdered Armenians of the Ottoman Empire.
The reality is that for nearly a century, Turkish leaders have worked fanatically to falsify the historical record. President Erdogan asking scientists or historians to weigh in on the genocide is rather like asking scientists to weigh on global climate change. They have. The International Association of Genocide Scholars unanimously considers the cataclysmic ethnic cleansing of the Anatolian Plains genocide. Just last month, a Kurdish member of the Turkish Parliament, Ahmet Turk, acknowledged his Kurdish ancestors’ role in the nightmare and apologized to the Armenians for the “blood on our hands.” Even the first postwar Turkish government convicted the three architects of the genocide of “crimes against humanity” in 1919 and sentenced them to death in absentia. It was not until the second postwar government took over in 1924 — the government led by Gallipoli hero Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — that Turkey began to rewrite history and sweep under the rug the death of 1.5 million people.
And why do they get away with it? It’s not merely that our memories are short and news cycles move on; it’s the political reality that so many Western nations viewed Turkey as the last stop against Soviet expansion during the Cold War.
Holding the Gallipoli commemoration on the very day that is acknowledged by Armenians around the world as Genocide Memorial Day is too offensive and obvious to be Machiavellian. It’s appalling. It is emblematic of the Turkish government’s aggressive and insulting approach to reconciliation with Armenia.
But it does raise a question: Where will our American leaders be on April 24? Will they be in Armenia, standing in memory for those whose stories were silenced in Der-el-Zor and Ras-el-Ain and the Dudan Crevasse? Or will they be in Turkey, at a commemoration designed specifically to keep those Armenian voices forever stilled?Chris Bohjalian is the author of 17 novels, including one about the Armenian genocide, “The Sandcastle Girls.”