The NSW Parliament recently passed a resolution condemning the genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman empire against its Assyrian, Pontic Greek and especially Armenian communities during the Great War.
The Turkish Consul-General in Sydney, the foreign ministry in Ankara and even the city council in Çanakkale (Gallipoli) immediately responded. They deny that the genocide had even occurred and have warned state parliamentarians that they will not be welcome in Turkey when the two nations commemorate the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign in 2015.
Australians unaware of the details might be surprised at the vehemence of the Turkish response. Aren’t Turkey and Australia friends? Don’t the Turks generously welcome Australian and New Zealand visitors to Gallipoli throughout the year but especially in April? What have we done to offend them?
The answer is that the parliamentarians have had the temerity to acknowledge the truth about one of the great crimes against humanity of the twentieth century. (Let’s for the moment put aside the question of whether a parliament’s view is even relevant. If the parliamentarians had resolved that the genocide had not happened it would still be an historical fact. But both Turks and Armenians regard legislative endorsement of their version of the past as scalps, and the Armenians are winning.)
Australians have been captivated by the Turkish narrative of Gallipoli. The Turkish nation has built around the campaign (in which they defeated a British (and Anzac) and French invasion of Turkish soil) a national epic of salvation. That Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of the modern Turkish nation, commanded some of its defenders makes Gallipoli part of Turkey’s national founding myth. In this the two nations have something in common.
The problem is that the day before the 1915 invasion, the Ottoman empire, suspicious of its Armenian minority, embarked upon the systematic elimination of the empire’s Armenian population. Impartial scholars accept that about a million-and-a-half of the empire’s two million Armenians were killed directly or died of starvation and sickness over the next few years. Neutral missionaries and diplomats, and even Turkey’s German allies witnessed and reported the massacres and deportations – as did Anzac prisoners of war.
The world was outraged at the time, and the surviving Armenian community, including a substantial Armenian diaspora in the Middle East, Europe, North America and Australia, has never forgotten it. Turkey, on the other hand, denies that genocide occurred, disputing its definition in international law or arguing that while villagers may have been deported they died of incidental causes.
The NSW resolution disrupts the astoundingly successful charm offensive Turkey has conducted in Australia for years, fostering a positive relationship with Australia through the shared ordeal of Gallipoli. The NSW resolution, instigated by Australia’s energetic Armenian National Council and promoted by the Christian Democrat MP Rev. Fred Nile (but also by the premier Barry O’Farrell), has upset Australia’s acquiescence with Turkey’s desire to emphasise the shared history of Gallipoli while eliminating any reference to the genocide.
You might argue that the Armenian genocide is remote from the Australian experience of the Great War. In fact, Australian troops (both prisoners of war and as combatants) encountered the genocide and its effects, and Australian civilians contributed vast amounts of money and time to the international relief effort mounted from 1915 and for years after. In effect, Australian troops in the Middle East were fighting to defeat a regime capable of state sponsored atrocity, just as Australia’s forces in the Second World War were fighting to defeat the regime responsible for the Holocaust. The Armenian genocide is part of the story of the Great War, something to which Australians should not be blind, and certainly not blinded by Turkish denial.
The controversy obliges Australians to take sides. I am an impartial historian, having been convinced of the facts by the historical evidence. That claim makes me immediately suspect in Turkish eyes. I suppose I’ll be banned as well. But having examined the evidence, I am co-writing a book on Australia and the Armenian genocide. As President of the recently-formed coalition Honest History, dedicated to standing up for honesty in our relationship to the past, I cannot connive at the falsification of history.
Australia and Turkey are friends. But friends tell each other the truth. They don’t react like children – ‘if you say that you can’t be my friend anymore!’ Turkey’s extraordinary response to the NSW parliamentarians will oblige Australians to choose between being a friend of Turkey or being a friend of the truth. I know which way I choose.
Professor Peter Stanley is a military historian at the University of NSW, Canberra.