Sunday 7 March 2010
I was casting my over press reports at the weekend on the outrage in Turkey after the United States Congress defined the mass killings of Armenians in the First World War as ‘genocide.’
The Turks are a proud people, a people with a deeply ingrained sense of national honour. I suppose I can understand, to some degree at least, the collective anger that this move has occasioned. After all, it places their country on the same moral level as Nazi Germany, or at least that’s how they feel. Official channels in Turkey do not deny that something terrible happened in those years, though the tendency is to view these events as part of a pattern of inter-communal violence.
There are a number of things that occur to me. First, I think it wrong to reduce the debate to numbers; it’s just as terrible if a ‘mere’ 300,000 Armenians died rather than 1.5 million, a figure favoured by those who define the event as genocide. Second, and perhaps more important, it’s wrong to get stuck in a bog of semantics.
So far as I am concerned- and I do stress this is a highly personal view- the Armenian tragedy cannot be equated with the Holocaust for the simple reason that it was not premeditated and systematic. In other words, there was no master plan, no proposal to exterminate an entire race, no Turkish Wannsee Conference, no Turkish Heydrich and no Turkish Eichmann. The whole thing, the deportations of a politically suspect minority and all that followed, was just a bloody mess, the kind of horror, though on a larger scale, that had been such a feature of Ottoman history, in episodes like the 1878 Batak Massacre in Bulgaria that so angered Gladstone.
There is, perhaps, a more fundamental point still. The crime was the responsibility of the Ottoman Empire, in general, and the then Young Turk government, in particular. But the Ottoman state disappeared in 1923 when the Republic of Turkey was born, the creation of Mustafa Kemal. This was a genuine young Turkey, a new and modern nation, which emerged from the ruins of an empire that had been degenerating for decades beforehand.
So, yes, I do find it difficult to understand the passion over this lost past. I know it’s an even more remote past but I personally would feel no sense of outrage, bemusement, yes, but not outrage, if the Irish decided to define the crimes of Oliver Cromwell, or the more recent Potato Famine, as forms of ‘genocide.’ There are indeed occasions when the dead are best left to bury the dead.
And so far as the US Congress is concerned one wonders when it will accept a resolution to the effect that what happened to the Indians in the nineteenth century in their own country was genocide. Unlike Turkey the United States does not have the excuse of historical and political fracture. These are matters that should be thought about deeply before rushing into the politics of gesture, often empty and more often meaningless.