Turkey, Armenia and the tragedies of wars

Gallipoli is a good place to start for resolving the historic dispute between Turkey and Armenians.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan
The Turkish public still largely refuses to accept what happened a century ago, writes Oruc [Reuters]

The Battle of Gallipoli was one of the most critical scenes in Turkey’s history. Britain and France opened an overseas front in Gallipoli in East Thrace and tried to overcome the Ottomans. The Russian Empire was promised the capital Istanbul by the two of Entente Powers of World War I. It was a fight for the survival of a nation, a struggle for life or death.  

The victory in Gallipoli didn’t help Turks win the war but it gave hope to resist and start the war of independence a couple of years later. The resistance is honoured every year on March 18 in Gallipoli and on the shores of the Dardanelles.

Gallipoli is of significant importance to others like Australia and New Zealand. Each year, on April 25, they commemorate the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who died in Gallipoli. This is known as ANZAC day.

It was a battle away from home. It wasn’t even their war. They were dominions of the British Empire when the war broke out. Gallipoli is now a symbol of their national identity and existence. Their nations were born there.

Honour and remembrance

Both commemorations are based on remembering and honouring – not celebrating. Australians who come to visit Gallipoli are always welcomed by the Turks who were their enemies once. After all, places like Gallipoli are memorials – not only for the people on the side of the Allies, but also for all those involved in the tragedies of wars. There, the Memeds and the Johnnies are resting side by side.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gallipoli. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has invited more than 100 world leaders, including Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, to attend centennial commemoration ceremonies. The UK’s Prince Charles and the prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand are expected to take part in the ceremonies as well.

Armenians mark anniversary of mass killings

Turkey will commemorate the centennial on April 24 instead of the regular memorial date, March 18, in a symbolic gesture of compassion. April 24 also marks the start of the deportation of Armenians by Turkish unionist authorities – it is the day Armenians around the world traditionally commemorate their ancestors who were killed in that campaign.

On April 23, 2014, Turkey issued a first-of-its kind statement offering condolences to the descendants of slain Ottoman Armenians. Erdogan, then prime minister, highlighted the “shared pain” endured during the events of 1915, expressing condolences on behalf of the Turkish state.

It is upsetting that Sargsyan has decided to reject the invitation, which would have helped lead us one step closer to understanding and reaching closure on the tragic events of 1915. The invitation, after all, was yet another historic move following Erdogan’s statement.

The Turkish public still largely refuses to accept what happened a century ago. Turkey is only just coming to terms with the Unionist/Kemalist ideology, which was the root of the animosity against Armenians, and the official nationalist interpretation of history is now collapsing.

Taboo talking points

Ten years ago, merely talking about 1915 was a feat of bravery, but now there is no taboo when discussing anything out loud. Explaining why he had rejected Erdogan’s invitation, Sargsyan said he viewed it as an attempt to overshadow the centenary of the Armenian genocide. But while Turkey is taking historic steps, despite the sentiments of the majority of its people, it would have been more constructive for Armenia to have responded favourably.

Discussing and understanding history is more conducive to progress than being stuck at the same point for years, and Gallipoli is one of the most appropriate places to start.

Discussing and understanding historical reality is more favourable than being stuck at the same point for years, and Gallipoli is one of the most appropriate places to start.

Historians who write about Gallipoli hardly mention Armenians – and writings about Armenians rarely mention Gallipoli. But prominent researchers, even the ones who accept what happened in 1915 as genocide, say there is a strong link between the Gallipoli campaign and the Armenian deportations.

Taner Akcam, a leading international authority on the subject, draws attention to that link in his 2006 book “A Shameful Act”:

“It was not a coincidence that the Armenian genocide took place soon after the Sarikamis disaster and was contemporaneous with the empire’s struggle at Gallipol … A nation that feels itself on the verge of destruction will not hesitate to destroy another group it holds responsible for its situation… A prediction made by the German Ambassador Wangenheim is worth mentioning. With the outbreak of the war in August 1914, Henry Morgenthau warned him that the Turks would massacre the Armenians in Anatolia, to which Wangenheim replied: ‘So long as England does not attack Canakkale … there is nothing to fear. Otherwise, nothing can be guaranteed.'”

While another historian, Ronald Suny, provides evidence that the crisis precipitated by the Entente bombardment of the Dardanelles fortresses in March 1915 was a trigger, Donald Bloxham, a professor of modern history, believes that the arrests of the Armenian intelligentsia on April 24 came after the news that the British and the French were about to land their troops at Gallipoli.

That doesn’t mean Gallipoli is an excuse for what happened, but understanding this history will help us take significant steps and achieve results.

Merve Sebnem Oruc is a managing editor in online journalism and a commentator in Turkey.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.