The Ottoman Armenians, a Still-Unfolding History
March 9, 2009 8:15 PM   Subscribe

A devastating document is met with silence in Turkey. "According to a long-hidden document that belonged to the interior minister of the Ottoman Empire, 972,000 Ottoman Armenians disappeared from official population records from 1915 through 1916."

A View from Many Angles:
1915 reportage by the New York Times about the Armenian massacres
France, Great Britain, and Russia Joint Declaration, 1915
BBC News: Q&A Armenian 'genocide.' "Why put genocide in inverted commas?"
Armenian National Institute site.
An Armenian Myth
Babacan Warns Obama Against Recognizing Genocide
U.S. Department of State March 9, 2009 Daily Press Briefing (regarding Obama's upcoming visit to Turkey next month):
QUESTION: Did Mrs. Clinton discuss the Armenian issues of genocide with the Turks?
MR. WOOD: All right, look, that issue certainly was a subject that was discussed, but I’m not going to get into the details of the discussion.
posted by terranova (52 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
"Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"
posted by leotrotsky at 8:18 PM on March 9, 2009 [7 favorites]

System of a Down sings about it.
posted by baphomet at 8:20 PM on March 9, 2009

System of a Down sings about it.

If only someone had said that to Hitler back in the day!
posted by stammer at 8:23 PM on March 9, 2009

Uh oh. Serdar Argic doesn't have an account here, does he?
posted by ewagoner at 8:28 PM on March 9, 2009 [5 favorites]

Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said in an interview to the Turkish television channel NTV that there is a risk President Barack Obama would recognize the Armenian Genocide.

Who's advising the Turkish Foreign Minister on this issue Ernst Zundel?
posted by MikeMc at 8:34 PM on March 9, 2009

Atom Egoyan.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:38 PM on March 9, 2009

On one hand, it's always been bewildering to me, the Turkish denial of the genocide of Armenians.

First of all, it happened nearly 100 years ago - far enough back in time that you'd think it'd be "safe" to discuss nowadays. And it happened prior to the establishment of the modern Republic of Turkey, so one could easily argue that it was a different country entirely that was responsible - and to an extent, it was. And frankly, there's just too much evidence that it occurred. It's cost Turkey a lot to keep maintaining that it didn't happen, especially when doing bizarre things like taking Orhan Pamuk - probably Turkey's most internationally-known contemporary journalist - to court on charges of anti-Turkish propaganda. It's just strange.

On the other hand, Turkey (or rather, the Ottoman Empire) has always had a pretty terrible reputation in much of the "West." And a lot of it has been undeserved. Conversion to Islam was generally never forced (although it often provided advantages in taxation and land-owning.) And when compared to Christian invaders of Islamic lands in the same time period, the Ottomans often come out ahead in terms of basic civil liberties and human rights. Yet, I still hear horrific things about the "Turks" every time I visit parts of Europe once ruled by the Ottomans. And "Turk" is still a pretty serious epithet across the Balkans and is commonly used in reference to anyone who's Muslim - Bosnians, Albanians, Kosovans, Romanian Tatars, and so on. So I can kind of understand why Turkey doesn't want to acknowledge any *more* reasons to get bashed, even if I believe it's taking counterproductive measures. And I've talked to plenty of Turks who acknowledge that the genocide occurred, but feel people are overly focused on Turkey and don't seem too bothered about getting Russia (for instance) to acknowledge its role (as the USSR) in various anti-Jewish pogroms or genocidal actions and inactions in Ukraine. And they've probably got some kind of point there.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 8:44 PM on March 9, 2009 [8 favorites]

The first I knew about the Armenian genocide was in the 80s--then California Governor Deukmejian spoke out against something the President said or did in Turkey--I don't remember what. But I do remember the Governor giving an impassioned speech (unusual for him) with tears in his eyes, saying that we can't forget or ignore that the genocide occurred. His parents were Armenians born in the Ottoman empire.
posted by eye of newt at 8:44 PM on March 9, 2009

I forgot to mention that it was also the first time he criticized then President and former California Governor Ronald Reagan, which shocked just about everybody.
posted by eye of newt at 8:51 PM on March 9, 2009

leotrotsky is of course quoting Adolf Hitler explaining why he thought no one would hold Germany responsible for the Holocaust.
posted by orthogonality at 8:55 PM on March 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

Thanks orthogonality, I often have trouble sorting out random musings from relevant references here. Hmmm ... auto footnoting ...pony ...
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:17 PM on March 9, 2009

Every year in late April (I forget the exact date), the Armenians in my neighborhood all get together to commemorate the genocide. There are a lot of Armenians in LA, so it's quite a big deal. But what interests me most is the atmosphere: It's almost like a party. People paint their faces, they wear t-shirts that say "Armenian Genocide" on them, and the atmosphere is weirdly festive.

I find lots of what goes on in the Armenian community surrounding me pretty impenetrable -- partially because I don't make a huge effort, for sure, but partially because many of the Armenians don't speak English very often and seem pretty guarded overall (I assume this is due in part to the concept of White Genocide, but again, it's hard to tell for certain). So I don't know what to make of the festival atmosphere of the genocide remembrance. Mostly I just try to be respectful.
posted by hifiparasol at 9:22 PM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

DX, this wikipedia page describes slavery as a widespread practice for centuries until 1905.
Two quotes:
young Christian boys from the Balkans were taken away from their homes and families, converted to Islam and enlisted into special soldier classes of the Ottoman army.

Hundreds of thousands of Europeans were captured by Barbary pirates and sold as slaves to North Africa and the Ottoman Empire between the 16th and 19th centuries.

This seems accepted as part of mainstream academic history.

I could see how that would create some long lingering resentment.
posted by jouke at 9:26 PM on March 9, 2009

21 countries have recognized that there was indeed an Armenian genocide. It brings to mind the press conference back during Rwanda's, when the American press secretary1 did a fun little dance to avoid saying the word genocide, because in calling it a genocide would require intervention, which was not desired.

Would the Armenians get better treatment today?

1. Not a slag against Americans, we all dropped the ball equally on that one. Except France, who threw the balls forcefully to the ground and then stomped on them.
posted by Lemurrhea at 9:27 PM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nobel Prize winner, Orhan Pamuk was charged with "insulting Turkey's national character" for even bringing up the subject four years ago. The charges were dropped on a technicality, but more likely because of international pressure, and he still occasionally receives death threats for discussing the genocide.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:30 PM on March 9, 2009

There's quite a few Turkish students in my department -- at the same time, I've got several Armenian/pro-Armenia friends (hi k8t!) scattered around from all over. So it's interesting on Facebook watching different people join opposing groups -- my feed will say such-and-such has joined Recognize Armenia as a liar!, and a few spots down, another person joined a group insisting Turkey recognize the genocide.

Of course, in the face of actual evidence, I imagine it will be difficult for Turkey to refute this claim much longer.
posted by spiderskull at 10:15 PM on March 9, 2009

" 'Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?' "

Yep. Every previous genocide makes possible the future genocides. Just f'ing enraging. Really. Ah, I'll cut it short before I spin out on this.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:17 PM on March 9, 2009

young Christian boys from the Balkans were taken away from their homes and families, converted to Islam and enlisted into special soldier classes of the Ottoman army.

Hundreds of thousands of Europeans were captured by Barbary pirates and sold as slaves to North Africa and the Ottoman Empire between the 16th and 19th centuries.

This seems accepted as part of mainstream academic history.

I could see how that would create some long lingering resentment.

Devoid of context and comparison, though, those two statements are very misleading.

The first one: I can't defend slavery, except to say that much Ottoman slavery was benign when compared to its European counterparts. In many cases, it was often a case of indentured servitude, and the "slaves" often had tangible rights above and beyond those of "regular" citizens. The Janissaries *did* take Christian boys from their homes and force them into the military. That said, it wasn't quite like they raided people's homes and took their children as such. Essentially, they used a formula under which, in certain areas, 1 in 40 male children were taken. Quite often, these boys were chosen by (Christian) town elders. It was a sort of tax. (And often, it was the most troublesome child or children in a village who was/were chosen!)

This doesn't make it right or fair . . . but it was generally considered part of life. Importantly:

1) One's fate was often considerably *worse* if one was Muslim and subject to the whims of local Muslim leaders, who did not adhere to any sorts of limits, and whose forced servitude was of a much less pleasant kind. There was real status in being a Janissary.

2) By way of comparison, the specific practice mentioned was ended in the very early 1800s. Slavery existed in much of the rest of Europe for as much as 50 more years. And many forms of this slavery were of a less "benevolent" nature. You'd rather be an Ottoman Janissary than a Romanian Gypsy slave in the same year, believe me.

3) The practice of seemingly discriminatory forced enlistment lasted until in Europe for more than a century after the Ottomans ended the practice. Anyone who's read any classic Yiddish literature can remember many incidents - occurring in the 20th Century - of Jews being forced into similar militaries by Russians and others, with even fewer benefits.

4) There's actually very *little* credible evidence that the enslavement of Christian Europeans existed in the Ottoman Empire in any sort of numbers. The Wikipedia page you link to has two sources relevant to the passage you quote. The first one is their sole support of the idea of the Barbary pirates selling slaves in the Ottoman Empire - and it refers exclusively to northern Europe - non-Ottoman territory. In fact, neither the word "Turk" or "Ottoman" appear anywhere in it. (I reckon the Wikipedia bit on the subject was simply written in a very sloppy fashion.) The second article, written in 1855, does make some vague reference to the Christian enslavement in the Ottoman Empire. However, it makes it clear that this was really a limited-period, indentured servitude, after which the "slave" was totally free and had the same rights of his former slavemaster - who may very well have once been a slave himself. This is a better deal than (say) African slaves ever had in the USA or UK. But again, the evidence presented is pretty sparse and doesn't feel especially relevant - more theoretical than anything, by my reading.

Again, I can't defend any of this sort of behavior, and I'm not pro-Ottoman by any means . . . but the evidence that "the Turks" were even *as* vicious as their contemporaneous European peers is actually pretty thin.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:25 PM on March 9, 2009 [9 favorites]

21 countries have recognized that there was indeed an Armenian genocide. It brings to mind the press conference back during Rwanda's, when the American press secretary1 did a fun little dance to avoid saying the word genocide, because in calling it a genocide would require intervention, which was not desired.

Would the Armenians get better treatment today?

I was stuck in Sarajevo little more than 15 years ago, bombed and sniped at on a daily basis, as was everyone. The UN refused to acknowledge that Sarajevo was under a "state of siege," because to do so would have mandated a means of humanitarian evacuation of the injured, ill and young. And no one wanted to take on the 50,000 or so people who would have fit in that description. I can't count the number of people I knew who died because of this inaction.

So unless you're naive enough to think things have changed dramatically since the 1990s, I can tell you from firsthand experience that the Armenians would be just as fucked today. Quite often, I pity the sad state of the world.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:30 PM on March 9, 2009 [11 favorites]

In many cases, it was often a case of indentured servitude ... Quite often, these boys were chosen by (Christian) town elders. It was a sort of tax. (And often, it was the most troublesome child or children in a village who was/were chosen!)

You know, the same sort of thing probably happened with a lot of African slaves. For one thing, many of them were actually enslaved - that is, involuntarily indentured - by people in the same area who would have had reasons for their actions And a slave ending up in the USA would be much better off than one living in Africa! I'm glad that we're finally getting some balance in this pro-slavery / anti-slavery, pro-genocide / anti-genocide argument. Some people just can't see the good side of ripping kids away from their parents and condemning them to life under the lash.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:39 PM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

MetaFilter: I can't defend slavery, except...
posted by The Tensor at 11:16 PM on March 9, 2009

This is a topic that is a huge part of my life, as I've lived in Armenia on and off for the last decade, including most of 2008, and spend/spent a lot of time with Armenians of all stripes. A few points:

1. April 24th is Genocide Memorial Day.

2a. While this is a very sad point in history, modern day Armenia (the residents of which are not, for the most part, decendants of Genocide survivors) is not doing very well. It would benefit GREATLY from opening the border with Turkey. Cheap goods, opportunities for diaspora (re: Genocide survivor descentdant) tourism, well... many many things.

2b. There are Western and Eastern Armenians (see my recent AskMe answer on translation of a phrase) and Western Armenians resided in the Ottoman Empire and Eastern Armenians resided in tsarist/Soviet/now independent Armenia. The differences between the two groups are huge, both in today's Turkey/Armenia and within the diasporan communities.

re: hifiparasol's comment, I assume that he's referring to the more recent post-Soviet (Eastern) Armenians in Glendale. They are, as mentioned above, quite different from the (Western) Genocide survivors that came to the U.S./Canada/France/South America in the early 20th century. Those (Western) Armenians are pretty assimilated. The Glendale Armenians are brand new and not assimilating quite as much.

2c. While The Republic of Armenia has all these troubles, many diasporan groups (such as those in the original post above) work toward Genocide Recognition as a major goal. I'm not saying that it isn't important, but IMHO while the RoA is trying to create a capitalist democracy and doing a poor job at it, efforts/funds may be better (again IMHO) spent helping the state of current Armenia. This is a controversial stance for sure.

3. Jannisaries, the slaves, were really quite separate from the Genocide issue.

Going to bed... will check in on this thread later.
posted by k8t at 11:18 PM on March 9, 2009

PS, let's not forget that Armenians (diasporan) have done quite well for themselves politically. It is no surprise with huge voting blocks in the U.S., Canada, Argentina and France, that Genocide Recognition has been passed.
posted by k8t at 11:20 PM on March 9, 2009

I have to say, snarky comments that distort the meaning of a poster who's actually been really informative and interesting so far in this thread isn't productive. Don't get me wrong, if anyone has specific factual disagreements with Dee I'd love to hear them, I just hate to see what could possibly be the start of a really neat bit of conversation or debate derailed by this kind of thing.
posted by Stunt at 11:24 PM on March 9, 2009 [7 favorites]

In many cases, it was often a case of indentured servitude ... Quite often, these boys were chosen by (Christian) town elders. It was a sort of tax. (And often, it was the most troublesome child or children in a village who was/were chosen!)

This is what I learned in my (pro-Armenian) history courses in college as well.
posted by k8t at 11:26 PM on March 9, 2009

Some people just can't see the good side of ripping kids away from their parents and condemning them to life under the lash.

I don't really understand the snark, Joe. And Tensor.

The point is that, despite the reputation of the Ottomans, rule under them was frequently kinder and gentler one than under the Western nations who would like to believe themselves to have always been at the forefront of worldwide human rights and civil liberties. It doesn't make it right, and if you'd read what I wrote, I make that pretty clear. Hell, I've lived through genocide myself. I certainly wasn't defending slavery, but simply pointing out that Western attitudes about the Ottoman Empire (which filter down to Western attitudes about modern-day Turkey) aren't especially meaningful. The ancestors of the Europeans who propagate them were generally *as bad* as the ancestors of modern Turks . . . so the bias tends to come off as more racist than rational.

I can't think of any nations of any real size that don't have inglorious pasts, and of course, attitudes change over centuries. It's ridiculous to imply that there's no point in comparing historical situations simply because they're all repulsive.

We're actually talking about a history which none of us were alive to witness. It's okay to be objective and not engage in histrionics about it all. I've lived through war and have *always* discussed it here on Metafilter in a calm and reasoned manner, despite my many losses. I've also given many hundreds of hours discussing the horrors of war, child exploitation and female trafficking with schools, senior centers, charitable organizations and more. Your snark is very poorly aimed.

I don't know anyone whose moral righteousness is so mighty that it's fair for them to judge the attitudes of others who are simply engaging in well-reasoned discourse - especially when the judgment comes as the result of poor reading comprehension.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 11:44 PM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

"Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

This must be irony. Anyone who follows international politics has heard about this; it is brought up in almost every single media article or discussion on Turkey and the EU.

I remain confused as to why this is such a taboo issue in Turkey. Like others pointed out, it would be easy to brush this off as a crime of the Ottomans. And the Ottomans, like the Byzantines and Romans and Hittites and Greeks and Trojans and Lycians and ... I'm sure I'm forgetting at least half a dozen other empires ... all had their share of crimes. I almost think the genocide is remembered more precisely because Turkey keeps censoring discussion of it.
posted by kanewai at 12:01 AM on March 10, 2009

The reason, as far as I can understand, is the involvement of the Young Turks which included Ataturk. To admit the genocide is to open a political can of worms that involves the founder of the modern Turkish state, who is viewed in a very personal and exalted way.

An interesting passage from TE Lawrence's Seven Pillars has a discussion about the Armenian genocide as a result of political power struggles within the Ottoman empire.

The military of Turkey take Ataturk's founding of a secular state seriously and the maintenance of his memory is not a small endeavor. The vow taken by Turkish officers specifically mentions defending the Six Arrows of Kemalism. The military has ousted governments that it judged not toeing the Ataturk line (look under interest groups), from its perception.

So the genocide admission is not simply an admission of the event but the cascade of political fallout in a country made of very disparate parts maintaining a national identity and the struggle, presently, between secularist portions vs. more religious segments.
posted by jadepearl at 1:07 AM on March 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

As a non-expert in the Armenian genocide, to what extent does Turkey's continued denial of it stem from fear of reparations?
posted by MuffinMan at 1:40 AM on March 10, 2009

kanewai: "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

posted by Joey Michaels at 2:08 AM on March 10, 2009

Excellent point, jadepearl. And it's worth noting that even today, publicly causing offense to the memory or reputation of Atatürk is a crime in Turkey. It's ironic to me that the worship of the Father of Turks - who really *did* create a secular state - is justification for denial of the Armenian genocide . . . while at the same time, it has probably kept Turkey from becoming just another quasi-fundamentalist Islamic state. Which is worse? It's hard to say, especially if you throw in Turkey's treatment of its Kurdish population, which is pretty abhorrent. But I'd hesitate to think that an Islamic Turkey would be a better thing.

"Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

Anyone who follows international politics has heard about this; it is brought up in almost every single media article or discussion on Turkey and the EU.

It wasn't irony when Hitler said it; the Armenian genocide was, basically, forgotten at that point in time. The discussion of Armenian genocide has been revived rather than remembered in the sense of a continuum. This has a lot to do with Armenian community in America who are pretty powerful and make a lot of noise about the issue, and really ridiculous moves on Turkey's part which only serve to enflame the situation (such as Turkey's funding of Turkic Studies programs in many American universities with the provision that the genocide be swept under the carpet or dismissed as mass hysterical delusions.)

I just dug out Thea Halo's book, "Not Even My Name," which is the tale of an Pontic Greek woman's forced death march, at the age of 10, from Turkey, and her daughter's investigation into her family's story. (It wasn't only ethnic Armenians.) It's a little biased in places, but it's an intriguing and very readable book which provides some human dimension on the subject. Check it out if you're interested, you can get it used for under $5 on Amazon. But what's free are the readers' comments - 74 of them - in which old prejudices (on both sides) are revived as if the events had occurred yesterday.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 2:19 AM on March 10, 2009

As a non-expert in the Armenian genocide, to what extent does Turkey's continued denial of it stem from fear of reparations?

I doubt any. I think, as jadepearl illustrates, that a lot of it is rooted in fear of an adjustment in official "policy" that would undermine Atatürk's reputation and lead an already unstable secular country to some ugly places. And a lot of it is simply nationalistic fervor - the rough kind you get from a country that used to be one of the world's great powers and is still smarting from its greatly diminished place in the hierarchy of nations. And doesn't want to acknowledge what was obviously a genocide, as it would cast a negative light on its policies about ethnic minorities in Turkey today.

Most of the Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians who were killed or expelled were pretty impoverished rural denizens, without much (if any) money or valuable assets. Few records exist, and of course nearly everyone who was there is either dead or would need to be over 100 years old to recall anything at all. It'd be tough to make a viable claim, given the lack of paperwork, independent corroboration and so on. Turkey could argue that it's not quite the successor state for this genocide that Germany was for the Holocaust. And the claims - if the Holocaust is any example - would take so long to process that it's possible that by the time it happened, there wouldn't even be any children of survivors left.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 2:31 AM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I looked up Ataturk's history on Wikipedia. During the time of the Armenian Genocide, he was in the opposite side of the country, facing Greeks. I had just recently read the entire article about Ataturk, having visted the country and so stimulated to learn some more.

Personally, at this point, I fail to see how this event could stain the reputation of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Unless Wikipedia has been heavily edited by interested Kemalist anti-defamation people (I suppose that's possible) he is certainly to be highly admired. The more I read of Turkey and its history, the more fascinated I become.

As far as the slavery of Europeans go, I recall having read somewhere that boys were kidnapped by Europeans, then castrated and sold to the Muslims. This was something said specifically to occur in Italy, at some time. I can't vouch for the source at all, I don't even recall what the source was. It could have been something based on old stories told to scare kids into behaving. Or it could have been real. Some people will do anything for money, especially so if they're hungry.
posted by Goofyy at 4:50 AM on March 10, 2009

The more Turkey denies is, the more attention is paid to it. Which is exactly what the conservative ultra-nationalists want, it gives them legitimacy to defend Turkey's national honor. Even if ironically it makes them look dishonorable.
posted by stbalbach at 5:27 AM on March 10, 2009

It's easy to forget that in the grand scheme of international history, Turkey is still a desperately young country and thus Turkey's national identity is still a fragile, developing thing.

As Dee Xtrovert points out, all states have their historical black spots. Sometimes these are the legacy of a time in which the prevailing morality or belief system was different to that which exists today. Sometimes they are the result of actions then (rightly or wrongly) deemed necessary during a fight for national survival. Sometimes they are simply the inexcusable acts of a corrupt and greedy national leadership or the predjudiced and panicked actions of the mob. As an Englishman, for example, I'm accutely aware of the fact that my nation has more than it's fair share of all three.

Whatever the motivation, accepting that the actions taken at a particular time were bad - or indeed, as is this case here, that they took place at all - often requires a great deal of collective effort. In many cases it also requires a clear understanding of (nationally speaking) who we are and what we believe in, because often accepting a new understanding of the actions under scrutiny means questioning the behaviour of individuals at the time. Those individuals often not only include our own personal ancestors but also the larger-than-life figures that exerted such an influence on our nation as we know it today.

This is certainly the case for Turkey. As jadepearl pointed out, Ataturk is a figure who looms large over every part of modern Turkish thought and identity. That can be tricky to truly understand from an outside perspective, but if you're from the US imagine George Washington and Abraham Lincoln rolled into one single person and you'll vaguely come close. He was a warrior, a reformer, a thinker and a statesman who forged a new nation out of the shattered remains of an old one. To many Turks still to this day, Atatark isn't just the father of Turkey his is Turkey.

He is also a man who possessed plenty of flaws, made a fair few mistakes and who left his own trail of bodies along the way. Many of those Turkey has gradually become to accept into the Myth of Ataturk, but the acceptance of flaws into the story of a nation's origin is a slow process for the most stable of nations (the American Myth is still very much a work in progress, for example) and Turkey is most certainly far from stable.

When even begrudgingly accepting that Ataturk may have buried a few of his genuine enemies on false charges is a big deal, it becomes easier to see why even the chance that Ataturk may be linked to a whopper like the the Armenian genocides is a big problem. It's not just one elephant in the room, it's every pachyderm on the planet.

Now, at least to my knowledge, there is little evidence - if any - to suggest that Ataturk had anything at all to do with the Genocide. Yes, he was a Young Turk and it was very much their crime, but he was a relatively minor player at the time, outside the inner circle and - as much through luck as anything else - in action elsewhere. But, as with any German Army Officer who found their star rising during the Second World War, the question is always there however unfair it may be - how much did he know?

Remnants of the Armenian community would certainly later find themselves on the wrong end of Ataturk's armies as he advanced against the French and Greek forces in the war of liberation - as much a case of "wrong place at the wrong time" as anything else, but it doesn't exactly make the discussion any easier.

Given all the above, it's easy to see why the Armenian Genocide remains a hugely tricky subject for Turkey both consciously and subconsciously. Yes, the Genocide was carried out by the Ottoman Empire in it's dying days - an Empire that was a completely seperate entity both ideologically and politically from the Republic of Turkey as we now know it. Events and individuals at that time - most particularly Ataturk himself - are intrinsically linked, however, to the birth of the Republic.

The Armenian Genocide happened, and it was a full-blown act of genocide. For Turkey, however, an acceptance of that fact carries the risk - however small - of opening up a darker door on the National Myth at a time when the country needs that Myth the most. It also risks raising complex issues of culpability and compensation at a time when the secular and centrist elements within the country can ill-afford to further cede the ground of popular patriotism to the more radical elements within the country (both religious and otherwise).

Those are risks that many in the positions of power and responsibility feel are simply to dangerous to take, and whilst in good conscience I can't agree with them, I do understand them.
posted by garius at 5:33 AM on March 10, 2009 [7 favorites]

I remain confused as to why this is such a taboo issue in Turkey.

Because it never stopped? Just ask a Suriani if there is still genocide and ethnic cleanisng going on in Turkey. Funny how you don't find any in their homeland any more, I wonder why that is? (want someone else's opinion on the matter?)

And may God help you if you are a Kurdish Christian or Yezidi (or frankly any kind of Kurd) in Turkey.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:02 AM on March 10, 2009

Since people object to Snark, I shall try Fisk:

"it wasn't quite like they raided people's homes and took their children as such."

- No, they used the equivalent of a Judenrat: people who were so terrorised that they would give up their own children in order to buy some life on the installment plan.

Essentially, they used a formula under which, in certain areas, 1 in 40 male children were taken.

Tough luck for the little boy, eh? Taken away from his mummy and daddy by some strange men with swords, forced into barracks, whipped for breeaches of military discipline. Hey, could they marry? Wikipedia says no. Hmm. Little boys in a barracks full of single men. How often do you think they were raped? All the time? Or just at night?

Quite often, these boys were chosen by (Christian) town elders.

See? Judenrat.

It was a sort of tax.

You tax money. You tithe animals and produce. You draft labour as corvée. Seizing slaves is neither a tax nor a tithe nor a corvée. It is the act of an oppressor against an un-free population.

(And often, it was the most troublesome child or children in a village who was/were chosen!)

I am literally nauseated at the idea that someone can say this in mitigation and even place a happy little exclamation mark at the end. Of course the Judenrat would seize the unpopular, unbefriended, awkward children first. They would take orphans, and when they ran out of orphans they would take the children of the poor, and when they ran out of children of the poor - but the poor always have children. Troublesome!

You know, I don't care whether some Janissaries became powerful or whether they became their own social caste a few hundred years later. What concerns me is the way you treat it. There are children alive today who are slaves in all but name - sometimes they have the name, too. And one of the reason this goes on is that there are people who can brightly explain about how life is harsh, things are no better elsewhere, it's really good for the kids, some of them do really well, and in any case they're usually the troublesome ones.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:31 AM on March 10, 2009 [4 favorites]

Joe in Austrailia: Adjusting for differences in times, and the age of the boys, how exactly was this different from the military draft?

The Republic of Turkey is not the Ottoman Empire. Spitting out pieces of hate in the general direction of Turkey is not called for. The old east/west divide between Europe and the Ottomans is best left in the past. Divisions have generally served only those whose interest is not in the common welfare of everyone.
posted by Goofyy at 7:28 AM on March 10, 2009

Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?
Diamanda Galás.
posted by bink at 8:45 AM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think the problem with studying a phenomenon intellectually is that objectifying and classifying a subject seems to take away the humanity of a situation. Instead of seeing a terrified child taken from his home, one compares and contrasts his plight to that of other abused children, and feels a need to fit this exercise in to an overarching framework that pigeonholes him into his proper place in a hierarchy of abuse. I doubt many people would cheerfully accept that their own child had become a Turkish slave as this is better than being a European slave. Break out the champagne.

I don't think this is a derail at all, how we chose to look at these things today is probably the most important thing in the discussion. Our attitudes much more directly impact the world we live in than who was a less vile transgressor in the past. They all sucked. Lets learn from that perspective rather than trying to decide who was the bestest enslaver of them all.
posted by jester69 at 8:48 AM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

On one hand, it's always been bewildering to me, the Turkish denial of the genocide of Armenians...

In my time in Turkey, I actually found their embrace of total denial of history to be overwhelmingly common. I read Orhan Pamuk's "Istanbul" when I was *in* Istanbul... in it, he wrote about the way the city's Ottoman architecture was always mysteriously burning to the ground when he was growing up and people strangely ignored it. So as I walked around the city I was kind of amazed because the Ottoman powers ruled the earth, but unlike (and polar opposite of) the way Vienna obsesses over the Habsburgs, it's as though the people have erased and rewritten them.

I had a private tourguide ushering me around town, and as I'd read quite a bit I started asking him questions about things. He kept correcting me. "Harem is a word meaning family!" he would happily tell me. "Huh. Does it now?" I'd think to myself. "I've never read that."

Then he'd tell me how the sultan's harem was a separate community in the palace where the women and children he held dear would live happily and thrive. My eyes would roll. I started to just feign belief rather than fight it. "Oh, really? Wow.That's beautiful." Yeah, gee, I wish I lived in a harem, it sounds ideal!

But finally I got tired of the stories so I asked him about the Sultans would kill their brothers or put them in the Golden Cage to keep them from the throne. I said, "Well, what about sultans strangling their brothers with a silk cord... or putting them into the Golden Cage to rot, and then those men would go insane for decades only to suddenly be pronounced sultan and pulled out of the dungeon to become rulers? I've read that's why many of the sultans had reputations for being out of their minds and such fierce fighters. I'd like to hear more about the facts on that, find out your take."

He looked at me incredulously and said, "I do not know what you are talking about. We should get lunch."

As I walked through the Topkapi Palace, I found that they had turned history into a similar fairytale, really. It was like collective brainwashing. Hey! Lookit the happy women have tea in their harem and talk about their love for the sultan! Wheee!

Honestly, it creeped me the fuck out.
posted by miss lynnster at 9:21 AM on March 10, 2009

he wrote about the way the city's Ottoman architecture was always mysteriously burning to the ground when he was growing up and people strangely ignored it.
I'm going to self-link here: this was my experience with Byzantine ruins like the Buceleon Palace which has been left to rot and whose interior is used as shelter by the homeless.

Also, keep in mind that those millions of Armenians who used to live in the Ottoman Empire left their mark in the form of homes, churches, and cemeteries. And every so often, the Turkish military will move into an Armenian cemetery and remove all traces of its existence. The goal isn't simply to forget the Armenian genocide, it's to forget that Armenians even lived there.
posted by deanc at 10:05 AM on March 10, 2009

I didn't recognize the "Who speaks" quote; thanks for clearing that up.

Sometimes I feel like I've visited a different Turkey than others. I've been a few times, and can get by with a (barely) passable Turkish. I thought the treatment of minorities in this decade is far more complex than what I read. I met guys in the PKK, or who were PKK sympathizers, and yet who still loved "Turkey" and preferred Antalya or Istanbul to their village back home. I met secular musicians who admired Ataturk and yet who still challenged the government on music and language.

The "forgetting" of history in general is harder for me to comprehend. I saw it in Cairo too - the historic Islamic quarter seemed all but forgotten and mostly unloved. Turkey seemed to have erased Byzantium/Rome even more so than they have erased the Ottoman history.

Ancient Greece, somehow, seems to survive better. I think school kids still read Homer throughout the Middle East.
posted by kanewai at 11:24 AM on March 10, 2009

An army of deadly eunuchs would then be sent forth to do just that. All brothers, including infant children, and mothers carrying as of yet unborn brothers were quickly eliminated. (These eunuch assassins were curious in that, in addition to having been castrated, they had also had their eardrums poked out, so as not to hear the screams of their victims, and their tongues split, so that they could not speak of their dastardly deeds. The preferred method for royal fratricide was strangulation by silk rope…a classy way to go at least.)

This has got to be fiction.
posted by chunking express at 11:26 AM on March 10, 2009

(I should add that I've never been further East than Kapadokya, and I know that the situation is far different along the Armenian and Iraqi/Kurd frontier than what I've seen).
posted by kanewai at 11:26 AM on March 10, 2009

The thing is... they're erasing their own history too. They're erasing all of it and trying to replace it with "See how European we are! We are civilized and modern! How can anyone say we do not belong in the EU when it's so clear!"

That tourguide actually berated me at one point. For what? Because when you take the escalator out of the Istanbul Metro, EVERYONE IS SUPPOSED TO SKIP A STEP. People stand on every *other* step, and if you make an exception you are not going along with the civilized nature of Turkey.

Since I didn't know this, I just stood on a step behind someone and this old man tourguide actually pulled me down to another step because it was so upsetting to him that I was going against the grain and invading the other person's personal space. Then he said, "Here you must respect others and watch where you step!"

I looked at him like, "Yeah? Huh. Is that how the Ottomans rode escalators?"

Like I said, I found it all weirdly disturbing.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:29 AM on March 10, 2009

Joe, as I've stated before, I spend a lot of my time informing others about genocide and other nasty facts of human existence - including child slavery. In no place did I ever even suggest that any of these events were okay or funny. But there were differences between the Judenrat and the forced enlistment in the Janissaries. A better comparison (as someone's already suggested) is between the Janissaries and the military draft which existed in most Western nations only a few decades ago. This too, was a sort of tax. And this too, was largely discriminatory. Many people were "enlisted" into the army because they were troublesome and ill-behaved and thus "volunteered" by a sort of elder called a judge. But for the most part, there was little social debate about this; it was simply a fact of life, within the lifetimes of many Americans. Many Christian families in the Ottoman Empire - knowing full well the details - volunteered their own children to the Janissaries. There was status in it. It did convey some meaningful benefits. In part, that is why this sometimes occurred. To compare this practice - one which I don't care for, just to make it obvious to those with poor reading comprehension skills - to the Judenrat is stupid, naive, and to be honest, a smear on Holocaust victims. We weren't talking about the Judenrat, Joe. I mean, seriously. The differences between the two are astounding, even if neither is palatable practice in the modern age.

My life is my life and I don't necessarily box it into categories. But it occurred to me when reading your comments that something in this discussion really applied to me - I too was forcibly conscripted into the armed forces, in the war in Bosnia. I didn't like it. I'm not militaristic. I'd just lost my parents in a bombing and was essentially homeless, 19 and female. It conferred no benefits on me - I watched people die every hour, looked for body parts, plugged up gaping wounds with dirty rags knowing that infection would son set in and kill the person I was trying to "save." Yet somehow, I'm still capable of discussing this without sounding like an utter prat and resorting to misinterpretations, bias and snarking.

This is what I've learned from being a victim of genocide, Joe - watching my parents turn to molecule-sized bit of blood and flesh. Being dragged from a morgue - where as I was left to die for my "unsustainable" injuries and the lack of basic supplies, water, heat and electricity to be cared for - and only because my uncle bribed a doctor. Waking up in a coma, weeks later, and being reminded of my parents' horrific death . . . and the news that my house was now gone too. Starving, being sick. No food, no medicine. Months of bitter temperatures with no heat. And on and on. I've learned that being hysterical and angry serves no one. You can go back and read everything I've written and you simply won't see the sort of hysteria that you've employed. The cloying desperation to turn innocuous comments into quasi-support of historical atrocities. That's desperation and insanity. It isn't understanding history or comprehending context or making comparisons or increasing understanding. It's enflaming passions and offering support to racism, hatred and nationalistic, religious and ethnic fervor.

You can read everything I've written and you won't find wholesale condemnations of (for instance) the Serbs. Although they (as a group) deserve a lot of the "blame," it's unrealistic to paint people or situations in black or white terms. It just furthers the hatred, and although it may take centuries, that hatred will pop up again if you don't quash it. And quashing it, I believe, means more than simply condemning it. It requires real understanding of the context, contemporaneous attitudes and more. Depth, not a big paintbrush and a can of black paint.

The question I tried to answer was this: Is there any reason that Turkey won't acknowledge the Armenian genocide? I can see it a couple of ways, and I admitted right away that it was an odd thing for me. But in some ways, yes. I can understand that Turkey feels - with a certain degree of reason - that it suffers a bad reputation for historical acts that weren't any worse (and may have been less atrocious) than those committed at the same time by nations who now hold Turkey up for special and extensive inspection. I've nothing against holding nations up for inspection, but the practice ought to be fairly applied and dealt with equitably. That's just basic sense.

We all know that war, genocide, forced enlistment (etc) are bad things. I knew this before any of them happened to me (and they all did happen to me.) And those lucky people out there in MeFi land who haven't had to experience any of these things know this as well. Normally, here's where I might apologize for not making this explicit in my posts. (I would have assumed that we could all agree on these basic things.) But in fact, I did make it explicit. And now looking back, I notice that the majority of snark about my posts comes from someone who didn't read well, engaged in (let's just say) a surplus of psycho-speculation and (most important) added not one whit of meaningful commentary on the original post and the questions arising from it.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 1:54 PM on March 10, 2009 [7 favorites]

Unless Wikipedia has been heavily edited by interested Kemalist anti-defamation people (I suppose that's possible)

I would be astonished if it hadn't. It's hopeless trying to get perspective on any controversial figure from Wikipedia. Anyone interested in that period should read Perry Anderson's "Kemalism," the best piece of writing on the subject I've seen in a periodical. ("After Kemal" continues the story to the present.)
posted by languagehat at 2:00 PM on March 10, 2009

Dee, there's no point trying to discuss this rationally with Joe; he's proud of his simplistic moral high horse and will keep beating you over the head with it indefinitely.
posted by languagehat at 2:02 PM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Fair enough, languagehat. I like giving people the benefit of the doubt. And part of my belief is that you should try to explain things calmly and coolly even when dealing with someone who has trouble following the plot, so to speak. But I probably should learn simply not to deal with people who'd rather rant and rave in masturbatory fashion rather than considering analysis, subtlety, personal experience and well, the fact of what the original post was about! Your reputation to me here is enough for me to take your word for it.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 2:55 PM on March 10, 2009

Couple of points:

One reason for the incredible violence was that the whole event can be seen within the framework of the collapse of the Ottoman empire. In the west they were as far as trieste and were driven back through the balkans and greece. The right wingers felt that the nation was being 'eaten alive' so to speak and there was a panic that the armenians might be next to go, creating a rump state with the assistance of the Russians.

(Oh and our Germans friends, fresh from their trip through Belgium were present every step of the way providing 'advice' to the Turks on the finer points and taking some techniques back with them for further use. This is well documented by Taner Akcam amongst others).

The whole 'Turkishness' thing is still taken very seriously. Even describing yourself as a Kurd, Alawi, Armenian, whatever will still get you into trouble. Historically turkishness has been hard to define ethnically or religiously so it tends to be defined by language and loyalty. Any perceived opposition to either arouses the ire of the state.

The Turkish tendency to rewrite history is made a lot easier by the fact that they switched to a latin alphabet, this has the effect of making historical primary source documents inaccessible to most lay people who no longer understand the arabic script and the highly dense ottoman court material. Most people in turkey do not know their own history and have been educated poorly on the subject.

I want to say one thing about Ataturk: while I think the young turk movement did a lot of good there were terrible social costs in turning turkey into a 'secular' state. Even now the military will jump in and take over if the civil state is perceived as being insufficiently secular. (That on its own is one damn good reason not to let Turkey into the EU).

Back to Mustafa Kemal. They man was one of the last great dictators along with Stalin and yes Hitler. He forced an eastern country to be more like a western country using the tools of a great dictator: genocide, forced relocation and the replacement of original cultures with a monkey see, monkey do version of the west. Go ahead and admire him but admire him at the risk of your own standards of morality.
posted by fingerbang at 6:34 PM on March 10, 2009

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