A million died

A hundred years of denial

Esen Uslu reports on the centenary of the Armenian genocide

The centenary of the Armenian genocide was marked in Turkey by a small but significant group of people coming together in places associated with the massacres, which began on April 24 1915.

The first commemoration meeting was held outside the site of the prison where the initial batch of Armenian intellectuals, including deputies of the Ottoman parliament, were detained. Then a short march brought the demonstrators to the ferries crossing the Bosporus. The next destination was the stairs in front of Haydarpaşa station, the railhead on the Anatolian side of Istanbul. The detained Armenian intellectuals had been transported along the same route to the station, and then transported to destinations from where most never returned. Demonstrators held up pictures of the murdered victims.

Then they crossed the Bosporus once more. Back on the Galata side they first visited the offices of Agos, the Armenian weekly newspaper, whose editor, Hrant Dink, was gunned down in a state-sponsored assassination in 2007. The connection was apparent: 1915 has never ended. After a small ceremony there they departed for the main event of the day. The demonstrators gathered at the small square in front of the Galatasaray Lycée before marching through the pedestrianised old thoroughfare of Christian Istanbul of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to Taksim Square, where there was a candlelit commemoration lasting into the evening.

The route passed the former building of the Cercle d’Orient, the elite club where Talaat Pasha, the leader of the Union and Progress Party and the primary organiser of the genocide, played a final game of contract bridge with some of the Armenian deputies, as they had done every week. When they parted, he had shaken their hands and kissed their cheeks. To complete his deception he asked them not to believe in rumours and assured them nothing untoward was planned. However, before leaving his office to be driven to the club, he had already signed their arrest warrants - they were to be executed the next morning.

The procession passed before the building; however, the demonstrators were not allowed to proceed into Taksim Square, which has been off limits since the Gezi Park demonstrations of 2013. The crowd was larger here, with more workers participating; however, it was not large enough to push back the police lines, so the sit-in took place in front of the police lines on the edge of Taksim Square.

Of course, there were other commemorative events. Mass was held in Armenian churches and even a representative of the government attended the commemoration meeting at the Armenian Patriarchate. An academic conference had been planned to discuss the events of 1915, but the university that promised to provide the meeting venue changed its mind at the last minute under the heavy pressure applied by the rightwing. However, another university came to the rescue, offering a venue. A commemorative concert was held featuring prominent Armenian artists from both Armenia and Turkey. Several books have been published too and a few television debates staged.

But the government had sprung a cunning trick. The commemoration of the Gallipoli campaign of 1915-16 was brought forward to coincide with the day when the Armenian genocide is traditionally remembered. While the UK sent princes Charles and Harry to take part in the Gallipoli event, and there was high-level representation from Australia and New Zealand, no other prominent names from the western world attended. However, there were enough dignitaries from various ‘third world’ countries to make up the numbers and provide the media razzmatazz to drown out the weak voices protesting about the Armenian genocide.

On the positive side, some European countries, including Germany and Austria, have joined the club that formally recognises the genocide in this or that form and put pressure on Turkey to accept the historical facts. However, president Barack Obama’s message on the centenary fell short of what he had originally promised - the Realpolitik of the Middle East seemed to inhibit those who might have preferred more international diplomatic pressure to be put on Turkey.

Original sin

When the day came, only a few members of the Turkish left marched alongside the brave souls of the Armenian community. True, the participation of the Turkish left and liberals has grown over the last decade year on year; however, considering the numbers that normally take part in other active struggles, the level of participation was not nearly sufficient to ease the sense of shame at the performance of the Turkish left.

Understanding why that is the case is crucial to understanding the history of contemporary Turkey and its working class movement. The Turkish left was born in the period of the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the reincarnation of its vile soul in the shape of the republic.

The working class and socialist movements first emerged within the non-Muslim nations of the Ottoman empire in the late 19th century. The development of those movements coincided with the national struggles to break free of the empire and form sovereign states. They maintained an internationalist outlook in line with the programme of the Second International - in particular the programme of the Armenian Social Democrats was oriented to democracy and socialism for all people, to be achieved through a common fight.

Those movements stood against the sultan’s regime by force whenever they could. The moderate factions took part in elections and won seats representing various regions of the empire. They even formed an alliance with the Union and Progress Party before it took over the government following a coup - an alliance which lasted on and off until World War I.

However, as the empire lost its foothold in the Balkan countries, and ceded territory to newly formed sovereign states, the influence of those movements waned. Only Armenian and Greek Orthodox-based movements remained in the larger territories, and in port cities such as Istanbul, Izmir and Trabzon, the ranks of the multi-ethnic working class gathered from Armenian and Assyrian, and Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious communities, alongside Turks and Kurds.

The initial Turkish left emerged from these centres. The intellectual input into the Turkish left came mainly from three different sources: students based in France were influenced by Jean Jaurès-type socialism, students and technical workers in Germany by the German Spartacist movement and the exiles and prisoners of war in Russia came under the influence of Bolshevism.

At the end of the war, the principal port cities were occupied by the great powers, and the working class was isolated. It was at this time that the French and German-influenced intellectuals and workers of Istanbul came together to form the first Turkish left groups.

The Russian-influenced intellectuals, however, came into contact with the nationalist officers who were leading the struggle to create an independent state in Anatolia. Those officers and the national forces around them were in a desperate situation. They were prepared to put on an appearance of accepting Bolshevism if they could get financial and armaments support from Soviet Russia.

There were few friendly states the Bolsheviks could turn to, so the struggle of Turkish nationalists against the great powers seemed supportable. They brought Istanbul-centred and Russia-centred groups together to form the Communist Party of Turkey in 1920. But joining together such different fabrics did not work well, since the prisoners of war who had jumped on the Bolshevik bandwagon contained even those who had taken part in the Armenian genocide.

When 15 members of the first central committee of the CPT were killed in the Black Sea, while they were on the road to Ankara to assist the national struggle, the secret order for their deaths had been issued by the nationalist government in Ankara. That party was no more, and only a rump remained in Istanbul. That rump would assume the leadership during the rebirth of the CPT a few years later.

The Istanbul part of the party was acutely aware of the Armenian genocide and the intense pressure put on the Greek communities, since it had a considerable number of active Greek members. Many of the working class members witnessed forced deportations and other events, such as the public hanging in Istanbul of comrade Paramaz (Matteos Sarkissian) and his 19 comrades from the Social Democrat Hunchakian Party on June 15 1915.

Up to the years following World War II, the central committee and several provincial committees contained a number of prominent Armenian and Greek comrades. However, they did not make their voices heard about the Armenian massacres. Up to the early 80s there was an Armenian comrade on the central committee, but still the CPT was silent about the genocide.

The changed Soviet political stance on the issue was the main lead to follow for parties like the CPT. At the time of an Armenian Soviet Republic, it was considered unwise to put pressure on Turkey over the Armenian genocide, as demanded by the Armenian diaspora in the imperialist countries. That might have caused problems for the Soviet Union, since it could have stirred up nationalist troubles in the Caucasus region as well.

Consequently, the CPT, with its considerable influence over the left in general, adopted a stance whereby the Armenian question was ‘forgotten’ until the late 60s. The younger generation that would take part in political actions from the 1968 events onwards were unaware of the nature and extent of the slaughter - left to its own devices, it succumbed to the vicious nationalist denial propaganda of the state. For years and years anti-imperialist nationalism was considered progressive, and many of the revolutionary organisations emerging from the 1968 events themselves bore the birthmarks of nationalism.

Fresh air

During the late 1970s and into the 80s under the military junta regime, an Armenian movement took up arms in a campaign of assassinations of Turkish diplomats in various countries. Those events forced most of the Turkish left to confront the reality of the Armenian genocide for the first time.

As the opposition within the CTP burst into the open, the lack of proper attention to the Armenian question and the absence of any internationalist stance came under criticism. Those discussions, combined with a new programmatic understanding, made large segments of the Turkish left aware of the truth.

The split within the Revolutionary Path group allowed Taner Akçam and his comrades to adopt a more enlightened attitude towards the genocide and, since it was one of the largest groups in the late 80s, it had a pronounced impact on the Turkish left as a whole.

However, as the Kurdish freedom movement came into prominence and started to record successes against the Turkish regime, nationalism among wider sections of the Turkish left started to increase again. The Armenian genocide, as well as the massacres of other religious communities, such as the Alevis, tended to be pushed into the background.

The centenary of the Armenian genocide came and went against such a backdrop. However, the encouraging thing is that a new and better educated generation has come into the ranks of the struggle, bringing with it a breath of fresh air. These newcomers are more ready to adopt an internationalist stance.

The Islamic State massacres of religious minorities in Syria and Iraq are providing fresh reminders of how the genocide was perpetrated, and how religious-nationalist militants can be found across the globe, including the UK and Turkey, who are ready to commit all kind of atrocities. At the end of the day, commemorating the Armenian genocide must be the starting point for avoiding similar events in the future.