Having just been in Turkey, I’m tuned in to three thorny issues that are in the news about Turkey these days: The “Armenian Holocaust,” Kurdish separatists in Turkey, and Turkish membership in the European Union. I’m less clever than our Vice President on these matters. But I thought I’d pass along how my Turkish friends explain them.
About the Armenians:
I have a personal affinity for Turkey, and whenever I rave about the place as a travel destination, I get…”flack” is not quite the right word…from Greeks and Armenians about the ugly history of that troubled region. Armenians insist that I make Turkey admit to committing, specifically, “genocide.” Turks don’t want me to talk about Armenia and would never put those two words in the same sentence. (I filmed at a ruined Armenian church on Lake Van and tried to deal constructively with the issue in one of my TV episodes…and I angered both my Turkish friend and Armenians.) Even though I know I just can’t win on this issue, let me try to explain what I’ve picked up on this in Turkey:
From 1915 through 1917, while Britain, France and Russia were trying to divide up the Ottoman Empire, hundreds of thousands of Ottoman Armenians and Turks were killed in what was seen by many at the time as an effort to stop a rebellion of separatist Armenians.
Like the Muslim Turks and non-Muslims in the region, the Armenians had lived in relative peace and prosperity for centuries under the Ottoman administration. But starting in the late 1800s and escalating during World War I, the Russians and British — eager to undermine the pro-German Ottoman regime — enlisted Armenian groups to rise up against it. As a consequence, the Armenians suffered the bloody wrath of a dying empire.
Today, many descendants of the survivors (the Armenian Diaspora) live in France and the USA. An independent country of Armenia has emerged in what was once Soviet territory…while many of that civilization’s historic treasures lie ruined and desolate, just across the border in eastern Turkey.
Some of my most poignant travels have been wandering through ancient buildings deserted or destroyed in the early 20th century…lasting reminders of the slaughter of Armenians and the tragedy that the ethnic group that once thrived there will never return.
To this day, the government of the Turkish Republic (which didn’t exist until 1923, several years after the slaughter of the Armenian people) has never officially admitted to any wrongdoing. Armenians are mourning an almost Nazi-like genocide. But the Turks see something more analogous to the American Civil War: the South insisted on seceding and fired the first shots, so they are the ones who could have prevented the disaster from ever happening. Turks I’ve spoken with have no problem with having the truth investigated and debated on the world stage. But they want historians — not politicians — to do the assessment.
Coming up: Turkey and the debate over small Kurds and large Kurds.