A century ago, in a misconceived encounter on the history-soaked precipices of Asia Minor, the sons of ANZAC received their initiation in battle against the German-trained soldiers of the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish forces, well prepared behind excellent defences, used their tactics to good effect, ably led by a professional officer who would go on to bigger things, Kemal Ataturk.
Now is celebrated, in an annual event that grows in mythology and status in proportion to the passing of the years, the shared combat ordeal of Gallant Johnny Turk and the Bronzed Anzac. Pause for a moment to this: What if, say, instead of Gallipolli, the ANZACs forces went into combat against an SS Battalion somewhere in Poland during World War 11? Would we then, decades later, be joining with our former enemies to celebrate what both sides had gone through, all enmities long forgotten? Could one with clear conscience commemorate battle experiences shared with representatives of enemy forces acting as the military arm of a state carrying out a terrible genocide at the same time?
For it was the night before the landing at Gallipolli on April 25 in the capital of the Ottoman Empire (then called Constantinople) when occurred the arrest, detention and subsequent liquidation of 625 intellectuals, priests and leading Armenians. This event is widely held to signal the onset of the first major genocide of the twentieth century, the most bloodthirsty period in human history.
What followed was the mass murder of an entirely innocent group of citizens by means still horrifying to contemplate. By the time Turkey sued for peace in 1918, up to 1.5 million Armenians had been slaughtered, decimating the population of a group whose ancestors had lived in the Fertile Crescent since the dawn of human settlement. It did not stop there. The Assyrian people lost at least 75,000, three-quarters of their population; the numbers have not been made up to this day. Later, the Greeks in Asia Minor, in some of the bloodiest scenes of city-sacking since the fall of Nineveh and Tyre, were driven out of ancient homelands, never to return. And, largely lost in the high tide of bloodletting at the time, there were pogroms of Jewish settlements in Anatolia.
We have made our peace with the genocidal German and Japanese foes of World War 11 (there is no way the unrestrained butchery of the inhabitants of Manchuria, to say nothing of the Rape of Nanking, would not constitute a genocide). Our former enemies have (at least partially, in the case of the Japanese) acknowledged their roles as aggressors and in the genocides. But we would not ask SS veterans or their descendants to join us in Anzac Day parades. This is right and proper, the way it should be. Yet these qualms do not trouble us in fostering our war links with the Turkish people – led today by political descendants of the Ittihadist Party which planned, organised and carried out the Anatolian genocides.
Part of the reason is promoted ignorance. The Turkish government vigorously enforces an official policy of denial, maintaining it as the duty of their diplomatic staff abroad to engage in a well-funded campaign of disinformation and protest should anyone publicly state anything to the contrary. Genocide denied is an extension of the genocide perpetuated; lies and dissembling, an ongoing crime against all of humanity. Turkish nationalism, which runs coeval with its policy of genocide denial, remains the last outpost of unreconstructed pre-World War Two racial nationalism of the worst kind.
So when we celebrate the ANZAC spirit, as we did at dawn today, let us always remember that our forebears were fighting for freedom, pure and simple, and that a nation which insists on covering up history to escape its culpability for genocide is not a nation we can regard entirely as our equal. Nor should we — not until they desist from their deceitful denial of the utter, awful truth of what their forces did to several million innocent and unprotected peoples from that significant day in April, 1915.
Johnny Turk, by all accounts, was a brave fighter when well led and supported (which was not always the case), but can we separate the soldiers from their officers, leaders, politicians and bureaucrats who at the same time were engaged in exterminating an entire group of people – especially when that same state, a century later, continues to defile the memory of these victims by refusing to admit that the slaughter even occurred?
Let the Anzac ceremonies proceed with Johnny Turk – but be sure to let them know what we know, will not forget and will not deny until they face up to their culpability and can then re-join the ranks of honoured enemies and enjoy full standing amongst the nations of the world.
Robert M Kaplan is a forensic psychiatrist and historian who has written on genocide.