The 24th of April this year is a day of huge significance for Armenians around the world as it marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. This term is used by a large majority to describe the Ottoman’s empire systematic killing of an estimated number of between 1 and 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1918. Though the regime led by the Young Turks had planned the Genocide before, it was on the 24th of April that their intentions were disclosed when around 250 Armenian public figures were arrested in Constantinople. Most of them were later tortured and executed.
In commemoration of this event and the forced deportations and massacres that followed as a whole, Armenians walk every year on the 24th of April to the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, placing flowers at the eternal flame. This year, the memorial day holds greater significance, as events are planned all over the world and even Pope Francis announced he wants to visit Armenia on the occasion of the centennial of the Armenian Genocide.
This year is special in another aspect too. The eyes will not only fall upon on Armenia but also on Turkey and the question of recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Until now, Turkey has denied the genocide has ever happened, thereby rejecting any guilt of its predecessor, the Ottoman Empire. The denial is an obstacle, not only to the clarification of the historical events but more so to the rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia. That is why it is so important for both nations to reconcile on the issue of the Armenian Genocide.
Why does the Turkish government vehemently deny the genocide while Armenians do not stop to pursue its worldwide recognition? To find an answer to this question, one needs to go back to the roots of modern Turkish and Armenian identity because both identities were shaped by the Armenian Genocide.
At the time of the Genocide, Turkish identity was in transition. The Ottoman Empire had been a multi-ethnic society but internal imbalances and external threats led to its disintegration. This vacuum was filled by the Young Turks, a political reform movement with a nationalist Turkish ideology. The Young Turks intended to establish a homogenous Turkish society on the territory of the Ottoman Empire in which citizens identified themselves as ‘Turkish.’ People with other cultures and languages were excluded from this definition. The Armenians did not fit into this ideology as most did not speak Turkish but Armenian and believed in the Christian faith. However, there were 1.3 million Armenians living in the territory of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century. As the solution for the ‘Armenian question’, the Young Turks foresaw their annihilation.
After the genocide had already been conducted, the regime of the Young Turks was overthrown at the end of 1918, leading to the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Out of these ruins, Mustafa Kemal, today known as Atatürk, founded the Republic of Turkey – with a new Turkish identity based on secularism. However, the nationalist ideology of the Young Turks influenced the building of the modern Turkish state as it gave the Turks a positive self-image and unified them. Therefore, the genocide can be seen as part of the path to the formation of modern Turkish identity. This is the reason why the Armenian Genocide is denied by the Turkish government as the recognition of if would put the foundation of modern Turkish identity into question.
The memory of the Armenian Genocide forms the core of Armenia identity as it unites Armenians and the diaspora. The ethnic cleansing conducted by the Turks removed a third of the Armenian population of their ancestral territory, thereby eradicating three thousand years of material and spiritual culture. Thus, the survivors of the genocide felt that their common identity was shattered, being worthless to both their perpetrators and to all other actors as no one came to intervene. Since then, the Armenians are in a process of reconstructing their ‘lost’ identity. Allowing the genocide to be forgotten would pose the last stage of the crime – the denial of its existence – thereby eradicating the guilt of the perpetrators and denying justice to the victims. Especially for the six million Armenians living in diaspora, the recognition of the Armenian Genocide is of high significance, as it serves as proof of their existence and central piece of collective identity. To keep their ethnical identity, they tell the tales of the suffering of their ancestors, create myths about their homeland and support the Armenian community. For them, the recognition of the Armenian Genocide is inseparable from the recognition of their identity, which was denied to them firstly when the Turks attempted to kill them based on their ethnicity and for the second time now as Turkish state does not recognize the guilt of its predecessor in the Armenian Genocide. This is why Armenians will not give up the strife for the recognition of the Genocide by Turkey as this would signify giving up their identity.
As giving up their stance on the Armenian Genocide would result in an identity crisis for both countries, it is not possible to overcome the issue at the moment. Interaction between Turkish and Armenian societies could lead in the long-term to a change in both identities, making the normalization of the relations possible, however Turkish-Armenian borders are closed since 1993.
Therefore, the civil societies and governments of both nations should seize the historical date to be open to and engaged in an intercultural exchange. Especially the government of Turkey has to recognize that the reconciliation on the Armenian Genocide is central, bringing justice to the victims of the genocide in the past and making possible fruitful relations in the future.