Gallipoli, Turkey – A diplomatic row between Turkey and politicians from the Australian state of New South Wales is threatening the commemorations for the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, which resulted in the deaths of more than 130,000 soldiers.
The dispute erupted after the NSW Parliament passed a motion recognizing an alleged Armenian genocide by the Turks, which began around the same time as Australian, New Zealand, Indian, British and French forces began their campaign to seize control of the Dardanelles.
At the time, Turkey was in a state of upheaval amid ethnic wars and the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire, which would eventually lead to the creation of modern-day Turkey in 1923.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Turkish historian Kenan Celik says the facts that ethnic cleansing and massacres took place was not in dispute, but the use of the word “genocide”—primarily a post World War II term indicating the deliberate and systematic destruction of an ethnic group—remains hotly contested.
“This whole region was lawless for more than 10 years. Killings, looting, rape and massacres were common and there was no organized government. So it’s wrong to say it was genocide,” he said.
More than 20 countries have recognized the slaughter of up to 1.5 million Armenians as genocide, alongside the slaughter of Greeks and Assyrians. In Australia, Christian campaigner and MP in the NSW Upper House Fred Nile was behind the campaign, arguing the Armenians have no time for arguments about definitions or the sensitivities of the modern Turkish state.
“(The Ottoman Turks) just eliminated people systematically—community by community, village by village,” Nile told Australian radio. “In fact it’s interesting that when Adolf Hitler planned the genocide of the Jews there were some questions asked and he said himself ‘Don’t worry, who remembers the Armenian genocide?’ Who remembers it?”
The motion was unanimously passed in both houses of the NSW Parliament and came after the Fairfield local council in Sydney’s Western suburbs approved construction of a memorial to the alleged Assyrian genocide, described by one Turkish official as “very offensive.” Nile along with some historians have also used eyewitness reports from Australian and New Zealand prisoners of war who, while interned, witnessed the forced evictions of Armenian villages.
The response from Turkey’s hardline Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to Nile’s outbursts has been predictably harsh.
His government is threatening to ban all members of the NSW Parliament from attending the centenary commemorations at Gallipoli and nearby Canakkale, which holds a special place in the collective conscience of Australians, for whom a pilgrimage to Gallipoli is widely seen as rites of passage. Thousands make the trip each year, many attending the dawn service on April 25, the day the first troops landed.
Erdogan, whose Islamic credentials are a match for Nile’s Christian fundamentalism, is ignoring calls on his government to separate the Gallipoli commemorations from arguments over whether the slaughter of Armenians should be declared a genocide. The two issues have little in common.
“These persons who try to damage the spirit of Canakkale/Gallipoli will also not have their place in the Canakkale ceremonies where we commemorate our sons lying side by side in our soil,” Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said. “We announce to the public that we will not forgive those who are behind these decisions and that we don’t want to see them in Canakkale anymore.”