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.
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.”
The local council at Gallipoli has warned Nile’s supporters that they would not be welcomed at the centenary commemorations in 18-months time, but there is also more to the objections than interpretations about Turkish history.
Amid the turmoil of the Arab Spring and war in Syria, Erdogan has stepped away from the softer diplomatic approach modern Turkey has traditional taken. His Justice and Democracy Party faces local and presidential elections over the next 18 months, and he has adopted a more hawkish view of the region, favoring Western-backed military action in Syria.
The prime minister’s critics argue his personal fears of being toppled like regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya was central to his thinking, particularly after protests at Taksim Square, in central Istanbul, in July turned violent.
Nevertheless, Celik and others insist that Nile and his parliamentary colleagues should be given visas to attend the ceremonies in 2015.
“The two issues are not the same and they should be kept separate,” he said.
His sentiments were backed by Zumray Demir, a local tour operator who supported the recent protests against Erdogan. She said it was wrong to confuse the Gallipoli landings with the Armenian issue, adding: “We know this is a big day for Australians and all the countries that fought here a hundred years ago.”
“Turks also know it was bad here back then for many different ethnic groups and that many Armenians died. They were forced to move, it was ethnic cleansing and many died along the way but I don’t know if that’s genocide,” Demir said.
The bloody occupation of the Gallipoli peninsula lasted less than a year after a young lieutenant-colonel, Mustafa Kemal anticipated the landing of British Empire forces, defied his superiors and deployed Turkish troops in such numbers that combined with a series of Allied blunders delivered him an unlikely victory.
He used that victory to help end the internal violence that had wracked his country for almost a decade, including the slaughter of the Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians, forging a modern country and a new republic and earning the surname “Atatürk” (meaning “Father of the Turks”). No one doubts the intensity of the slaughter but even Erdogan’s most ardent of supporters, like Celik, are bemused about why he wants to use Gallipoli commemorations to fight the use of a word, unless he has another agenda.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt