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Marking The World War I Centennial in Turkey, Where Denial Gives Way To Dialogue

Doğan Eşkinat
June 28, 2014 marked the 100-year anniversary of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo. To commemorate the event, the Washington Post put together a short list of things we inherited from the World War I years: Daylight saving time, Meatless Monday, plastic surgery and Iraq – the country that emerged out of the time period that marks the beginning of the 20th century. A look back to the years from 1914 to 1918 would also reveal that most, if not all, pressing issues in contemporary Turkey are related to the Great War. With the marking of the first global war’s centennial in Istanbul, the Ottoman Empire’s then-capital, one realizes that what the nation strives to accomplish today is to close a century-long chapter of denial, forced assimilation and inequality.

The Great War, which continued until November 1918, paved the way for the downfall of the Ottoman dynasty along with several of its contemporaries. As the empire slowly disintegrated, the authorities adopted extraordinary measures to initiate a process of, to borrow from Joseph Schumpeter, creative destruction to establish a new nation. In 1915, the wartime government forcibly relocated hundreds of thousands of Ottoman Armenians, once known as the loyal nation or millet-i sadıka, to pave the way for a great tragedy. Although the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), which orchestrated one of the most shameful acts in Turkish history, could not survive World War I, the organization’s legacy formed the ideological basis of the Turkish nationalist movement that proceeded to establish the Republic of Turkey in the early 1920s. The CUP’s commitment to the principle of centralized government, in particular, had an immense influence on the new elites who, once in power, turned away from various ethnic groups including the Kurds with whom they had previously joined forces to oppose Western colonialism. They subsequently embarked on a violent campaign to impose Turkish identity upon them. The indoctrination was so effective that the question of whether or not the Kurds were a genuine ethnic group or merely “mountain Turks” remained a hotly-debated question up until the 2000s.
It was around the same time that Turkish society began to reflect on the legacy of the Ottoman Empire’s final decade and engage in an open conversation about the grievances that building the modern Republic required over the years. First and foremost, the dialogue on Turkey’s darkest taboos owed to the nation’s ever-stronger interaction with the outside world in the post-Cold War years. With trade liberalization and comprehensive improvements in communication technologies, the Turkish street became exposed to competing narratives about many issues including that of the Ottoman Armenians, which radically differed from the Republic’s official history. From the late 1990s onward, the rise of anti-establishment political parties with Islamist or Kurdish nationalist agendas both reflected and bolstered the ongoing conversation about the Republican legacy. Over the past decade, the two movements have transformed mainstream politics to lead the charge against the old ways from within the political system. The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government’s attempts to address the suffering of Ottoman Armenians as well as the Kurdish population of Dersim, where Republicans killed thousands in order to crack down on local rebels in 1937-1938, reflected this commitment. Similarly, the authorities have implemented reforms to acknowledge the long-denied cultural rights of millions of Kurds, among other groups, to undermine the Turkish state’s historical denial.
A century after Franz Ferdinand’s death, Turkey seeks to come to terms with a dark chapter of its modern history and negotiate a new set of ground rules to facilitate and celebrate diversity. Meanwhile, the efforts of anti-establishment parties to challenge the old ways understandably triggers objections from social groups whose sense of national identity heavily depends on the Republican ethos that all citizens constitute a homogeneous whole. The already intense public debate around the Republican legacy, to some extent, informs discussions about the upcoming presidential election and will become even more relevant next year with the Armenian diaspora organizing year-round commemorative events to mark the centennial of “Red Sunday” – April 24, 1915, when the Ottoman authorities arrested 250 Armenian intellectuals and forced them to relocate.


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