The Turkish Republic’s criminal legacy

This past Sunday, October 29, was a day of grand celebration for the Turkish nation. It was the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic, established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk after the “war of independence.” Kemal had served in the Ottoman army in both eastern and western campaigns. He skillfully took advantage of the victorious allies’ confusion and duplicity to drive the “foreigners” out, eventually establishing the new Turkish Republic. Kemal was revered for his introduction of “democracy” to Turkey and the transition to secular institutions, in sharp contrast to his Ottoman predecessors. Pictures of Kemal adorned nearly every building and home in Turkey in reverence to the man they called “father of the Turks.” The West eventually warmed to the western-leaning Turkish nation, particularly during the post-World War II period, and Turkey joined NATO in 1952. Turkey also joined the U.N. coalition in the Korean War and enjoyed the support of the western alliance, which transformed Turkey’s military into a modern fighting unit. Turkey has earned deep friendships in the Pentagon and State Department, as it has received investments from the military industrial complex for serving as a buffer to the Soviet Union for decades. Despite its questionable loyalty to NATO under current President Recep Erdogan and its obstructionist role in Syria against United States interests, Turkey has been forgiven countless times, as it charts its own regional hegemony. Turkey has played both sides in the Ukraine war by circumventing western sanctions against Russia and attempting to serve as a self-serving broker between both sides.

The truth of the founding of the Turkish Republic is quite different from the romantic notion of a people fighting for their independence that Turkey has projected. The reality is that Ottoman Turkey was a defeated nation as a result of World War I and committed at least three genocides (Armenian, Assyrian and Greek) to further its warped vision.

Turkey has succeeded in winning powerful friends, but not everyone has been allured by its veneer. The truth of the founding of the Turkish Republic is quite different from the romantic notion of a people fighting for their independence that Turkey has projected. The reality is that Ottoman Turkey was a defeated nation as a result of World War I and committed at least three genocides (Armenian, Assyrian and Greek) to further its warped vision. Once the allies (primarily French and British) secured their mandate in the Middle East, they had no appetite to fight the Turks, who were allowed to brutally expel the western Greeks. The allies were apparently satisfied with their bounty and withdrew from Turkish territory. The Armenians are all too familiar with the treacherous French abandonment of Cilicia after using the Armenian Legion to secure the region and encouraging Genocide survivors to return. The Ataturk that the Armenians know committed atrocities in the villages of Cilicia, purging the region of its last Armenian inhabitants. A similar cleansing took place in the postwar period in the northern Pontus region, home to an indigenous Greek nation. Ataturk went about the business of completing what the Committee of Union and Progress, or Young Turks, had not finished. Troops under his command attacked the western borders of the young Armenian republic in 1920, forcing the capitulation of independence and the loss of Kars, Ardahan and Ararat. His murderous campaigns killed thousands of Greeks and Armenians as Smyrna (Izmir) burned.

The truth is that the Turkish Republic of 1923 was founded on the blood and wealth of millions of Christians native to Asia Minor and Anatolia. Turkish independence was far less about a people seeking freedom and more about purging the nation of non-Turks. In those decades, non-Turks were defined as Christians who were of the Armenian, Greek, Assyrian and Chaldean faiths. By the end of the first decade of the Turkish Republic, these centuries-old native communities were depopulated. What remained of the Armenian community slowly centered around the neighborhoods of Istanbul. The Armenian highlands were eerily silenced by the absence of an ancient indigenous culture. The completion of the Christian purge occurred on the watch of the “revered” Ataturk. Ataturk’s brutal methods against the innocent should never be confused with freedom fighting and civilized leadership. The Kurds, who were a prominent ethnic grouping in the east, particularly in the southeast, were subjected to overt attempts at cultural assimilation as they were officially referred to as “mountain Turks.” When these attempts failed, the Kurds were subjected to atrocities such as the Dersim massacres in the 1930s, which was covered up for decades by the Republic officials. 

Perhaps the most destructive legacy of the Turkish Republic, aside from the atrocities that led to its formation, is the institutional deception created by Ataturk and continued to this day. The Ittihads were the authors of genocide, and Kemal Ataturk continued their work by designing the coverup. In the post-genocide period, billions of dollars of the property and other forms of wealth of Armenians who had been murdered or deported were confiscated under the “abandonment” laws created by Kemal and redistributed for the resettlement of Turks, providing a financial foundation for the republic. Ataturk and his Republican colleagues were not only allowed to murder hundreds of thousands of Christians, but he also completed the robbery of their earthly possessions. 

Greek refugees mourning victims of the Smyrna massacres

The western world, having little interest in this unpunished act of barbarism and exhausted by war, moved on to a postwar environment. The United States, still in the infancy of becoming a world power, entered a period of isolationism by rejecting a U.S. mandate over Armenia, the Wilsonian mandate, and limiting its activity in these former war zones. Ataturk, under the cover of his westernization of Turkey into a secular “democracy,” commanded a virtual dictatorship that used pseudo-democratic institutions to legitimize his activities. The Armenian Genocide was a taboo topic in the Turkish Republic, and Armenians were portrayed as disloyal traitors to the Turkish nation. Turks would openly comment that the Genocide was justified based on Armenian behavior. These attitudes were embedded overtly and subtly by the educational system, creating an atmosphere of institutional discrimination manifested to this day. For example, although the Treaty of Lausanne guarantees the minorities in Turkey the freedom of religion, Turkey has closed for 50 years the only Armenian seminary and openly meddles in the affairs and the election of the Patriarch. In street vernacular, the word Armenian (Ermenie) is considered an insult. During a political campaign several years ago, former President Abdullah Gul was accused of having an Armenian mother. It was a “scandalous” tactic to put him on the defensive and discredit his career. This is the legacy of the Turkish Republic. We are all familiar with how Erdogan has been working to destroy not only any semblance of democracy but to push Turkey closer to an Islamic state. This would be a reversal of one of Ataturk’s legacies and has created significant division within Turkish society. His pan-Turkic fanaticism is displayed through his “one nation two states” platform with rogue Azerbaijan while promoting racism against Armenians. 

The criminal legacy of the Turkish Republic goes beyond genocide, confiscation and coverup. Children in Turkey learn a revisionist, distorted view of history that supports their denial. I came across a small but significant example this week. My wife and I are in Washington, D.C. attending a family wedding. Our plan was to stay a few extra days and enjoy the sights with my cousin and his wife from California. On Sunday, which happened to be Turkish Independence Day, we decided to have dinner at an Italian restaurant. Our waitress was a very pleasant young woman. She had a heavy accent that seemed Middle Eastern, so we asked where she was born. She replied that she was Turkish. After our meal, I wanted to engage in further dialogue with her. I asked where she was from, and she replied, “Izmir.” I asked her if she was familiar with its past as Smyrna. She politely replied that it was a long time ago when there were “rebels” in the area. I mentioned that many innocent people died, and she was puzzled and said the campaign was part of their independence war that they were celebrating on that day. I showed her a map on my phone and said my grandfather was from Sivas, and grandmother, from Adana. She seemed pleased, probably thinking we had something in common. At that point I asked her a question. “Why do you think we know so much about Turkey and its history? I can tell you we are not Turks or Greeks.” She didn’t respond, and I told her we are “Ermenie.” Her tone changed as her “education” kicked in. She told me that during that time there was a major problem with “disloyalty” and people left. She added that if we are interested in that era there is an “Ottoman restaurant” nearby. My wife, who was seething at this point, said we would not go there. Thus, we ended our Turkish Independence Day encounter. This young woman, a native of Izmir, is a 21st-century product of the corrupt Turkish education system as it relates to World War I and Armenians that continues teaching children lies and creates discriminatory attitudes. It started in Ataturk’s time and has continued in order to prevent the truth from enabling justice. The Azerbaijanis, who have stolen everything in their creation, have learned this propaganda technique from their cousins to the west. They openly teach hatred of Armenians to their young, copying the institutional discrimination policies that have existed in Turkey for a century.

If Turkey is truly ready – and I highly doubt it – to open a new beginning with Armenia, then it should start by peeling back the layers of lies. It will be challenging, because the layers have been professionally designed for decades. There can be little hope for a “normalization” as long as the educational system characterizes Armenians as “disloyal” or “rebellious” people not worthy of respect, or as long as Erdogan describes Armenians as “remnants of the sword,” or states that Turkey will finish what our “grandfathers started.” Signing a treaty with Turkey must be accompanied by systemic change to dismantle discriminatory policies and behavior. There is nothing “normal” about establishing relations with a country that has worked to diminish your presence on this earth and has designed an educational system to perpetuate the crime. In the meantime, their 100th anniversary will be celebrated with congratulatory rhetoric, but we know the truth. We will not be silenced.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.

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