In 1915, when stories of the systematic extermination of the Armenian minority in Anatolia by the Ottoman authorities started to surface in the Western press, Turkish diplomats were rapidly mobilized to deny the reports. “All those who have been killed were of that rebellious element,” the Turkish consul in New York, Djelal Munif Bey, told the New York Times, “who were caught red-handed or while otherwise committing traitorous acts against the Turkish Government, and not women and children, as some of these fabricated reports would have the Americans believe.”
As the sun began to set on the Ottoman Empire, its leaders–and their secular successors–laid the foundations of a gruesome template that remains with us today. Ever since the slaughter of the Armenians, each episode of genocide and mass killing has been accompanied by voices who willfully deny that such horrors actually took place. Genocide denial is a phenomenon most commonly associated with the Shoah, but it also raised its head in Bangladesh in 1971, in Cambodia in 1979, in the former Yugoslavia and in Iraq during the 1990s, in Rwanda in 1994 and in Syria in the present day.
As the original pioneers of genocide denial, the Turks remain its most aggressive practitioners. That, perhaps, is to be expected; far less understandable is the willingness of certain countries and institutions to collude in this trampling of history and memory. In that regard, this item from Denmark’s Copenhagen Post is nothing less than astounding:
The Royal Library has attracted heavy criticism after agreeing to let Turkey co-arrange an alternative exhibition about the Armenian Genocide.
The library has complied with the wishes of the Turkish ambassador to Denmark to be involved with the exhibition, ‘The Armenian Genocide and the Scandinavian response’, which is currently on display at the University of Copenhagen.
The Turkish Embassy has been granted the opportunity to stage a Turkish version of the historical events in a move that has generated criticism from a number of circles, including politicians, historians, and the Armenian Embassy in Copenhagen.
Genocide scholars in Denmark have reacted angrily. “If you believe that all versions of history are equal, then you’ve undermined your role as a research institution,” said the historian Matthias Bjørnlund. “It was genocide and not all interpretations of this history are correct.” But the director of the Royal Library, Erland Kolding Nielsen, denied having caved to pressure from the Turkish Embassy. “One can’t pressure us, and we have not spoken about removing the Armenian exhibition. We have simply given [the Turks] the opportunity to show their alternative exhibition,” Nielsen said.
Clearly, this sets an extremely dangerous precedent. No longer does it seem far-fetched to think that an exhibition about, say, Auschwitz, or the North Korean gulags, might be “balanced” with a “counter-narrative” from the perspective of the perpetrators of these atrocities.
The current Danish controversy also speaks volumes about the extent to which Turkey is prepared to go in enforcing its state doctrine of genocide denial upon its ostensible allies. Earlier this year, Ankara temporarily froze ties with France after that country’s Senate passed a law officially recognizing the Armenian massacres as a genocide. Responding to similar efforts by American lawmakers, Turkey’s Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told President Obama in March that he was “tired” by the constant reminders of Turkey’s historic crime, adding that the U.S. administration should “not … mistake U.S. senators, lawmakers and politicians for historians.”
For decades, Turkey has acted on the premise that Western acquiescence toward its regional bullying–whether that involves its assaults on Kurdish civilians or its continued occupation of northern Cyprus–means that it will never be obliged to reckon with the monstrous crimes committed against the Armenians. If the authors of Washington’s policy toward Turkey want us to believe that Erdogan and his cohorts share not just our strategic goals, but our core values too, then Ankara must be told that the practice of genocide denial, inaugurated by Djelal Munif Bey in 1915, is no longer acceptable almost 100 years on.