April 24-25: two days of remembrance

April 26, 2009
April 25 (yesterday) is a holiday in Australia and New Zealand known as Anzac Day (which stands for Australia-New Zealand Army Corps), which commemorates soldiers who died in the British-led invasion of the western Ottoman Empire in 1915. On April 25 of that year, thousands of troops from (mainly) Britain, Australia, and New Zealand began what would become an eight-month siege of Çanakkale ("Cha-nak-ka-le"), on the Gallipoli (Gelibolu, in Turkish) peninsula between the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean Sea. Gallipoli is the entry point to the Dardanelle Straits which lead, through the Sea of Marmara, to Istanbul--the capital of the Ottoman Empire.

The Sea of Marmara is directly below Istanbul, and is connected to the Aegean (and through the Aegean, the Mediterranean) by the Dardanelle Straits.
The idea behind the invasion was for the allied forces to quickly knock out the Ottoman defenses, then steam up to Istanbul and capture the capital of one of the three (along with Germany and Austria) members of the Central Powers. Because of the vulnerability of the Dardanelles, the region was heavily defended. Approximately 250,000 Ottoman soldiers would die in the nine-month siege, a little more than twice the number of military casualties that the United States would suffer during the entirety of World War I. Altogether, it has been estimated that there were approximately 3,000,000 military and civilian deaths among Ottoman subjects during World War I, astonishingly high numbers for a country with a population of just 20 million at the start of the war. Hundreds of thousands of Ottoman subjects (including Christians, Muslims, and Jews) also died in fighting and massacres which took place in the Balkans and Anatolia during the years immediately preceding and following the First World War. Altogether, about twice as many civilian Ottoman subjects died during these years than soldiers.
In Turkey, April 25 draws to the peninsula large crowds of Australians and New Zealanders, as well as public figures overseeing military tributes from both of these countries and Turkey. This year, the Governor General of New Zealand and the Foreign Minister of Australia participated in ceremonies alongside Turkish officials. For all three countries, Çanakkale serves as a devastating reminder of the staggering loss of military life which occurred during the siege. Here's to also remembering the incredible loss of civilian life which occurred during this particularly cruel era.
Indeed, with this in mind, it is also important to note that this weekend also marks the day, April 24,  in which the hundreds of thousands--perhaps more than one million--Ottoman Armenians who died and were killed in 1915 are remembered. Many of these individuals died under brutal and inhumane conditions as they were transported on freezing cold trains from eastern Anatolia to Ottoman territories farther away from the Russian front. Others were killed during the course of fighting--which often took the form of massacres and reprisal massacres--with their Muslim neighbors, who often outnumbered the Armenians and whose actions were, at the very least, condoned by many Ottoman state authorities.
In most Armenian historiography, these events are referred to as a 'genocide,' a term which is sharply contested by most people in Turkey, and especially by the Turkish government.
As Barack Obama is now learning, anyone who tries to approach this issue from a more nuanced perspective ends up angering both sides. On April 24, Barack Obama gave a speech in remembrance of the Armenian dead, a practice which has become an annual tradition for American presidents. While many Armenians feel betrayed that Obama stopped short of using the term 'genocide' in his speech, the Turkish government was nevertheless upset that Obama did not refer to 'Turks' who were killed during this time by Armenians. 
It's one of the tragedies of the politicization surrounding the genocide issue that neither side can be brought to accept the reality of the other's losses. Indeed, it has often been ignored that many Turkish and Kurdish Muslims in Anatolia were killed in fighting with Armenians which, in some contexts, did take on the character of a 'civil war,' rather than a genocide, an aspect of these events which Armenian nationalist historians would rather forget. By the same token, however, Turkish nationalist historians would likewise prefer to pretend that the events of 1915 constituted only an armed conflict between Muslim and Armenian irregulars, and nothing more. 
While April 25 is not a national day of mourning for Turks the way that April 24th is for Armenians, it is nevertheless an important day for Turkey, particularly in Çanakkale. One of the great things about the way in which this day is commemorated in Turkey is the unselfconscious ease with which the Turkish government and citizens of Turkey embrace the concept of reconciliation in honoring, alongside Australians and New Zealanders, the memory of soldiers who fell during the course of an invasion of land that is now Turkey. The successful Ottoman defense of the straits is of course celebrated in Turkey--in no small part due to the fact that one of the commanders of the defense was Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk). But for the most part Turks, Australians, and New Zealanders are able to simply honor one another's dead without worrying about who is getting the most attention.
It's easier, of course, to be morally generous in this way when the erstwhile foes in question happen to be located on the other side of the world, rather than right next door. Nevertheless, my hope is that one day Turks, Kurds, and Armenians will likewise be able to recognize one another's historical suffering in relation to this era without feeling the need to diminish the losses of others or worry that an acknowledgment of regret or expression of remorse would come back to haunt them later.
Who knows? Stranger things have happened.

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