The greatest obstacle for Turkey in coming into terms with the humanitarian tragedy of 1915 is not necessarily the recognition of events as genocide but rather the simple but complicated act of collective remembrance.
Following its inception after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish Republic has built its model of new Turkish citizenship around an imposed amnesia of events predating 1923. Accounts of Armenians’ sufferings in forced pogroms and violent ethnic cleansing by the Ottoman militia have been conveniently brushed under the carpet, as detailed by University of Massachusetts scholar Rezarta Bilali in “National Narrative and Social Psychological Influences in Turks’ Denial of the Mass Killings of Armenians as Genocide,” in the Journal of Social Issues.
A 1923 map of the Armenian Highlands
The areas where historically Armenians have lived in Central and Eastern Anatolia were subjected to a process of Turkification. Properties and wealth confiscated from the Armenians were redistributed between local Kurdish notables and Muslim refugees the Balkans and the Caucasus who were resettled in the vacant Armenian villages.
During the following decades the Ankara Government replaced the old Armenian names of towns and villages with Turkish ones while the now empty churches crumbled and fell into ruins.
Turkish society was forced to confront the issues of 1915 for the first time in the 1970s with the the militant violence of the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) when prominent Turkish diplomats were assassinated as described by historian Uğur Ümit Üngör.
However, the killings did not induce any cathartic awakening in Turkish collective memory. Turkish government responded by emphasizing the “treasonous” behavior of the Armenian revolutionaries during World War One in the Turkish public education system. The Armenian diaspora responded by launching a global campaign of recognition by 2015.
The diaspora’s recognition campaign has been successful as more governments across the globe recognize the events of 1915 as genocide. Yet such global political pressure only serves to make officials in the Turkish government more defiant and further strengthens the hands of Turkish nationalists who frame this campaign as proof of ongoing prejudice against Turkey.
A more fruitful avenue to pursue may be encouraging civil society initiatives that focus on public remembrance and recognition between the Armenian diaspora and Turkey rather than pushing for a political solution to a 100-year old human tragedy.