Later this year, Turkey will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its republic, founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, one of the most revered figures in modern Turkish history. While there will be much praise and accolades paid to Ataturk as a leader who led Turkey to independence after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and paved the way for democracy, for Armenian American families like mine, it is a stark reminder of how Ataturk continued the genocidal actions of the Young Turks, who were responsible for the 1915 Armenian genocide.
For years, Armenian Americans have fought for recognition of the genocide, when more than 1.5 million Armenians were systematically exterminated by the Ottoman Turks—a crime that Turkey denies to this day. And while Ataturk is credited with turning Turkey into a progressive nation-state, he shared the same hate and animosity toward minority communities including Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians. He saw these groups as a threat to the Turkification and Islamification of Asia Minor and embarked on a campaign to drive these communities out of the country, which culminated in the burning of Smyrna in 1922 by Turkish forces, which destroyed the city and drove its residents—many of whom were Greek and Armenian—into exile.
In many ways, Ataturk tried to finish what the Young Turks started in 1915, and even went a step further to ensure that history would judge him and his country favorably. It is one of the reasons why he founded the Turkish Historical Society as one of his last acts right before he died, which was responsible for guarding and maintaining the state’s official history. It was his way to make sure that Turkey’s role and responsibility in committing these crimes against humanity would somehow be forgotten or swept away into the dustbin of history.
That mentality and mindset has carried on throughout the last 100 years with Turkey still trying to control its narrative and history. It is why the Turkish government spends so much money today on lobbyists to manufacture and shape its image. And it’s also why Turkey’s current authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has taken exception to any country that recognizes the Armenian genocide or holds them accountable for human rights violations. The image-conscious leader has even gone as far as rebranding the world’s perception of Turkey by officially changing the country’s name to Türkiye to part ways with any bird comparisons.
For Armenians around the world, they see what is happening in Nagorno-Karabakh through the lens of their painful history. They see these latest acts of aggression, with the help of Turkey, as a continuation of the Armenian genocide and an existential threat to their very existence.
Ataturk’s legacy and the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh are not mutually exclusive. To a large extent, history is happening again. By disavowing its history, Turkey is essentially giving Azerbaijan a level of confidence that it can say or do anything they want, without consequences.
That type of self-assurance allowed Azerbaijan to launch their war against Armenia and has given them license to illegally block the only road linking more than 120,000 Armenians to the outside world for more than seven months without any accountability.
Additionally, the rhetoric stemming from Azerbaijan today harkens back to the final days of the Ottoman Empire and the beginning of the Republic of Turkey, which is rooted in the same type of xenophobia and racism felt toward Armenians.
So, while the messenger might be different, the message is the same. Azerbaijan is taking a page right out of Turkey’s history book and promoting a climate of hate toward Armenians. That hate has manifested itself through words and actions. In recent speeches, we’ve heard Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, unequivocally claim that Armenia is their historical land, while calling Armenia “Western Azerbaijan.”
We have seen this hate carried out through the treatment and torture of Armenian POWs and blatant execution of captured Armenian soldiers. And Azerbaijan continues to plant seeds of hate by enacting a state policy that hatred toward the Armenian people be taught to school children across the country.
Azerbaijan is taking its cues from Turkey and proving once again that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. That is why Turkey should use the upcoming anniversary and festivities as a moment in time to fully reckon with its history and accept and formally acknowledge its role and responsibility in the Armenian genocide, and stop with its genocide denial campaign which started under Ataturk.
They need to put an end to this type of historical whitewashing and revisionism. It’s dangerous and irresponsible, and it’s costing lives. If Turkey is to be the model moderate Muslim-majority country that it wishes to be, it should come to terms with its past.
The Armenian people deserve it.
Stephan Pechdimaldji is a communications strategist who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s a first-generation Armenian American and grandson to survivors of the Armenian genocide.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.