Istanbul

Two elderly shoe-shiners were shouting with rage outside my local in Istanbul. The subject was America, and they ranted on and on — first about the disaster in Iraq, then about the stirring up of the Kurds, and then about the latest effort in Congress to ‘recognise the Armenian genocide’. What is so very strange about all of this is that American relations with Turkey have generally been very good. In a sense, modern Turkey belongs with Germany and Japan as the most successful creation of the United States after the second world war. In any year, there are 25,000 Turks at American universities, some of them sprigs of the Istanbul rich, many on scholarships, with which the Americans have been generous. Co-operation has gone far in other ways: for instance, the great air base at Incirlik has been vital all along for America’s defence interests, and now, given the Iraq problem, the port of Iskenderun, the old Alexandretta, is also important. Turkey has a good defence industry, especially good when it comes to making aircraft (the F-16s win prizes). She might have developed into an Egypt, but instead she is closer to Spain — industrial, in many places quite prosperous, literate. By most measurements she is now better off than Russia, let alone most countries of the Middle East.

But something has gone badly wrong, and opinion polls now show that the Turks are even more anti-American than the Palestinians. The latest row concerns the adoption of a resolution by the House of Representatives branding the Armenian massacres of 1915 as genocide. What on earth causes Congress to bring up this subject now, almost a century down the line, and relating to an Ottoman empire that has long ceased to exist? And why on earth should these public bodies lecture historians as to what they should be saying? One basic cause seems to be simple enough: money. We all know about the eccentricities of the American legal system, the business of class actions. If Congress recognises the massacres as ‘genocide’, then who knows what claims would be presented to Turkey proper? There was a great deal of Armenian property in eastern Turkey back then.

Nearly all Turks would anyway dispute the notion of ‘genocide’. Ever since 1878 the Armenians had become more and more restive and the nationalists started to make the running — even murdering prominent Armenians who dissented and who said (as did the Patriarch in 1890) that it would all end in disaster. In the spring of 1915, just as the Russian army (with an Armenian division in tow) came over the border, there was a revolt, encouraged by the Russians and the Armenians who lived under the Tsar. Many prominent Armenians in Turkey also encouraged or organised rebellions because, with the British about to land at Gallipoli and the French training an Armenian legion on Cyprus, they expected the Turks to collapse. In the eastern city of Van the Muslim quarter was smashed, and many inhabitants were killed. The Ottoman government then decreed that Armenians — with many exceptions — should be deported out of areas where they could damage the defences, or sabotage the telegraph lines and railways. The deportees were sent to northern Syria, but on the way they were sometimes attacked by wild tribes, in some cases with the connivance of officials. In 1916 — and this surely tells against ‘genocide’ — the Ottomans tried 1,300 of these men and even executed a governor. About half a million Armenians arrived in the south-east and a very great number then died of the disease and starvation that were so prevalent at the time. Muslims also died in droves. In addition, the figure given for overall losses by the Armenian representative at the Paris peace treaties was 700,000 — not 1.5 million as has been widely claimed.

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Genocide? First of all, much depends on your definition. If we take the classic version, then there are serious difficulties. The British occupied Istanbul for four years and had a run of the archives. The law officers could not find evidence to convict the hundred or so Turks whom they had arrested. In the summer of 1920 some documents did turn up, allegedly drawn from a guilt-ridden Turkish official, but they were fairly clumsy forgeries (this has not stopped Robert Fisk from quoting one or two): the dating system was wrong, the governor’s signature was not accurate, the paper came from a French school, etc. The documents have since disappeared — not what you would expect if they had been so very damning. Evidence for genocide can be called into question otherwise: for instance, a professor at Princeton examined the text of the American ambassador’s memoirs and showed that it had been retouched by an Armenian secretary.

On the whole historians who know the subject and the sources (they are very difficult) do not take the ‘genocide’ line: the best recent account of it all is Guenther Lewy’s A Disputed Genocide (Utah University Press, 2005). But whether they are right or wrong, it is surely nonsense for Congress to be involved at all, or any other body. The French National Assembly provoked some trouble in Turkey when, by a very narrow vote, it proposed to make genocide-denial a crime: Sarkozy is now a hate-figure. Various other bodies have been pushed into this — bizarrely, Edinburgh City Council last year, along with Lithuania and Chile and who knows where else.

None of this is any help to Armenia; she is a poor and landlocked place, dependent for energy on of all places Iran, and without diaspora money she would be in an even worse state. She regularly loses people to emigration — 60,000 of them incidentally to Istanbul — and she badly needs good relations with Turkey. Perhaps such countries, once they are independent, should make a second declaration of independence from their diasporas.

But the business in Congress is also associated with other much greater problems. There is first of all Iraq. Almost all Turks thought that the Americans were very wrong in going in: yes, Saddam was a monster, but his removal would only make matters worse. Maybe the sensible thing would have been for the Turks themselves to provide an occupation force, especially in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq; they know the area, and might even have proclaimed some kind of confederal link with the Kurds. But the Allies failed to occupy Iraq in 1991 and the Turks themselves did not co-operate on the ground 12 years later, when Saddam was overthrown. The result is the emergence of a Kurdish proto-state, and given the tremendous mountain terrain it is easily possible for anti-Turkish guerrillas of the PKK to hide and cross over. In the past few weeks — strangely timed in parallel with the Armenian resolution — there have been many vicious attacks on the Turkish military in the south-east.

As far as Turkey herself is concerned, that makes for very great problems. For generations, Turks and Kurds got along; but there is now tension. Kurdish society remained rather different from Turkish. A tradition of polygamy went on, and one outcome is a great problem of demography.

Diyarbakir, the chief town of the Kurdish region of Turkey, is an astonishing place. Its great grim basalt walls go back to Roman times and maybe earlier; its warren of very narrow streets is studded with old monuments, including varieties of Christian churches; it sits grandly on a bend in the river Tigris. The town centre is quite lively, but if you go to the old citadel area, it becomes depressing: that quarter is swamped in ragged children, hanging like bunches of grapes. They are quite cheerful, but the demographic problem is only too obvious, and so it is in other parts of the area. You wonder how on earth the country can stand the pressure on its infrastructure, and the problem causes much resentment in Turkey proper, where families are now limited in size. In fact vast numbers of Kurds mig
rate to the cities of the centre and west, especially Istanbul, and there a process of assimilation goes ahead: if you hear young Kurds talking among themselves, they use a mixture of Kurdish and Turkish, the more so as, quite often, they cannot quite understand each other’s dialects. The Kurdish problem boils down to a race between demography in the east and assimilation in the west.

It can only be vastly complicated by the existence of a Kurdish national entity over the border, and besides there are dimensions of drugs-smuggling to make matters worse. Huge fortunes are made out of this and it is very difficult to detect. Tens of thousands of lorries pass the border every month; Turkey has also a considerable headache from refugees (of whom there are 2,000,000, often from Iran). Now there is a suspicion, almost universal in Turkey, that the Americans will set up a ramshackle Kurdish state, and then prepare to leave the whole Iraqi mess behind. Turkey would then have to pick up the pieces and, though economic prosperity grows, this is not a happy time for the country. She had, after independence in 1923, a relatively good 20th century. But given her geographical placing, the 21st is shaping up with versions of the old historical problems. It would be bad if her people have to relapse into that old line of Turkish nationalism, Türk Türkün dostu — meaning, ‘the only friend of the Turk is the Turk’.

The paperback edition of Norman Stone’s World War One: A short history is being published by Penguin in March next year at £7.99.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated