Is Erdogan ethnically Turkish

Turkey : Erdogan's dubious view of history

“History is not just a nation's past, but also its guide to the future” - postulated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in February of this year at a commemorative event on the 100th anniversary of the death of Abdülhamid II, the “red sultan” eyewitnesses called him because of his repressive policy towards the non-Muslims of the empire. In his fiery speech Erdogan reaffirmed the claim of the Republic of Turkey to be the legal “successor to the Ottomans”: “Of course the borders, form of government and administrative protocols have changed, but the basic spirit, essence and even many institutions have remained the same.”

But what exactly is meant when Erdogan speaks of a common essence that endures over time? Because the social structures of the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey could hardly be more different. On the one hand, the Ottoman Empire as a multi-ethnic state, which was composed of various religious social elements. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Armenian, Greek and Jewish communities made up just under 20 percent of the total population. On the other hand, today's Turkey as a nation state, in which over 97 percent of all citizens are registered as Muslims and whose only official language is Turkish.

Turkey was founded in 1923 - there were already scars from ethnic cleansing

How is this radical cut into the demographic landscape of Anatolia compatible with the idea of ​​a common essence? This question is closely linked to the fate of the Ottoman Armenians, Pontus Greeks and a large number of New Aramaic speaking Christians who populated the areas of today's Turkey up to the beginning of the 20th century.

When the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, deep scars from ethnic cleansing were already being drawn through the country's once multi-ethnic population: a policy of systematic persecution and extermination, which culminated in the Armenian genocide in 1915, was broken up to Establishment of the state of Turkey irrevocably the Armenian, Aramaic-Christian and Greek communities of Anatolia. Diaspora communities of Pontus Greeks in Greece, Armenians in Argentina or Aramaic Christians in Georgia, which still exist today, bear witness to the dispersal of the displaced far beyond the region.

The eastern areas of today's Turkey, largely cleared of their non-Muslim populations, offered the Republic of Turkey a kind of tabula rasa for the creation of a supposedly homogeneous Turkish national territory. Contrary to the deviating secular rhetoric of the Kemalist elites at the time, this nation-state was based in its basic features on a Turkish-Islamic synthesis as an identity-creating dominant culture. While membership of the Ottoman Empire - similar to the case in the Russian Tsarist Empire or the Habsburgs - was originally defined by the relationship of loyalty between subjects and the hegemon (sultan), with the rise of the nation-states, ethnic affiliation came more into focus: Sections of the population who, because of their religious affiliation and language, were unable or unwilling to fit into the newly emerging Turkish-Islamic society, were seen as threatening foreign bodies and were regularly caught in the crosshairs of nationalist campaigns.

Violent manifestations of the raison d'être

The massacres against the Alevi communities of Dersim in 1937/38, an exorbitantly high property tax levied on the non-Muslim population between 1942 and 1945, or the state-approved pogroms on the Greek community of Istanbul in September 1955 are just some of the particularly violent factors Manifestations of this reason of state.

In order to understand the extent of this national homogenization policy, it is advisable to take a look at the population statistics: While in the Ottoman population census of 1914, non-Muslims made up almost 20 percent of the total population in today's territory of Turkey, the number of state-recognized non-Muslims fell Minorities (Armenians, Greeks and Jews) below 100,000 by 2005, which corresponds to a population share of 0.1 percent. The traces of the "disappeared populations" remain omnipresent: be it the sight of church remains (the Lake Van region alone counted up to 320 churches and monasteries), the use of Armenian cross stones, so-called khachkars, in the dwellings of Kurdish villagers or inscriptions of Aramaic origin carved in stone. We encounter the local space as a “palimpsest of violence”, as the American anthropologist Anoush Suni from the University of California Los Angeles describes it.

There is hardly any other area where this state-sanctioned policy of displacement is better reflected than in the history lessons of Turkish schools. So if you want to understand how the official interpretation of history in Turkey explains the "disappearance" of non-Muslim populations (v), it is worth taking a look at the history textbooks. In the opening chapter "The Ottomans, a world power (1453–1600)", the history book of the 10th grade lets the students wallow in the glory of bygone days. This section describes the high period of the Ottoman Empire from the conquest of Constantinople to the siege of Vienna.

The genocide of the Armenians is being turned into its opposite

However, one population group is not mentioned here: Ottoman Armenians. Significantly, they did not enter the stage of Turkish textbook history until the late 19th century. In a Turkish version of the stab in the back, we encounter Armenian populations ex nihilo as puppets in the hands of imperialist great powers (Great Britain, France and Russia) who seek to infiltrate the Ottoman Empire from within.

Manifestations of Armenian resistance well before the outbreak of World War I are reduced to a policy of agitation by Russia "to gain influence over the region in Eastern Anatolia by establishing an Armenian state". Regardless of the economic and social misery in the eastern provinces, their discriminated position vis-à-vis Muslim feudal lords and the everyday experience of arbitrary expropriations and tribal raids, the isolated uprisings by Armenians in places like Erzurum, Sasun or Adana are generally declared to be the work of imperialist great powers.

The story takes its fatal course when "Russia stirred up Armenians during the war with the promise of independence" and they were guilty of treason. In this context, however, the genocidal dimension of Young Turkish politics is not only denied, but turned into its opposite in a bizarre way:

“During the forced relocation, around 10,000 people died from bandit attacks and around 30,000 people lost their lives to respiratory diseases. According to unbiased researchers, a total of 300,000 Armenians died during the war and the rebellions. In contrast, Armenians killed around 600,000 Turks and forced 500,000 to migrate. "

Against this background, the fatal deportation policy of the Young Turks - as a result of which up to 1.5 million Armenians lost their lives in 1915 - no longer appears as a wrong political decision with fatal consequences, but as an indispensable political necessity to maintain the great empire.

David Leupold is a sociologist and is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Michigan.

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page