ISTANBUL | A group of Istanbul’s liberal intelligentsia clustered outside the Tutun Deposu gallery, an old tobacco warehouse in a working-class neighborhood of Istanbul to mark the anniversary of a 1915 pogrom.
Inside the renovated building, an all-female choir performed a selection of folk songs from the musical traditions of minorities persecuted during the last spasms of the Ottoman Empire.
“The reason we call what happened a genocide,” said Eren Keskin, a Turkish lawyer with a history of challenging the state, “is because the destruction wreaked on these lands was not just to the Armenians, but to their culture, too. Buildings, churches and cemeteries were razed.”
One of the most emotional issues bedeviling Turkish society today is what exactly happened in 1915 to Turkey’s Armenian minority. The Ottoman Empire was collapsing as a new republic emerged. Newly released files of Ottoman official Enver Pasha reveal the disappearance of almost a million ethnic Armenians from population records between 1915 and 1916.
The Istanbul-based think tank European Stability Initiative issued a report on the eve of the April 24 anniversary criticizing the Turkish government for spending considerable political capital on fighting pro-genocide campaigns. “This is a battle Turkey cannot win,” the report said.
The day before the anniversary, the Turkish Foreign Ministry announced it was moving to end its 16-year blockade of Armenia that was imposed as a gesture to fellow Turkish ally Azerbaijan resulting from a 1993 war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
However, bad blood between Turkey and Armenia goes back further, to the Cold War that pitted Turkey against Armenia, which was then part of the Soviet Union.
During his election campaign, President Obama promised America’s Armenian community to recognize the 1915 pogrom as genocide.
He backed away from his pledge after a successful visit to Turkey in April, during which he is credited with helping to broker a breakthrough in Turkish-Armenian relations.
Turkish society has largely ignored the events of 1915, which go untaught in public schools. Children hear little about the disappearance of their Armenian compatriots on forced marches across the Ottoman Empire’s former Arab provinces of Syria and Iraq.
Inside the anniversary ceremony, black-and-white images were broadcast on a screen of some of the 250 Armenian notables detained in Istanbul in 1915, at the beginning of the persecution.
“Turkish society has been led to think that on 24 April, Armenian terrorists and criminals were arrested,” said Ayse Gunaysu, one of the organizers. “But they were lawyers, jurists, publishers, intellectuals.”
The event organized by the Turkish Human Rights Association (THRA) is only the second public commemoration of the 1915 events in the Turkish Republic’s 86-year history.
“Twenty years ago, this would have been impossible,” said publisher Rober Koptas, pointing at the activity around him. “In the long run, what we’re doing today will give us a space to talk about issues such as the Armenian question, democratization and freedom of speech.”
About 150 participants crowding into the art gallery knew well not to tread on red lines in a country where “insulting Turkishness” is a punishable crime.
In 2007, a prominent Armenian newspaper publisher was assassinated by right-wing extremists, sparking mass protests.
“As long as it’s not seen as a straightforward political meeting, it doesn’t upset the nationalists,” said Adnan Eksigil, the owner of Tutun Deposu and director of a cultural organization involved in resuscitating the cultures of Anatolia.
Turkey admits that hundreds of thousands of Armenians perished in 1915 but presents its own actions as legitimate self-defense. It blames the killings variously on the fog of war or on the purported collaboration of its Armenian citizens with an uprising sponsored by czarist Russia. Nationalist circles sometimes support the ethnic cleansing of Turkey’s minorities as an essential component in constructing an ethnically homogeneous modern state.
In December, Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul publicly stated that the deportation of Greeks and Armenians was a “very important step” in the construction of a Muslim national bourgeoisie.
“If there were Greeks in the Aegean and Armenians in most places in Turkey today, would it be the same nation-state?” Mr. Gonul asked.
“I don’t know what words I can use to explain the importance of the population exchange, but if you look at the former state of affairs, its importance will become very clear.”
Kerem Oktem, a research associate at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford University, said that Mr. Gonul’s remarks, while racist, also reflect a widely held consensus “that the emergence of modern Turkey was predicated upon the removal or destruction of its non-Muslim communities.”
Today, there are signs that Turkish society is opening up to the idea of debating its past. Two films have been released in the past year that challenge the official narrative: an examination of a 1955 state-sponsored pogrom against the Greeks and a biography of Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk that breaches historical taboos, such as his drinking habit.
In December, 200 Turkish intellectuals launched an Internet petition titled “I Apologize.”
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reacted angrily, saying there was “no reason” to apologize. Sixty former ambassadors rallied to publicly call the petition an act of betrayal.
However, such debates hardly percolate beyond elite intellectual and political circles. In the working-class neighborhood around Tutun Deposu, none of the locals accepted there had been a genocide.
“I don’t think the Turks were involved in a genocide,” said Mustafa Ozel, a worker in a print shop. “Since the Ottoman period, we Turks have been peaceful and based our behavior on justice and a peaceful society.”
Feyzi Atak owns the Bahceli Cafe next to the Tutun Deposu gallery. His exclusively male clientele gathers throughout the day to play cards, drink tea and smoke cigarettes. The often unemployed locals from the surrounding area were poles apart from the sophisticated crowd inside the gallery.
“I’m against the debate of what our grandparents did to each other,” said Mr. Atak as he sat alongside two friends, one of whom wears a lapel pin of the Turkish flag. “It just clouds our children’s judgment.”
“The Armenians are wrong to make such a fuss about it,” said Fatma Ciftci, a passer-by. “The Armenians maintained very good historical records while the Ottomans didn’t, and that was the gravest historical mistake we made.”
Turkey recently announced that it has opened up its Ottoman-era historical archives to inspection. Though the term “genocide” had not been coined yet in 1915, the U.S. ambassador at the time found a more-graphic term to describe the events in his urgent reports to the State Department, describing the systematic slaughtering of Armenians as “race murder.”
Iason Athanasiadis is reporting from Turkey on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.