Saturday, 11 April 2015

John Key's Gallipoli Wisdom

I've been working on a sort of 'side project' recently which involves learning more about the Middle East. I'm particularly interested in the historical connections between what we see happening now in places such as Syria and Iraq, and the dissolution and carving up of the Ottoman Empire after WW1. I'm also interested in Turkey, one of the most powerful and relatively stable states to form out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. As I wrote a couple of years ago, it was the experience of travelling in Turkey and seeing all of the massive monuments dedicated to Kemal Ataturk which got me thinking about the strange and disturbing reality of the New Zealand Anzac tradition.

[In no other theater of World War I are the results of that epochal conflict still as current as they are in the Middle East. Nowhere else does the early 20th century orgy of violence still determine political conditions to the same degree. The so-called European Civil War, a term used to describe the period of bloody violence that racked Europe from 1914 onwards, came to an end in 1945. The Cold War ceased in 1990. But the tensions unleashed on the Arab world by World War I remain as acute as ever. Essentially, the Middle East finds itself in the same situation now as Europe did following the 1919 Treaty of Versailles: standing before a map that disregards the region's ethnic and confessional realities. see more here

So far I haven't really done too much justice to this project. I do my best to keep up with current events in the Middle East, but frequently struggle to make sense of the stories I read in the press. When it comes to Turkey I feel I have some sort of insight into the situation there, and a sense of its history. Having said that, I would like to know a lot more about how the Anzac centenary is seen by the Turkish people(s), and how the Anzac centenary is seen by the Turkish state. Rather than the mournful and somber tone of 21st century New Zealand nationalism, the Turkish state is (from what I could see when travelling there) still keen to tap into a very militaristic, proud and triumphant sort of nationalism which derives directly from Ataturk.

Interestingly, as this recent Herald article states, Turkey did not always pay too much attention to Gallipoli as a part of its own remembrance tradition. Ataturk did not take up the reins of power immediately after defeating the Allies in 1915 at Gallipoli. He had to wait several more years, until 1923, before the modern state of Turkey was born. The period between 1919 and 1923 is called the Turkish War of Independence. According to the Herald article:

"Although popular Turkish remembrance and commemoration of the Gallipoli campaign started with the war-period propaganda and myth-making, the Independence War proved to be more important with its peculiar myths and legends," said Mr Uyar, whose new book, The Ottoman Defence Against the Anzac Landing is the first detailed account of the landing from the Turkish perspective to be published in English.

The construction of the Dardanelles Martyrs' Memorial in the early 1950s and an official 1980s campaign to create a more articulated Gallipoli history supported with sites of remembrance were instrumental in establishing an "omnipresence of Gallipoli in Turkish history", Mr Uyar says.

My guess is that the Turkish state finds the Gallipoli centenary very useful for various political purposes. It has been angling for membership of the EU for quite some time, and appearing as a friendly Western partner to countries like New Zealand and Australia is probably a good marketing strategy. There's another possibility here too: the date of the beginning of the Armenian Genocide is April 24th 1915. This is the day before the Allied landings at Gallipoli. So we have a centenary of three different kinds of death approaching us:

  1. Allied deaths total 44,150, including 2779 Nzers
  2. Turkish/Arab deaths total 86,692
  3. Armenian deaths total 1,500,000

That works out to just over 11 Armenians killed for every single death on the Gallipoli peninsula. These won't be recognised on April 25th 2015, and it is this sort of silence which makes the rhetoric of 'respect and friendship' between Turkey, Australia and New Zealand a very sickening sort of relationship.

Even though the Herald article made no mention of this important fact, and concluded by paying tribute to the so called “bonds of friendship” between Turkey and New Zealand, it was still one of the best articles I have read so far this year in the mainstream press about the upcoming centenary. It avoided a personalised focus and made reference to some important historical events. It had a relatively critical perspective, with the Turkish New Zealander Nejat Kavvas calling for John Key to deliver an apology to the Turkish people for the huge number of lives taken by the Allied invasion in 1915.

This sort of request, no matter what your political views might happen to be, should be taken seriously. The centenary of a major historical event is an opportunity to engage with and critically reflect upon the past. With New Zealand committing troops to Iraq, and Turkey being a very major player in the Middle East region, such critical reflection is even more important and relevant.

With these points in mind, let us turn to consider John Key's thoughtful and profound response to the request:

But today when Mr Key was asked if he should apologise on behalf of New Zealand for the bloodshed of 100 years ago, he replied: "No."

A spokeswoman for this office said: "The Prime Minister has been invited to Gallipoli by the Turkish government. He will use the occasion to pay his respects to the people of Turkey, to commemorate a historic campaign for our countries, and to remember those who sacrificed their lives on both sides."

We might also appreciate the wise words of the political philosopher David Farrar, who posted this on his Kiwiblog recently:

Why only apologise to Turkey? Should we also apologise to Kaiser Wilhelm II?

How do you possibly respond to this sort of wisdom?

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