1915 was one hundred years ago, but the tensions that grew out of the events of those days in what is today Turkey are alive and well.
On April 24, Armenians around the world commemorate what they call the "Medz Yeghern" or "Great Crime", a genocide of their people by the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1923. Some 1.5 million Armenians perished between 1915 and 1923. 2015 marks the centennial anniversary of the Great Crime.
The Ottoman Empire is long gone, but the country that was established not long after in its place, the Republic of Turkey, does not believe the events of 1915 qualify as genocide, a claim that has earned Ankara waves of criticism and blind fury from many Armenians.
The reasons for this are many. The Medz Yeghern began on April 24, 1915 and lasted into 1923. During that time period, Turks fought in World War I and their own war for independence, and in 1923, the modern Republic of Turkey was founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, whose last name fittingly means "Father of the Turks". Atatürk is revered in Turkey today for his ideology of Kemalism, a sort of liberal, secular democracy with a strong peppering of civic nationalism.
To admit to the genocide means negative consequences to many Turkish people. Turkish people are often fervently patriotic, even nationalistic towards their country. Admitting the genocide to many Turks means to turn their backs upon many of those who founded their country, and reparations towards Armenians who may believe it is their right to take back the lands they once inhabited hundreds of years ago. Whether Yeveran would demand that Ankara cede modern Turkish lands is unclear, but the sentiment is not fabricated.
Most of the nations in the European Union recognize the Medz Yeghern as a genocide. Much of South America also believes it to be a genocide. Canada recognizes the events as genocide, but its southern neighbor the United States is in a peculiar limbo when it comes to recognition. While on the campaign trail in 2008, President Barack Obama claimed he would recognize the genocide as such. Seven years into his presidency, he has balked on that promise, as the risks of angering Turkey, a NATO member and ally, are considered too high. Forty-three states out of fifty recognize the Medz Yeghern as a genocide, and there are considerable lobbying groups that advocate for both the genocide's recognition and the status quo.
The controversy surrounding the events of 1915-1923 is far from over, something tangibly visible on Massachusetts Avenue this afternoon.
Two demonstrations were organized in front of the Turkish embassy on the sunny spring afternoon. On the left side of the street facing the embassy, Armenians numbered somewhere into the hundreds waving their crimson, blue, and orange flag. Many wore purple flower pins in their lapels. Signs read "Turkey, admit your guilt!" "We want justice!", "Recognize the genocide!" "Erdoğan supports terrorism!" "Genocide denied is genocide repeated!"
Perhaps the most chilling sign on the Armenian side referenced a quote by none other than Adolf Hitler. "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?" it read.
Many wore shirts that said "I want my home in Western Armenia", a nod to the area of modern-day Turkey where Armenians were exiled from.
Yet Armenia's unique flag was not what I first noticed first in my trek up to the Turkish Embassy. It was the sea of crimson red on the other side, mirroring the flag fluttering above.
In front of the Turkish embassy, facing the Armenian demonstration was a comparably-sized counter-demonstration of Turkish people. Signs abounded on their side as well, reading "I Stand with Turkey!" "Let History Decide!" "Reconciliation, not Accusation!" A couple Turks were taking pictures with a large picture of their President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Car horns blared nearly constantly, and there was a considerable police presence, only amplified by the proximity of the Japanese Embassy, as Shinzo Abe, Japan's Prime Minister, is visiting the United States. As the demonstrations exchanged chants, many supporters of both sides ambled by in cars on the congested avenue, simultaneously cheering their countrymen and jeering the opposing side.
The Armenians I talked to were, to say the least, unappreciative of what the Turkish signs claimed. "Let History Decide!" to them was merely an excuse for Turks to continue their perceived lies. "Reconciliation, not accusation!" avoided responsibility.
President Obama's lack of acknowledgement was a grave insult as well. It is often argued that President Obama has shied away from calling the Armenian Genocide a genocide for fear of further straining relations with Turkey, who is a vital American ally in the Middle East. Those Armenians said that hardly mattered compared to doing what was right, namely, calling the genocide as it was and properly respecting the 1.5 million who'd perished.
The Turks' flag-waving across the street was puzzling to put it lightly. What people would say if Germans waved their flag and sang Das Deutschlandlied, their national hymn, on the anniversary of the Holocaust? Germans have much to be proud of historically, but today they also possess the sense to not display that pride at the wrong time.
Turkish people have reasons to be proud of their country as well. Despite some mounting problems under Erdoğan, they still possess one of the most advanced, modern, and democratic countries in the region, a regional powerhouse where many nearby countries are tearing themselves apart.
"They can repent and still be proud." Ara, an Armenian I conversed with at the demonstration, claimed. A man next to him vigorously nodded.
Now, many Turks admit what happened to Armenians in those days, and there are voices within Turkey that believe the genocide should be recognized. Turkish-Kurdish newspapers such as
Özgür Gündem (Free Agenda) and Azadiya Welat (Freedom of the Country) featured sympathetic headlines to the Armenian tragedy, as did the popular center-left leaning daily Cumhuriyet (The Republic) whose headline today declared "Never Again" in Armenian.
Above the chest-thumping and the trash-talk being shouted back and forth across Mass Ave, hope was also in the air. Ara went on to tell me he was hopeful that younger generations of Turks would be receptive to coming to terms and repenting for a sad and awful point in their history while retaining pride in their country, as does Germany. He was visibly happy when I mentioned the Turkish newspaper headlines of the day and affirmed that that was a strong step forward.
We can only hope the steps continue forward.