Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Colin Tatz, Gallipoli, Denialism and Pius.

One of the recurring problems in any historical research are the problems with perceptions, hindsight, projection, revisionism and distortion.  My work on Pius XII encounters these problems on an almost daily basis.  This post takes is an article by Professor Colin Tatz, former Professor of Politics at Macquarie University, Sydney and Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University, Canberra.  Colin was my doctoral supervisor and has for many years been both mentor, teacher and friend.  I am grateful for his permission to publish this article.

One of the concerns Colin has spent much time exploring is the phenomenon of denial and denialism.  His article looks afresh at one of Australia's most famous icons - Gallipoli 1915.  Denialism is not unique to the study of Pius XII, it is common throughout much of human history.  I think Colin's reflection is pertinent to my study of Pacelli.


The only Australian politician to openly question the Gallipoli saga is former prime minister Paul Keating. In October 2008 he said we were "dragged into service by the imperial government in an ill-conceived and poorly executed campaign, we were cut to ribbons and dispatched." That Australia was born as a nation or redeemed there "is utter and complete nonsense".

Leaving aside Australia's "birth in the crucible", an image now deeply cemented in our history books and national psyche, we are about to see the annual holding of hands by the former combatants. Thousands will visit the "sacred site"; Turks and Australians will join in understandable commemoration but less comprehensible celebration; and friendship societies will become tearful and lyrical during this anniversary of the shedding of brotherly blood.

But intruding on this mourning ritual is the growing world recognition of the Ottoman (and, later, Kemalist) Turkish genocide committed between 1915 and 1922. Some 26 nation states and over 50 regional governments, including New South Wales and South Australia, formally recognise the Turkish attempts to annihilate three million Armenians and possibly one million Pontian Greeks and Christian Assyrians. At least 1.5 million Armenians were dead by bayoneting, beheading, bullets, butchering, crucifixion, drowning, elementary gas chambers, forced death marches, hanging, hot horseshoes, medical experiments, and other unprintable atrocities.

Turkey is totally dedicated, at home and abroad, to having every hint or mention of an Armenian genocide contradicted, countered, explained, justified, mitigated, rationalised, relativised, removed or trivialised. The entire apparatus of the Turkish state is tuned to denial, with officers appointed abroad for that purpose. Their actions are spectacular, often bizarre, and without distinction between the serious and the silly, including: pressures to dilute or even remove any mention of the genocide in the Armenian entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica; threats to sever diplomatic relations with France over the latter’s parliamentary declaration that there was such a genocide; replacing the Turkish Prime Minister’s Renault with an inferior Russian limo; Sydney Turks demanding that the broadcaster SBS pulp its 25th anniversary history for twice making passing reference to an event they claim “never happened”; and, more recently, frenetic Turkish efforts to stop a memorial to the dead Assyrians in the western Sydney district of Fairfield.

Explanations abound. One is that Turkey is the victim of the single greatest conspiracy in world history, with states like Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Northern Ireland, Poland, Russia, Scotland, Sweden, Switzerland, the Vatican and Wales conniving to falsely brand Turkey as a genocidaire. Another is that somehow 11 million Armenians around the globe have subverted the truth, history and dozens of nations to "frame" innocent Turkey. Yet another is that witnesses — like British historians Arnold Toynbee and Viscount Bryce, German missionary Dr Johannes Lepsius and German medico Armin Wegner, the American ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau Snr and his Swedish diplomatic colleagues — invented their sometimes daily conversations with the major perpetrators, Talaat Pasha and Enver Pasha, and lied to besmirch Turkish honour. Another is that the dozens of Australian POWs, isolated and often grossly maltreated in remote villages rather than in camps, deliberately faked the photographs and invented the atrocity stories they brought back home. They assert that the special Turkish military courts-martial held in Istanbul in 1919 only sentenced several perpetrators to death in absentia and imprisoned some 30 others for war crimes only because of duress from the Allies. The best explanation is that the Turks did precisely what they were recorded and filmed as doing, for which their own tribunals convicted them.

We are approaching a serious junction: the path to Gallipoli grows in scale and traffic each year, but so does the avenue to official recognition that what occurred was genocide, one in so many ways the prologue to, and template for, the Holocaust less than 20 years later. Sooner rather than later the United States Congress will find the numbers for the two-thirds majority needed for recognition. The United Kingdom government won't be far behind. More Australian states will follow and, inevitably, an unwilling (and very unhappy) federal government will have to do so. Our dilemma will be profound.

There is, of course, a way forward: an admission of truth about the events; a genuine opening of all the Ottoman archives to obviate the old Turkish chestnuts about "awaiting the verdict of historians" and "Armenian revolutionaries engaged in civil war"; an offer of regret, or apology, even one leavened by a limitation on reparations. That way Turkey can more readily enter the European Union and the comity of nations. But the hysterical and obsessive denialism of the Batak massacres in Bulgaria in 1876, the 200,000 Armenians dead at the hands of Sultan Abdul Hamid II between 1894 and 1896, the 1.5 million dead at the hands of the Young Turks from 1915, will always get in the way of "normal" relationships.

Even if today's Turkey decided to become more West-oriented, less cosy with Syria and Iran in a jihadist worldview, more willing to address its past in relation to Christians generally, the juggernaut of the denialism industry is such that it simply cannot stop. The machine has developed its own mind, its own convulsive and reflexive responses. Turks see genocide as a blot on their escutcheon and honour; they see themselves as decent people, and decent people don't commit genocide. Wrong. "Decent people" — like Americans, Canadians, Belgians, Italians, Germans, Austrians, Spaniards and Australians — have all done just that.

Colin Tatz is a visiting fellow in the College of Arts & Social Sciences, Australian National University. He is the author of With Intent to Destroy: Reflecting on Genocide.


  1. What have the Australians done? Or who recognizes the ongoing genocide there?

    1. I am not quite sure what you mean. What is it that "the Australians" are supposed to have done? As to an ongoing "genocide" you will have to be more specific. The Commonwealth Government has made significant steps towards recognising the genocidal actions of previous governments and attempted to implement, with considerable Indigenous initiative and help, processes that will help heal old wounds and allow the country to move forward. No process is perfect, but gestures such as the formal apology to the Stolen Generations are good starts.


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