By Robert Fisk
Only in Turkey is the identity of a citizen a matter of national security. That’s why the population registry in Ankara was until now a closed book, its details a state secret. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s definition of “Turkishness” was “anyone who is attached to the Turkish state as a citizen”. Turks came from a clear ethnic identity, untainted by racial minorities or doubtful lineage. That’s one reason why the Nazis lavished praise on Ataturk’s republic, their newspapers mourning his death in black-bordered front pages.
After all, as Hitler was to ask in several newspaper interviews – and to his generals before he invaded Poland – who now remembers the Armenians? Ataturk had supposedly inherited an Armenian-free Turkey, just as Hitler intended to present his followers with a Jew-free Europe. The Armenian genocide of 1915 – denied by the Turkish government today – destroyed a million and a half Christian Ottoman citizens in the first industrial holocaust of the 20th century. Almost the entire Armenian community had been liquidated. Or had it?
For the stunned reaction of Turks to the sudden and unexpected opening of population registers on an online genealogy database three weeks ago was so immediate and so vast that the system crashed within hours. Rather a lot of Turks, it turned out, were actually Armenians – or part-Armenians – or even partly Greek or Jewish. And across the mountains of eastern Anatolia – and around the cities of Istanbul, Izmir, Erzurum, Van and Gaziantep and along the haunted death convoy routes to Syria, ancient ghosts climbed out of century-old graves to reassert their Armenian presence in Turkish history. For the registry proved that many of them – through their families – were still alive.
Until now, for at least two decades – at least before Sultan Erdogan’s post-coup autocracy – thousands of Turks spoke freely, albeit in private, about their ancestry. They knew that amid the mass slaughter and rape of the Armenians, many Christian families sought sanctuary in conversion to Islam, while tens of thousands of young Armenian women were given in marriage to Turkish or Kurdish Muslim men. Their children grew up as Muslims and regarded themselves as Turks but often knew that they were half-Armenian. Tens of thousands of Armenian orphans were placed in Muslim schools, forced to speak Turkish and change their names. One of the largest schools was in Beirut, organized for a time by one of Turkey’s leading feminists who wrote of her experience and was later to die in America.
The Armenian diaspora – the 11 million Armenians living outside Turkey or Armenia itself, and who trace their ancestry back to the survivors of the 1915 genocide – were the first to understand the significance of the newly-opened population registers, noting that some information dated back to the early 1800s. Up to four million Turkish citizens were reported to have sought access to their family tree within 48 hours – which is why the system crashed – and in the days since it was re-established, according to retired statistician and Armenian demographer George Aghjayan, eight million Turks have requested their pedigrees. That’s 10 per cent of the entire Turkish population.