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, organised 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.
The documents can be vague. And they are not complete. There are examples of known Armenian ancestors listed as Muslim without reference to their origin. The names shown for those known to have converted during the 1915 genocide are Muslim names – but the Christian names of their parents are also shown. There will always be discrepancies and unknown details. Many Ottoman registrars did not give accurate details of birthdays: Turkish officials might travel to a village once a month and simply list its newborn under the date of their visit. There are still centenarians alive in Lebanon and Syria, for example, who all possess the same birth date, whatever their origin.
So why has Turkey released these files now? Erdogan is quoted to have once complained that Turks were “accused of being Jews, Armenians or Greeks”. Tayfun Atay, a columnist for the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, wrote that he was “advised in a friendly matter not to admit that I am a Georgian…What about those who risk learning that they are of Armenian ancestry or a convert? Just think: you think you are a red-blooded Turk but turn out to be a pure-blood Armenian.”
Journalist Serdar Korucu told Al-Monitor that “if they had done this a few years ago when we were [becoming more tolerant], conspiracy theories would not have been as strong as today, when the state believes we are in a struggle for existence. This is how Turkey reinvigorates the spirit of the Independence War” – to inspire patriotism and pro-government thinking.
In 2003, the Armenian newspaper Agos, whose editor Hrant Dink was assassinated outside his office in 2007, reported that the Turkish government was secretly coding minorities in registers: Greeks were one, according to the paper. Armenians were two. Jews were three. Korucu recalled how the director of the Turkish Historical Society threatened minorities in 2007. “Don’t make me angry. I have a list of converts I can reveal down to their streets and homes.” The director later became a politician in the rightist Nationalist Action Party.
Ethnic Armenian columnist Hayko Bagdat placed this in a story he told the Al-Monitor website – including an individual family tale which might be humorous if it was not so charged with tragedy. “During the 1915 genocide, along with mass conversions, there were also thousands of children in exile…The society is not yet ready to deal with this reality.” Imagine, Bagdat said, that Lutfi Dogan, who had served as Turkey’s director of religious affairs, was the brother of someone who was the Armenian patriarch, Sinozk Kalustyan.
“Kalustyan, who returned to Turkey from Beirut in 1961, was remembered as a saint in the Turkish Armenian Patriarchate and as someone who had served in the most difficult times after 1915. During the genocide, his mother sent the children away and converted to Islam. Later she married [a man called] Dogan, who was of high social standing, and had two girls and a boy. The boy was Lutfi Dogan. When the mother, who was then with the Nationalist Action Party…died, his uncle came in priest garb from Beirut to attend the funeral. Nobody could say anything.”
This predicament was eloquently conveyed in Fethiye Cetin’s memoir of her grandmother, a respected Muslim housewife in the small Turkish town of Maden, who revealed to her granddaughter that she was Armenian. Most of the men in her village were slaughtered, Seher (her real Armenian name was Heranus) said. A Turkish gendarme had adopted her. Fethiye Cetin, a human rights lawyer who acted for the soon-to-be-murdered Hrant Dink, posted her grandmother’s death announcement in Dink’s paper, Argos: “Heranus lost her entire family and never saw them again,” she wrote. “She was given a new name, to live in a new family. She forgot her mother tongue and her religion…she never ever forgot her name, her village, her mother, her father…She lived until the age of 95.” Relatives in America read the death notice and Heranus’ sister – still alive – called Cetin in Istanbul. A family reunited.
Perhaps two million Turks have Armenian grandmothers. But they are supposed to believe that the genocide never happened.