PARIS – Among other notable historical anniversaries with significance for Armenians, this year brings the 65th anniversary of the pogroms in Istanbul on September 6-7, 1955. They had an important impact on the ethnic makeup of Istanbul and served to stiffen the resolve of many Greeks, Armenians and Jews to emigrate from Turkey. Varoujan Sirapian’s new book, Les pogroms de 6-7 septembre 1955, Istanbul-Izmir (Paris: Sigest, 2020) provides the basic information on these events for French-language readers, as there have been few works in French on this topic.
The book relies on three major sources, the massive academic study by Speros Vryonis, Jr., The Mechanism of Catastrophe (New York: Greekworks.com, 2005), Güven Dilek’s analysis in 6-7 Eylül Olayları (Tarih Vakfı, 2005), and the collection of photographs and documents of the Fahri Çöker archive (6-7 Eylül Olayları: Fotograflar-Belgeler, Tarih Vakfı, 2005), as well as a variety of articles and authors. More than half of the 176-page book consists of photographs of the violence and its aftermath, along with reproductions of articles in newspapers and some of the documents from Çöker’s archives.
Sirapian said he had been planning his publication for some 10 years. Among the causes for this long delay was the need to obtain permission from Turkish publisher Tarih Vakfı to reproduce materials from the two aforementioned key books.
This is a work of outline and summation, not of original research, intended for a broad audience, but it does add several personal anecdotes as new source material. One such example concerns the author himself, who as an almost-10-year-old boy was jolted into realizing that the stories about what happened in 1915 and earlier to the Armenians were not just ancient history, but events that could recur. It made him realize that he had to leave his native country, but it took him 10 more years to become an adult and find the means to do so, and settle in France.
This story is similar to that of many other Armenians of varying ages. I can attest that my own father, already an adult at the time, after witnessing the destruction of the pogroms and pillaging, like the author, decided that Turkey was not a country in which one could form a family and raise a new generation of children safely.
Sirapian, based on his sources, reports that the events of September 6-7 were organized and deliberate. A manufactured incident, a false flag attack on the revered Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s home in Thessaloniki, Greece, served as a spark for protests in non-Muslim neighborhoods of Istanbul which then turned into looting, rioting and violence. There were similar incidents in Izmir, and smaller events in a few other parts of Turkey. Sirapian enumerates facts establishing that the riots were planned beforehand.
Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and his Democratic Party were complicit, and tried to counter the declining popularity of his government by recourse to extreme nationalism. It also allowed Turkey to play a stronger role in the London Tripartite Conference on Cyprus which was taking place at this same time. Internationally, Great Britain benefited from this Turkish nationalism, which weakened the Greek hold on Cyprus, prevented the unification of Cyprus with Greece, and allowed the British to keep military bases in Cyprus.
Sirapian places the pogroms in the context of the long history of ethno-religious homogenization in Turkey and cites several incidents which occurred decades after them to indicate that this is still an ongoing process. These include the massacre of Alevis in Sivas in 1993 and the assassination of Hrant Dink in Istanbul in January 2007.
In addition to being motivated to commemorate an event which in a few decades will no longer have any living witnesses, Sirapian writes that he wishes this book to be a call to vigilance against the racism and xenophobia that are inculcated in children from a young age in Turkey and exported from Turkey to Europe. He cites Turkish writers and intellectuals like Hasan Cemal, Taner Akçam and Baskin Oran who point to the inability to confront skeletons in Turkey’s closet like the Armenian and Kurdish questions as a factor in allowing the continuance of ultranationalist behavior.
On the fiftieth anniversary of the 1955 pogroms, an exhibition of photographs of the violence was protested and egged by ultranationalists yelling slogans like “Traitors to the country!” A similar mentality, Sirapian points out, is seen in the recent conversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque.
Now, Sirapian fears, the same mentality is being promulgated in Europe among people of Turkish descent with support by the Turkish government. It certainly poses a threat to European Armenians. Sirapian cites the example of the declarations of an ultranationalist Turk in Décines, France, which were disseminated this summer on YouTube, calling for Turkey’s leaders to provide Turks in France arms and monthly money to “do what is necessary throughout France” and counter the actions of the Armenians. The Committee for the Defense of the Armenian Cause (CDCA) has initiated a lawsuit against the latter.
Ultimately, Sirapian concludes, this Turkish ultranationalism in alliance with Islamism is not just dangerous for Armenians, but threatens the foundations of the French republic and European values.
Author Sirapian has had an interesting and variegated career. He studied at the Mekhitarist School in Istanbul as a youth and graduated Robert College, an American institution. He studied Byzantine history at Istanbul Edebiyat Universitesi [Literature University] from 1966 to 1970. Sirapian also performed as a guitarist in a band and recorded several records.
Further Work on the 1955 Events and Turkish Ultranationalism
In an interview, Sirapian considered his book only a first step to call attention to the 1955 events, and hoped that other younger writers might prepare more detailed works in French.
As far as the dangers of Turkish ultranationalism spreading its influence, Sirapian exclaimed that France is the soft underbelly of Europe where extremist Turks can strike more easily than elsewhere. Armenians only recently have started treating this situation seriously, according to Sirapian.
Most recently, at the end of August, a monument to the composer Gomidas in Paris which commemorates the Armenian Genocide was defaced with the words “It is false.” Sirapian said, “Armenians have woken up finally. We have to follow events closely.” He pointed out that it is a positive development that Armenian Genocide denier Maxime Gauin for the ninth time lost a lawsuit for defamation against the director of the French-Armenian publication Les Nouvelles d’Arménie and one of his writers, Sam Tilbian.
Sirapian concluded, “Other incidents are going to take place, and we must give an answer to every step they take.” At the same time, he emphasized that what is most important is to attempt to keep Armenia and Artsakh safe.