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Ataturk, Mustafa Kemal Pasha

[1891-NOVEMBER 10, 1938]

 Founder and first president of the Turkish Republic. There is no evidence that Ataturk was in any way involved in the enactment of the World War I Armenian Genocide, either directly or indirectly. However, there is ample evidence that, as the forceful founder of the modern Republic of Turkey, he played a decisive role in the handling of many problems arising from that genocide. Foremost among these problems was the demand of the victorious allies—France, Italy and Great Britain—to bring all Turks who were responsible for the genocide to trial, and to severely punish all who were found guilty. This was in line with the official and public pledge the Allies had made on May 24, 1915, when they denounced members of Turkey's leadership for crimes against humanity. The call for justice was the first time that the violation of human rights was integrally linked to the crime of genocide.

Of greater concern for Ataturk, however, was the Allied powers' plan to partition the territories of the former Ottoman Empire. As part of a package of compensation for the victims of the Armenian genocide, the Allies envisaged the creation of a new Armenia that would encompass several former Ottoman provinces in eastern Turkey. Prior to the genocide, these provinces had constituted part of historic Armenia. The Allied powers warned that, unless Turkey acquiesced to prosecuting the genocide's perpetrators and providing compensation to the victims, the terms of their impending peace treaty with Turkey would be even more severe. Trapped by a regime of occupation, the captive Sultan and a succession of subservient postwar Turkish governments agreed to cooperate. The result was the establishment of an extraordinary military tribunal with the mandate to prosecute the authors of the genocide and to make certain territorial concessions to the newly established Armenian Republic.

To mitigate, if not avert, what he regarded as ominous developments for Turkey, Ataturk embarked on a two-pronged campaign. First, he challenged the authority of the reigning Sultan and questioned the legitimacy of his tottering regime. Second, he launched a militant movement to liberate Turkey from the debilitating clutches of the occupying Allied powers, while repudiating their territorial designs for the benefit of the nascent Armenia. In an effort to facilitate the attainment of these strategic goals, Ataturk employed a series of tactics intended to assuage the Allies. On November 9, 1918, he published a major editorial in Minber, a Turkish daily newspaper that he had helped to found and finance. In his editorial he denounced the wartime regime of the Young Turks (Committee of Union and Progress, or CUP) for having attempted genocide against Turkey's Armenian population. When a more self-assertive government came to power in Istanbul in autumn of 1919, Ataturk co-signed the Amasya Protocol. Article I of the protocol declared both the CUP's policies and its ideology as anathema. Article 4 of the same document provided for "the criminal prosecution of the perpetrators of the Armenian deportations as a matter of justice and politics." In a companion but confidential protocol, Ataturk further promised to prosecute those CUP leaders who were principally implicated in the crime of Armenian deportations and massacres and who were being detained by the British in Malta, as soon as they were released from British custody. He also acknowledged to U.S. Major-General James Harbord the mass murder of 800,000 Armenians. In interviews with foreign correspondents he denounced the CUP perpetrators as "rascals who ought to be hanged" for "ruthlessly deporting and massacring" the Armenians.

As his national liberation movement began to gain momentum, however, Ataturk abandoned these tactics in order to accommodate a domestic audience that was animated with a new brand of nationalism. He not only tried to cover up the catastrophe of the genocide but, when occasionally forced to take a position, he proceeded to blame the Armenians for their own fate. Moreover, he welcomed many of the former Malta detainees into the ranks of his liberation movement, some of whom had been released by the British under prisoner exchange programs, others of whom had simply escaped custody. By openly embracing known perpetrators of the genocide, Ataturk was in violation of the Amasya Protocol that mandated their criminal prosecution and punishment.

These newly repatriated militants knew they had a high stake in Ataturk's ultimate success. Were his movement to fail, they would likely not only face criminal prosecution but also enormous losses of the property and financial assets that they had acquired from the murdered victims of the genocide. Ataturk also recruited a number of other perpetrators who had gone into hiding to avoid prosecution by the Istanbul government. All of these fugitives of justice substantially contributed to the ultimate triumph of Kemalism and its standard-bearer, Ataturk. They included several army commanders, cabinet ministers, presidents of the republic's Grand National Assembly, governors-general, deputies, and heads of the Special Organization, the main instrument of the Armenian genocide.

By an ironic twist, however, in 1926 a dozen of these organizers of the Armenian genocide were hanged following a series of trials in Izmir and Ankara. Their prosecution was based on charges of conspiracy to assassinate Ataturk and restore the CUP to power in the new Republic of Turkey.

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