The Armenian Genocide and Turkish Denial
Survivors of the Armenian Genocide who can remember anything about the episode are already past the centenarian mark. Although the genocide began 94 years ago in what is now Turkey, the government of that region, and most governments around the world, has refused to acknowledge the episode as genocide. The implications for denying the events of 1915 as genocide are widespread. Survivors will not see the truth of the massacre revealed before their death. Citizens of Turkey have loosened their grasp on the reality of the situation and are punished for speaking out. Above all else, the worst implication is that history will indeed repeat itself if genocide can take place without any recognition or reconciliation process.
In fact, some twenty years after the end of the Armenian Genocide, history did repeat itself. When Hitler uttered these words to his Generals, “Who, after all, speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?”[i] he knew could achieve a much more comprehensive genocide under the shadow of war. The Armenian Genocide happened under the shadow of World War One. Before Hitler, the Armenian Genocide was considered one of the biggest in human history. Hitler understood that if one of the biggest events in history could be swept under the rug, he would be able to do the same. This reasoning led to the death of millions of Jews, Gypsies, and dissenters. One can argue that the only reason why he wasn’t able to keep his genocide secret was because he lost the war and his victims had a much stronger lobbying power than did the Armenians.
Several disagreements have emerged about exactly what happened in the Ottoman Empire in 1915. From those disagreements, the debate over whether or not to call the events genocide has emerged. Some argue that the Armenian deaths are the result of a war that broke out when Armenian population rebelled against the national government.[ii] Others, the Turkish government included, argue over the intent of the Ottoman government. No matter how one looks at the situation, between one million and 1.5 million local Armenians perished in what can easily be considered a very well documented massacre.[iii]
The story of the Armenian Genocide begins with a coup. After the Sultan lost power to a group that called themselves the Young Turks in 1913, the Balkan territory of the Ottoman Empire rebelled and gained its independence.[iv] Having lost territory to a mostly Christian area, it was seen that those who practiced Christianity were the enemy. In the reduced territory of the Ottoman Empire, the Armenians made up the largest Christian population. However, it wasn’t until the First World War that the government turned on the already second-class population. The Ottoman Empire joined on the side of Germany to try to recapture its territory in the Balkans.[v] When they fought against Russia, the first major rifts were formed. During these battles, the Ottomans suffered horribly. Meanwhile, many Armenians who were part of the national military switched sides. Soon after this, the Ottoman government organized mass deportations of the Armenian population. All Armenians were to leave the country or resettle at the interior of the country.[vi]
The first disagreement on using the term genocide begins here. With the deportation orders, a few communities formed open rebellions. Some today, including the Turkish government, argue that the high number of Armenian deaths can be explained by a civil war that followed these rebellions.[vii] However, this path of reasoning is easily discredited because the facts are not there to support it. Most Armenian communities did not have the ability to rebel and the communities that did were not able to do so successfully.[viii]
The major disagreement takes place with regards to the deportation marches themselves. During these long marches little, if any, food and water was given to the Armenians. As one survivor explains, “We walked forever. If you did not walk you beaten, killed, and burned.”[ix] It was on these marches where a majority of the more than one million Armenians were killed.[x] The disagreement is a very complex issue: Did the Ottoman government intend for the deportation marches to end up being death marches? Those who believe there was no intent believe Turkey is in the right to not acknowledging the incidents as genocide. Those who believe there was intent believe Turkey needs to recognize the event as genocide and possible give out reparation payments.
The United Nations defines genocide as, “Any act committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.”[xi] Turkey points to their own achieves as proof that there was no particular moment when someone within the government ordered the killing of the Armenian population. However, when looking at achieves across the rest of the world, there is a noticeable difference. Journalists and foreign governmental workers who were present for the massacres recognized that there was no noticeable interest in keeping the Armenian population alive during the course of the deportations—leading to most of their deaths.[xii] A worker for the United States State Department wrote a report that included, “There appears, in short, to be a steady policy to exterminate these people, but to deny the charge of massacre. Their destruction from so-called natural causes seems decided on.”[xiii] Through this, it appears that a cover up began during the genocide and has carried over into modern day politics.
Although the difference between the incidents being a massacre versus genocide appears miniscule, the meaning is profound. Among the society of survivors the saying goes, “To have the genocide denied is to die twice.”[xiv] When dealing with the Armenian Genocide, definition and timing do play a role. Although reparations may inspire a few survivors, the main reasoning behind their recognition fight is to have the incident represented properly in history. In fact, the subject is such a sore point in Armenian-Turkish relations that survivors and their offspring have formed multiple terror networks to attack the Turkish government over the last several decades.[xv] “Between 1973 and 1985, Turkish officials claim that eighty-six separate terrorist incidents resulted in the deaths of forty-seven Turks, including thirty-one diplomats and officials.”[xvi]
However, recently this kind of activity has died down and has been replaced with diplomatic ambitions. This comes, in part, due to the fact that survivors who remember the genocide have all reached the age of 100. Their wish is to make sure that the massacre is not forgotten. Most survivors do not believe that they will see the Turkish government recognize the genocide before they die. Instead, “down the generations, survivors stories are passed on. It is their weapon against forgetting and denial.”[xvii] One hundred years ago, many Armenians believed they were on the verge of being accepted as full citizens. Instead, the first genocide of the twentieth century took place. Now many don’t believe that they can become true Turkish citizens unless their government accepts responsibility for what they did.[xviii]
The fight for recognition is not contained within the Turkish and Armenian borders. Following World War One, the Armenian population separated much like the Jewish population did following World War Two. Many went to the independently formed country of Armenia. Others moved all across the world (the Diaspora).[xix] Because of this, the Armenian population tries to use its leverage to force Turkey to recognize the genocide. This battle for recognition can best be explained by how the United States has dealt with the issue. The last three American Presidents—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama—have all promised that they would recognize the events of 1915 as genocide.[xx] Under Bill Clinton, a bill was brought into the House of Representative and looked like it had enough support to pass. However, when Turkish authorities told Bill Clinton that American military and tourists might be in danger if the bill passes, he had the bill killed.[xxi] George W. Bush also promised to recognize the genocide. However, due to the invasion of Iraq, Turkish support was necessary to wage war. A recognition bill was never introduced into congress because doing so would significantly diminish Turkish-American relations.[xxii] It has been eleven months into Barack Obama’s term and he has yet to make any progress towards recognition in that time.
In fact, only twenty countries have recognized the events of 1915 as genocide due to the fact that Turkey cuts most ties with countries that do recognize it. This brings the center point of the argument that survivors wage.[xxiii] If no country or government wishes to acknowledge the events of 1915 as genocide, it is likely that they will be forgotten with time. This is how the Armenian extermination gained the name the Forgotten genocide. One hundred years ago it was the Armenian Question that led to the events of 1915. Today, it has been replaced with the question of Turkish responsibility.[xxiv]
How responsible are modern day leaders in denying the genocide? Has Turkish law led to the acceptance of denial? Most importantly, is Turkey responsible for removing the Armenian Genocide from history and collective knowledge? In modern day Turkey, nationalistic tendencies drive the way in which the country views the genocide. As a way to defend itself from “unpatriotic” citizens, Article 301 was instated.[xxv] This law states, “A person, being a Turk, explicitly insults the Republic or the Turkish Grand National Assembly, shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months to three years.”[xxvi] This law has largely been used to imprison people who make public statements or published material about the genocide. It raises the question: Is it acceptable to call the events of 1915 genocide within Turkey’s borders? The answer to that question has been a rather resounding no. Many have been jailed by publishing or making statements about the genocide.[xxvii]
The most famous case was when Orhan Pamuk, one of the best authors within Turkey, was jailed. He won his Nobel Prize in Literature during in 2006 while he was involved in a legal battle for some statements that he had said the previous year. “Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians.”[xxviii] This statement was enough to send him to court for the possibility of up to three years in jail. However, when the international community discovered that a Nobel Laureate was about to go to jail over freedom of speech issues, several questions arose. One of the most important was whether or not the incident should be used against Turkey not being admitted into the European Union.[xxix] It was not surprising when the case against Pamuk was dropped. However, those who do not have the name recognition of Pamuk do not suffer the same fate. Many have been jailed for years due to statements about the Armenian Genocide.[xxx] Unlike Pamuk, if the word genocide is applied to the incidents of 1915, jail time is likely.
Due to the lacking enthusiasm to accept the genocide as fact, teaching the event to future generations has become a difficult issue. Although many of the nations around the world teach the subject and its controversy, two countries are still wrapped up in the fierce debate: Germany and Turkey. Germany takes an interesting stance separate from the rest of the European Union due to its unusually large Turkish immigration population. Although France and the Netherlands have publicly declared the incidents genocide and teach it that way, the Germany government has not done so. In fact, considering the large Turkish population, the events of 1915 have not been taught within Germany for many years. It was not until 2005 that the decision to teach about the events was reversed.[xxxi] Despite this fact, the events are not taught without a bias and the word genocide is never used. In Turkey, the stance is slightly more extreme. The events of 1915 are taught in school. While teaching the subject, however, reasoning behind why the events are not be considered genocide are given.[xxxii] Turkish law makes sure its students are taught about the incidents of 1915 within the realm of Turkish bias. Students are not to question whether or not the events were genocide.
Historical memory is largely constructed by how events are taught. When addressing a topic as controversial as this one, all aspects of the debate should be taken into consideration. Not only should the facts be taken into consideration, but also the debate going on behind the facts should be discussed. This is the approach that most of the states that have acknowledged the genocide have taken. By denying the debate, historical memory is tainted. In the states that teach the debate, the decision is given to the students. This encourages a healthy debate about the facts. However, when states such as Germany and Turkey take it out of the hands of the populous, they taint the knowledge of their citizens.
This brings up a very important point when discussing the Armenian Genocide: Turkish understanding. In a 2007 poll of the Turkish people, it found that an overwhelming 78% of the population would not want the events of 1915 to be classified as genocide. Only 7.4% of the population believes it should be classified as genocide while the rest remain neutral on the issue.[xxxiii] Although it is important to note that the large size of Turkey brings the total minority voice to about five million people, there is still overwhelming support for Turkish policy to remain the same. This poll was taken around the same time that the US Congress introduced the bill once again (to no avail). In the polling, 73% (or almost all of those who believe it was not genocide) would have a worse opinion of the US if they ever passed the resolution.[xxxiv] The voice of Turkey is resoundingly loud versus the rest of the world.
These numbers show a striking correlation in how historical memory is shaped in the schools. Since Turkey does not allow for a debate to take place in the schools or the public arena, they have effectively expunged the possibility of there being much of an opposition to the government’s position. The only reason that there is a sizeable minority voice is due to private debate and, most likely, knowledge from the Internet. Considering the influence that acknowledgement has on the populace, its no wonder why survivors fight so heavily for recognition. Despite their mostly failed efforts, they have made the question of Turkish acceptance a major question with regards to accepting Turkey into the European Union.
Turkey has plenty at stake when it comes to acknowledging the Armenian Genocide. However, they are now the victims to their own decades-long propaganda. Representatives and the Intelligentsia of Turkey have no shortage of defenses on why they fail to acknowledge the genocide. Dr. Yusuf Halacoglu, President of the Turkish Historical Society, said, “[The nation’s] children and grandchildren will be psychologically affected. There is no point in acknowledging something that didn’t happen.”[xxxv] The reasons behind their position appear to be more than a simple conclusion based on the facts.
The consensus in Turkey is that intent needs to be proved before genocide is declared. Representatives don’t believe that the government intended to kill the more than one million Armenians that perished in the events of 1915. How did such a huge majority of the Armenian deportees perish then? The answer to this question is rather weak at best. One representative even said, “It’s not easy to relocate a large population.”[xxxvi] This path of denial has multiple problems. If the government were incapable of relocating such a large population, wouldn’t their decision to relocate the Armenians without a plausible plan indicate intent that the Armenians were never meant to reach their final location? Regardless of the reasoning behind the leaders of Turkey, the simple truth is that these excuses become mainstream because there is no public way to denounce them. Without a public debate, the historical memory will be shaped by theories and ideas rather than facts.
Historical memory is guided by education, public debate, and those who took place in the given event. In Turkey, education is streamlined to fit the singular idea that no genocide took place. The public debate cannot take place because one side cannot debate without the fear of being arrested. Just think back to Pamuk. He didn’t even state that the events should be considered genocide and he was arrested. Considering the event took place some 94 years ago, the stories of survivors are quickly vanishing. Through this method, Turkey as stayed true to the phrase that ‘history is written by the victor.’ It’s hard for the Armenians to rewrite history when such a vast majority of the Armenians in Turkey were killed in the genocide.
So, what are the implications for denying the massacre as genocide? There appear to be many. Considering the widespread belief within Turkey that the events of 1915 were not genocide, one major implication is that historical memory has been falsified. With the age of the remaining survivors and the Armenian fight losing strength, time is running out before the historical memory of the events is solidified. Beyond that, the denial of genocide within the Ottoman Empire has already change the course of human history by giving Adolf Hitler the belief that no one would notice crimes against humanity. One of the greatest adages of historical memory is ‘those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.’ Hitler has proved this saying to be true. The Turkish denial of the Armenian Genocide has had many substantial implications to historical memory.
[i] BBC Correspondent, Armenia: The Betrayed, (London: British Broadcasting Company: 2003).
[ii] Robert F. Melson, Revolution and Genocide, (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 119.
Taner Akcam, A Shameful Act, (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006), 351.
[iv] PBS, The Armenian Genocide, (Two Cats Productions, 2006).
[vii] Donald E. Miller and Lorna T. Miller, Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide, ( Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), 155.
[viii] Ibid., 180.
[ix] BBC Correspondent, Armenia: The Betrayed, (London: British Broadcasting Company: 2003).
[x] Taner Akcam, A Shameful Act, (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006), 301.
[xi] PBS, The Armenian Genocide, (Two Cats Productions, 2006).
[xii] BBC Correspondent, Armenia: The Betrayed, (London: British Broadcasting Company: 2003).
[xv] Donald E. Miller and Lorna T. Miller, Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide, ( Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), 167.
[xvii] BBC Correspondent, Armenia: The Betrayed, (London: British Broadcasting Company: 2003).
[xviii] Robert F. Melson, Revolution and Genocide, (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 125.
[xix] BBC Correspondent, Armenia: The Betrayed, (London: British Broadcasting Company: 2003).
[xxi] Taner Akcam, A Shameful Act, (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006), 322.
[xxii] BBC Correspondent, Armenia: The Betrayed, (London: British Broadcasting Company: 2003).
[xxiv] Taner Akcam, A Shameful Act, (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006), 323.
[xxv] Ibid., 324.
[xxvi] Robert F. Melson, Revolution and Genocide, (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 122.
[xxvii] PBS, The Armenian Genocide, (Two Cats Productions, 2006).
[xxix] Marilyn Henry, Denying the ‘other’ Holocaust, In The Jerusalem Post, (Jerusalem, 2009).
[xxxi] Donald E. Miller and Lorna T. Miller, Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide, ( Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), 170.
[xxxiii] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit, Genocide Recognition Restoration of Historical Justice, (BBC Worldwide Monitoring, 2009).
[xxxv] BBC Correspondent, Armenia: The Betrayed, (London: British Broadcasting Company: 2003).
Akcam, Taner. A Shameful Act. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006.
BBC Correspondent. Armenia: The Betrayed. London: British Broadcasting Company: 2003.
BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. Genocide Recognition Restoration of Historical Justice. BBC Worldwide Monitoring, 2009.
Henry, Marilyn. Denying the ‘other’ Holocaust. In The Jerusalem Post. Jerusalem, 2009.
Melson, Robert F. Revolution and Genocide. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Miller, Donald E., and Lorna T. Miller. Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.
PBS. The Armenian Genocide. Two Cats Productions, 2006.