The Armenian Genocide: Revisiting Turkish Denial

Written by Martha Stutchbury

Image: Rita Willaert’s 2008 photograph of the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan., accessed 21 October 2018.

On 10 October 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged and condemned the Armenian Genocide during a speech delivered at the Yerevan Memorial, continuing France’s longstanding policy of officially recognising the disaster. However, global acknowledgement of the genocide remains unachieved. This article re-examines the mass slaughter of Armenians in 1915, and explores the refusal of the Turkish government to acknowledge that any deliberately genocidal policies were undertaken during this period, with government officials instead choosing to defend Ottoman rulers against the notion of a genocide ‘as if they were still alive’.

    At the beginning of the fourth century, the Armenians became the first nation in the world to confirm Christianity as its official religion. The country was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century – an expansive state dominated in population and leadership by Sunni Muslims. By the twentieth century, with the Empire having been under the control of the Young Turks from 1908, Armenians were a disproportionately prosperous group within the region, understood to have developed a ‘distinct and separate culture’ to their Ottoman neighbours, and were consequently branded by the de facto government as ‘saboteurs’. The religious and cultural differences of the Armenians generated an atmosphere of resentment amongst the Sunni population, somewhat mirroring the growing hostility towards the Jewish community in Germany at the time. The Empire’s failures in the early stages of WWI increased this anti-Armenian sentiment, which arguably resulted in the targeting of Ottoman-Armenians as a group towards whom anger and frustration at the decline of the Empire could be directed. It is in this political climate that genocide against the Armenian population took place.

    In 2018, any country’s use of the term ‘genocide’ to describe these postwar events damages its diplomatic relations with Turkey, whose government and population deny any deliberate genocidal policy, but it remains the case that the Armenian population endured a dramatic reduction after 1915, from approximately 2 million just prior to the First World War, to fewer than 400,000 by 1922, though numerical reports vary significantly. Surviving Armenians and their descendants campaign continuously for universal recognition of their tragedy.

    For those who acknowledge the genocide as a deliberate policy of extermination by the government, its start date is commonly assigned to 24 April 1915. On this day in Constantinople, directives were issued by Talaat Pasha and enforced by provincial Ottoman leaders, notably Governor Mehmed Reshid of Diyarbakir, to gather Armenian intellectuals and political leaders for deportation. It is argued by many Armenians that the intent behind the deportation, and eventual execution, of the majority of these individuals was to leave the Armenian population ‘leaderless’ before beginning the process of general Armenian displacement.

    What followed was a policy of ‘relocation’ of the Armenians, sanctioned by the passing of the Tehcir Law in the following month. This legislation authorised the deportation, as well as property confiscation, of the Ottoman-Armenian population, on the grounds of increased militancy and violence against citizens of the Empire: ‘the Armenian riots and massacres… are a threat to national security’. The ethnically fuelled hostility that motivated this legislation is further highlighted by Talaat Pasha, one of the three CUP (Committee of Union and Progress) leaders that ruled the Ottoman Empire during the First World War: ‘we will not have the Armenians anywhere in Anatolia. They can live in the desert but nowhere else’.

    This mass relocation resulted in the displacement and forced migration of Armenian families through the Mesopotamian desert, with deliberate withholding of life-sustaining provisions by the soldiers that had removed them from their homes. First-hand Armenian accounts of this journey recall orders to strip naked in the desert heat, and cite memories of their weak or struggling neighbours being shot by Talaat’s soldiers. Throughout 1915 to 1916, the persecution of the Armenian peoples continued through the activities of Tteskilat i-Mahsusa, or ‘Special Organisation’, founded by Enver Pasha in November 1913, which employed tactics against the Armenians including mass burnings and drownings, such as through the deliberate capsizing of cohorts in the Black Sea.

The Turkish government places the number of deaths during this period at approximately 300,000, whilst always simultaneously highlighting the plight of ethnic Turks during this period of upheaval, whereas many historians place the number at closer to 1.5 million. When asked to explain this loss of life without acknowledgment of any official Turkish policies of ‘extermination’, Dr Yusuf Halaçoglu, President of the Turkish Historical Society, claims that the deaths of such large numbers, including women and children, was made inevitable by ‘problems with large scale relocation’. In other words, the deaths of at least 300,000 Armenians can be attributed to practical or logistical issues involved in the deportation. The modern Turkish government maintains that there were no calculated genocidal policies aimed towards the Armenians.

    Some of the most convincing evidence for the Turkish government’s involvement in the genocide comes from the literature of American ambassador Henry Morgenthau Sr, whose official document United States Official Records on the Armenian Genocide contrasts, through its very name, America’s complex attitudes over whether to acknowledge the genocide. For example, President Clinton and Bush both failed to acknowledge Armenian suffering, despite campaign promises to do so by both of these leaders. The ambassador provides accounts of his personal interactions with the Pashas and other government officials involved in the massacre of Armenians, claiming that: ‘When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race’.

    According to a popular Armenian phrase, to have their genocide denied is to ‘die twice’ – making continued assessment and publicity of the tragedy – which must be universally regarded as the first genocide of the twentieth century, pressingly relevant to the present day.


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