By Peter Balakian
Exactly 100 years ago, on 24 April 1915, the Turkish government arrested 250 Armenian intellectuals and cultural leaders in Constantinople, so beginning the Armenian genocide.
From late spring of 1915, massacres were carried out throughout Turkey. The government organised the genocide by creating death squads, passing laws to sanction deportation and confiscation, using the then cutting-edge railway and telegraph technology, and wrapping the whole thing up in the nationalist ideology of pan-Turkism.
The US consul in Aleppo, Jesse B Jackson, called it “a gigantic plundering scheme, as well as the final blow to extinguish the [Armenian] race”. By 1918, between a half and two-thirds of the 2 million Armenians living in their historic homeland in the Ottoman empire had been annihilated. Raphael Lemkin, the legal scholar who created the concept of genocide as an international crime, and was in the 1940s the first to use the term “Armenian genocide”, put the death toll at 1.2 million.
The roots of this slaughter began in the late 19th century, when Armenian reformers began petitioning for equal rights for Christians and Jews in the Ottoman empire, in which non-Muslim minorities were legally relegated to infidel status. Largely peaceful activism for change resulted in horrendous massacres of more than 100,000 unarmed Armenian civilians under Sultan Abdul Hamid II in the 1890s. As Turkey lost more of its territory in eastern Europe during the Balkan wars of 1912–13, it became increasingly anxious.
When the first world war broke out, the Ottoman government (the Unionist party) claimed that Armenians were a danger to national security and would side with the Russians (some did defect to join the Russian army). It put into motion a final solution.
In every city, town and village across Turkey, from Constantinople to Ankara to the Armenian vilayets in the east, where they had lived for 2,500 years, Armenians were rounded up, arrested, and either shot outright or put on deportation marches. Most often, the able-bodied men were arrested in groups, taken out of the town or city and shot en masse. The women and children and the infirm and elderly were told that they could gather some possessions and would be deported to “the interior”. The Turks often told the Armenians, as the Nazis would later tell the Jews, that they could return after the war.
Along the Black Sea region in the north, and from Adana and other Armenian cities in the south, the massacre network extended to the northern Syrian desert: east of Aleppo, in the region of Deir el-Zor, more Armenians died (400,000 or more) than anywhere else. The historian Richard L Rubenstein has described these events as the “first full-fledged attempt by a modern state to practise disciplined, methodically organised genocide”. Even at the time of the mass killings, Turkey’s interior minister, Talaat Pasha, adamantly denied to the press and foreign governments that massacres were taking place.
After the war, the denial of the extermination became, as the Turkish historian Taner Akçam has put it, one of the foundation myths of the modern Turkish republic. What happened to the Armenians was deemed to be their fault, and the subject became taboo.
In Turkey’s state-mandated educational system, in which critical inquiry is forbidden, the representation of the Armenian past is either absent or reduced to a couple of sentences, in which the Armenians are vilified. Turkey’s authoritarian curriculum dovetails with its repression of intellectual freedom, giving it one of the worst human rights records; in the past two years, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey has had more imprisoned journalists than China and Iran.
The continuing denial is also linked to the fear of reparations. What legal recourse will there be for the lost Armenian property and wealth, or the 2,500 Armenian churches and monasteries and nearly 2,000 schools destroyed? Turkey has elevated national pride over historical truth and any ethical concerns. In 1997 the International Association of Genocide Scholars unanimously passed a resolution stating that what happened to the Armenians conforms to the UN’s definition of genocide.
There are a few academics whom Turkey has cultivated to support its falsification of history. About these, the Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt has said: “Denial of genocide, whether that of the Turks against the Armenians, or the Nazis against the Jews, is not an act of historical reinterpretation … the deniers sow confusion by appearing to be engaged in a genuine scholarly effort. The deniers aim at convincing innocent third parties that there is ‘another side of the story’ when there is [none]; denial of genocide strives to reshape history in order to demonise the victims and rehabilitate the perpetrators.”
But Turkish denial comes in many forms. This year, one of its tactics aimed at undermining the memory of the genocide includes holding a centennial event for the Battle of Gallipoli on 24 April – the day Armenians worldwide remember the genocide – rather than 25 April, the usual Gallipoli commemoration date. The offence is compounded by the attendance of Prince Charles and Prince Harry at this politically concocted gathering.
That is why it was so important that last week Pope Francis affirmed that the slaughter of the Armenians was the “first genocide of the 20th century”. He showed that he would not be bullied by the Turkish state. Nor would he be cajoled by Turkey’s specious rhetoric suggesting that if he used the word “genocide” he would create a crisis between Muslims and Christians. The pope took the moral issue even further when he addressed the corruption of Turkish denial: “Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.”
On the centenary of the genocide, Turkey would do its national honour well if it listened to him. There can be no reconciliation until there is truth.