On Saturday President Biden acknowledged the Armenian Genocide, and acknowledging the genocide is still considered controversial.
In fact, he was the first President to do so.
I’m 2nd generation German, and my people had to acknowledge the Holocaust 76 years ago. The Turks, by contrast, have had about 105 years to acknowledge theirs, and they still haven’t managed to get there.
Armenians have been in Anatolia, or present-day Turkey, since about 6th centuries before Christ, or around the same time that the Jews were suffering through the Babylonian captivity. Crucially, they may have been there in significant numbers before the Turks themselves emerged as a recognized peoples. The Kingdom of Armenia adopted Christianity as its national religion in the fourth century CE, establishing the Armenian Apostolic Church. On the other hand, by the 8th century Turks began to convert to Islam. The Ottoman Empire was established in 1299, and ruled the region until 1922. Over the centuries, Armenians and Turks lived as neighbors, but not without significant conflict.
Around two million Armenians lived in the Ottoman Empire on the eve of World War I. By then, the Young Turk Revolution had been in full swing, and in 1912 First Balkan War resulted in the loss of almost all of the empire’s European territory, and the mass expulsion of Muslims from the Balkans. When parts of previously lost territory were reoccupied by the Ottoman Empire during the Second Balkan War in mid-1913, local Greeks, and Armenians were forcibly deported by Muslim militias.
World War I
With the outbreak of World War I in July of 1914, the Ottoman empire chose the side of the Central Powers. Ottoman armies invaded Russian territory, and tried to encircle the Caucasus Army, but, unprepared for the harsh winter conditions, the Turks were routed. The retreating Ottoman army indiscriminately destroyed dozens of Ottoman Armenian villages, massacring their inhabitants. Enver Pasha, the military leader for the Turks, publicly blamed the defeat on Armenians in the region, claiming they had actively sided with the Russians. As a consequence, some of the Turkish provinces descended into lawlessness, and massacres of Armenian men became a common occurrence.
Things continued to escalate, until, by the night of 23–24 April 1915, at the orders of Talaat Pasha (along with Cemal Pasha, another of the dictatorial triumvirate known as the “Three Pashas”), hundreds of Armenian political activists, intellectuals, and community leaders were rounded up, tortured, and eventually executed.
Under the cover of World War I, the Young Turks sought to cleanse Turkey of its Armenian population. The Turkish leadership ordered the closing of all Armenian political organizations, and ordered most Armenians relocated to the Syrian Desert. The Young Turks thereby hoped to permanently eliminate any possibility that Armenians could achieve autonomy or independence in the empire’s eastern provinces. In words that eerily presaged the subsequent Nazi claims relative to the Jews, Turkish leadership claimed this would be the “definitive solution to the Armenian Question.”
Along these “death marches” to the 25 concentration camps set up in the Syrian Desert, men and boys were executed routinely, with tens of thousands of Armenian bodies often simply left on the sides of the roads, causing typhus epidemics, among other public health crises. Casualties among the Ottoman Armenians between 1914 and 1923 are estimated to range between 800,000 to 1.5 million.
In addition, a program of Islamization was carried out as a “systematic state policy,” through which some 100,000 to 200,000 Armenians were Islamized.
After World War I, the effort to prosecute Ottoman war criminals was taken up by the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. The Ottoman government even organized a series of court martials in 1919, but these failed on account of both incompetence and political pressure. The Turkish courts-martial were eventually forced to shut down during the resurgence of the Turkish National Movement under Mustafa Kemal. Also, in 1920, the Allied Government even sent sixty seven war criminals to Malta in a prosecution attempt coordinated by the British forces. But these failed as well. Unlike for the Nuremberg Trials, there was no international mechanism to hold the perpetrators of war crimes or genocide accountable.
In the genocide’s aftermath incriminating documents were systematically destroyed, and denial has been the policy of every government of the Republic of Turkey as of 2021. Denial rests on the assumption that the “relocation” of Armenians was a legitimate state action in response to a real or perceived Armenian uprising that threatened the existence of the empire during wartime.
Among other things, the claim is that the death toll was exaggerated, and the deaths that did occur were the result of disease, bad weather, rogue local officials, or bands of Kurds and other outlaws. According to historians, one the most important reasons for denying the Armenian genocide is that it actually helped to enable the establishment of the Turkish nation-state. Recognizing the genocide would contradict Turkey’s “founding myths.”
Unfortunately for the Turks, there is far too much evidence of what happened to make the denial credible, just as denial of other historical events usually gets overwhelmed by evidence that is already there. That, of course, has not kept the Turkish governments, for more than a century now, from refusing to formally acknowledge what happened.
So why the recalcitrance of American presidents to acknowledge the genocide? That pretty much has to do with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and Turkey’s membership in it. NATO was ratified on August 24th 1949, and originally consisted of 12 members, including the United States. Turkey was admitted on February 18, 1952, along with Greece. It’s been a member of NATO for a long time, and it’s resisted any breach of its founding myth in all that time.
Well, tough shit, Turkey.
Armenia is tiny, and Turkey is huge. Armenia has a population of about 2,956,900, whereas Turkey has a population of about 83,614,362. Geographically, Turkey is much bigger than Armenia. There is no danger to Turkey in admitting its past. There will be no disintegration of the country; if anything there may be a raising of consciousness.
It’s 2021, time to get in step with history.