Of genocides, massacres, and tragedies
by Gwynne Dyer
Eighty-six years late, the
Armenian massacres of 1915 are at last forcing themselves onto the
international agenda. For a long time it was a private quarrel, with most
Turks in deep denial about it while Armenians passionately claimed that
they were the victims of the 20th century's first genocide, but now the
whole world is getting drawn in.
By last year, the European
Commission, France, Belgium, Sweden, and Italy had all formally
acknowledged that there had been an Armenian genocide. The US House of
Representatives was about to vote on a similar resolution until the
Clinton administration persuaded the bill's sponsor to withdraw it because
it would severely damage US interests in Turkey. Meanwhile, a $50 million
`Armenian Holocaust' museum is under construction in Washington.
The Turkish government fights
back hard: When the French parliament unanimously adopted a declaration
last January “recognising the Armenian genocide of 1915”, Ankara promptly
cancelled defence production deals with France worth $349 million: By now,
however, the momentum of the Armenian campaign for recognition is
unstoppable: France did not even blink.
Yet what actually happened 86
years ago is still open to dispute. There was certainly a great massacre
of Armenians in the eastern part of what is now Turkey in 1915, early in
the World War I. Even the most conservative estimates put the Armenian
death toll of that year at 600,000, though most Armenians prefer the
figure of 1.5 million.
The Turkish authorities don't
deny that many Armenians living in the Ottoman (Turkish) empire were
killed in 1915, but they claim that the deaths were triggered by an
Armenian uprising in which there were massacres of both Turks and
Armenians in the then-intermingled communities of eastern Anatolia. They
are being highly economical with the truth here — and yet they do have a
point. The killing in 1915 was so great that the word `holocaust' might
well apply, but it was not the premeditated, industrialised genocide that
befell the European Jews under Hitler.
It is a fact that some
Armenians in eastern Anatolia conspired with the Russians to launch an
uprising behind the Turkish lines in 1915 to coincide with a Russian
offensive into the area. The Russian archives document it fully.
Other Armenians, further
south, were plotting with the British in Egypt to start a rebellion to
coincide with a planned British landing on Turkey's south coast. The
British archives document it fully. But then the British switched the
landing far to the west, to the Dardanelles, for a direct attack on
Istanbul — and it would appear that they failed to get news of the change
of plan through to their Armenian allies in southern Anatolia in time.
So there were scattered,
ineffective Armenian uprisings, and then the `Young Turk' army officers
who ran the Turkish empire (many of them barely out of their twenties)
panicked. The Russians were flooding into eastern Anatolia, the British
were about to break through to Istanbul, and they had stupidly led their
country into a war that would destroy it — quite literally, for their
enemies had already agreed to carve it up into colonies after victory.
So they ordered all Armenians
to be “deported” from the threatened regions of eastern Anatolia all the
way south to Syria (knowing full well that many would be killed or die of
hunger and exposure). As the Armenian death toll soared, they did nothing
to rescind their orders. Many probably welcomed it, for by now they were
in an apocalyptic frame of mind. But they hadn't planned it, and they did
pay for it: most of the surviving Young Turk leaders were killed by
Armenians in the years just after the war.
There are only 70,000
Armenians living in Turkey today, and the country has much to be ashamed
of. But Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was not just toadying to his
Turkish allies when he said in an interview in April that “Nothing similar
to the Holocaust occurred. It is a tragedy what the Armenians went
through, but not a genocide.”
The problem is the word.
Nowadays the survivors of any mass killing see `genocide' as the only word
adequate to describe their ordeal, but every use of the word evokes the
premeditated extermination programme of the Nazis' “Final Solution”.
Common sense says that while all mass murder is terrible, there was a real
distinction between the Nazis and the Young Turks, but the descendants of
the Armenian victims won't settle for less.
And though the Turkish
government still tries to keep the past buried by bluster and threats,
there is a new spirit of honesty abroad in the country as a whole. As a
Turkish historian, Dr. Taner Akcam, said on a remarkable debate televised
nationwide in Turkey in March: “If you can't bring yourself to describe it
as genocide, call it a massacre. But it was a crime against humanity ...
Ask forgiveness from the Armenian people.”
On the same day, in the
newspaper `Milliyet', Yavuz Baydar wrote that “these men (the Young Turk
leaders) are our Pol Pots, Berias and Stalins, and the sooner we call
these crimes to account, the better our chances of redeeming ourselves
from this scourge of being accused of genocide.” Much too late, and with
great reluctance, the Turks are starting to come to terms with their past.
Mr. Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45
countries. He contributed this
article to the Jordan Times.
by courtesy & © 2001
Times & Gwynne Dyer