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.
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.