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Reflecting on the Armenian Genocide

April 2014 marked the centenary of the initiation of mass murders of Armenians in Anatolia—events now known as the Armenian Genocide. As Robert Melson notes in the below introduction to Holocaust and Genocide Studies’ virtual issue on the subject, Turkish governments have consistently denied that the persecutions resulted from a policy of genocide.

The six articles in the issue, including contributions by Donald Bloxham and Taner Akçam, examine various aspects of the Armenian Genocide and its denial.

Between the onset of World War I and the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923 approximately 1.5 million Armenians, or more than half of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population, died as a result of deportations, starvation, serial massacres, and mass executions. Though there were individual survivors, by the end of that period, the Armenian community in Anatolia had been essentially destroyed. Not only were Armenians killed, but surviving elements of their cultural heritage, including churches and works of art, were either obliterated or incorporated into the dominant culture—which now claimed that they were of Muslim or Turkish provenance.

These events constitute what has come to be known as the Armenian Genocide. Ever since, the Turkish state has denied that the Armenians were victims of genocide. The official argument has been that massacres occurred on both sides during the First World War, and that, to the extent that Armenians were targets of Turkish or Muslim violence, this was due to Armenian provocations and not to a policy of genocide.

The Turkish “provocation thesis” blames the Armenian victims for the genocide, asserting that Armenian peasants living in the eastern vilayets (provinces of the empire) had nationalist aspirations and were thus prepared to join the Russian invaders at the beginning of World War I. Further, these Armenians aspired to carve out an independent Armenia in eastern Anatolia, and this, according to the thesis, would spell the demise of Turkey.

Though there were individual survivors, by the end of that period, the Armenian community in Anatolia had been essentially destroyed.

Armenians therefore had to be eliminated in order that Turkey might survive. What Turkish deniers leave out is any discussion of independent Turkish nationalist motivations or of policies that included the destruction of Christian minorities in the empire.

Even before the war, the Young Turks had advocated for the creation of a homogeneous Turkish and Muslim society from the multicultural mosaic of the Ottoman Empire. They felt that only a unified state could defend itself against the European Great Powers, and especially from the Russians, who in their view wanted to destroy Turkey. The Young Turks believed that though all Christian minorities were obstacles to Turkish unification, the Armenians in particular constituted a “problem” that needed to be solved. The Armenians living in eastern Anatolia could claim to be the original inhabitants of the area, preceding the Turkish invasion and settlement by centuries. They clung to their culture, language, and religion, and were unlikely to assimilate and become Muslim and Turkish. Moreover, the Armenian peasant masses were concentrated in regions of eastern Anatolia that bordered Russia. The Young Turks argued that, were there to be a Russian invasion, Armenians would support the enemy. World War I provided the Young Turks with the excuse and opportunity to “solve” the Armenian “problem.” That solution, involving deportations, mass starvation, and serial massacres, added up to genocide.

The history of the Armenian Genocide, like that of the Holocaust, and like all history, creates puzzles that seem never to be completely resolved. Meanwhile, for the survivors of the genocide, and for their children and grandchildren, that history is neither academic nor official; it is personal, and it hurts. It is even more traumatic when its truth is denied and its victims are insulted.

Featured image credit: Yerevan, Armenia by David Mark. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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