Armenian Genocide

views updated



The destruction of the Eastern Armenians, carried out by the rulers of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, is a signal event in twentieth-century history. Signal because of its genocidal nature, which at the time had never been seen before and which, to borrow a phrase from journalist and scholar Samantha Power, ushered the world into the "age of genocides." Signal as concerns the will of a government, a state, and a people to destroy an ethnic group fully integrated into the empire, having contributed to its prosperity as well as its past splendor. Signal with respect to the inability of the civilized world, and the victorious Allied Powers in particular, to fully gauge the historical scope of the tragedy and to erect interstate barriers to prevent its repetition (in that the juridical arsenal that arose out of the Nuremberg trials and the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide arose only after the destruction of Europe's Jews). Signal as concerns the battle waged since the 1970s (and which rages still) for the events to be retroactively classified as a genocide—a vital step for a people still deprived of the means for mourning and remembering. Signal with respect to the New Turkey's denial of the reality of the destruction of the Armenians and the scale of the massacres themselves. Signal, finally, concerning the challenge posed to historians to mold their knowledge in such a way as to yield principles of reconciliation between peoples and the responsibility of humanity.


Between one-half and two-thirds of the Armenians living along the outer reaches of the empire were exterminated, either directly in the central Anatolian regions where they were living, over the course of massive deportations to the south, or else after having arrived at their final destinations in Syria and Mesopotamia. This, the empire's preeminent minority group, reputed to be its most faithful, would ultimately lose more than a million of its members, massacred under horribly cruel conditions that revolted the diplomats and missionaries who witnessed the origins and execution of the destruction of a people identified solely by their religion—Christianity. Virtually all the survivors were forced into exile in order to end a conflict whose goal was a "war of national liberation" waged between 1919 and 1923, so called by General Mustafa Kemal, leader of the Nationalist Turks. Anatolia, where the majority of Armenians were concentrated, (including Constantinople and the great Aegean coastal cities like Smyrna [Izmir]), was emptied of its minorities in order to secure a firm foothold for the nation-state sought by this "Father of the Turks," Atatürk. According to the republic's first census in 1927, only 65,000 to 77,000 Armenians were to remain in Turkey, essentially all in Istanbul, out of a population estimated in 1882 of 2.4 million (based on figures provided by the Patriarchal Authority).

These facts are openly admitted by everyone, including numerous eyewitness testimonies, the trials that took place in Constantinople and Berlin between 1919 and 1921, and an abundance of historical studies of the period. The effects of this accumulated knowledge permit us to corroborate the number of victims, the specific means used to destroy persons and groups, and the methods employed to administer collective death. It also authorizes us to re-map the planning undertaken for the deportations and mass murders, to understand the workings behind the ethnic and national hatreds that formed the ideological wellsprings of destruction, and to establish once and for all the direct responsibility of the Young Turk government and the Ottoman state at war, as well as the role the Allied Powers played in abandoning the survivors and refusing all Armenian rights in Anatolia, a vast territory once called "Great Armenia."

The destruction of the Armenians was based on the development of a transnationalist ideology that arose out of the growing difficulties experienced by the Ottoman Empire during the second half of the nineteenth century. The empire, which had lost several of its rich European provinces during the first Balkan wars, was transformed into a bloody dictatorship erected against internal enemies.

The "Red" Sultan Abdul-Hamid II encouraged the exploitation of the Armenians, then ordered their widespread massacre. Unanimous protest on the part of Western public opinion, combined with the threat of armed intervention, ended up stopping an unprecedented murderous rampage responsible for the deaths of two hundred thousand victims. Regime change in 1908 and the outbreak of the Young Turk Revolution did little to change the course of the new Ottoman-Turk nationalism and its violence against minority groups. In 1909, several thousand Armenians were massacred in Constantinople, and twenty-five thousand perished in Cilicy while sailors from the Triple Entente stood by and watched.

The political and social situation for Armenians become even worse after the empire's losses in the Balkan wars of 1912. They became the primary obstacle to the rebirth of the nation sought by the Young Turks, who erected a military dictatorship founded on the ideological project of pan-Turkism on the eve of the outbreak of World War I. The influx into Anatolia of Ottoman Turk people fleeing the extreme violence of the Balkan wars rendered the continued existence of minority groups even more problematic, because they came to seem more and more like traitors and foreign agents. Violence against the Armenian population resumed after war broke out on the western front and increased even further when Turkish soldiers discovered that Russia had enlisted volunteers from the Armenian regions under its control. Faithful to the Russians on that side of the border, the Armenians were just as faithful within the empire, whose Young Turk army they loyally served.

But the loss to Russia at Sarikamis in January 1915 unleashed a conspiracy theory that styled the Armenians as enemy agents and furthermore allowed for the military disaster to be justified without questioning the responsibility of the Ottoman commanders. Inscribed as it was in the ultranationalist ideology of the army officers and Young Turk Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the conspiracy theory legitimated the decision to eliminate the Armenians and ultimately furnished a society in decline with an easy causal explanation for the reverses suffered by the empire, which had been building up for years.


In the first phase, immediately following the defeat at Sarikamis, massive reprisals against the Armenians occurred in the war-affected regions of Bitlis, Much, and Sasun. The survivors, stripped of all their possessions, reduced to a state of utter misery and extreme humiliation, were deported, along with the sizable community at Zaytun which had previously been sheltered from the massacres that had taken place at the end of the previous century. They were driven by road and on trains to the western edge of the Mesopotamian desert, either to Konya or Deïres-Zor. These initial acts prove that the Turkish populations were ready to avenge their own humiliations on an innocent minority transformed into agents of betrayal. They also showed how deportations were used as a complement to on-site extermination, especially when diplomats and missionaries were able to oppose the murders in situ. Simultaneously the numerous Armenian soldiers and officers of the Imperial Army were disarmed and executed. This marked the beginning of the second phase of the Armenian community's destruction—the elimination of the elite members of the military and public administration, despite how this was to have a profound affect on the empire's functioning and defense.

The third phase took place in the empire's capital on the evenings of 24–25 April 1915 and the days that followed. A sizable portion of the Armenian elites (23,405 people out of a community of 150,000) was swept up, tortured, deported to Angora, and there killed. Minister of the Interior Talat Pasha justified these arrests with reference to the uprising at Van and the intervention of Russian troops that evacuated 210,000 people threatened with annihilation. The protests of religious dignitaries and above all of ambassadors and diplomats, including those from Germany and Austria, dissuaded him from perpetrating additional acts of violence upon the Armenians of Constantinople.

The fourth phase, which was the most characteristic of the genocidal process, consisted of the commencement of the general deportation of the Armenians living in Anatolia, the cradle of their civilization. A "Provisional Deportation Law" was quickly promulgated on 27 May 1915, which did little more than give legal stamp to a fait accompli. The law authorized the military authorities to take any action deemed necessary against "the populations of cities or villages suspected of espionage or treason" (article 2), without specifically mentioning the Armenians. However, the decree of 30 May, specifying how the law was to be applied, directly concerned Armenians "relocated to other places due to conditions of war and emergency policy needs" as well as the management of their land and other property. A legal framework was therefore established for avast plan of deportation, which consisted of emptying all the empire's western and eastern provinces of their Armenian populations, who were to be driven by force to desert spaces extending between Mosul and Aleppo. This constituted the turntable of the deportation completed by the end of 1916. The deportation ended in the physical destruction of almost all of those displaced. Following the deportation of Armenians in the areas of Zaytun and Van, the plan turned to the larger populations constituting "Great Armenia," meaning one million Armenians from Trebizond on the Black Sea to Diyarbakir on the Syrian border, with Sivas on the west and Van to the east.

These communities, composed of both urbanites and villagers alike, already weakened by any number of previous massacres, generally made lead-erless by the preliminary assassination of their notables, and traditionally respectful of Ottoman authority anyway, offered no resistance whatsoever. Only 150,000 Armenians managed to escape to the Russian-occupied Caucasus. Whole populations were then massacred en route, either by military units and police, by local populations of Turks and Kurds, or else by the actual coordinators of the deportations, the men of the Special Organization.

Eyewitness accounts repeatedly mention in particular rapes, physical mutilations, and the massacres of women, children, and newborn babies. Those who escaped death were forced to contend with severe hunger and thirst in the middle of summer with no means of sustenance whatsoever. The empire's western provinces, which were equipped with a railroad infrastructure, were also affected by the deportation orders, allowing three hundred thousand Armenians to be deported in just a few short months.

Despite this, some five hundred thousand Armenians escaped death by deportation, because the often primitive techniques visited upon them prevented their total extermination. Upon their arrival in Mesopotamia and Syria therefore, they were interned in camps resembling the antechambers of Hell, where they were herded into caves (Deïr-es-Zor), thrown into the Euphrates, and even burned alive in immense pits. Just fifty thousand managed to regroup outside Aleppo, primarily women and children who had somehow escaped forced Islamicization and slavery in Kurdish tribal villages. Throughout the rest of the empire the hunt for survivors, which was formally declared by the regime and which lasted until the final months of the war, was particularly focused on the elimination of orphaned children or, for those who were lucky enough, on forced conversion to Islam. This was because the Armenian Genocide, unlike the Nazis' Final Solution, did not call for the total extermination of all Armenians as persons. Conversion to Islam sufficed to suspend the genocidal process. The ideology that sustained it was therefore more ethnic, nationalist, and religious than fundamentally racist in nature.

All told, 1.2 million Armenians were exterminated either in situ, during the deportations, or in the camps. Another 100,000—mostly women and young girls—were abducted and converted to Islam, and 150,000 managed to survive the camps or to hide with Turkish, Kurdish, or Arab families. A small number, such as the 4,200 combatants in the battle at Musa Dagh, evacuated by the French vessel Jeanne d'Arc cruising near Alexandria, were saved by the Allied Powers. The Armenian minority simply no longer existed as such within the confines of the Ottoman Empire, save in highly reduced form in the two metropolises of Constantinople and Smyrna.

But the terror engendered by the genocide of their co-religionists, and the continuation of the massacres during Mustafa Kemal's war of national liberation, led to the exile of almost the entire population of survivors, who fled toward Europe and the United States. An additional two hundred thousand Armenians would reach the Caucasus region, future birthplace of the tiny Republic of Armenia. None of the survivors would ever return to their homelands, a situation that lends a unique quality to the Armenian Genocide: it is the only instance in which no reparations have been paid and which has never been granted any formal recognition.


It is not possible in the early twenty-first century to demonstrate the genocidal nature of the Young Turk regime with reference to an infallible document, because the archives of the Ottoman Empire (those at least that survive in present-day Turkey) are inaccessible. Specialists prefer to discount Talât Paşa's telegrams published by Aram Andonian in 1920, based on the near total loss of the originals and due to the propaganda purposes behind their release. This does not mean, however, that they are fakes, as official Turkish history would have it. Their authenticity is easily verified when they are situated with respect to the reasonings put forth at the time and the general sequence of events, which evince the application of a plan to exterminate the empire's Armenian minority. Unlike tribunals, which require direct evidence to convict someone, historians bring to light explanatory systems that encompass all the facts and inscribe them in their broader contexts, resulting in the construction of a historical continuum that proves the existence of genocidal intentions that were actually carried out.

The destruction of the Eastern Armenians during World War I is verifiable on the one hand by the reality of previous massacres, which reveals the existence of powerful mechanisms designed to eliminate the empire's minority groups, exploit their members so as to psychologically and socially degrade them, and ultimately hand them over to Kurdish tribes, irregular troops, and Turkish activists. The great massacres of 1894–1896, followed by others in 1909–1912, constituted a profound shock to the Armenian community, which was stripped of its land, ancestry, and culture. These massacres alone contributed to the deaths of 300,000 people, the forcible conversion of 100,000 others, the abduction into slavery of 100,000 women and young girls, and the exile of approximately 200,000 Armenians. These prewar activities paved the way for the genocide of 1915 through their terrorist methods, ideological wellsprings, and in the numbers of their victims. An intent to commit genocide may also be corroborated with reference to the systematic official discourse used to transform the Armenians into internal enemies, scapegoats for military defeat, and imminent threats to the nation of Ottoman Turks. It is equally evident in the massive deportation orders and the role the Special Organization, directly attached to the Unionist Triumvirate, played in coordinating the massacres along the highways and in the camps. It becomes clear by studying the actions on the ground of the Ottoman authorities who took on the large part of the burden of the extermination itself, a systematic enterprise that proves that the destruction of the Armenians did not equate to a series of war crimes but was a deliberate plan to make this preeminent non-Muslim eastern minority group simply disappear, because it was an obstacle to the ethnic unification of the empire and the full establishment of the Young Turk dictatorship. The fact that the decision was made to mobilize forces for internal operations in an empire already militarily hobbled by the defeats it had suffered in 1915 points to the degree of importance placed on their success and the true nature of the hoped-for outcome. Finally, the sheer number of victims cannot be explained solely with reference to explosions of hatred against individuals being held responsible for military setbacks. With two-thirds of the population exterminated, the level of Armenian victims nearly reached that of the genocide of the Jews, but this across a large swath of territory and a very shortened time period, just one-and-a-half years (April 1915 to December 1916), although the extermination would continue until the end of the war and beyond. During this time, as the empire lost ground on numerous fronts, Armenians allied with the Russians took the advantage to carry out reprisals for the massacres against Muslim populations. Official Turkish history, in its battle to revise historical reality, no longer hesitates to qualify these acts as "genocidal."

The final historical proof that the Young Turk regime harbored genocidal intentions rests in the decision taken by its principal authorities, just prior to the empire's total collapse on 30 October 1918 and their flight aboard a German naval vessel, to proceed with the large-scale destruction of their archives. However, they failed to erase every trace of their criminal intentions, primarily because large amounts of evidence and testimony corroborating the process of extermination were collected from throughout the empire.


As a great diplomatic power that was opening up to the powerful Western countries for the purposes of its development, the Ottoman Empire hosted large numbers of foreign diplomats throughout its various territories. Europeans and Americans also dominated the staffs of many of the charitable organizations and missions there. These men and women delivered horrifying accounts of how the Armenian annihilation was carried out. The Allied Powers' foreign consulates had the wherewithal to preserve these testimonies, out of humanitarian concern as well as for use as a weapon in wartime. Furthermore, communications in the same vein were gathered by numerous American consuls posted to the Ottoman Empire under the authority of U.S. ambassador Henry Morgenthau, as well as by German and Austrian diplomats and foreign nationals. The British "Blue Book," first published in 1916 and for many years accompanied by an introduction from Arnold Toynbee, furnished much-needed guarantees of objectivity. In the same year, the German pastor Johannes Lepsius, who had pleaded the Armenian cause directly to Talât Paşa in vain, made public his extensive Report (1918). In various other depositions, witnesses insisted that this was the deliberate destruction of a people. Thus for instance the German ambassador, Baron Hans von Wangenheim, on 7 July 1915 believed "the government is in fact pursuing the goal of annihilating the Armenian race throughout the Ottoman Empire."

The growing chorus of accusations emanating from international circles weighed heavily on the decision of the new Ottoman government formed after the fall of the Young Turks from power to try those responsible for the extermination. The trials held in Constantinople in 1919 and 1920 ended in stiff sentences, including the death penalty in absentia for the members of the Triumvirate. The trials also furnished an opportunity for compiling damning documentary proof that outlines specifically the roles played by the Young Turk Party and the Special Organization as well as to gather together the confessions of guilt. The work of two official investigatory commissions further reinforced these attempts to document and reflect. Yet the Allied Powers never sought to prosecute at the international level a process they themselves had recognized and denounced as terrifying in nature.


On 24 May 1915, even before the publication of the General Deportation Order, the Allies directed a solemn warning to the Young Turks: "In view of these new crimes of Turkey against humanity and civilization, the Allied governments announce publicly … that they will hold personally responsible [for] these crimes all members of the … government and those of their agents who are implicated in such massacres." The threat had no effect on the fate of the Armenians and was never carried out. The Allied governments did not seek to protect this population. Nor did they conduct trials within the confines of the Paris Peace Conference. The Treaty of Sèvres did, however, provide the necessary legal framework to pursue the authors of the crimes perpetrated by the Ottoman state against its Armenian citizens. But the preservation of Ottoman sovereignty and the trials being held in Constantinople diffused the early intentions of the occupiers to try the guilty themselves. Later on it was the Allies' will that flagged, as the geopolitical situation in that part of the world became increasingly complex. The collective renunciation allowed these tragic events to pass from European consciousness, which was only piqued from time to time by isolated protests coming from intellectuals such as the Austrian-Jewish novelist Franz Werfel, who wrote his book Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh (1933; Forty days in Musa Dagh) after having witnessed "the devastating spectacle of refugee children … maimed and eaten away by starvation" at Aleppo in 1929.

The fading from history of the destruction of the Armenians also ensued from the relations of force that eventually prevailed between Turkey and the Allies. As early as 1920 General Mustafa Kemal battled the Ottoman government established after the empire's defeat. The "Victor at the Dardanelles" laid the foundations of a nation-state within the sanctuary of Anatolia. This new regime completely distanced itself from the search for justice and truth that had at least in part characterized the empire on the eve of its defeat. The 24 July 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which designated the Republic of Turkey victor and outlined its borders, declared a general amnesty that pardoned those found guilty in the trials in 1919–1920 and led to the destruction of the nascent archives of the extermination itself. Atatürk's regime instilled a veritable ideology of history that grounded the republic on an ethnocentric, state-sponsored nationalism. In reaction to this attempt by Mustafa Kemal to wipe the slate clean, the Armenian Dachnak Party declared a "special mission": select militants would execute the sentences levied in Constantinople by assassinating those convicted in the European capitals where they had taken refuge. Talat Pasha's murderer, Salomon Teilirian, was arrested in Berlin and tried in June 1921. Pastor Lepsius and General Liman von Sanders, former chief of the Fifth Ottoman Army, recognized the reality of the extermination by testifying at his trial. "Before the word itself was even known, [these juries] were to accuse Talaat of being the primary author of a genocide, by acquitting Teilirian" (Chaliand and Ternon).

The rise of the dictatorships, the dawn of the era of large-scale ideological confrontation, and widespread anti-Semitism throughout Europe would all contribute to the near-total disappearance of any and all references to these events of 1915, which failed therefore to become the springboard for anticipating the process of the destruction of the Jews of Europe.


That being said, the Final Solution decreed against the Jews by the Nazis would lead to a major shift in how the events of 1915, and contemporary Armenian identity, came to be seen. The investigations into the genocide perpetrated during World War I, the indictments for crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg Trials in 1945–1946, and finally the formal definition of genocide itself, each led to an eventual revisiting of the history of the destruction of the Armenians and the historical as well as juridical terms used to classify it. On 9 December 1948 the United Nations Organization meeting in Paris unanimously adopted in plenary session the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Is the extermination of the Armenians, which is indubitably a genocide in historical terms, also one in legal terms as well? In this instance history makes law—a fact that may even be verified with reference to the origins of the concept of genocide itself, such as it was developed for the United Nations Convention in 1943 by Raphael Lemkin. To choose to classify the Armenian genocide as such in legal terms therefore risks weakening its accusatory power, because it cuts it off from its historical foundations.

The grounds for the desire to obtain this classification nonetheless, which by the end of the 1980s had grown very strong among the Armenians in the diaspora and in the tiny Republic of Armenia in the Caucasus, is more directly related to the logic of politics and identity. The struggle for classification is clearly an Armenian response to Turkey's denial that the exterminations actually took place and its obstruction of the research needed to provide knowledge for the survivors to mourn by symbolically burying their parents, neighbors, friends, lovers, and fellow Christians—all of which presupposes that their extermination itself becomes known and recognized. Having the classification of genocide in hand was also a weapon for forcing the Turks (sovereign rulers over the lands where the destruction took place and of the state responsible for these murders) to admit the truth. In addition it was a means for writing the untold story of the Armenians, living and dead. This politics of memory carried out in the struggle for classification as genocide only began to produce tangible results as the twentieth century drew to a close. The first action taken was by the European Parliament, which on 18 June 1987 recognized that "the tragic events which took place from 1915–1917 against the Armenians residing in the territories of the Ottoman Empire constitute a genocide according to the definition laid out in the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 9 December 1948." The Parliament insisted, furthermore, on the "instigation of a political dialogue between Turkey and the delegated representatives of the Armenians" and condemned the avowed denials as "incontrovertible obstacles to the consideration of Turkey's eventual admission to the Community." Intense Turkish diplomatic and political pressure failed to prevent the passage of similar acts of recognition by the legislatures of Russia (1995), Greece (1996), Belgium (1998), and finally Sweden, Italy, and France (2001). In April 2005, on the occasion of the ninetieth anniversary of the commencement of the genocide itself, the British House of Commons and the Polish Diet both adopted similar measures.

Armenian lobbying associations failed, however, to convince the United Nations to officially include the Armenian genocide in the legal briefs of the 1948 Convention. Despite strong support in the court of public opinion and the efforts of high-profile political figures, as of 2006 the U.S. administration and Congress continue to withhold their recognition and refuse to designate 24 April as an official Day of Commemoration. There, at least, Turkish diplomatic ultimatums continue to hold sway. These same pressures have provoked at times desperate acts on the part of militant Armenians who have sunk to engaging in terrorism to win their cause.

This radicalization of the struggle for genocidal classification has fed upon the intransigence of the Turkish positions taken with regard to this question, which are justified on the grounds of the need to defend Turkey from ideological and racist attacks.


When the Republic of Turkey was born in 1923, its founder, Mustafa Kemal, launched a project to completely reread history in order to construct a veritable teleology whose endpoint was the New Turkey itself. For this reason the question of denial can only be understood in relation to this conception of history, which largely predominates in the country even in the early twenty-first century. The denial of the genocide continues to mobilize political power, the state, and society in a quasi-unanimous defense of the nation threatened by these "Armenian allegations." The few independent historians in Turkey do their work under constant threat and are often sent into exile. Their attempts to organize professional conferences are prohibited by the government. The struggle against official historiography will continue to prove impossible so long as it is anchored at the highest levels of the state, claims leading academic experts as its adherents, and remains a part of decades of tradition.

Supported by Kemalist power, official Turkish historians established a counter history of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. The authors of this official literature minimized, relativized, and ultimately obscured the scale of the violence by foregrounding arguments to the effect that the size of the Armenian populations registered in the census and in the massacres was much lower than the numbers put forward by independent research; that the Kurds were the primary perpetrators of acts of violence; that other minorities were victims of massacres as well; that the Armenians were indeed prone to treason and simply had to be moved from the front-line areas; and that they were themselves responsible for numerous massacres. Some of this World War I counterhistory's authors even referred to the existence of an Armenian genocide against the Turks on the front line in the Caucasus region between 1917 and 1919—a commemorative monument was erected in 1999 at Igdir as a permanent challenge to the one that stands in Erevan in commemoration of the catastrophe of 1915. Those who maintain the suppression of the facts distance the Ottoman state from any criminal intentionality and deny any role played by the Turkish nation in the disappearance of the Anatolian Armenians. They attribute the massacres to a convergence of events stemming primarily (meaning exclusively) from the fact of the war itself and the extreme violence it inspired on the military fronts and in the empire's interior. The three hundred thousand Armenian dead would therefore be no more exceptional than the three million Turks lost to the world's first global conflict. Finally, they interpret the efforts to right the historical picture as evidence of a plot against Turkish national identity and ultimately against the existence of Turkey itself.

The source of the power this propaganda holds is to be found in the process that began during the republic's first years of existence, when Kemal relegated to historical discourse a determining role in the construction of the Turkish nation. The birth of Kemal's Turkey as a regional power and secular model imposed at best a silence concerning the facts, at worse an adherence to an official history written by fiat from the top. The Armenians were alone responsible for their fate in World War I because of their agitations against the nation of Ottoman Turks. The revision of the rest of the story had already begun as early as 1916 when the Ottoman Empire published a "White Book" on the activities of Armenian Revolutionary Committees accused of seeking its defeat. After the war of independence, the New Turkey no doubt did in fact forge a permanent break with a regime that had pushed the Turks into corruption and defeat. But the gains won from the empire by "uprooting the Greek and Armenian populations of Anatolia" were recognized by the Turkish Historical Society founded in 1931. The Turkish bourgeoisie, newly formed out of the pillage of Armenian wealth, constituted from 1919 onward the social base for the war of independence itself. After World War II, Turkey strengthened its international position by joining the United Nations and then NATO, followed by its slow but steady efforts aimed at integrating with the European Union and forging a special alliance with Israel. In this way the country furnished itself with even more of the power it needed to defend its version of history, used to further its strategic interests, which are nonnegotiable in diplomatic and political terms. This state-centered line of reasoning has led Turkey to become the overseer of its national historians and to seek out foreign university specialists, primarily from the United States, ready to serve the cause of official history. Analysis of Turkish reactions to the ninetieth anniversary of the genocide's commencement proves the extent of their radicalization: Denouncing the "Armenian allegations" and those who propagate them has become a badge of nationalism and routine government practice. The moderate Islamic government of Recep Erdogan has played this radicalization card to the utmost, at the risk of amplifying an already heightened Islamic nationalism. Starting in April 2005 a major press campaign, accompanied by death threats and measures prohibiting his novels, took aim at the internationally renowned writer Orhan Pamuk. His crime was to have declared openly in a Swiss newspaper that "one million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds have been killed in Turkey." This new phase in the crusade against the genocide is in stark contrast to the gestures toward opening made during the so-called Özal era at the end of the 1980s, named for Turgut Özal, the prime minister and then president of Turkey who held power from 1983 until his mysterious death in April 1993. This reformist leader, profoundly religious but highly tolerant, and furthermore an economics professor educated in the United States, envisaged recognizing the genocide of 1915 and was headed toward a peaceful and political resolution of the Kurdish question as well.


In the early twenty-first century, beyond the stakes involved in the classification of genocide as such, the true question raised by the Armenian Genocide concerns the battle over history itself—over the history of the destruction of the Eastern Armenians certainly, but also and even more so over history as an independent field of inquiry, free of political threats and communal interests, capable of offering a more effective definition of genocide than the juridical norm. For history as a research activity identifies processes and causal mechanisms and writes accounts that go beyond what law is able to circumscribe. Historical knowledge can examine the mechanisms of Turkish denial and the uses of history already detailed here, and through their exposure lead the way toward getting past them. It can also reflect on the historical specificity of this genocide, on the differences between it and the other genocides of the twentieth century, and on the impediments to its full realization.

From this point forward, therefore, the goal would seem to be less about classifying the destruction of the Eastern Armenians, which is no doubt a genocide in historical terms, as it is to transform their story by inscribing it into that of the twentieth century as a whole. This is the meaning of the new age of historiography that is emerging in the twenty-first century and which is ensuring that the Armenian Genocide remains a continually relevant, indeed universal, fact. The sheer modernity of the words of U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill echoes loudly and painfully still: Morgenthau, when confronted with Talat Pasha's surprise that he, a Jew, was interested in the fate of Christians, responded: "You don't seem to realize that I am here not as a Jew but as American Ambassador," and Churchill maintained in his recollections that "in 1915 the Turkish Government began and ruthlessly carried out the infamous general massacre and deportation of Armenians in Asia Minor.… The clearance of the race from Asia Minor was about as complete as such an act, on a scale so great, could well be.… There is no reasonable doubt that this crime was planned and executed for political reasons." These accusations expressed the highest of democratic values but fell upon deaf ears and were ultimately snuffed out. In order to render them louder and more inspiring in the future, it falls to us therefore to heighten humanity's historical conscience by raising its consciousness of events such as these and transmitting this knowledge to the greatest possible number.

See alsoArmenia; Atatürk, Mustafa Kemal.


Primary Sources

Andonian, Aram. Documents officiels concernant les massacres arméniens. Paris, 1920.

Bryce, James, and Arnold Toynbee. The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915–1916 ("Blue Book"). Uncensored ed. Edited by Ara Sarafian. Princeton, N.J., 2000.

Davis, Leslie A. The Slaughterhouse Province: An American Diplomat's Report on the Armenian Genocide, 1915–1917. Introduction by Susan Blair. New Rochelle, N.Y., 1989.

Lemkin, Raphael. "Genocide: A New International Crime: Punishment and Prevention." Revue internationale de droit penal 10 (1946): 360–370.

——. "Genocide as a Crime under International Law." American Journal of International Law 41, no. 1 (1947): 145–151.

Lepsius, Johannes. Le Rapport secret du Dr. Johannès Lepsius … sur les massacres d'Arménie. Paris, 1918. Reprint, 1987.

——. Archives du génocide arménien: Recueil de documents diplomatiques allemands, extraits de Deutschland und Armenien (1914–1918). Preface by Alfred Grosser. Paris, 1986.

Lepsius, Johannes, ed. Deutschland und Armenien. Potsdam, Germany, 1919.

Meynier, Gustave. Les massacres de Diarbekir: Correspondance diplomatique du vice-consul de France 1894–1896. Présentée et annotée par Claire Mouradian et Michel Durand-Meyrier. Paris, 2000.

Morgenthau, Henry. Mémoires, suivis de documents inédits du département d'État. Paris, 1919. Reprint, 1984

Toynbee, Arnold J. The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915–16. Edited by James Bryce. London, 1916.

Wegner, Armin T. Der Weg ohne Heimkehr: Ein Martyrium in Briefen. Dresden, Germany, 1919.

Secondary Sources

Adalian, Roubel Paul. "The Armenian Genocide:

Revisionism and Denial." In Genocide in Our Time, an Annotated Bibliography with Analytical Introduction, edited by Michael N. Dobkowski and Isidor Wallimann. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1992.

——. "Négationnistes et génocide arménien." In Le Livre noire de l'humanité, edited by Israel W. Charny. Toulouse, France, 2001.

Balakian, Peter. The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response. New York, 2003.

Chaliand, Gerard, and Yves Ternon. Le génocide des Arméniens. Brussels, 1984.

Dadrian, Vahakn N. "The Convergent Aspects of the Armenian and Jewish Cases of Genocide: A Reinterpretation of the Concept of Holocaust." Holocaust and Genocide Studies 3, no. 2 (1988): 151–169.

——. "Genocide as a Problem of National and International Law: The World War I Armenian Case and Its Contemporary Legal Ramifications." Yale Journal of International Law 14, no. 2 (summer 1989). Printed separately with two appendices and bibliography. 134 pp.

——. History of the Armenian Genocide: Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Caucasus. Providence, R.I., and Oxford, U.K., 1995.

——. Warrant for Genocide: Key Elements of Turko-Armenian Conflict. New Brunswick, N.J., and London. 1999.

——. "The Armenian Question and the Wartime Fate of the Armenians as Documented by the Officials of the Ottoman Empire's World War I Allies: Germany and Austro-Hungary." International Journal of Middle East Studies 34, no. 1 (2002): 59–85.

Power, Samantha. "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide. New York, 2002.

Trumpeter, Ulrich. Germany and the Ottoman Empire, 1914–1918. Princeton, N.J., 1969.

Vincent Duclert

About this article

Armenian Genocide

Updated About content Print Article