The genocide they want us to forget
One hundred and one years ago the Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire decided that its millions of Armenian and Assyrian subjects were an existential threat to the survival of their state and the Muslims within the empire.
The Ottomans were at war with tsarist Russia, and Armenians found themselves in the unenviable position of living on both sides of the Ottoman-Russian frontier. Even though tens of thousands of young Armenian men were serving in the Ottoman army, and hundreds died defending the empire—while some of their fellow Armenians living in Russia volunteered to fight for the tsar—the Young Turk leaders chose to demobilize Armenian soldiers, force them into work battalions, and eventually murder them.
Talat and Enver Pasha began in the first months of 1915 what most historians recognize as the genocide of the Armenians and Assyrians. In the next year hundreds of thousand of Christian women, children, and old men were driven from their homes, marched under guard through the mountains and valleys of eastern Anatolia (present-day Kurdistan), eventually ending up in the deserts of Syria where those who had survived were starved to death or massacred.
Ninety percent of the Armenians (about a million or more people) had been eliminated from their historic homeland, and a civilization and culture that had existed for more than two thousand years had disappeared.
The Turkish government today does not deny that deportations and killings took place but they refuse to acknowledge that the mass murders of 1915 constituted a genocide. That word is too powerful—too evocative of the Holocaust—for Ankara to allow the story of the foundations of its state to be marred by such horrendous events. Instead Turkish officials, diplomats, and their allies contend that during World War I Armenians revolted against their own government, aided the Russians against the Ottomans, and were therefore moved by the government from the front for security reasons.
None of those claims are true, and in 2014 then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan offered condolences to Armenian victims, a bizarre gesture if the Armenians had in fact been traitors. But this acknowledgment of tragedy fell short of an apology or frank recognition that a genocide—the deliberate targeting and killing of designated ethno-religious communities—had taken place. Because the Turkish Republic is a vital ally of the United States, the American government also refuses to use the word “genocide.” President Obama has used the Armenian words, Mets Yeghern (Great Tragedy), as a softer substitute, though he did use the G-word before he was elected.
Genocide is a particular evil. It is not simply the mass killing of people but the mass killing of a people, a specific effort to eliminate or render impotent an ethnic, religious, or cultural group. When the Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin coined the word “genocide” during the Second World War, he made it clear that he was referring to both the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide.
The Michigan legislature is considering a law (H.B. 4493) that would mandate teaching about these two calamitous events, but those who would distort an inconvenient past have mobilized to prevent the Armenian Genocide from being included in the curriculum of our schools.
History must not be manipulated for political purposes. We learn from facing the hard facts of what human beings have done to fellow humans. Denying the harsh realities of the last century presents a real danger to understanding where we have come from and where we might go.
Ronald Grigor Suny, author of “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”: A History of the Armenian Genocide, is Distinguished University Professor of History at the University of Michigan.