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Why it’s so controversial to call the Armenian genocide a genocide

Armenians gather at a genocide memorial in 2012.
Armenians gather at a genocide memorial in 2012.

Late on April 24, 1915, Ottoman authorities in Constantinople — now the Turkish city of Istanbul — rounded up more than 200 local members of the Armenian ethnic minority, many of them community leaders. Most were later killed. On Friday, that day will be marked by Armenians worldwide as the 100th anniversary of the start of the Armenian genocide.

By the time it ended a few years later, the Armenian genocide — a campaign of mass murder and ethnic cleansing — had killed an estimated 1 million to 1.5 million ethnic Armenians in the Ottoman empire.

Now, nearly a century later, the Armenian genocide is still not formally recognized by much of the world. It remains a contentious topic in Turkey, whose government denies that it ever happened and has successfully pressured other nations to not acknowledge the genocide — including the United States.

What is the Armenian genocide?

Armenian genocide

(Map of the Armenian genocide via

The Ottoman empire began the systematic campaign to destroy its Armenian population in 1915, after the breakout of World War I. Ethnic Armenians were, at the time, a sizable minority: before the genocide, there were an estimated 2 million living in the Ottoman empire. By 1922, their numbers had fallen to less than half a million people.

What transpired in the meantime is variously referred to as the Armenian genocide, or Meds Yeghern ("great catastrophe" in Armenian). In the telling of today's Turkish government, though, the casualties were merely regrettable deaths that occurred during war, rather than the result of any systematic or organized campaign of destruction.

The Ottoman Empire had entered World War I as an ally of Germany and was fighting against Russia, its longtime regional foe. Turkish leaders seized on a paranoid theory: that Armenians, largely Christian, were likely to ally with Russia and fight as a fifth column inside Turkey itself.

So the government ordered the deportation of all Armenians to an arid region of what is now Syria. "We will not have Armenians anywhere in Anatolia," the Ottoman minister of the interior told the US ambassador. "They can live in the desert, but nowhere else."

This policy became a massive, government-led campaign to destroy the Armenian population through deportations and mass murder. "In the process, at least half of the men were killed by Turkish security forces or marauding Kurdish tribesmen," writes Thomas de Waal in Foreign Affairs. "Women and children survived in greater numbers but endured appalling depredation, abductions, and rape on the long marches."

In the city of Diyarbakir, for example, the governor assembled a "strike force" that rounded up and massacred Armenians. On one occasion, Raffi Khatchadourian writes in the New Yorker, more than 600 people were sent down the Tigris river in rafts and then killed. On another, women were rounded up, forced to strip to their underwear, and then murdered with axes.

Foreign diplomats observed and documented the mass slaughter. Henry Morgenthau, the US ambassador to Turkey, cabled Washington in July 1915 to warn that "a campaign of race extermination is in progress." The large-scale detentions and deportations of Armenians, he wrote, were "accompanied by frequent instances of rape, pillage, and murder, turning into massacre."

Jesse Jackson, the US consul in Aleppo, saw the deportees arriving in the desert. In 1916, de Waal writes, Jackson sent a cable to Washington that described mass graves holding nearly 60,000 people. "As far as the eye can reach mounds are seen containing 200 to 300 corpses buried in the ground pele mele, women, children and old people belonging to different families."

But despite this knowledge, no one intervened to end the carnage. By the end of World War I, an estimated 1 million to 1.5 million people had been killed.

Why won't Turkey recognize the Armenian genocide?

Armenians being deported 1915

Armenians being deported in 1915. (APIC/Getty Images)

Turkey has steadfastly refused to recognize the Armenian genocide. The Turkish government's official position is that there was no genocide because there was no systematic campaign to wipe out the Armenians. Although Turkey admits that massacres did take place, it insists they were just a regrettable consequence of war, not the result of an organized or targeted plan.

Those arguments are, to say the least, inconsistent with the historical evidence. Turkey's organized, centrally directed campaign against its Armenian population was documented by outside observers like Morgenthau and Jackson. There is considerable physical evidence, including mass graves, proving that large-scale killing took place. Newspapers, including US publications like the New York Times, covered the story as it was happening. But perhaps most damning evidence of all is that Armenians essentially disappeared from much of the Ottoman empire. If there was no genocide, where did they go?

After World War I ended in an Ottoman and German defeat, the victorious allies broke apart the empire forever. Several of the Turkish officials who had been architects of the Armenian genocide went on to found the modern Turkish state that emerged from the Ottoman Empire's ashes.

Those Turkish officials became heroes of modern Turkey, and their reputation wrapped up in the legitimacy of this new state. Admitting that the genocide happened would risk tainting the Turkish state itself, as well as the individuals responsible. "It’s not easy for a nation to call its founding fathers murderers and thieves," Turkish historian Taner Akcam told the New York Times.

So, instead, Turkish history textbooks teach that the Armenians were traitors. Prominent Turks who have acknowledged the genocide publicly, including the writer Orhan Pamuk, have faced criminal charges for "insulting Turkishness." And Turkey has opposed other countries' efforts to recognize the genocide, including, most recently, by recalling its ambassador to the Vatican last week after Pope Francis referred to the killings as genocide.

However, there are signs that the Turkish attitude towards the genocide may be softening. In recent years, scholars have been able to publish studies on the genocide and discuss it publicly. This week, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu publicly offered condolences to the descendants of the Armenians who were killed. Although he pointedly refused to refer to the killings as a genocide, his statement seemed like a tentative step toward acknowledging what happened.

Why is the Armenian genocide a global political controversy?

Armenian genocide mural

A mural in Los Angeles commemorating the genocide. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Turkey has put heavy pressure on other nations to refrain from recognizing the genocide. Many countries, especially Turkey's allies, have accommodated this, and for nearly a century have refrained from officially referring to the killings as a genocide. Only 24 countries officially acknowledge what happened.

The United States, for instance, has never officially taken the position that the Armenians were victims of genocide, although Ronald Reagan did refer to "the genocide of the Armenians" in a 1981 proclamation. Before he was elected president, Barack Obama described the slaughter of Armenians as a genocide, but he has not used that word since taking office.

Turkey is a key US ally — especially now, as the US relies on Turkey's cooperation in the fight against ISIS in Syria. US officials have compromised on how they refer to the killings. When Obama makes a speech to commemorate the anniversary of the genocide on Friday, White House officials say he will use the term "Meds Yeghern" instead of "genocide."

Likewise, the United Kingdom has not recognized the genocide, apparently out of concern that doing so would jeopardize its relationship with Turkey. A leaked Foreign Office briefing from 1999 stated that Turkey was "neuralgic and defensive about the charge of genocide." Therefore, the "only feasible option" was for the United Kingdom to continue to refuse to recognize the killings as genocide, because of "the importance of our relations (political, strategic and commercial) with Turkey."

By contrast, Russia, which has never enjoyed a particularly good relationship with Turkey, recognized the genocide in 1995.

International pressure on Turkey to recognize the genocide has grown in recent years, largely due to heavy lobbying by Armenian groups — including a sizable Armenian diaspora in the US — as well as anti-genocide organizations. On Monday, Germany announced that it would become the 25th country to recognize the genocide. And even in countries that have refused to recognize the genocide at the national level, many state and local legislatures have voted to do so — including 43 American states and the parliaments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of American states that recognize the Armenian Genocide. The correct number is 43. We regret the error.

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