On this date 100 years ago, Talaat Pasha, Interior Minister to the Ottoman Empire, began hatching a plan for mass deportations and, where that was not convenient, targeted executions of Ottoman Armenians. Over the next year and a half, the Armenians of eastern Anatolia, an ethnic group that had been native to that region for thousands of years, were rounded-up and death-marched into the Syrian desert. No water was provided to them, and certain Kurdish hill tribes were apparently commissioned to harass the Armenians on their forced march, robbing and murdering unarmed civilians and kidnapping or gang-raping younger women.
The rationale for this genocide, initiated by the Ottoman Empire’s radical nationalist government, was the leaders’ own belief that Ottoman Armenians were loyal to their fellow Orthodox Christians in the Russian Empire. Aside from 1 insurrection in a city in eastern Anatolia earlier that year, there wasn’t even circumstantial evidence of this; most Armenians by all accounts considered themselves Ottoman citizens, which they were under the law.
Many young Armenian men, at the urging of their religious and municipal leaders, had enlisted in the Ottoman Army; these men were quietly pulled from their units and executed. Though the larger Armenian population of Constantinople was left alone (the government’s sole official concession to mercy, made due to the greater visibility of events in that city), prominent members of the Armenian community in the capital city were also executed as suspected agitators.
Djemal Pasha, the Governor of Syria and Minister of the Ottoman Navy and himself a part of Turkey’s ruling triumvirate, violated these genocidal directives and allowed fleeing Armenians to settle in Syria and Lebanon–though he charged his Armenian countrymen for the luxury.
In a year and a half of systematically unsparing murder and manslaughter, out of a prewar Ottoman Armenian population of about 2 million, 1 million-1.4 million were killed with several hundred thousand survivors each in Constantinople, Syria and Lebanon, and what remained of Armenia. Not only was this a textbook case of genocide, but it was used by Adolf Hitler as a model for his rationale that genocide was a serious option that could be pursued with impunity.
The record of the genocide of Armenians perpetrated by the small directing faction of the Committee of Union and Progress government of the Ottoman Empire, initiated 100 years ago today, was roundly-corroborated, by shocked American nationals, the New York Times and even its perpetrators. But due to politics and incessant angry denial by all Turkish governments since, discussion of this genocide is inherently “controversial.”
This recent Washington Post article offers some compelling if abbreviated American accounts of what happened in the Ottoman Empire in 1915-1916, but in a resigned nod to politics, its headline is strangely coy. There is no credible grounds for debate over what happened in Ottoman Armenia, only an acknowledgment of what happened and politically-driven genocide denial, which every Turkish government down to that of the current thuggish and authoritarian Islamist President has now studiously maintained for 100 years.
Some have gotten this call right and have stood-up to the loudest and most-monotonous voices on this subject, which seem to be those of the Turkish government; the German President and Speaker of Parliament and Pope Francis seem to be among them. So far, President Obama, notoriously taciturn regarding his sentiments on international politics, has not.
A Vox.com article that succinctly covers both the incident of the Armenian Genocide, or Aghet, and rejects equivocation about the campaign of murder by the Three Pashas, nonetheless arrives at an odd explanation of modern Turkey’s ongoing denial, which it attributes to complicity of the Kemalist government which created modern Turkey with the genocide. To the best of my knowledge, this is actually an erroneous and misleading association (though it doesn’t change the fact that culpability for denial of the Armenian Genocide extends to the first government of modern Turkey).
The Liberal Ironist thinks that official denial of the Armenian Genocide has less to do with Turkey’s people looking backwards than with Turkey’s leaders continually calculating in the present. In spite of its current President’s best efforts, Turkey still has the trappings of a modern democracy–but it hasn’t quite emerged from its authoritarian shadow in 1 of the most militarily-contested regions of the World, and has also been a consistently-important geostrategic player in the Middle East in spite of the loss of its empire. A generation of rapid economic development, its founding NATO membership, relatively large military and usual political stability have, if anything, made it more-important in its region today. And whenever the subject has left the tips of other statesmens’ tongues, Turkey’s political leaders have cannily played-up their denial of this model genocide as such. “Fog of war,” they say. “A lot of people died in our country during World War I, not just Christians,” they say. “No one really knows what happened.” This totemic unaccountability for the most-basic transgression of its purpose a state can exhibit has provided Turkey’s leaders a sound barometer of their leverage over their allies for a century.