Turkey’s Century of Denial About an Armenian Genocide

By Tim Arango 

100 Years Later, a Genocide Haunts the Armenian Psyche For surviving Armenians and their descendants, the genocide by Ottoman Turks became a central marker of their identity, the psychic wounds passed through generations.


CUNGUS, Turkey — The crumbling stone monastery, built into the hillside, stands as a forlorn monument to an awful past. So, too, does the decaying church on the other side of this mountain village. Farther out, a crevice is sliced into the earth, so deep that peering into it, one sees only blackness. Haunting for its history, it was there that a century ago, an untold number of Armenians were tossed to their deaths.

“They threw them in that hole, all the men,” said Vahit Sahin, 78, sitting at a cafe in the center of the village, reciting the stories that have passed through generations.

Mr. Sahin turned in his chair and pointed toward the monastery. “That side was Armenian.” He turned back. “This side was Muslim. At first, they were really friendly with each other.”


A hundred years ago, amid the upheaval of World War I, this village and countless others across eastern Anatolia became killing fields as the desperate leadership of the Ottoman Empire, having lost the Balkans and facing the prospect of losing its Arab territories as well, saw a threat closer to home.


Worried that the Christian Armenian population was planning to align with Russia, a primary enemy of the Ottoman Turks, officials embarked on what historians have called the first genocide of the 20th century: Nearly 1.5 million Armenians were killed, some in massacres like the one here, others in forced marches to the Syrian desert that left them starved to death.


The genocide was the greatest atrocity of the Great War. It also remains that conflict’s most bitterly contested legacy, having been met by the Turkish authorities with 100 years of silence and denial. For surviving Armenians and their descendants, the genocide became a central marker of their identity, the psychic wounds passed through generations.


“Armenians have passed one whole century, screaming to the world that this happened,” said Gaffur Turkay, whose grandfather, as a young boy, survived the genocide and was taken in by a Muslim family. Mr. Turkay, in recent years, after discovering his heritage, began identifying as an Armenian and converted to Christianity. “We want to be part of this country with our original identities, just as we were a century ago,” he said.


The 100th anniversary will be commemorated on April 24, the date the Ottomans rounded up a group of Armenian notables in Istanbul in 1915 as the first step in what historians now agree was a wider plan of annihilation. Armenians from Turkey and the diaspora are preparing to gather in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square to honor the dead. They will also hold a concert featuring Armenian and Turkish musicians.

Similar ceremonies will be held in capitals around the world, including in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, which Kim Kardashian, who is of Armenian descent, recently visited with her husband, the rapper Kanye West, to highlight the genocide.


The Turkish government acknowledges that atrocities were committed, but says they happened in wartime, when plenty of other people were dying. Officials stoutly deny there was ever any plan to systematically wipe out the Armenian population — the commonly accepted definition of genocide.


Ankara is not participating in any of the memorials, nor does it appear ready to meet Armenian demands for an apology. Instead, on the same day of the genocide anniversary, the Turkish authorities scheduled a centennial commemoration of the Battle of Gallipoli, an event that helped lay the foundation of modern Turkish identity.


The anniversary comes after several years in which the Turkish government seemed to be softening its position. With the flourishing of new civic society organizations, the government became more tolerant of views of history that differed from the official one. Last year, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in offering condolences to the Armenians,went further than any Turkish leader ever had in acknowledging the painful history.


Yet as the anniversary has drawn near, the situation has fallen back into well-established patterns: Turkish denial, Armenian anger and little sign of reconciliation. Mr. Erdogan has turned combative, embracing the traditional narrative.


“The Armenian diaspora is trying to instill hatred against Turkey through a worldwide campaign on genocide claims ahead of the centennial anniversary of 1915,” Mr. Erdogan said recently. “If we examine what our nation had to go through over the past 100 to 150 years, we would find far more suffering than what the Armenians went through.”


In a country defined by its divisions, between the secular and the religious, rich and poor, liberal and conservative, the legacy of the Armenian genocide is a unifying issue for Turks. A recent poll conducted by the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, an Istanbul research organization, found that only 9 percent of Turks thought the government should label the atrocities a genocide and apologize for them.

Turkey’s ossified position, so at odds with the historical scholarship, is a legacy of how the Turkish republic was established after World War I. Under its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, society here underwent a process of Turkification: a feat of social engineering based on an erasure of the past and the denial of a multi-ethnic history. The Armenian massacres were wiped from the country’s history, only to emerge for ordinary Turks in the 1970s after an Armenian terrorist campaign against Turkish diplomats.


Even now, Turkish textbooks describe the Armenians as traitors, call the Armenian genocide a lie and say that the Ottoman Turks took “necessary measures” to counter Armenian separatism. A room at the Istanbul Military Museum is devoted to the suffering of Muslims at the hands of Armenian militants.


“There clearly were Armenian revolutionaries and rebels who were intending to side with Russia,” said Thomas de Waal, a historian with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who recently wrote a book on the genocide titled “The Great Catastrophe.” “This is a case of punishing the whole for the perceived disloyalty of a few.”


Mr. de Waal described the genocide as “collective punishment on a mass scale.”

Many of the leaders of the new Turkish republic — but not Ataturk — were primary architects of the genocide, and some grew rich off the confiscation of Armenian properties.


“It’s not easy for a nation to call its founding fathers murderers and thieves,” said Taner Akcam, a prominent Turkish historian of the genocide.

The Turkish government, in the run-up to the anniversary, has reverted to the position that the matter should be subject to further study by historians, sponsoring a website called lethistorydecide.org.


Armenians regard this as an insult and a diversion, because it suggests that the historical record is unsettled. The facts, though, have been documented through a century of scholarship, relying on Ottoman archives, testimony in trials that were briefly carried out in Istanbul under Allied occupation after World War I, and witness accounts from the time.


“It is wrong to claim that there is a historical dispute,” Mr. de Waal said. “The historical facts are well established.”


The facts were also largely known as the events were unfolding. A New York Times headline from Aug. 18, 1915, blared, “Armenians Are Sent to Perish in Desert.” A headline from December read, “Million Armenians Killed or in Exile.”

Even then, though, the Turks were setting down the language of denial. A Turk, in a letter to the editor published in The Times in October 1915, wrote of “so-called” Armenian massacres. It is the same description of the slaughter used today by pro-government newspapers in Turkey.


The legacy of the genocide has also long figured in American politics, through the lobbying efforts of Armenian organizations in the United States who for decades have pushed for recognition of the genocide. Presidential candidates, including Barack Obama, have used the word genocide on the campaign trail. But no sitting president has uttered it, for fear of disrupting American relations with Turkey.


With the coming anniversary, Mr. Obama is coming under added pressure to use the word genocide during his customary, annual statement April 24. That Pope Francis recently described the massacres as a genocide adds to the pressure on Mr. Obama.


Experts say Mr. Obama’s decision this year will be complicated by United States efforts to secure more cooperation from Turkey in the fight against the extremists of the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, in Iraq and Syria.