Denial of the Armenian Genocide

By Ashley Kalagian Blunt

You’ve probably heard about it in the news recently. The Armenian genocide started gaining media attention in early April, when the Pope commemorated the events of a century ago.

In response, Turkey “hotly denied” the so-called accusation. In Australia as well, several recent articles have recognised the connection between the Anzac centenary and the genocide centenary. That the latter falls on 24 April is no mere historical coincidence.

This amount of coverage is rare. Despite its significance to world history, the Armenian genocide isn’t well known. When it is mentioned in the news, it’s usually in the context of a “claim” that the Turkish government decries.

In effect, this framing of the issue supports Turkey’s denial, implying the historical facts are still up for debate. Although the Armenian genocide happened 100 years ago and few of its survivors are still alive today, the denial of the genocide and its subsequent obfuscation is a human rights issue with ongoing effects.

The Armenian genocide occurred in the former Ottoman Empire, in the region that is now eastern Turkey, under the guise of World War I. The Ottoman government made use of modern technologies, particularly newly built telegraph and train lines, to aid in the state-planned extermination of the Armenian civilian population.

At the time England, France and Russia issued a joint statement describing the attacks on Armenians as crimes against humanity – the original use of the phrase. As many as 1.5 million people died, nearly two-thirds of the Armenian population in the territory. There were state-planned attacks on Greek and Assyrian communities as well, which are even less known today.

When the Ottomans lost the war, British officials organised war crimes trials to redress what they referred to as a crime against humanity. Just as the Armenian genocide laid the blueprints for the Holocaust, these trials set a precedent for the Nuremberg trials of World War II.

Survivors and witnesses testified. Separate trials in separate cities corroborated each other.

Despite this, the government of the newly founded Republic of Turkey set a policy of denial, pursued today with repressive internal policies, international political pressure (such as recalling ambassadors) and a large budget.

When it happened, the genocide was well known around the world. In Australia, every major newspaper covered the genocide. In 1915, the Melbourne Age published over 40 articles on the fate of the Ottoman Armenians, the New York Times over 100.

This media coverage triggered an impassioned humanitarian response. Australians raised funds and sent missionaries. In Lebanon, an Australian-run orphanage housed nearly two thousand Armenian children.

Throughout the genocide, consular officials and missionaries from many countries were present in the Ottoman Empire and bore witness to the events. The majority of Armenian deportations and deaths happened across Anatolia over the long months of the Gallipoli campaign. We know from war diaries and Australian war records that some Anzac troops were among the witnesses.

“Denial has been described as the final phase of genocide – it’s the death of memory.”

Based on the resulting evidence – documents, photos, official reports, eyewitness testimony – accumulated in numerous state archives, 126 genocide scholars from around the world published in the year 2000 a formal acknowledgement of the historical fact of the Armenian genocide.

However, the most powerful evidence is from Turkey’s own state archives. In the last few decades, many Turkish historians have studied this history and have examined thousands of documents from Ottoman government records – and they support the same conclusions about the Armenian genocide. They do so at great risk; ultranationalist groups have listed some scholars and writers as assassination targets.

The facts seem settled everywhere except in Turkey – where it’s a federal crime to use the term “Armenian genocide” – and in much Western mainstream media, where history remains a mere claim. Although prominent politicians such as Tony Abbott and Barack Obama have acknowledged the historical facts of the genocide, they fall short of using the term when they reach highest office, in deference to diplomatic relations with Turkey.

Until – and even after – the Turkish government recognises the Armenian genocide, an ongoing effort by scholars, writers and activists is needed to combat its aggressive attempt to rewrite history. This is part of a bigger picture of history, a wide-angle view of human rights.

It’s worth the effort. Denial has been described as the final phase of genocide – it’s the death of memory. The denial is a continuation of the same racism and attitudes that engendered the genocide.

This affects not only survivors, but also all of their descendants and society as a whole. Just as the genocide created blueprints for the Holocaust, the denial also creates a precedent. When researchers compare the tactics of Holocaust deniers, they find they’re identical to the tactics of denial used to suppress the history of the Armenian genocide.

A narrative thread runs from the Armenian genocide to the Holocaust, to the Rwandan genocide and onward – the same propaganda, the same tactics, the same results. Standing up to Turkish denial by acknowledging, teaching and discussing the Armenian genocide is one way to combat racism now and ensure a stronger narrative of human rights for the future.

Ashley Kalagian Blunt is a writer and public speaker. She has spoken on Armenian/Turkish reconciliation at conferences and has been published by the Peace and Conflict Studies Journal. She was recently awarded a Publisher Introduction Program Fellowship from Varuna, the National Writers’ House, for her travel memoir The Pomegranate’s Daughter.

Feature image: Courtesy of Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute