The Paradox of Genocide Denial
By Justin Witt
Ourishian, Serouj. Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. Tsitsernakaberd Memorial. Yerevan, Armenia,
In the midst of World War I, during the summer of 1915, the rulers of the Ottoman Empire developed a systematic plan that led to the deaths of over one million Armenian men, women, and children (Bloxham 1). Armenian presence in this region originated over 3,000 years before this event, yet in a matter of a few years, about half of this population was decimated in religious and ethnically-motivated violence (Bloxham 1). According to Bloxham, Ottoman authorities achieved this by carrying out hundreds of thousands of killings in two ways. At first, many Armenians were killed in their hometowns- the very places which had provided them refuge for generations suddenly became the scenes of mass murder. Later on, many others were forcibly removed from their homes and sent on long marches into desolate deserts to the south, now modern-day Syria or Iraq (Lauer). During the journey, they were subject to countless atrocities and brutal conditions violating their dignity as human beings; among them “rape, kidnap, mutilation, and outright killing” (Bloxham 1).
While these facts should surely be within the common historical lexicon, they are not. According to the Armenian National Committee of America, only 34.8% of Americans claim to be aware that there was an Armenian genocide, and presumably much less even understand the specific horrors that occurred (Sassounian). While the reasons for the naiveté of the American public on this issue are unclear, there may be a connection to the failure of the American government to properly address the genocide’s existence for over 100 years, until October 2019 (“Shameful”). A wide scholarly consensus agrees that these events occurred, and by definition, constitute a genocide, but this remains a controversial idea to Turkey and some of its allies. Many of these groups instead view the killings as “merely one unfortunate manifestation of the violence that engulfed many ethnic communities during World War I” (Egoyan).
In contrast with the United States’ history of advocacy for genocide recognition within its foreign policy, this case represents a glaring failure to provide meaningful recognition in a timely fashion (Edmondson & Gladstone). In conjunction with Turkey’s apparent efforts to curb foreign genocide recognition, a disturbing pattern displays itself. While many Americans appear to be simply unaware of the Armenian genocide’s existence, a closer look reveals that this may be rooted in the Turkish state’s concerted efforts to promote genocide denial.
If this connection between American ignorance and Turkish denialism is true, this brings forth the question of how Turkey is able to promote genocide denial. To explore this issue, I will investigate two potential factors of Turkey’s genocide denial: first, any motivation Turkey would have to pursue such actions; and second, which possible mechanisms Turkey uses to accomplish this. Throughout, I will also engage other perspectives that discuss Turkey’s belief that these events do not constitute a genocide (Gunter 13). Through this, I hope to generate a holistic understanding of the contributions that Turkey has made to denialism, which may provide insight on the larger occurrence of historical revisionism and the propagation of misinformation.
Motivation for Denial
While the occurrence of genocide denial can seem perplexing when only considered in its modern context, Turkish history and culture shed light on an underlying motivation for such actions. Primarily, this motivation for denial appears to relate to the Turkish people’s shame surrounding the actions of their nation’s founders and also a perception that recognizing the genocide would be accepting the blame for these killings (Lauer).
To provide this background from a historical sense, it is important to investigate Turkey’s origins as the major successor state to the Ottoman Empire. As the Christian minority in the Ottoman Empire, the Armenian population had actually received better treatment than it did under the Byzantines, where religious persecution was more severe (Kamel). Under the Ottoman rule, the Armenians enjoyed greater social mobility and made up much of the “urban elite” as successful musicians, merchants, and bankers (Kamel). Nonetheless, they were still treated differently in the eyes of the law as non-Muslims. For example, when a Muslim killed a non-Muslim, no death penalty was inflicted, however, if the victim was a Muslim, capital punishment was enforced, seeming to place a higher value on the life of a Muslim (Gunter 2). Furthermore, religious minorities were required to pay increased taxes (Kamel). For these reasons, life in the Ottoman Empire was different for Armenians and other religious minorities than it was for the Muslim population.
Although inequities were present in this society, relative peace and stability continued for some time. However, around the turn of the 20th century new strains of nationalism arrived at the forefront of Ottoman political thought (Kamel). Through a coup in 1908, the Young Turks- led by Mehmet Talat, Ismail Enver, and Ahmet Cemal- capitalized on an ideology, hostile to non-Muslims, that was sweeping the Empire (Bloxham 4). According to Kamel, as commanders of the Young Turk movement, they gained political power to build “momentum towards their goal of creating an idealized, pure Turkish state.” As often seen in nationalist movements, they needed a “scapegoat” on which they would pin the “Empire’s failures” (Kamel). In finding someone to blame, they focused on Armenians, as a population who already faced some resentment for their economic successes and perceived alignment with foreign powers due to their status as Orthodox Christians (Piven). Through this negative portrayal, the Young Turks painted an image of Armenians “as part of a conspiracy, not unlike the way that Nazi propaganda portrayed pre-war Jews.” (Kamel). The Young Turks “weaponized the resentment [towards] other groups to kill and push out minorities, move in settlers and define a new state with a common identity” (Kamel). This hostile body in power continued to blame and dehumanize Armenians, referencing them as supposed enemies of the empire who were working with Russia to undermine the power of the Young Turks (Kamel). This greatly increased ethnic and religious tensions, setting the stage for increased brutality.
By the time that World War I began, this view of the Armenian population ran rampant within the empire and acts of violence were carried out with increasing frequency. According to Piven, pillaging of small villages, destruction of religious sites, and killings of Armenians became regular. On April 24th, 1915, now known as Red Sunday, over 250 Armenian community leaders were suddenly arrested in Istanbul (Piven). This marked the beginning of the genocide, which led to hundreds of thousands of Armenians from across the Empire being slaughtered or sent into the desert to their eventual deaths. Over the next year, the genocide resulted in the loss of over one million Armenians, effectively ridding the region of this ethnic and cultural group (Lauer).
After the Ottoman Empire lost the war, Istanbul was occupied, with the Empire split up and gifted to various Western Powers (Lauer). As implied by Khan, this caused significant resentment among the Ottoman people. In response, a nationalist resurgence led by Mustafa Kemal, a founding member of the Young Turks, reclaimed a central part of the empire called Anatolia (Khan). Historically, this was where the bulk of the Armenian community had lived, and here he established modern-day Turkey in 1923 (de Waal). Although it maintained much of the leadership and culture of the Ottoman Empire, Kemal’s creation of a nation, and therefore new nationality, “required drastic social engineering to… give the republic a new, Turkish identity” (Lauer). With the new nation existing at the site of an empire where large-scale atrocities had occurred less than a decade before, violent elements of its history appeared to become culturally sensitive topics with hopes they would be forgotten altogether.
To acknowledge Turkey’s perspective on the genocide, it is important to understand the nation’s view on its Ottoman past. Specifically, in Turkey’s desire to forget the controversial actions of its predecessor, it established a view that, by definition, a genocide never occurred (Egoyan). The success and cultural relevance of this new Turkish identity relied on forgetting the failed Ottoman Empire, “whose agonizing and demoralizing end remains a painful scar on the collective memory of Turks” (Khan). The economic woes and violence carried out by the former empire were believed to reflect poorly on its new successor state. For this reason, “the use of the word genocide to describe events 90 years ago is a complex and deeply personal issue- and in the context of Turkey’s turbulent history, an attack on the country’s existence” (Khan). Therefore, Turks learn denial in school, in Turkish media, and many “simply cannot accept that their forefathers may have committed such a crime” (Lauer). In addition, many Turkish politicians see the opportunity to deny foreign genocide accusations as a way to express a sense of patriotism and loyalty to the country’s origins (Lauer). Some have even asserted that genocide recognition would “pave the way for territorial concessions,” stoking fear of this possibility among the Turkish people (de Waal). In the face of blowback by foreign powers for these positions, their stance has only intensified over the years. Turkey truly sees its national identity under siege when foreign countries make these assertions, and therefore it seeks to immediately shut down any attempts to recognize the genocide. Internally, it also restricts acknowledgement, even going as far as making it a crime to refer to these events in 1915 as genocide, punishable by up to three years in prison under Article 301 of the penal code (Piven). For this reason, the issue of genocide denial has become embedded in Turkish culture and remains a deeply relevant controversy to this day.
Mechanisms of Denial
While denial remains prevalent, over the past 100 years some progress has been made in Armenians’ quest for recognition of their ancestors’ plight. In 2014, even Turkey itself took a step forward, and for the first time, “officially expressed condolences to the descendants of Ottoman Armenians that were killed” (Piven). At the same time, its consistent opposition to the term “genocide” remains steadfast, finding foreign attempts to recognize the genocide as efforts “to load all of the responsibility on the Turkish nation” (Piven). With Turkey believing that its national identity is at stake in this disagreement, it is willing to use a variety of methods including foreign policy and economic pressure to further its interpretation of history in other countries.
As an increasing number of nations have offered recognition for the events of the genocide, the Turkish response has revealed that it is still committed to denial. According to Lauer, in 2015, Pope Francis referenced the Armenian genocide as “the first genocide of the 20th century.” Shortly thereafter, the Turkish Prime Minister publicly claimed that the Pope was conspiring against Turkey (Lauer). Furthermore, parliamentary bodies in multiple western European countries, including Austria, Greece, Cyprus, and others have similarly recognized the genocide, and in response, Turkey claimed that their diplomatic relationships are permanently damaged (Lauer). Even the European Parliament as a whole has taken an official stance urging Turkey to recognize the genocide, but to no avail (Piven). Shockingly, with such consistent pressure from so many fronts, Turkey still holds this deeply entrenched view. The rhetoric behind their denial is consistent: any attempt to recognize the Armenian genocide will be considered an attempt to pin the blame for this tragic event on Turkey and the Turkish people, and will be responded to as such.
While Turkey’s justification for denying genocide recognition efforts may or may not be reasonable, that is beside the point. Frequent rhetoric by Turkish leaders and Foreign Ministry personnel outline Turkey’s continued goal to further its view of history, regardless of their reasoning. But with most countries agreeing that a genocide occurred, why would they even take notice of Turkey’s complaints on such a matter? More so than language, Turkey’s concrete mechanisms in this fight are what make this issue relevant across the world, in the way that Turkey mixes foreign policy with its own goals to resist genocide recognition. By identifying the most prominent recognition attempts and how they failed, it is clear that Turkey has a repertoire of different approaches. In the U.S. specifically, Turkey has leveraged its geopolitical influence as a crucial near- Eastern ally, as well as its business with American companies to resist American attempts to recognize the genocide (“Denial of…”).
To identify Turkey’s specific techniques in this arena, it is helpful to take the most recent unsuccessful recognition attempt in the U.S. as a case study. Interestingly, the U.S. had a historic sympathy for the plight of the Armenian people. Back in 1915, during the genocide, the New York Times published 145 articles on “Armenian massacres” noting the “systemic race extermination” that was “ordered by government” (Balakian, XIX). According to Kamel, although the term genocide was not yet coined, it appears that the American people would agree with identifying these events as such. Even though many would soon send their sons and fathers off to fight in a catastrophic war, the suffering of the Armenians was still a topic of care and concern. With the encouragement and support of Henry Morgenthau, Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, the U.S. Department of State directed an effort to collect aid from across the U.S. and deliver it to Armenians who were in danger (Adalian). According to Adalian, Americans were deeply invested in helping Armenians pull through, and donated a collective $117,000,000 to this cause over 15 years.
With this in mind, it is undeniable that this issue was once of great interest to the American people. Yet, Congress failed to recognize it for over a century (“Shameful”). How is it possible that what was clearly an important issue to the American public failed to receive adequate, timely recognition by Congress? Quite simply, throughout the more than 100 years with no successful recognition resolution, Turkey deployed every available technique to stop each attempt to adopt recognition, whether in speech or an official resolution (“Defeat of…).
Most prominently, there are documented instances of Turkey leveraging its geopolitical power and desirability as a NATO ally to encourage that the U.S. align with its view that no Armenian genocide occurred (“Defeat of…”). These efforts increased in the early 2000s, at a time when many U.S. communities were advocating for official recognition of the genocide by Congress. In 2000, the U.S. Census showed over 380,000 people of Armenian ancestry living in the US, over half of those in California alone (Taylor). With recognition of the genocide as a priority to a large voting bloc in states like California, members of congress who represented these districts were wise to take up the issue. With this in mind, Rep. James Rogan (R-CA) sought to pass a House resolution, “labeling the massacre of Armenians as genocide” (“Defeat of...”). The proposed resolution stated:
“The Armenian Genocide was conceived and carried out by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923, resulting in the deportation of nearly 2,000,000 Armenians, of whom 1,500,000 men, women, and children were killed... and which succeeded in the elimination of the over 2,500-year presence of Armenians in their historic homeland” (“Defeat of...”).
Here, Turkey displayed its willingness to bring larger foreign policy concerns into the fray to stop the resolution’s passage (“Defeat of…). According to the American Journal of International Law, when the resolution was approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Turkey immediately threatened to establish new ties with the government of Iraq, and most importantly, withdraw its consent for America’s use of Incirlik air base to carry out missions in the Middle East. These steep penalties would come at a time when the U.S. was inching towards war in Iraq. For this reason, the country could not risk putting itself in Turkey’s crosshairs. If the U.S. wanted to maintain its active role in the Middle East, it needed to maintain positive relations with Turkey.
In response, President Bill Clinton issued a statement requesting that the House drop the resolution for the best interests of the country. Specifically, he reasoned that “consideration of H. Res. 596 at this time could have far reaching negative consequences for the United States. We have significant interests in this troubled region of the world: containing the threat posed by Saddam Hussein; working for peace and stability in the Middle East and Central Asia; stabilizing the Balkans; and developing new sources of energy” (“Defeat of...”). In effect, Turkey’s threats to derail U.S. foreign policy goals made it costly to support a genocide recognition resolution. The knowledge that Turkey was willing to go as far as jeopardizing a relationship with an ally in its efforts to deny history presumably left a mark on the relationship between the two countries.
Secondly, the Turkish government’s response also indicated that contracts with U.S. defense contractors could be in danger if the resolution successfully passed. This came as a particularly relevant threat because major U.S. companies like Lockheed Martin had ties to the Turkish government (Macias). For example, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program, “America’s most expensive weapons system and the world’s most advanced fighter jet,” received significant financing by Turkey (Macias). Therefore, when Turkey threatened to violate U.S. business interests, specifically in defense contracting, highly lucrative business partnerships like this were in jeopardy. With this in mind, it is logical that stakeholders in multinational deal business deals involving Turkey may oppose genocide recognition efforts, knowing that Turkey could jeopardize business contracts if congressional actions did not align with its views. Hence, major U.S. companies became a bargaining chip in this fight. Knowing the political power of large companies in the U.S. and the lobbies that they employ to further their interests, Turkey was aware that threatening business interests would allow them to impact public sector activities in the ways they desired.
In this case, Turkey’s strategies to support genocide denial were successful, as the resolution was pulled from consideration before the House vote (“Defeat of...”). Turkey’s techniques to achieve this result appear to fall into two categories: foreign policy & economic interests, both of which would be important to the United States. According to Taylor, when looking at a similar recognition effort in 2007, it appears Turkey employed similar techniques. Once again, Turkey’s efforts resulted in many in Congress dropping their initial support for genocide recognition, and the resolution’s failure to pass (Taylor). This illustrates the continued effectiveness of Turkey’s denial efforts in the context of the United States. According to the American Journal of International Law, when foreign policy interests were at stake in an effort to recognize the genocide, this led to the concern of the executive branch whose responsibility is to prioritize overall policy interests that further national safety and stability. When economic and business interests were at stake if genocide recognition were realized, this led to major companies getting involved whose goal is to maintain and expand upon productive business partnerships. With these categories in mind, it becomes clear that Turkey has been able to squash previous recognition efforts by understanding its points of leverage in these areas. By coming out against genocide recognition and explicitly naming the potential foreign policy and economic impacts of such a decision, Turkey forced various parties in the U.S. to oppose such recognition knowing it would undermine their specific interests. Through pressure from these fronts, it historically became a challenging task for Congress to recognize the genocide, therefore illustrating the effectiveness of Turkey’s techniques.
While for generations Turkey was able to use foreign policy strategy to nix American genocide recognition, this pattern came to an end in October, 2019. Here, the House of Representatives voted to pass an official resolution identifying the Armenian genocide as a genocide (Edmondson and Gladstone). Although Turkey’s threatening rhetoric continued, the history of failed genocide recognition was upended by a change in America’s foreign policy attitude towards Turkey. This change enabled American lawmakers to overcome Turkey’s traditional foreign policy pressure, making genocide recognition a reality. As referenced by Edmondson and Gladstone, amidst widespread and bipartisan anger, President Trump withdrew American troops from areas in Syria and Iraq leaving this vacuum open for the Turkish military to fill. This led to a brief but brutal Turkish-backed assault, with Kurdish civilians being killed. In this occurrence, “some lawmakers saw an uneasy parallel between the Armenian genocide and the bitter warnings from Kurdish forces that the withdrawal of American forces would lead to the ethnic cleansing of their people” (Edmondson and Gladstone). As implied by Edmondson and Gladstone, here the U.S. played a role in enabling a situation which led to violence towards those of a specific ethnicity, perhaps resembling events at the beginning of the Armenian genocide. For this reason and as a display of defiance against Turkey, the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to recognize the Armenian genocide, no longer willing to “associate the U.S. government with denial of the Armenian genocide or any other genocide” (Edmondson and Gladstone). This represents a sudden and stark departure from the failed genocide recognition attempts in the past and displays how changes in the foreign policy sphere can result in unexpected opportunities. In this case, in light of Turkey’s recent brutality, Congress was emboldened to speak out, for the first time officially acknowledging its opposition to this violence and to the genocide.
In retrospect, it is alarming that this type of rebuke took so long to occur. However, when analyzing Turkey’s national identity and its links to the Ottoman Empire, their reasoning for genocide denial is readily apparent (Kamel). Furthermore, as evidenced during U.S. genocide recognition attempts in 2000 and 2007, Turkey was able to make it clear that genocide recognition in the U.S. would result in foreign policy and business penalties (“Defeat of…”). When considering these facts, Turkey’s ability to further genocide denial is no longer quite as mysterious. Regardless, Turkey still claims that it does not deny that these historic killings occurred, and instead only rejects the term “genocide” to describe them (Gunter 14). It is understandable that the Turkish nation would not want to admit that it was founded by a group who carried out such an atrocity— even worse if the atrocity was called a genocide. Nonetheless, in the modern world it is the responsibility of nations to recognize controversial elements of their past, regardless of potential consequences for their national identity. This enables the start of constructive conversation to generate awareness, making sure these same crises never happen again. In this regard, Turkey is currently failing. Now, however, as other nations like the U.S. begin to hold them accountable through official genocide recognition, there is a possibility they will begin to understand this social responsibility and proceed accordingly.
When history looks back on these events, it is likely that the long-awaited moment of genocide recognition in the U.S. will be remembered as a time when truth overcame pervasive falsity, and a group came together to set the record of history straight. Looking forward, this may help make more individuals aware that the genocide occurred. However, the question of whether this could have happened sooner will always linger. The United States’ actions with regards to genocide denial undoubtedly have repercussions across the globe, and for this reason, it is good that Congress took a careful approach to this decision. Nonetheless, did the United States need to wait until Turkey’s actions provided an excuse to recognize the genocide? More importantly, does the United States have a moral obligation to recognize the Armenian genocide, or any genocide, even in the presence of threats by its perpetrators? These questions will continue to persist as the world grapples with many controversial issues from the past. Even with other campaigns of misinformation taking place, we can all rest assured knowing that truth can always prevail after decades of denial.