Unit 2 Genocide

Chapter 3 How Should We Remember the Armenian Genocide?

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Ask yourself:

  • To what extent can history provide us with an accurate view of the past?
  • What happens when two historical narratives contradict each other? How do you decide what is true? Or what to believe?
  • Why is gaining genocide recognition so important to the Armenians? Why are the Turkish government and many other countries so reluctant to call the events of 1915 genocide?

This page explores the controversy surrounding the historiography and recognition of the Armenian genocide. Use the timeline and the primary and secondary sources below to understand the arguments of genocide "believers" and "deniers," as well as the importance of genocide recognition for the Armenians, and the reluctance of many countries to call the events of 1915 “a genocide”.

Atom Egoyan – Armenian-Canadian Film and Stage Director

Definitions

Genocide: The deliberate and systematic destruction of an ethnic, racial, caste, religious, or national group.

Historiography: The writing of historical events that produces a written history.

Ottoman Empire (1453-1922): An Islamic empire that stretched from Eastern Europe to North Africa and became completely dissolved when modern Turkey was formed.

Sublime Porte: The central government in the Ottoman Empire.

Millet System: The Ottoman Empire was organized into millets based on religion. While Muslim millets enjoyed the most freedoms, those in Christian millets, such as Armenians, were seen as secondary citizen Citizens and faced higher taxation.

Hamidiye: A semi-regular regiment of Kurdish and Circassian horsemen organized by Sultan Hamid II to suppress Armenian rebellions in the Ottoman Empire.

The Young Turks: A Turkish reform organization promising to replace the disorder and corruption under the Sultan’s reign with a constitutional government where all Ottoman citizens would be equal.

The Committee of Union and Progress: A branch of the Young Turk organization that assassinated Sultan Hamid II.

The Young Turk Triumvirate: An ultra-nationalist government led by Mehmed Talaat, Ismail Enver, and Ahmed Djemal. Together they took control of the original Young Turk government and promoted Pan-Turkism instead of equality.

Pan-Turkism: An ideology seeking the construction of a Turkish empire stretching from Anatolia into Central Asia and whose population would be exclusively Turkic instead of Ottoman.

Turkification: A process attempting to destroy non-Turkic cultures through assimilation or removal.

Shotas: A special organization gang trained and equipped by the Young Turk triumvirate to assist with the round-up of the Armenians and to disrupt the deportation process by looting, ravaging, and killing Armenians en route.

Source: The Genocide Education Project, Human Rights and Genocide, 2005.

Armenian Refugee Camp in Syria: Hundreds of Armenian refugees dressed in white are grouped together in the Syrian desert, next to what appears to be a train station. enlarge image
Armenian Near East Relief Refugee Camp in Syria - October 25,1916 (Near East Foundation – NEF, formerly the American Committee for Armenian and Assyrian Relief)

Credit: (Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ggbain-29847 (digital file from original negative) Rights Information: No known restrictions on publication.) This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923.

This really happened

“The aim of war is not to reach definite lines, but to annihilate the enemy physically. After all, who today still speaks of the massacre of the Armenians?”

It was Hitler who told this to his military officers a week before Nazi Germany invaded Poland and brought the world into war for a second time. But what exactly did Hitler mean when stating this? Especially when referring to the massacre of the Armenians?

As historian Peter Balkian explains, Hitler is recalling what many refer to as “the forgotten genocide” or “hidden holocaust” of the Armenians that began in 1915. The genocide resulted in the death of approximately 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and has left many of its survivors scattered worldwide. But wait, you might ask, “wasn’t the Jewish Holocaust the first genocide of the 20th century?” This really depends on whom you ask. The Armenian genocide is one of the most contested genocides in history and is still being debated today—almost a century later. However, before we dive deeper into the controversy around the genocide, let’s take a step back and explore the Turkish and Armenian past by examining the timeline on the next page. For a more comprehensive timeline visit the following websites:

The Armenian National Institute
The Armenian Genocide Museum

So where does the controversy lie? It lies in two divergent and competing interpretations of the events you just read about in the timeline. Even though both accounts agree that the massacres of the Ottoman Armenians did take place, they disagree on the case of whether or not these massacres should be deemed genocide. A summary of the two main interpretations is presented in the table below.

Genocide BelieversGenocide Deniers
Genocide Believers Genocide Deniers
Declare that genocide did occur because the Young Turk Triumvirate conducted the massacres and deportations systematically and with the intention of exterminating the entire Armenian ethnic population. Proclaim genocide did not occur because the Young Turk Triumvirate was rationally responding to Armenian rebellions, which were supported by the Allied Powers and threatened the dissolution of the entire Ottoman Empire.

Both views have found a place in separate historical narratives that vow to disprove the other. The former supported by the Armenian population, while the latter, by the Turkish government. Whichever historiography other countries choose to acknowledge greatly depends on how they recognize the genocide. Although international recognition for the Armenian genocide is growing, there are still a large number of countries that do not officially recognize the events of 1915 as genocidal. Before we decide how to personally and individually recognize the genocide, let’s first take the time to give the issue a more thorough examination by consulting primary and secondary sources.

Timeline of the Armenian Genocide

YearEvents in History
Year Events in History
1502 Historical Armenia falls under Ottoman control and the millet system (the separate legal courts pertaining to "personal law" under which communities (Muslim Sharia, Christian Canon law and Jewish Halakha law abiding) were allowed to rule themselves under their own system.) is implemented there. Relatively peaceful relations between the Turks and minority groups, including the Armenians.
1860-1865 Sublime Porte raises taxes to exorbitant levels. Constitutionalism spreads throughout Europe. Armenians begin to protest for equal citizenship and are violently subdued by Ottoman troops. Some Armenians begin to seek refuge in Europe and North America.
1876 Abdul Hamid II becomes Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and severely oppresses any sign of civil disobedience.
1877-1878 The already deteriorating Ottoman Empire is defeated in the Russo-Turkish War and experiences substantial territorial losses from the Balkans after signing the Treaty of Berlin.
1880-1890 Thousands of Muslims from the Balkans seek refuge in the Ottoman Empire. Living conditions in the Empire decrease, while taxes rise.Rise of the Armenian middle class in the Empire. Ottoman Armenians organize politically and receive support from Eastern Armenians under Russian control.
1892-1896 Armenian political parties encourage Armenians to boycott taxes, post placards in Anatolia decrying the corrupt Sultan, and take over Bank Ottoman to gain international awareness of the Armenian massacres. Hamidian Massacres: Hamidiye troops suppress Armenian efforts encouraged by their parties, and kill approximately 200,000 Armenians. International community sends humanitarian aid to Armenians.
1908-1909 The Young Turk Committee of Union and Progress overthrow Sultan and form a constitutional government. Armenian Bishop Mushegh declares the end of Armenian servitude and need to protect their new rights. 30,000 Armenians are massacred in response to the Bishop’s words. An attempt to restore the Sultan’s power fails.
1913 Mehmed Talaat, Ismail Enver, and Ahmed Djemal organize a military coup, assassinating the leaders of the liberal and progressive branches of the Young Turk Revolution and consolidate power themselves, forming an ultranationalist Young Turk triumvirate.
1914 The Sublime Porte decides to join the side of the Central Powers (Germany, Austro-Hungary) during the outbreak of the First World War.
Under the Young Turk Triumvirate (1913-1918) Armenian businesses, houses, and monasteries looted and some destroyed. Turkish males drafted for war and arms distributed to Muslim residents, while Armenian soldiers disarmed and sent to labour camps. Armenian political and intellectual figures arrested and murdered. Of the 2 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, hundreds of thousands of Armenians are deported and over a million are killed.
1915 After reports from various embassies in the Ottoman Empire, the Allies warn the Sublime Porte that they will be held responsible for any crimes against the Armenians.
1918-1919 Russian troops pull out of Eastern Armenia after a Russian revolution and Armenian leaders declare an Armenian Republic on May 28, 1918. Armistice signed at Mudros, ending the war between Turks and Allies. Triumvirate flees the Empire and Young Turk government dissolved. New Ottoman government supported by the Allies initiates court martial proceedings against triumvirate and other top officials.
1920-1923 Mustafa Kemal forms an opposition party and invades the Armenian Republic with the support of Turkish troops. The Armenian Republic sacrifices independence and turns to Communist Russia for support. Court martial proceedings suspended as Kemalist movement spreads. Treaty of Lausanne dissolves Ottoman Empire and recognizes a new Turkish Republic under Kemal. Treaty fails to mention the Armenians.

Permission granted - Armenian Genocide Museum

Source: The Genocide Education Project, Human Rights and Genocide, 2005.
The Armenian Genocide Museum Institute.

Asking these types of questions can help us understand how decisions about what to include or not include in these histories are made and in turn can help lead us to make our own critical and informed decisions on how we ourselves will choose to remember the Armenian Genocide.

Pictured here are Armenian refugees in front of Ottoman barracks. A few are sitting beneath a tent in front of the group, and to their right, some refugees sit amongst the few possessions they could bring with them. enlarge image
Armenian refugees' camps, Aleppo 1918, at the main Ottoman barracks.

Credit: AGBU archives, Vartan Derunian. This work was created in Syria and is now in the public domain there because its term of copyright has expired pursuant to the provisions of Law No. 12/2001, Syria's first ever copyright law. In order to be hosted on Commons, all works must be in the public domain in the United States as well as in their source country. Syrian works are currently in the public domain in the United States if their copyright had expired in Syria on the date of restoration (June 11, 2004).

Artifacts

Artifact One › A cable sent to Washington from the American Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, July 1915
"Persecution of Armenians assuming unprecedented proportions. Reports from widely scattered districts indicate systematic attempt to uproot peaceful Armenian populations and through arbitrary arrests, terrible tortures, whole-sale expulsions and deportations from one end of the Empire to the other accompanied by frequent instances of rape, pillage, and murder, turning into massacre, to bring destruction and destitution (hardship; poverty) on them. These measures are not in response to popular or fanatical (obsessive) demand but are purely arbitrary and directed from (the Sublime Porte in) Constantinople in the name of military necessity, often in districts where no military operations are likely to take place... there seems to be a systematic plan to crush the Armenian race."
Henry Morgenthau

Source: Power, Samantha. A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. New York: Perennial, 2003.

Artifact Two › A Passage from Talaat’s Memoir (assembled after his death in 1921)
"I admit that we deported many Armenians ...but we never acted in this matter upon a previously prepared scheme. The responsibility for these acts falls first of all upon the deported people themselves. Russia, in order to lay hand on our eastern provinces, has armed and equipped Armenian(s) and organized strong Armenian bandit forces...(that began) blowing up the bridges, setting fire to the Turkish towns and villages...and endangered the Turkish Army’s line of retreat...Every Armenian Church, it was later discovered, was a depot of ammunition. In this disloyal way they killed more than 300,000 (Muslims)...
It was impossible to shut our eyes to the treacherous acts of the Armenians, at a time when we were engaged in a war which would determine the fate of our country. Even if these atrocities had occurred in a time of peace, our Government would have been obliged to quell such outbreaks. The (Sublime) Porte...wishing to secure the safety of its army and its citizens, took energetic measures to check these uprisings...
These preventative measures were taken in every country during the war, but, while the regrettable results were passed over in silence in the other countries, the echo of our acts was heard all over the world."
~Henry Morgenthau

Source: The Armenian Genocide in Perspective. Ed. Richard G. Hovannisian. New Brunswick: Transaction, 1986.

Artifact Three › Resistance by Armenians in the Province of Van, April-May, 1915
"Gradually we got news that Turks wanted to finish off all Armenians... we had secret meetings to figure out when this was going to happen and how we could prepare to resist and defend ourselves”
"We children used to go from house to house to gather brass candle bars to make shells for the bullets... The Turks had all the ammunition and ours was very limited, so we had to be very careful not to waste any."

Russian forces came to support the Armenians in Van in late April and the Turks retreated until 1918, when they eventually gained control of the province.

Source: Miller, D.E., and L.T. Miller’s Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.
Photo from Genocide Resources

Artifact Four › Excerpts from the Sublime Porte’s Public Notice of Deportation, 1915
  • ...all Armenians are obliged to leave [except the sick], within five days... under [police] escort...
  • ...they are free to carry with them...their movable property... [but] are forbidden to sell their land... Because their exile is only temporary, their landed property will be taken care of under the supervision of the Government.
  • To assure their comfort during the journey, [inns] and suitable buildings have been prepared...
  • ...if some of them [Armenians] attempt to use arms against the soldiers...[or] refrain from leaving, or hide themselves ...if they are sheltered or are given food...[they or] the persons who thus sheltered them or aid them shall be sent before the Court Martial for execution.
  • As the Armenians are not allowed to carry any firearms...they shall deliver to the authorities every sort of arms they have concealed in their places of residences and elsewhere...
  • ...soldiers and gendarmes [police] are required and are authorized to use their weapons against and to kill persons who shall try to attack or damage Armenians...

Source: Facing History And Ourselves.

Artifact Five › Two Eyewitness Accounts of the Deportation of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire
"All able-bodied men were sorted out with the excuse that they were going to be given work. The women and children were sent ahead under escort ...The men kept behind were taken out of town in batches of 15 and 20, lined up on the edge of ditches (and) shot. After plundering and committing ...outrages on the women and children, they (the “shotas”) massacred (many) them. The military escorts had strict orders not to interfere with the “Shotas.”
Lieutenant al-Ba’aj, military escort

Source: http://www.facinghistory.org/

“They had been on the road for three to five months; they have been plundered several times over, and have marched along naked and starving, the Government gave them on one single occasion a morsel of bread— a few had it twice. It is said that the number of these deported widows will reach 60, 000; they are so exhausted they cannot stand upright; the majority have great sores on their feet, through having to march barefoot”
Reverend Essayan of Aleppo

Source: Miller, D.E., and L.T. Miller’s Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide.

Artifact Six › List of Countries that Officially Recognize the Armenian Genocide, 2013
List of Countries that Officially Recognize the Armenian Genocide, 2013
List of Countries that Officially Recognize the Armenian Genocide, 2013
  1. Argentina
  2. Belgium
  3. Canada
  4. Chile
  5. Cyprus
  6. France
  7. Germany
  1. Greece
  2. Italy
  3. Lebanon
  4. Lithuania
  5. Netherlands
  6. Poland
  7. Russia
  1. Slovakia
  2. Sweden
  3. Switzerland
  4. United States
  5. Uruguay
  6. Vatican City
  7. Venezuela

Source: Armenian Genocide.

Artifact Seven › Percent of Countries that Recognize the Armenian Genocide, 2013
This graph shows that 90% of countries do not recognize that the Armenian genocide was a genocide.
Artifact Eight › Responses from the Armenian and Turkish Government concerning the Genocide
"There has not been a genocide and if people for political motivations want to use (recognize) it ... they take the risk of influencing their relationships with Turkey”
Solmaz Unaydin, Turkish Ambassador in Tokyo, 2003.
"History suggests to us that if we are to survive and keep up our national identity, we need strength and a fighting spirit...We need nationwide solidarity and unity to make our Cause (sic) heard in any part of the globe.”
Tigran Sargsyan, Prime Minister of the Armenian Republic, 2009.

Source: BBC Documentary, “The Betrayed,” (2003) and Armenian Genocide Victims

Artifact Nine › Excerpts from Article 301 of Turkey’s Penal (Criminal) Code, 2008
"A person who publicly denigrates (insults) the Turkish Nation... shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months and two years"
“A person who publicly denigrates the Government of the Republic of Turkey, the judicial institution...the military or security organizations shall be ...(imprisoned for) six months to two years.”

As Taner Akcam, a Turkish historian explains, the law has been used against numerous intellectuals in Turkey, including himself, who chose to use the term, “genocide” to describe and discuss the events of 1915.

Source: PBS Documentary, “The Armenian Genocide.” 2006.

Moving forward to reconciliation

In December 2008, a number of Turkish intellectuals, politicians, and journalists came together to start the I Apologize campaign in Turkey. The campaign allows Turkish citizens to individually and personally apologize for the atrocities against the Armenians by adding their name to an online form under the following statement:

“My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and for my share, I empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers and sisters. I apologize to them.” *

*The list of names of those who signed the online petition displayed below the statement.

The campaign website can be viewed here: http://bit.ly/armenians1915.

So far, of Turkey's population (approximately 76,000,000 in 2012), almost 32,500 have signed the campaign.

Action 1 

Discuss  

My connections to history

Independently identify at least three factors that distinguish between the concept of “the past” and “history.”

  • Brainstorm what it is that makes these concepts different from one another.
  • Pair up with a partner and complete the following exercises:

A. Compare and contrast your ideas from Task One. Be sure to discuss any similarities or differences of opinion you may have.

B. Discuss the following questions:

  • What are some of the advantages and challenges of studying history?
  • To what extent can history provide us with an accurate view of the past?
  • What happens when two historical narratives contradict each other? How do you decide what is true? Or what to believe?

Source: This Minds On Activity was adapted from: Denos, Mike and Roland Case, Teaching about Historical Thinking. Ed. Peter Seixas and Penney Clark. Vancouver: The Critical Thinking Consortium, 2006.

Action 2  

Discuss  

After independently observing Artifacts One to Nine, economically, and geographically. E. discuss the following questions with a partner:

A. Justification(s)

  • How does Talaat rationalize the measures the Young Turks took against the Armenians in Artifact One?
  • To what extent were these measures justified? Use evidence from Artifacts Two to Seven to support your answer.
  • Is it ever necessary to compromise human rights for concerns of national security?

B. In Henry Morgenthau’s cable to Washington, he speaks of a “systematic plan to crush the Armenian race”. Does Morgenthau have reason to make this claim? Please explain your answer using the timeline provided and Artifacts One to Seven.

C. Did these artifacts influence your understanding of the Armenian Genocide? Explain how or how not? Are you left with any questions or concerns? If so please write them down for future discussion.

D. Why do you think only ten percent of the world officially recognizes the Armenian genocide? What do you think influences a country’s choice of whether or not to recognize genocide? Think politically, socially, economically, and geographically.

E. Why is gaining genocide recognition so important to Armenians? Please explain your reasoning.

F. On the other hand, why do you think the Turkish government is so reluctant to call the events of 1915 “a genocide”?

Action 3  

Do  

Reflect on the following questions and record your answers:

A. To what extent does this campaign make a difference? Do you think it helps reconcile the relationship between Turkish and Armenian peoples? Explain.

B. Would you sign a similar campaign commemorating the genocide against the Armenians? Now that you’re more informed, how has your opinion changed about this horrific genocide?

Action 4  

Do  

Read the article “Armenians in Canada.”