Modern Turkey and a History of the Word Genocide

Photo of the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex

Photo of the Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex

Earlier this week, an important but under-reported incident occurred in international politics. Brazil’s government passed a resolution to recognize atrocities committed against the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population in 1915 as genocide, which dozens of countries and most historians already recognize. As a response, the Turkish Foreign Ministry responded by condemning the resolution, saying that it “distorts reality.”

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. One hundred years later, the use of the term genocide is still contentious. Historical truths can be malleable. In Brazil, what happened in 1915 is genocide; in Turkey, it is only a tragic conflict. The use of one word to describe an event might seem like a pointless semantic argument to some, but language is crucial when discussing history, and it’s important enough to spark discomfort between nations.

Part of the problem is that the Armenian Genocide occurred decades before the term genocide came into use. In 1915, the Ottoman Empire joined Germany and Austro-Hungary against Britain, France, and Russia in World War One; the Ottoman military, after a disastrous failed invasion of southern Russia, attacked civilian Armenian Christians through forced deportations, mass imprisonment, confiscation of property, death marches, and massacres. The total death toll is still in dispute, but a common estimate is 1.5 million Armenians. Some Ottoman officials thought the Armenians were a pro-Russian threat, and such an argument was used to justify the atrocities. After the war, the Allies carved up the Ottoman Empire, but an independent Turkey emerged after revolutionary forces took control of Anatolia. The revolution was partly led by Mustafa Kemal, a talented Ottoman military leader who defended the Gallipoli Peninsula during the War. Becoming the first president of Turkey, Kemal rewrote history to make the new Turkey a heroic nation. Taking control of national education, Kemal erased the Armenian Genocide from his new country’s textbooks and public discourse, and this pattern continues in Turkey today.

Despite a wealth of archival evidence, Turkey’s national investment in keeping the term genocide out of its history is wrapped up in the complicated nature of the word itself. Raphael Lemkin coined the term to describe Nazi atrocities during World War Two. Lemkin’s activism began much earlier; a Jewish migrant from Poland, he had heard many stories about Ottoman atrocities as well as pogroms against Jews. In 1948, the United Nations recognized genocide as an international crime in its Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, referring to it as requiring “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.” Consequently, forced deportations and ethnic cleansing (the attempt to remove a group of people from a designated geographic area but not the group entirely) do not necessarily count as genocide (though they often lead to genocide, historically). Like most criminal matters, recognizing the Armenian Genocide, at least in a legal sense, requires proof that the perpetrators intended to erase the Armenian population from Anatolia through their physical and cultural destruction.

But for Armenians today, as well as countless activists and historians, genocide is not always a legal matter, but a matter of identity and truth. In Armenian collective memory, what the Ottoman military did goes beyond specific legal parameters; it was an assault against an entire culture resulting in the death of over one million people on the basis of a shared ethnic-religious identity. Its historical scars are still visible for many Armenians, but history is more than just past crimes; history is a living, evolving beast. Turkey’s refusal to recognize the Armenian Genocide is a direct attack on Armenians today. Such a refusal wipes away the validity and dignity of those Armenians the Empire slaughtered and the generations who are around today, the descendants of the survivors. Brazil’s resolution is a positive step, but real progress will come only when the Turkish government comes to grips with its predecessor’s crimes and its own complicity in the denial of those crimes.

-jk

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