You might be surprised to look at any news website today and notice that one of the biggest headlines is that the Pope has called the killings of Armenians one hundred year ago ‘genocide’. He made the statement at a service in the Vatican, attended by the Armenian President and members of the Armenian Catholic Church. It seems like a non-story at first glance, the deaths of around 1.5 million Armenians would seem like genocide. The reason that it’s in the news this much though is because Turkey has already reacted angrily to his statement. So what really happened back in 1915? Why is it still such an issue for Turkey? And what does it say about that tricky word ‘genocide’?
The killings took place in the dying years of the Ottoman Empire, ruled from Istanbul, which at that point still covered much of the modern Middle East – including Armenia. The empire was governed by the Young Turk movement, and was fighting for its life against France, the UK and Russia. The Armenian (Christian) minority was seen as friendly to Russia, and a potential source of trouble. There had been huge massacres against them 20 years before that cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and the Young Turks worried that this would encourage them to support a Russian invasion.
Their response was massive and brutal. The genocide started with the arrest and execution of members of the Armenian elite in the capital, but spread quickly to the entire population. Armenian civilians throughout the empire were taken from their homes and forced on death marches into the desert, dying of starvation and disease. Thousands more were drowned or burnt, and women were systematically raped. Armenian soldiers serving in the Ottoman Army were taken from the front lines and executed en masse, while Armenian property throughout the empire was confiscated by the state after an act of parliament. The killings were well documented and undisputed at the time, both in words and photos, by foreigners and the ones doing the killing.
Despite this documentation though, you will regularly hear today that the Armenian Genocide is ‘controversial’. Another way of putting this is that the genocide is ‘controversial in Turkey’, as the vast majority of scholars and experts agree that the genocide took place as described above. The Turkish government and many other Turkish groups however deny the scale of the killings, say that they were unintended, and portray any killings that took place as a legitimate response to Armenian uprisings. They are instead called a ‘tragedy’, but put in the context of larger Turkish losses during the war. Journalists and academics have even been prosecuted for ‘insulting Turkishness‘ after saying that the killings were genocide,
The issue says a lot about just how loaded the term genocide is. For almost every instance of genocide committed in the 20th century there have been people arguing that it isn’t. This is partially because the UN Convention on Genocide is so clear about the responsibility countries bear to stop it taking place. The US and other powers resisted naming the Rwandan Genocide for far too long, because acknowledging that what was happening was more than a massacre would force them to take action. The official description of genocide as: “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group” has become something for lawyers to poke holes in, rather than a way to recognise that the worst crime imaginable is taking place.
This is a danger that the Pope points towards. He said yesterday that “Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.” We can all argue semantics to preserve our pride and self-image, or excuse ourselves from taking action, but this does nothing to confront the evil of others, or the evil buried in our nation’s past. Only by facing up to this evil can we stop the bleeding wounds of the past.