A Hundred Years On, Armenian Genocide Reverberates

A century after the mass killings and displacement of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenians, four experts reflect on the present-day echoes of those atrocities and the path forward.

April 22, 2015

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On April 24, 1915, Ottoman authorities rounded up several hundred Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul. For Armenians, that day marks the start of the Meds Yeghern, or Great Catastrophe: mass killings and deportations directed by authorities who believed the empire’s ethnic Armenians might be conspiring with wartime enemies.

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Scholars have widely held that the atrocities, in which more than a million were killed and most of the rest left the Anatolian peninsula, their homeland, constitute genocide. Turkish authorities say the killings were not systematic, but rather, occurred as part of a larger civil conflict that took the lives of Ottoman citizens of various ethnic and religious backgrounds.

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Four experts reflect on how the Armenian genocide resonates a century later.

Armenian genocide memorial in YerevanMourners lay flowers at the Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. (Photo: KAREN MINASYAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Nigar Göksel, Turkey/Caucasus Senior Analyst, International Crisis Group

Turkey’s foreign relations, particularly with European capitals and Washington, have been plagued for decades by the debate of whether to use the term genocide in reference to the massacres and forced relocation of the Armenian community of Anatolia from 1915 to 1918.

The Turkish public debate over history has opened up.

The debate has led to an annual drama around the Armenians’ memorial day, April 24, with Ankara confronting Armenian campaigns over symbolic statements. This year, on the centenary of 1915, Pope Francis joined the fray, reflecting that the mass killings are now “widely considered the first genocide of the twentieth century.” 

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The top echelons of the Turkish government and foreign ministry declared the papal statement a distortion of history, discrimination against Turks and Muslims, and inconsistent with legal and historical facts. Some also deemed it part of an international campaign against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Ankara continues to consider the use of the word genocide a hostile act. That reflex runs counter to the tone of empathy, freer debate, and an expressed eagerness for an unbiased examination of history that has crept into the government’s statements in recent years.

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A year ago, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then the prime minister and now president, offered condolences to the grandchildren of those Armenians “who lost their lives in the context of the early twentieth century.” He acknowledged that the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire suffered “inhumane consequences” during World War I. This year, on April 20, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu reiterated those condolences.

While welcomed by many, critics perceive this approach as an effort to equate the pain of Armenians with that of Muslims before and during the war, and an abnegation of the Ottoman government’s responsibility for the atrocities its authorities committed against Armenians.

The nationalist vote is up for grabs in this June’s general election, leaving the incumbent AKP especially wary of being seen as bowing to foreign parliamentary resolutions.

In the past decade, the Turkish public debate over history has opened up. Among intellectuals, the use of the term genocide is no longer rare. As taboos have been broken, many individuals’ stories have surfaced, humanizing the debate. Meanwhile, engagement with liberals in the Armenian diaspora—including scholars, artists, and the descendants of Ottoman Armenians visiting as tourists—is changing hearts and minds among more and more Turks.

It is factors like these, rather than foreign parliamentary resolutions, that will help put an end to decades of denial about the destruction of the ancient Armenian communities of Anatolia.

Amberin Zaman, Turkey Correspondent, Economist

On April 24, millions of Armenians around the world will commemorate the centenary of the mass destruction of their ancestors by the Ottoman Turks.

The cycle continues because of a deeply ingrained culture of impunity.

Some will come to my country, Turkey, for the first time to pray for the souls of their loved ones who perished during what most historians call the first genocide of the twentieth century. It will be a day of reflection for me as well, and not just because I am Turkish and have many Armenian friends. It is also because my great grandfather on my maternal side may have played a part in covering up this horrible crime.

Mehmet Emin Kalmuk was the son of Muslim Tatars who fled Crimea during the 1853–56 Russo-Ottoman war. He became the director of the postal and telegraph authority during the last days of the Ottoman Empire. I grew up hearing stories of his valor. He had "burned all the telegrams" before British warships anchored off the coast of Istanbul, marking the post–World War I Allied occupation of the city.

Did the messages that my great grandfather destroyed contain the deportation orders for over a million Armenians who were sent on a death march to the Syrian desert?

I still don’t know. Historians have documented that much evidence was destroyed in the aftermath of 1915.

What I do know is this: A terrible sin was committed by our forebears. It went unpunished. Further crimes ensued, albeit on a lesser scale: Thousands of Alevi Kurds were massacred in the province of Dersim in 1938, there were pogroms against Greeks in the 1950s, and the Turkish army launched a scorched-earth campaign against Kurdish rebels in the 1990s, during which thousands were tortured and killed. These acts went unpunished too. And so the cycle continues, not because Turks are inherently evil, but because of a deeply ingrained culture of impunity, which we dress up as pride.

The Islamist government that has been in power since 2002 has gone further than any of its predecessors in addressing some of these horrors. Beginning last year, it expressed condolences to the Armenians on the anniversary of the killings. Yet there is a strong whiff of political expediency about its magnanimity. No matter how we label the crimes, a formal and sincere apology and, where feasible, compensation are long overdue.

Thomas de Waal, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

The history of World War I lives on in eastern Turkey and the Caucasus. That region was the arena for some of the era’s worst bloodshed and its greatest atrocity, the Armenian genocide of 1915–16.

The mistrust generated by the murderous politics of 1915 has not abated.

Yet today the biggest hostility is not between Armenians and Turks but between Armenia and Azerbaijan, over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a land also bitterly contested in the early twentieth century. An armed conflict over the territory between 1991 and 1994 culminated in an Armenian victory on the ground but is still unresolved. Azerbaijan still tries to challenge the status quo. With close ethnic and linguistic ties, Turkey is Azerbaijan’s greatest ally, and hostility to Armenia has become a core part of Azerbaijan’s national ideology.

Armenia’s first post-independence president, Levon Ter-Petrosian, tried to normalize relations with Turkey without raising the issue of 1915. For landlocked Armenia, it was more important to have a Western outlet to the world. But that effort failed in 1993, mainly because of the Karabakh conflict and Turkey’s solidarity with Azerbaijan.

Making more common cause with the Armenian diaspora, Armenia’s second president, Robert Kocharian, advocated for genocide recognition as part of his country’s foreign policy, but he was still open to making peace with Turkey.

A renewed normalization process failed in 2010. Azerbaijan lobbied its Turkic ally to not allow an Armenian-Turkish border opening without Armenia making concessions in the Karabakh dispute. For Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, more votes would be lost by disappointing Azerbaijan than could be won by making peace with Armenia.

This further embittered Yerevan-Ankara relations, and anti-Turkish rhetoric has increased in Armenia. Meanwhile, Erdogan, now president of Turkey, provocatively decided to commemorate the World War I battle of Gallipoli on April 24, conflicting with Armenia’s genocide commemoration on that day.

But while political relations are bad, there has never been more contact between the two societies. Journalists, artists, and students travel back and forth on twice-weekly charter flights between Istanbul and Yerevan. A new generation of Turkish historians writes more critically about the past. Some of them use the term "Armenian genocide."

Turkey’s main Kurdish party, the left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP), has issued an apology to the Armenians and restored their church in the city of Diyarbakir—a remarkable act given that Kurds committed some of the worst atrocities of 1915. The HDP sees the Armenian issue as a way to break an ethnic-Turk monopoly on the country’s politics in this June’s general election.

These points of light apart, the picture is still gloomy. The mistrust and hatred generated by the murderous politics of 1915 have not abated. A century later, they still stunt the peaceful development of the region.

Elmira Bayrasli, Cofounder, Foreign Policy Interrupted

Last November, I traveled to Armenia on a trip hosted by the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), the Yerevan-based Public Journalism Club, and Global Entrepreneurship Week. These organizations collaborated on the first binational Startup Weekend. More than a dozen Turkish and Armenian entrepreneurs developed startup ideas on mixed teams.

The deadlock has blocked collaboration between the two countries, crushing enormous opportunity.

Despite their historical enmities, Armenians and Turks are interested in working together. Tragically, politics divides them. The Turkish government rejects the use of the term “genocide” for the events of 1915, while the Armenian government insists on it. The deadlock has blocked trade and collaboration between the two countries. And that is crushing enormous opportunity for both peoples. 

Armenians and Turks are eager to roll up their sleeves and try building on ideas—and they’re interested in building together.  As Numan Numan, the cofounder and managing director at the Istanbul-based venture capital firm 212 noted to me, “Entrepreneurs move on ideas, not politics.”

The prospect of learning about and forging ties to Armenia inspired several dozen Turks to apply to be part of the TEPAV delegation. Similarly, in February, nearly two dozen Armenians landed in Istanbul, Turkey’s commercial center, for a reciprocal exchange. Armenia and Turkey have much to gain: For an economically struggling Armenia, access to new and large markets, and for the burgeoning Turkish middle class, a burnished global reputation. The question is, will they?

Amid its fading pinkish Soviet-bloc buildings, Lada-lined streets, and the forgotten bronze statues that adorn its many wide squares, it is hard to describe Armenia as a startup hub. Too many things work against the country. With only three million citizens, it is small and, therefore, not much of a market. Worse, Armenia is landlocked in a tense neighborhood. Its neighbors are Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, Russia—and Turkey.

Turkey is better off. With a population of eighty million, one of the world’s most powerful economies, and a growing innovation and tech scene, Turkey has built the foundations to move from an export-driven economy to being the next startup nation. Yet the country lacks a critical mass of talent, customers, and venture capital to nurture a unicorn—that rare example of a billion-dollar, globally competitive enterprise. Regional cooperation could change that.

Entrepreneurs, Armenians and Turks both know, will help their countries prosper. The entrepreneurs and investors I met in Yerevan know that that is not possible in isolation. Innovation requires openness to ideas, willingness to collaborate, and most importantly, trust. It is a discipline about solutions.

Indeed, entrepreneurship and innovation create opportunities for Armenia and Turkey to focus on something beyond history. As two participants, one Armenian and one Turkish, who collaborated on a business proposal told me: “We weren’t focused on being Armenian or Turkish—just on being the best.” 

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