In a suburb of Berlin, on the first day of spring in 1921, the last grand vizier of the former Ottoman Empire was shot dead. As Talaat Pasha, who had also served as the Ottoman’s interior minister, came out of his house, Soghomon Tehlirian, an assassin from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, killed him with a single bullet.
Talaat Pasha had been living in exile in Germany since 1918 and had unofficially received asylum from the German Reich. The Ottoman leader had been a member of the Three Pashas triumvirate, a three member group of prominent ministers in the Young Turks’ movement who exercised nearly exclusive power over the Ottoman Empire from 1913 to 1918.
Talaat Pasha’s assassination was part of Operation Nemesis, an undercover operation by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation to kill former Ottoman political and military figures who had been involved in the Armenian Genocide. Talaat Pasha was targeted for his key role in the genocide, which took place between 1915 and 1920 and led to the deaths of over 1.5 million people.
While the assassination itself was a significant event, the trial that followed was even more important. During the course of the proceeding, focus was placed primarily on Talaat Pasha’s role in the genocide, with far less attention on Tehlirian’s actions. Indeed, after only two days, Tehlirian was acquitted on the grounds of insanity. Some have speculated that he actually wanted to be caught, in the hope that a trial would force a broader discussion on the Armenian Genocide.
In many ways, Tehlirian got his wish. Unlike the typical criminal proceeding, the “Talaat Pasha trial,” as it came to be known, explored grand moral questions like whether a man who avenged his family and community against a perpetrator of genocide was a criminal or an agent of justice. It also looked at whether crimes against an entire population constitute ordinary crimes or more extreme and morally unforgivable violations.
Two young law students, who were present at the trial, were profoundly moved by the experience. One of the two men, Robert M. Kempner, went on to become a prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials that followed World War II. The other, Raphael Lemkin, remained deeply troubled, for the rest of his life, by the events of the Armenian Genocide and its relative lack of recognition. This sense of distress, coupled with the European Holocaust, led him to coin the term genocide to describe this unique type of atrocity. It was thanks to Lemkin’s efforts that the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948.
While some were forever moved by the events of 1915-1920, the Armenian Genocide’s legacy remains stunted. Despite being a well-established historical fact, the genocide has not received broad recognition from the international community to this day. This failure has left the Armenian people without justice and set a dangerous precedent of impunity for one of humanity’s most terrible crimes.
A Painful History
Throughout the Ottoman Empire’s history, many ethnic and religious minorities faced discrimination of various kinds. From the late 19th century onward, this discrimination became harsher and more systematic, with Armenians and other minority groups experiencing a series of pogroms. This pattern of violence and repression escalated until April 24, 1915, when hundreds of Armenian intellectuals were apprehended and executed by Ottoman forces in order to quell any potential resistance. Many Armenians mark this day as the beginning of the Armenian genocide.
In the early 1900s, Eastern Anatolia was an extremely diverse region, where Turkish, Kurdish, Greek, Assyrian, and Armenian communities had lived for centuries. By 1920, however, Anatolia’s minority communities, particularly the Armenian population, had been decimated. Of the 2,133,190 Armenians who lived in Anatolia in 1914, only 387,000 remained by 1922. Many had been systematically massacred and sent on death marches across the Syrian desert, where they succumbed to starvation, exhaustion, or exposure. Those who survived the marches were rewarded with life in brutal concentration camps, which were also located in the Syrian desert.
Those who managed to escape the death marches and concentration camps were often subject to other forms of oppression and violence. Under the leadership of the Young Turks, Armenians could be “deported” if there was even the slightest suspicion they could pose a “security threat”. Armenians were also required to surrender any weapons to the state; in order to have something to surrender and avoid harsh punishments, those who did not possess weapons often bought them at high prices from Turks. For those Armenians serving in the military, many were sent to brutal labor battalions, where they were typically worked to death or killed.
As historian Hans-Lukas Kieser described it, through the Armenian Genocide, the Ottomans achieved “a radical demographic engineering,” forcing the Armenians, who had lived in Anatolia since antiquity, to relinquish their claims to what would later become the Turkish national homeland. In so doing, the Ottomans were able to confiscate significant Armenian assets, which would later be transferred to the Turkish Republic.
The Politics of Recognition
Among those countries that have recognized the Armenian Genocide, including several EU and North American states, most have done so tepidly, partially, and quietly.
During his 2008 presidential campaign, then-Senator Barack Obama vowed to push for official U.S. recognition of the Armenian Genocide. As reported by the Huffington Post, the presidential candidate declared:
[T]he Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. The facts are undeniable. An official policy that calls on diplomats to distort the historical facts is an untenable policy. As a senator, I strongly support passage of the Armenian Genocide Resolution (H.Res.106 and S.Res.106), and as president I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.
And yet, at the denouement of Obama’s presidency, he has still failed to deliver on this promise. Since becoming president, Obama has avoided using the term “genocide” to describe the events of 1915-1920. In a statement to mark Armenian Remembrance day on April 24, 2016, he referred to the Armenian Genocide as a “mass atrocity.”
The reasons for Obama’s about face are clear. As political analyst Jeffrey Cavanaugh wrote for Mint Press News following the genocide’s centennial last year:
[S]tates wishing to do business with Ankara are well advised to avoid mentioning the “G”-word. Here in the United States, for instance, President Obama pointedly avoided calling the killing of 1.5 million Armenians a genocide…Instead, he used the term “great calamity,” which sounds like 1.5 million people were killed by accident via happenstance — they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, so to speak.
Thanks to Turkish pressure, bills to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide have repeatedly failed to pass the U.S. Congress. While some European nations have acknowledged the atrocity, they have subsequently changed their tune in response to protests from Turkey. After initially passing a bill that criminalized Armenian Genocide denial, the French government repealed the legislation, at Turkey’s urging. Many other countries, such as Israel, have made no attempts to recognize the genocide, officially or otherwise.
While this reluctance to upset a strategic NATO ally may be unsurprising, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has also shied away from using the “genocide” label, preferring less potent descriptors, like “atrocity crimes.”
Turkey’s Denialist Hasbara
Turkey has a long history of vehemently denying the Armenian Genocide. With the exception of a brief period of “openness” in the early 1920s, when some of those responsible for the genocide were held accountable for their crimes, Turkey has denied all culpability for what was done to the Armenian people. For their part, most Turks refuse to believe that their Ottoman predecessors perpetrated a genocide. But, even if they did, they could be prosecuted under Turkish law for “insulting Turkishness.”
Speaking on the anniversary of the genocide this year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan urged people not to “politicize history,” implying that Armenians did not suffer disproportionately and that Turks and Armenians both share a “common pain.” President Erdoğan’s comments are misleading and erase the very specific and significant violence committed by Turkish Ottomans against the Armenian people. His words also very clearly underscore a systematic pattern of distancing, equivocation, and specious rhetoric on the Armenian Genocide by the Turkish government and its allies.
Despite the wealth of historical scholarship proving the Armenian Genocide took place, Turkey continues to deploy its own form of hasbara about the events. Hasbara is an Israeli term used for state-sanctioned propaganda that distorts the truth about Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. In Turkey, a similar kind of official propaganda, denying the Armenian Genocide, has been directed towards an international audience.
Employing a logic not dissimilar to that of Israel, Turkey has argued that the genocide was a conflict between two equally culpable sides, an argument that obfuscates the immense power differential between the Ottomans and the Armenians. As activists Sophia Rakel Armen and lee williams boudakian argued for Hye-Phen Magazine, Turkey has also insisted that the Armenians’ forced exodus was voluntary, blamed the victims by labeling them as treasonous, and relied on baffling anachronisms that suggest the Republic of Armenia was a party to the conflict, even though the republic did not exist at the time.
During this year’s genocide commemoration, Turkey’s denialist campaign continued. Pro-Turkey groups placed advertisements in the Wall Street Journal and throughout Boston and New York, referring readers to the “Fact Check Armenia” website, which claims the Armenian Genocide is propaganda and blames Armenians for being “treacherous to the land.” Pro-Turkey groups even wrote their denialist claims across the Manhattan skyline. A few days before the genocide’s anniversary, these groups orchestrated a spectacular skywriting display, penning slogans denying the genocide above New York City, as supporters danced below.
— Gary Bass (@Gary__Bass) April 20, 2016
— Dr Partizan (@DrPartizan_) April 21, 2016
A Slippery Word
As part of its genocide-denying strategy, Turkey has insisted that the word “genocide” does not accurately describe what happened to the Armenians, arguing that those events were neither “premeditated nor systematic.”
Under international law, genocide is defined, in essence, as an act committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. These acts typically include systematic violence against all members of a group, including women, children, the elderly, and the infirm.
There is ample historical evidence showing that the Armenian Genocide was deliberate and systematic. Indeed, at the time, the Ottomans were very open with their German allies about their intentions. According to German Ambassador Baron Hans von Wangenheim, Talaat Pasha admitted that the mass deportations and massacres were perpetrated in order to destroy the Armenian communities and that World War I was a pretext for ethnically cleansing Ottoman territory of “problematic” minorities.
As Talaat Pasha’s confession suggests, Ottoman officials used national security as a pretext to claim that their actions against the Armenians were done in self-defense, aimed at punishing traitors and defending the nation, rather than singling out a particular ethnic group. But, as Hans-Lukas Kieser has written, the Ottoman’s logic betrayed their genocidal motivations:
[There is] one main argument that was repeatedly proffered for the use of mass violence: the removal of an existential security threat. ‘Self defence’ in extreme situations is a main argument for resorting to extreme violence. However, which collective identity, which ‘self ’, is then to be defended and empowered? The question is not banal.”
In other words, it was the consolidation of an ethnic Turkish (Muslim) nation, which did not leave room for assimilating minority populations, that drove the Armenian Genocide.
U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, Sr., witnessed many of the atrocities first-hand and also made note of the Ottomans’ clear desire to annihilate the Armenian population. Describing the atrocities in his correspondences, Morgenthau said that, “When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact.”
The New York Times’ extensive reporting on the mass crimes committed against the Armenians described them as “systematic,” “authorized,” and “organized by the government.” The Times also reported on testimony from an ex-Ottoman statesman, which exposed the Ottoman leadership’s plan to systematically exterminate Armenians.
In Defense of Memory
In justifying his persecution of Jewish Germans, Adolf Hitler is rumored to have said, “Who today speaks of the extermination of the Armenians?” While this exact phraseology may be open to dispute, it is certainly consistent with Hitler’s perception of the Armenian Genocide. If nothing else, the lack of accountability for crimes committed against the Armenian people would have given Hitler confidence that he too could act with impunity.
Despite the obvious connection between the tragedies of World War II and the Armenian Genocide, few seem to appreciate the potent overlap. In an essay for the Daily Beast, writer Stefan Ihrig observed:
There seems to be something obvious connecting both great genocides of the 20th century. Yet, in its hundredth year, the Armenian Genocide is still a peripheral object in the violent history of the 20th century. Most of the new grand histories of World War I marginalize the topic, if they mention it at all. It seems as if the topic is an exclusively partisan affair of the Armenian diaspora and a few confused others (like me). But the Armenian Genocide is an integral part of the history of humanity’s darkest century. There can be no doubt that it is an important part of the prehistory of the Holocaust, even if history books suggest that the two genocides were separated by a great distance in time and space.
Memory and recognition are important, both in and of themselves and as ways of preventing future atrocities. For these reasons, we must collectively bear witness to the crimes committed during the Armenian Genocide, and always remain critical of empire—past and present, Eastern and Western—along with its false narratives. Only in doing so, can we bring justice to the oppressed and ensure their fate is not repeated over and over again, throughout human history.
To learn more about ways of promoting recognition for the Armenian Genocide, please refer to this list of cultural organizations committed to sustaining Armenian memory and history.