The Armenian Genocide: 100 Years of Denial (And Why It’s In Turkey’s Interest to End It)


On April 24, we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. On that date in 1915, some 250 Armenian political leaders and intellectuals were arrested and subsequently tortured and murdered by Ottoman Turkish authorities, effectively launching the genocide in which approximately 1.5 million Armenians were systematically murdered. This grim centenary marks not only the crime itself but also a century of its denial by the Turkish state and wide swaths of Turkish society.

Denial is the final fortress of those who commit genocide and other mass crimes. Perpetrators hide the truth in order to avoid accountability and protect the political and economic advantages they sought to gain by mass killings and theft of the victims’ property, and to cement the new reality by manufacturing an alternative history. Recent studies have established that such denial not only damages the victims and their destroyed communities, it promises a future based on lies, sowing the seeds of future conflict, repression and suffering.

The facts of the Armenian genocide are well known and documented, and any honest debate is not about whether the genocide happened but about the exact number of murdered, the worth of their stolen property and the long-term impact of this crime.

The Ottoman authorities of the day (the government of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), often referred to as the Young Turks) and their allies carried out the systematic murder of some 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1917, destroying a large percentage of the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire at that time. Then, from 1918 to 1923, many of the surviving Armenians and others, including Greeks and Assyrians, were driven from their homes, robbed of their remaining possessions, starved, and murdered.* Like other genocides, the mass killing of Armenians was hardly spontaneous. It was planned and executed with efficiency, without mercy.

Armenian refugees approach British front lines after expulsion.

Turkey’s Culture of Denial and its Spoils

A hundred years on, despite a mountain of evidence, there remains a culture of official denial in Turkey. In a pallid public statement “on the events of 1915,” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently extended “[Turkey’s] condolences to [the] grandchildren” of the Armenians “who lost their lives in the context of the early twentieth century.” Rubbing salt in the wounds, he trivialized the suffering caused to Armenians at the time by equating them to that of “every other citizen of the Ottoman Empire.”† Considering the scale of the slaughter and the nature of the genocidal effort directed at Armenians, Erdogan’s attempts to equate their suffering to that of “every citizen of the Ottoman Empire” constitutes a form of denial in itself.

Although such rhetoric is not new, the culture of denial in some respects has intensified in Turkey over the years. In 1919, albeit under international pressure, the Ottoman authorities established a tribunal that convicted two senior district officials for deporting Armenians and acting “against humanity and civilization”. The tribunal found that the perpetrators and their co-conspirators had executed a top-down, carefully crafted plan, specifically finding:

The disaster visiting the Armenians was not a local or isolated event. It was the result of a premeditated decision taken by a central body; [...] and the immolations and excesses which took place were based on oral and written orders issued by that central body.‡

However, a few years later, after a new government was formed in Ankara, the Nationalists annulled all of the sentences.§ Moreover, in another crime against humanity,‖ pursuant to the orders of Kemal Ataturk, who later became the President of the Republic of Turkey, Armenians who remained in the western Cilicia region of Turkey were expelled, along with the Greek and Assyrian populations. Several high-level perpetrators of the genocide became senior leaders in Turkey and others were celebrated as national heroes.¶

While it is argued that the culture of denial arose as a result of the close connection that the Armenian genocide has with the birth of modern Turkey,** this is an explanation of possible causes, not a justification for the most serious of crimes. A parallel can be drawn with the conquest of the Americas by the United States and the continental powers in their multitudinous abuses and genocidal killings of Native Americans: the explanation may be the rapacious hunger for land, but it is not a defense for the crimes committed. Looking for such justification for these systematic crimes amounts to a strategy of normalization and denial.

Armenian refugees approach British front lines after expulsion.

A closer look at Turkey’s refusal to reckon with the truth about the genocide invites two important questions: How is denial perpetuated? And how does a society move beyond denial?

Before these questions can be addressed, some understanding of how denial is formulated and promulgated is required. Israel Charny has pointed to a "template of denial," which owes much to the Turkish handling of the Armenian genocide. He identifies a number of rules (or in more contemporary terms a kind of playbook), on how to get away with genocide, including: Do not acknowledge that the genocide took place; transform it into other kinds of events; portray the victims as the perpetrators; insist more victims were from the perpetrator's group; and relativize the genocide in whatever way possible.††

A key element of any effort to deny genocide is to try to reinterpret international laws and conventions, to say that the crimes do not fit the legal definition of genocide,‡‡ thus rendering the crime not so serious after all. As if the mass killing of 1.5 million human beings does not scream out for justice, regardless of the state of the law at the time.

“Denial is the final fortress of those who commit genocide and other mass crimes."
    This twisting of legal language is hardly limited to Turkey. It has many imitators, from the Nazis to the Khmer Rouge.

Another of Turkey’s tactics is to pressure other states not to recognize the genocide. In the latest development, Turkey recalled its ambassador to the Vatican for "consultations" just hours after Pope Francis referred to the mass killing of Armenians as the “first genocide of the twentieth century." Turkey was successful in lobbying members of the U.S. Congress during the Reagan and Bush administrations to defeat congressional resolutions that would have made April 24 a national day of remembrance.§§ However, it is noteworthy that such pressure failed in other cases, and dozens of countries, including Argentina, France, Greece and Russia, have all officially recognized the Armenian genocide, despite Turkey’s threats and reprisals.

Another ploy in the denier’s bag of tricks is to manipulate statistics, downplaying the number of victims (or, in this case, the number of Armenians who lived in the Ottoman Empire in 1915), and destroy official documents.

The genocide of the Armenians proved to be an opening act in a century replete with mass extermination: from the furnaces of Auschwitz to the killing fields of Cambodia to the genocide in Rwanda (marked earlier this month by its 21st anniversary) to the slaughterhouse of Bosnia and to much of the barbarity that we see in the world today. The butchers have learned the lessons all too well.

Hitler himself took succor in the genocide of the Armenians and famously remarked: "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"‖ Hitler learned the lessons of the Armenian genocide well and drew on them as he planned the extermination of Jews and other groups that stood in the way of his murderous vision of “Aryan superiority”.

Armenian dignitaries and women stand around skulls of victims of Armenian genocide.

Consequences of Denial and Benefits of Acknowledgement

The consequences of denial are deep and lasting, not only for the descendants of the Armenians, but also for Turkey itself, in large and small ways. Putting perpetrators of genocide in the Turkish pantheon of national heroes has its price.

While we must be careful not to draw too direct a line from the Armenian genocide to all of Turkey’s current problems, we would be remiss not to take account of Turkey’s poor current human rights record and its history of substandard treatment of minorities within its borders.¶¶    
“Despite a mountain of evidence, there remains a culture of official denial in Turkey."

Indeed, Turkey today bears the dubious distinction of having the highest number of judgments for violation of human rights rendered against it by the European Court of Human Rights.*** It is criticized for legislating such vague and groundless crimes such as "insulting Turkish identity,"††† which has now been reformed to "denigration of the Turkish nation, the state of the Republic of Turkey, the Turkish Parliament (TBMM), the government of the Republic of Turkey and the legal institutions of the state”.

Even Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel Laureate, faced an official order for his books to be removed from the shelves of public libraries and burned after he referenced the Armenian genocide to a Swiss newspaper. These are not actions of a state grounded in the rule of law and human rights.

There is a different path to follow, one traveled by other countries with as heavy or heavier burdens of history, and it points to approaches that might be useful for Turkey.

The first step includes ending the politics of denial and embracing acknowledgement. One need only think of the experience of post-war Germany, which, despite the Nuremberg trials, spent several decades (at best) ignoring, if not denying, the massive crimes of the Nazi period. Over time though, West Germany and then a reunited Germany began to deal with the horrendous crimes of the Holocaust through important trials, such as those held in Frankfurt in the 1960s, which exposed the awful crimes committed in Auschwitz in chilling detail.

“The genocide of the Armenians proved to be an opening act in a century replete with mass extermination: from the furnaces of Auschwitz to the killing fields of Cambodia to the genocide in Rwanda.”
    The German government opened up archives to the public, provided reparations to victims (or their descendants) and constructed memorials to affect public remembrance and acknowledgement.

Over time, it began to remove some of the culprits from the police, military and political ranks, and importantly reformed its political legal institutions. In one of the most iconic acts of acknowledgement, Chancellor Willy Brandt went to his knees in front of a monument dedicated to victims of the Warsaw Ghetto. It was a symbolic act that spoke of contrition and apology; it carried enormous significance and meaning for the victims and their survivors as well as the world at large.

Germany is not alone, other countries have moved past the stage of denial, whether expressed or implied, to address the violations of the past. We are now celebrating the 30th anniversary of Nunca Mas (“Never Again”), the final report of an official effort to document the vast system of enforced disappearances perpetrated in Argentina during the military dictatorship and “Dirty War,” which led to trials of some of the most responsible perpetrators and a much clearer understanding of that dark period in the country’s history. We have seen similar experiences in much of Latin America, through truth commissions, other commissions of inquiry and historical clarification, trials, and reparation programs.

Some countries have taken other approaches to uncovering their sordid histories. In South Africa, the history and abuses of apartheid were partly exposed through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Many countries in eastern and central Europe have pursued processes of lustration (or vetting) after the Cold War, exposing and penalizing those behind state-sponsored abuses. In the former Yugoslavia, denial is still strong in some places regarding crimes like the genocide in Srebrenica; yet, trials at the national and international levels have established the culpability of many of the perpetrators and helped get the truth to the public.

There are many other experiences to draw on, and they all point to the importance of acknowledgment of both genocide and other serious crimes and the state’s failure to protect its citizens. In the case of Turkey, where there are no perpetrators of the genocide presently alive, criminal trials have no role left to play; that makes it all the more important that criminal processes not be turned against those who tell the truth, who expose the genocide and speak for the victims, as in the case of Pamuk.

That would be a small but significant step toward addressing Turkey’s historic debt to the Armenians and one expected of a country that proclaims to be a member of the family of modern democracies.

Orphans of the Armenian genocide

An important first step would be for President Erdoğan to apologize to the Armenian community for the genocide. A tepid statement using euphemisms like “the events of 1915" only makes matters worse. He is in a strong position in Turkey, and politically he can afford to take this morally right action. It is his duty as president of all citizens of the country to set the record straight. Official contrition would help in healing the deep injuries and damage suffered by the Armenian community, in Armenia and in the diaspora. Such an apology ought to be accompanied by measures to establish full diplomatic relations with the Republic of Armenia, which would be a meaningful goodwill gesture.

The benefits of such an act would not only be directed at Armenians, but at Turkey itself. By acknowledging these crimes, the Turkish state would send a message to the many minorities within its borders and to all of its citizens that the state takes their rights and the rule of law seriously. It would also be a signal that when the state violates or fails to protect its citizens’ rights, the Turkish authorities would provide a remedy to them, in line with international law.

More broadly, Turkey has an important role to play internationally and regionally and the recognition of the genocide would, in the long term, make the country appear stronger and more trustworthy to all.    
“International experiences...all point to the importance of acknowledgment of both genocide and other serious crimes."

Its current position is not only morally unsustainable but undermines its position as an honest partner and a legitimate regional power. A break with the current policy of denial would show the maturity of Turkish democracy and could help to increase regional stability. The potential impact of an apology on its neighbors, notably the Republic of Armenia, would open the possibility for dialogue and strengthen Turkey’s role in the region regarding unresolved issues like Nagorno-Karabakh.

Not only would this apology send an important message inside Turkey and to its neighbors, it is a message that would resonate well beyond the borders of the country. In the Balkans, where Turkey has increasing sway, denial is alive and well, and presents a significant obstacle to re-establishing confidence between former warring parties, such as Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo. An act of acknowledgement would substantially increase Turkey’s ability to mediate and support initiatives in contexts where impunity reigns, from Israel and Palestine to Syria to Sudan and many other places.

If Turkey and President Erdoğan were serious about reversing the culture of denial, there is more to do. A crucial measure would be to establish a truthful and accurate historical record of what happened to the Armenians. This could be in the form of an official Commission of Historical Clarification, composed of impartial and respected experts, which would examine the historical record and issue a report that would accurately reflect the history of the period and establish how the crimes were committed. Such a commission would need to be composed of experts that were objective, credible and fair minded.

Using international commissioners or a mixture of international and national experts, which has occurred in a number of truth commissions and other processes, would add considerable credibility to the process. The Commission for the Truth in El Salvador and the Commission for Historical Clarification in Guatemala are good examples of mixed national-international commissions. Such a commission should build on the work of the earlier unofficial Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission.

Some form of reparations for the Armenian community in Turkey would have to be provided. After all, the plunder of their property enriched the modern Turkish state. While too much time may have passed for individual reparations to be awarded, projects could be undertaken to support Armenian communities inside and outside of Turkey to address their material needs and, at least symbolically, their losses. Symbolic reparations in the form of monuments and memorials can serve an important purpose in recognizing victims and helping to remind the affected communities that the state acknowledges its failures and will guard against these abuses happening again.

Perhaps most important, Turkey can demonstrate a serious commitment to reforming laws and institutions that are meant to protect the human rights of all of its citizens. In doing so, the state would find effective ways to improve its weak record on these issues in the courts in Strasbourg and beyond. It would also send a message to its citizens that the crimes like those perpetrated against Armenians would never be permitted in contemporary Turkey.

There is no doubt many other steps could and should be taken in the Turkish case, but the process would best begin with an apology and acknowledgement by President Erdoğan. He need not go on his knees like Willy Brandt, for he is his own person, but in his own way he needs to apologize on behalf of the Turkish state, to say “never again.” In doing so he would personify a new Turkey, one determined to heed the warning sounded by Israel Charny: “We must fight denials because the denial of genocide is . . . a process which is intended to desensitize and make[s] possible the emergence of new forms of genocidal violence to peoples in the future."‡‡‡


* Sara Cohan, “A Brief History of the Armenian Genocide,” Social Education 69, no. 6 (2005): 336–337.

† Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, c2002., 14.

‡ Ibid., 15.

§ Alayarian, Consequences of Denial, 17–18.

‖ Cohan, “A Brief History of the Armenian Genocide,” 337.

¶ Kévorkian, The Armenian Genocide, 811.

** Ibid., 807–812.

†† Roger W. Smith, Eric Markusen, and Robert Jay Lifton, “Professional Ethics and the Denial of Armenian Genocide,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 9, no. 1 (March 20, 1995): 11.

‡‡ See, for instance, Michael M. Gunter, Armenian History and the Question of Genocide (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), chap. 2. It is worth noting that in a very legal narrow sense, the term genocide has its limits: the massive killings in Cambodia – some 25% - 40% of the population was exterminated, but because they were largely of same ethnic group, the killings fall into the category of crimes against humanity, rather than genocide.

§§ Smith, Markusen, and Lifton, “Professional Ethics and the Denial of Armenian Genocide,” 4.

‖‖ Iryna Marchuk, The Fundamental Concept of Crime in International Criminal Law: A Comparative Law Analysis (Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2014), 87.

¶¶ See, for instance, the Human Rights Committee Concluding Observations on the initial report of Turkey adopted by the Committee at its 106th session (15 October–2 November 2012), UN Doc. CCPR/C/TUR/CO/1, 13 November 2010.

*** See Annual Report 2013 of the European Court of Human Rights, Council of Europe, 203. From 1959 to 2013, there are 2,639 judgments against Turkey in which at least one violation has been found by the Court.

††† Alayarian, Consequences of Denial, 129.

‡‡‡ Israel W. Charny, The psychological satisfaction of denials of the Holocaust or other genocides by non-extremists or bigots, and even by known scholars, IDEA J SOC 1 (2001).

Photo: (Top) Tsitsernakaberd memorial for victims of Armenian genocide located above the Hrazdan Gorge in Yerevan, Armenia (z@doune)