Attributing names to the brutal acts humans are capable of inflicting upon each other is never without problems. There are gradations of terror, hierarchies of atrocity and cruelty. In these, the pedants reign. Disputes splutter and rage over whether a “massacre” can best be described as a crime against humanity or a counter-measure waged with heavy sorrow against a threatening enemy. Scratch the surface of such arguments, and the truth is bleakly common: apologists for murder will be found.
With the Armenian Genocide, terms acutely matter. The treatment of the Armenians by the Turks as the Ottoman Empire was running out of oxygen led to deportations from eastern Anatolia in May 1915 that eventually caused some 1.5 million deaths. (The Turkish estimate is closer to 300,000.) Suspicions abounded that the Christian Armenians were plotting with Imperial Russia and seeking the establishment of an Armenian state under Russian protection. But importantly, the ailing Ottoman state, pushed along by the Committee of Unity and Progress (CUP), was moving into a phase of murderous homogenisation.
Henry Morgenthau, the US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire between 1913 and 1916, took strong exception to the conduct of Ottoman forces in what he described as a “campaign of race extermination”. Towards the deportations of Armenians, he insisted that Turkish authorities knew in implementing them that they constituted “giving the death warrant to a whole race”. His protest had the blessing of then US Secretary of State Robert Lansing.
Calling a historical event one of genocide demands special attention to the word’s meaning, one connoting both the mental state and the institutional planning in destroying a race, nationality, ethnic, or religious group. This has been previously resisted by US presidents. Turkey’s membership of the NATO alliance has also seen White House administrations avoid ruffling feathers in Ankara.
Less reluctant to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide were members of the US Congress, who passed a resolution in 2019 resolving to “commemorate the Armenian Genocide through official recognition and remembrance” while rejecting “efforts to enlist, engage, or otherwise associate the United States Government with denial of the Armenian Genocide or any other genocide”.
The Biden administration has joined the fold, signalling a departure from previous tiptoeing reservation. On April 24, President Joe Biden spoke of remembering “the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian Genocide”. It was necessary to “remain ever-vigilant against the corrosive influence of hate in all its forms.”
With all this brimming virtue, it would be easy to forget the ease with which genocide has been politicised over the decades. The United States could hardly count itself immune to this. Despite the 1948 UN Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide coming into force in January 1951, the US would only ratify the instrument in 1988. The American Bar Association, and a suspicious Senate, saw genocide specifically and human rights more broadly as a matter of domestic, not international concern. Ratifying the Convention would, they also charged, disturb the balance of federal-state relations.
Resistance against the Convention proved formidable. It led US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to promise members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 6, 1953 that the Eisenhower administration would never “become a party to any [human rights] covenant for consideration by the Senate”. That field would become the domain of “methods of persuasion, education and example.” It took a relentless campaign by the umbrella group of organisations known as the “Ad Hoc Committee on Human Rights and Genocide Treaties” to force recognition of the issue in the country, not to mention a growing number of embarrassments on the international stage.
The denial of the Armenian Genocide has been a scaffolded platform of Turkish policy, re-enforced by laws that criminalise the use of the term for reasons of “national security”, and publicists who have, wittingly or otherwise, taken up Ankara’s cause. Certain scholars have tried to throw stones at the argument of central planning and pre-meditation. The debate, at points, becomes chillingly reductive, one waged over historical memory and corpses. Guenter Lewy’s effort insists on partial blame of Armenians who “had fought the Turks openly or played the role of a fifth column” while posing the question “whether the Young Turk regime during the First World War intentionally organized the massacres that took place.” He dismisses the huge number of deaths as not probative of either knowledge or intention.
Unfortunately for Lewy, select readings are something of a forte, as they often are when the object needs to fit the box of presumption. His quotations of one particularly notorious figure, Dr. Mustafa Reşid, governor of Diyarbekir province, are selective trimmings that focus on chaos and the impossibility of having “an orderly deportation”. Unfortunately, the same governor was very enthused at points in dealing with those “microbes infesting” the fatherland; thinking of his work as a physician, it was incumbent upon him to “eradicate sick people.”
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu felt Biden’s recognition of the genocide had done nothing to add or subtract to the history books. “Words cannot change or rewrite history. We don’t have lessons to take from anyone on our history.”
Unfortunately, and tellingly, the treatment of the Armenians by Ottoman Turkey furnished dark lessons for the international stage. On the eve of Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, Adolf Hitler gave a briefing to his generals at Obersalzberg contemplating imminent mass slaughter. Genghis Khan had been responsible for the slaying of millions of women and children, he lectured, and did so with a merry heart. “History sees him only as a great state-builder.” It was accordingly appropriate that the Death’s Head units had been deployed to the East “with the order to kill without mercy men, women and children of the Polish race or language. Only in such a way will we win the lebensraum that we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”