A Question of Genocide

16 December 2005

A Question of Genocide

By Gwynne Dyer

“Thirty thousand Kurds and one million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it,” said Turkish most celebrated novelist, Orhan Pamuk, during an interview with a Swiss

newspaper last February. He was charged with “public denigration of Turkish identity” by an Istanbul public prosecutor, and his trial opened on Friday (16 December). He could face up to three years in jail.

The prosecutor’s game is fairly obvious. The Turkish judiciary is not short of conservative nationalists who detest the wave of liberal reforms carried out by Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s government in order to qualify for membership in the European Union. It was they who smuggled in the new law under which Pamuk has been charged at the very time when the Turkish legal code was being purged of many other elements (like the death penalty) that were incompatible with EU legal norms.

Their purpose in going after Orhan Pamuk was not simply to stifle the debate over the Armenian massacres of 1915-16 that is finally opening up in Turkey. They chose such a high-profile target because they wanted to stimulate an anti-Turkish backlash in the EU, reasoning that if enough foreigners criticise Turkey, a nationalist backlash will shut down the whole debate about the Armenians in Turkey, and maybe even derail the entire project for EU membership.

The European Parliament has already obliged by passing a resolution demanding that Turkey acknowledge the Armenian “genocide” before it can join the EU. The parliament does not actually have a veto on new EU members, but its action helps to whip up anti-EU resentment in Turkey. And a public trial of Orhan Pamuk, even if it fails to convict, should create lots of further opportunities for Western-Turkish misunderstanding.

The debate will not be shut down, however, not even in Turkey. The new generation of Turks have a long distance to travel and the journey will be an emotionally wrenching one, but before the end the Armenians are going to have to cover some distance, too. Because what happened to the Armenians probably does not qualify, in the strict definition of the word, as a genocide.

As the respected American historian Guenter Lewy writes in this month’s “Commentary”, “The historical question at issue is premeditation — that is, whether the Turkish regime intentionally organised the annihilation of its Armenian minority. According to the Genocide Convention of 1948, such an intent to destroy a group is a necessary condition of genocide…. Hence the crucial problem to be addressed is not the huge loss of life in and of itself but rather whether the Turkish government deliberately sought the deaths that we know to have occurred.”

At least 600,000 people, and perhaps as many as a million, died in the mass deportation of Armenians from their eastern Anatolian homeland south to the Ottoman province of Syria in 1915-16. Many were robbed and murdered by the Kurdish irregular soldiers who escorted the columns of deportees in their terrible journey; many more died of hunger or exposure. And they never went home again: Anatolia today has almost no Armenian population.

Armenians have never forgiven what happened, while the Turkish republic that emerged from the Ottoman empire in the 1920s has never acknowledged it. Now the Turks are beginning to struggle with this terrible heritage, and not only to advance their EU candidacy. As Orhan Pamuk said in October: “We are confronted with an immense human tragedy and immense human suffering we did not learn about at school. So it is a sensitive subject…(but) it is obvious, even in Turkey, that there was an immense hidden pain which we now have to face.” However, Pamuk never uses the word “genocide” — nor, significantly, does the state of Israel, the informal custodian of the word, when called upon to comment on the Armenian issue.

What happened to the Armenians was dreadful, but as Guenther Lewy documents in his new book “The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide,” which will become the standard work on the subject, both premeditation and an intention to annihilate, two preconditions for genocide, were either absent or at least open to considerable dispute.

The mass deportations were ordered during a big Russian army attack into eastern Anatolia in 1915 that was supported by Armenian uprisings behind the Turkish lines. Huge numbers of Armenians died in these forced marches, which crossed high mountains in winter, and the government in Istanbul did little to curb the murder of many deportees by their guards and hostile villagers in the areas they passed through. But Armenians living in areas served by the railway could buy tickets and travel safely, there were no further attacks on Armenians who reached Syria — and Armenians living in Istanbul and other Turkish cities far from the war zone were left undisturbed.

Does one word matter all that much? Armenians think so, feeling that their tragedy is being played down unfairly if they are denied the word “genocide.” Turks think so too, believing that there is no legitimate comparison between the crimes committed by their ancestors during the First World War and the cold-blooded atrocity of Hitler’s Holocaust. But after three generations of what one observer called “fossilised venom” on both sides, the argument is at last coming out into the open.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“The European…misunderstanding”; and “Armenians…issue”)