Was it genocide?

Charged questions about Turks and Armenians should be set aside in favor of a more productive dialogue.

armenian genocide 298 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
armenian genocide 298 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Armenians call the calamitous events of 1915-16 in the Ottoman Empire the first genocide of the 20th century. Most Turks refer to the episode as a wartime relocation made necessary by the treasonous conduct of their Armenian minority. The debate over what actually happened has been going on for almost 100 years; it crops up periodically in various parts of the world when members of the Armenian diaspora push for recognition of the Armenian genocide by their respective parliaments, and the Turkish government warn of retaliation.
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On September 29, 2005 the European Parliament in Strasbourg adopted a resolution demanding that, as a condition of admission to the European Union, Turkey acknowledge the killing of its Armenians during World War I as an instance of genocide. According to the Genocide Convention of 1948, intent is a necessary condition of genocide, and most other definitions of this crime of crimes similarly insist upon the centrality of malicious intent. Hence the crucial question in this controversy is not the huge loss of life in and by itself but rather whether the Young Turk regime intentionally sought the deaths we know to have occurred. Both sides agree that several hundred thousand men, women and children were forced from their homes, and that during a harrowing trek over mountains and through deserts, uncounted multitudes died of starvation and disease, or were murdered. To the victims it makes no difference whether they met their deaths as a result of a carefully planned scheme of annihilation, in consequence of a panicky reaction to a misjudged threat, or for any other reason. It does, however, make a difference for the accuracy of the historical record, not to mention the future of Turkish-Armenian relations. ARMENIANS and their supporters concede the absence of Turkish documentary evidence to prove the responsibility of the Ottoman government for the massacres, but cite the reports of foreign diplomats and missionaries on the scene. Given the large number of deaths and the observed complicity of local officials in the murders, it is not surprising that many of these witnesses concluded the high death toll was an intended outcome of the deportation process. Still, well-informed as many foreign observers were about the events unfolding before their eyes, their insight into the mind-set and real intentions of the government in Istanbul was necessarily limited. Indeed, to this day the inner workings of the Young Turk regime, and especially the role of the triumvirate of Enver, Talaat and Djemal, are understood only very inadequately. Most Turks, too, misread the historical record. Quasi-official historians speak of "so-called massacres," or blame the deaths on starvation and disease that are said to have afflicted a far larger numbers of Turks. And yet there exists an important difference between lives lost as a result of natural causes such as famine and epidemics - blows of fortune that afflicted Muslims and Christians alike - and deaths due to deliberate killing. It is undeniable that thousands of Armenians died at the hands of their corrupt escorts and the Kurdish tribesmen who occupied their route southward to Ottoman Syria. CURRENTLY both sides in this controversy make their case by simplifying a complex historical reality and ignoring crucial evidence that would yield a more nuanced picture. Both parties also use heavy-handed tactics to advance their cause and silence a full debate of the issues. The Turkish government has applied diplomatic pressure and threats and has harassed dissenting Turkish authors; Armenians accuse all those who do not call the massacres a case of genocide of seeking to appease the Turkish government. In 1994 Armenians in France took the well-known Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis to court and charged him with causing "grievous prejudice to truthful memory" because he denied the accusation of genocide. The court found against Lewis and imposed a token fine. It is doubtful that contested historical questions are the legitimate province of courts of law or parliaments. Armenians should recognize that distinguished scholars of Ottoman history have questioned the appropriateness of the genocide label for the tragic events of this period, and should cease calling all those who question the Armenian version of these occurrences "denialists" on a par with deniers of the Holocaust. Turks must acknowledge the misdeeds of some of their compatriots during World War I. With so much that is unknown, both sides should step back from the sterile was-it-genocide-or-not debate and instead seek a common pool of reliable historical knowledge. The writer is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts and author most recently of The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide.