An Ugly Truth

The challenges of confronting the Armenian genocide


A boy pauses in front of a wall-sized poster depicting the faces of 90 survivors of the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, in Yerevan.


The question is whether Turkey will ever enter a debate in which the consensus of scholars holds that the killings and mass deportations of Armenians did indeed constitute a genocide. According to the International Association of Genocide Scholars, the historical record on the Armenian genocide is "unambiguous": In the years approaching World War I, a new breed of Ottoman officials, the Young Turks, heirs to two centuries of imperial decline, saw themselves as the defenders of the Turkish remnant state in the Anatolian core of the empire. Embracing an ultranationalist and supposedly secular ideology, Young Turk leaders of the Committee of Union and Progress pointedly excluded non-Muslim minorities, particularly Armenians, from their vision of Turkish purity. The outbreak of war allowed these leaders to paint all Armenians as pro-Russian fifth columnists (which only a small number were) and undertake organized and widespread massacres and deportations that led to further deaths from starvation and disease.

Most historians conclude that the massacre was carefully planned and executed. They base their evaluation on American diplomatic cables, some Ottoman documents, and Austrian and German archives, as well as accounts of the Turkish courts-martial of 1919-20 which, under Allied pressure, tried and convicted many of the Young Turks for the atrocities.

By contrast, the populist Turkish take on this history emphasizes the war conditions and the threat of Armenian disloyalty to discredit allegations of an intentional policy of extermination. As Akyol says, almost every Turk today has heard a grandparent's tale of treacherous Armenians. The Turkish view has found at least partial support from a small number of scholars abroad.

"Nonnegotiable." If a consensus exists, then, there are at least grounds for discussion. So why is it unlikely that truly open conferences will occur within Turkey? To some degree, both Armenians and Turks are at fault. The former insist that Turks embrace the "G" word even at the outset of discussion. Akcam says that what Armenians expect is "an acknowledgment of moral wrong, and most are not worried about what exact word is used." But Vartian, speaking for many activists, says, "The 'G' word is nonnegotiable."

That hard stance doesn't bode well as an opening move. But neither does the overly defensive outlook of many Turks—an attitude reminiscent of the late Ottoman mentality. Seeing fifth columnists everywhere (now mainly among Kurds rather than Armenians) and overly suspicious of foreign intentions (the proposed resolution is denounced as proof of "American imperialism"), the Turks view any concessions on the Armenian question not only as an affront to national pride but as something Armenians will use to extort reparations or even restoration of property. The fact that the International Criminal Court has imposed strict limitations on the retroactive use of the genocide charge to recover damages does little to assuage Ankara.

But what about the broader meaning of the resolution, and even implications for the prosecution of genocide cases? Michael Scharf, a professor of law at Case Western Reserve University and a frequent adviser to genocide tribunals, doubts that the resolution would be of any practical prosecutorial value. And he adds that because there was no scholarly debate in Congress, the measure appears to Turks to be nothing but pure politics. Yet, like many, he wonders at Turkey's inability to put the matter to rest: "Why doesn't Turkey do a mea culpa and move on? There just doesn't seem to be a downside to doing that."