Past Tense

In Denial

The Armenian genocide, a century later

by
Illustration by Ashley Mackenzie

• 927 words

Illustration by Ashley MacKenzie

They are disappearing. When I arrived in Toronto in 1978 and first became involved with Armenian issues, there were many survivors still alive. Every year on April 24—the day commemorating the Armenian genocide—we would head to Ottawa. There, survivors would present testimonials, and offer living proof of the systematic campaign of extermination carried out by Ottoman Turks a century ago.

These people would tell their haunting stories—stories that Canadians needed to hear. Unlike the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide has not been universally acknowledged. Turkey—the successor state to the Ottoman Empire—still refuses to admit the historical fact of the event. And with each passing year, there are fewer and fewer survivors left to disprove the deniers with eyewitness recollections.

In the immediate aftermath of World War I, there was hope for accountability. When the Young Turk government collapsed in 1918, many former senior party members fled to Germany, a wartime ally. But the incoming Turkish administration arrested hundreds of those officials who remained in the country—and their collaborators—on suspicion of having participated in the orchestration of the deportations and killings. The suspects were charged with a variety of offences, including murder, treason, and theft. In a series of trials that took place between 1919 and 1920, former Young Turk officials delivered startling confessions and revealed secret documents that outlined the tactics they employed in carrying out their genocidal program.

After the war, the victorious Allies originally had advocated tough punishments for the criminals, as well as an independent Armenian republic in northeastern Turkey. But Turkish nationalists, led by Mustafa Kemal, opposed this. Kemal, who in 1934 was granted the surname Atatürk (meaning “Father of the Turks”), believed the ongoing trials exemplified the desire of foreign powers to tear apart his country. He moved to shut them down and also sought to abrogate the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, under which Turkey was to recognize Armenia as “a free and independent state.” He promised to help Western nations gain access to the region’s valuable oil fields in return for their support of his cause.

The author Christopher Simpson provides a detailed account of what transpired during this period in his 1993 book, The Splendid Blond Beast: Money, Law and Genocide in the Twentieth Century:

Britain, France, and the United States were at that time vying with one another to divide up the vast oil and mineral wealth of Turkey’s Ottoman Empire. Kemal skillfully played the three powers against each other. . . . Though often overlooked today, the Ottoman holdings were of extraordinary value, perhaps the richest imperial treasure since the European seizure of the New World four centuries earlier. The empire had been eroding for decades, but by the time of the Turkish defeat in World War I, it still included most of what is today Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and the oil sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf. The European governments sensed that the time had come to seize this rich prize.

In the United States, meanwhile, the government’s cynical attitude toward Turkey and the Armenians was captured in a revealing letter from Allen Dulles, then chief of the Near East desk at the State Department. “Confidentially the State Department is in a bind,” he wrote in 1922. “Our task would be simple if the reports of the atrocities could be declared untrue or even exaggerated but the evidence, alas, is irrefutable.” To this day, the US government does not recognize the genocide.

Fortunately, Canada has taken a more enlightened view: in 2004, by a vote of 153–68, the House of Commons passed a resolution declaring that members “acknowledge the Armenian genocide of 1915 and condemn this act as a crime against humanity.” It was a momentous and welcome act. Only twenty-one other nations—including France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and the Holy See—have officially accepted the truth of what happened.

We must remain vigilant in the face of Turkey’s ongoing campaign of denial: the country’s authorities continue to claim that the brutality inflicted on the region’s Armenian population was merely one unfortunate manifestation of the violence that engulfed many ethnic communities during World War I. Even in those Western nations whose governments have recognized the event, media often will include the Turkish position in their reports—or they will hedge their descriptions by stating that Armenians “claim” a genocide took place, as if the issue were still shrouded in controversy.

In fact, there is no controversy: The International Association of Genocide Scholars has said clearly that those who “dispute that what happened to the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 constitutes genocide blatantly ignore the overwhelming historical and scholarly evidence.” The noted historian Deborah Lipstadt has written that “denial of genocide, whether that of the Turks against the Armenians or the Nazis against the Jews, is not an act of historical reinterpretation. . . . The deniers aim at convincing innocent third parties that there is another side of the story . . . when there is no other side.”

Time is supposed to heal all wounds. But to be an Armenian a hundred years after the first genocide of the modern world is to know that such healing is impossible while the descendants of the perpetrators continue to deny their role in my own forebears’ suffering. Though the survivors have all but completely disappeared, we—their grandchildren and great-grandchildren—are still fighting for global recognition of the horrors inflicted a century ago during the tragedy properly known as the Armenian genocide.

This appeared in the May 2015 issue.

Atom Egoyan is an acclaimed filmmaker and director.

Ashley Mackenzie counts the New York Times, Scientific American, and The New Republic among her clients.


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  • signdove

    Partial truth equals lie. The great powers were supporting rebellion by “national groups” of the Ottoman. They had spun off european greeks, and Slovaks for Great Power benefit and to cripple the Ottomans so they could dismember it. Weapons, advisors, troops were actively being supplied. The greek army was finally stopped just short of the capital Ankara before it collapsed and was run off the shores. Egypt went to the English, Palestine and Arabia, Yemen, Mesopotamia. South eastern Turkey, Lebanon, Syria were to be French. The Turks have very good reason to consider the Armenians stooges of enemy foreigners.
    Why should they apologize when the British, French, Italians who designed and planned the assault, refuse to admit their compliance. It is the great powers that should apologize to the Armenians. Look it up in the Wiki articles.

    • Matt

      I think the flaw in your argument is that genocide is genocide regardless of whether you consider the people being slaughtered enemies or not. There is a conceptual difference between war and genocide. I believe both are wrong, but genocide is a greater atrocity in that there is inherent hate at the center of genocide while there is disagreement at the center of war.

      • signdove

        There is today an Armenian Nation occupying the area it had in the Ottoman empire. Also Millions of Armenians escaped crossing Ottoman land to Syria Lebanon. If the Turks tried to wipe out the Armenian people – meaning of genocide – they missed a vast number. It is an opinion not a “fact” that they committed genocide. It is also a fact that the Great Powers who willfully and deliberately orchestrated the situation for their economic benefit are not being accused, blamed, called to account.
        Those who only accuse the Turks are ignorant at best and perhaps could be accused of malicious deception. The Turks know very well the truth of what I state and have very good reason to refuse to consider accepting ALL THE BLAME. Especially when the accusers are heirs of the Great Powers.

        • George Rijkse

          You’re missing the fact that the word “genocide” is not defined by the success or failure of the acts. Just because the Ottoman Empire was unsuccessful in wiping out the Armenians, it doesn’t mean that their acts were not genocidal and that the act as a whole was not genocide.

          Were the Hutus successful in wiping out the Tutsis? No. But that was still a genocide.
          Same goes for the Jews, the Pontians, the Assyrians, the Ukrainians, the Cambodians, and so on.

          It’s the motive that matters. Not the perpetrators “success”.

          Trying to spread the blame to other countries is a weak attempt at justifying these acts. It’s unheard of to lose a homogeneous group of 1.5 million people based on “civil uprisings”.

          Before I continue, I’d like to make the differentiation that the international community doesn’t blame the Turks for anything. They blame the current Turkish Government and the Ottoman Empire of 100 years ago.

          Regardless, I invite you to prove to me that everyone that blames the Ottoman Empire is ignorant. If you’re going to make a point like that, you should be able to defend it.

          • Nietzsche32

            I was about to write an answer to your reply above until I see this nonsense. Claiming a genocide is one thing but blaming current Republic of Turkey for it is way another. That’s plain insane.

            It’s a bitter truth that the day diaspora’s Pro-Armenians get enough courage to stop playing drama and start bravely saying that they want land and compensations from Turkey international community will never clearly see what they really do. It’s a good use of strategy and tactics in international politics. People love dramas. If I was a Pro-Armenian protagonist I’d say Turkey has murdered 100 million Armenians. Who would know the exact numbers, right? They’d believe anyway…

            For honest Armenians who only want apology for horrible deaths they suffered during WWI they must ask it from the countries who’d torn apart Ottoman Empire first. Republic of Turkey’s already apologized. France can follow. The country which agitated Anatolian Armenians and caused them getting mass deported and killed. Funniest thing is the same France’s been hosting Ottoman Empire monarchs since they got kicked out of their empire by founders of Republic of Turkey in 1922. Funny, huh?

          • jack

            Let’s review the facts
            ALL Armenians were taken from their homes on planned marches to their deaths.
            All; babies, children, women and the elderly.
            They were taken from ALL villages, towns, and cities whether there was an external threat or not.
            From the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.
            Turkey’s denial, as hurtful to the Armenians, is actually much more damaging to themselves.

          • Nietzsche32

            Those are not facts. They’re just speculations, assumptions made up by Genocidal Industry. My advice is you should check your QA/QC procedure for the manufacturing environment. Your products don’t look good.

            You’re getting worse every time. There is no point to discuss with people who live with prejuudice and a 100 year-old dogma. Good luck with your maneuvers in international politics. I’ll stick to the historical facts.

          • jack

            I thought you were ignorant of the facts that are very easily accessible but now I think your just a troll

          • Nietzsche32

            Armenian genocide is a 100 year-old political maneuver created by Pro-Armenians backed by Great Powers. It’s not a historical fact. If it was Pro-Armenians would have never tried to hide&destroy the speech of PM of First Republic of Armenia (1918-1920).

            And trolling is calling people trolls when you’ve got nothing say. Trolling had been discovered by Pro-Armenians almost a century before social networks invented.

          • Ed

            Nietzsche32: Just another troll spreading lies. The Armenian genocide is fact, not “prejudice” and “dogma”.

          • George Rijkse

            Feel free to respond to what I wrote above. I’d love to hear what you have to say about it.

            Regardless, on to this one. You seem to have misunderstood what I wrote in this comment judging by your first couple of sentences. The Ottoman Empire is to blame for the genocidal acts committed against the Armenians, leading to an estimated 1.5 million deaths. The Republic of Turkey, which has never been blamed for carrying out these massacres, is completely guilty of the denial of these crimes. Also, denial is considered to be the 10th and final stage of genocide.

            Next, if you were to say that 100 million Armenians were killed, nobody would believe you, because there aren’t that many Armenians on the planet. Simple as that. The estimate of 1.5 million victims is a figure accepted by many historians,scholars, international organizations, and governments, and it is because those numbers are based on statistical data collected from the Ottoman archives. I’m not sure what you think the “correct” figure is, but assuming that it’s not 1.5 million, I’m interested to know what you think.

            Finally, no, I don’t think your final statement was “funny”. There is nothing funny about any of this. I would be interested in reading the supposed source of this information, though.

  • Nietzsche32

    It’s not an issue of humanity, it’s just a piece of international politics. It was World War I and there was an ongoing Civil War inside Anatolia. The Queen and her allies including Frenchmen, Greeks, Italians and Russians were trying to get as much land as possible from Ottoman “the sick man of Europe” Empire and to achieve that they were making promises to minorities like Armenians. Armenians took that as an opportunity and with the help of French army they rised in revolt. And as a response the Pro-Turks of Ottoman Empire who backed by German allies killed many of them. You can’t compare those events to what happened to Jews. That’s irrelevant.

    It’s really unfortunate to see that only industry created by Armenians is Genocidal Industry. The only thing Armenians, especially diaspora barons have to hold on to is genocidal propaganda. They’ve got nothing else to produce & promote. And it’s also shame to see that many democracies like Switzerland and others have forbidden the freedom of speech to say that it was not a genocide. That’s what I’d call hypocrisy.

    What I’m saying is that we want good movies from Atom Egoyan, not genocide propaganda. We wanna see Armenians in international community with achievements, not crying for genocide recognition.

  • Nietzsche32

    It’s not an issue of humanity, it’s just a piece of international politics. It was World War I and there was an ongoing Civil War inside Anatolia. The Queen and her allies including Frenchmen, Greeks, Italians and Russians were trying to get as much land as possible from Ottoman “the sick man of Europe” Empire and to achieve that they were making promises to minorities like Armenians. Armenians took that as an opportunity and with the help of French army they rised in revolt. And as a response the Pro-Turks of Ottoman Empire who backed by German allies killed many of them. You can’t compare those events to what happened to Jews. That’s irrelevant.

    It’s really unfortunate to see that only industry created by Armenians is Genocidal Industry. The only thing Armenians, especially diaspora barons have to hold on to is genocidal propaganda. They’ve got nothing else to produce & promote. And it’s also shame to see that many democracies like Switzerland and others have forbidden the freedom of speech to say that it was not a genocide. That’s what I’d call hypocrisy.

    What I’m saying is that we want good movies from Atom Egoyan, not genocide propaganda. We wanna see Armenians in international community with achievements, not crying for genocide recognition.

    • George Rijkse

      First of all, I’d like to say that it’s despicable to try and prove or disprove the validity of a genocide based on how it compares in magnitude to another. Personally, I’ve never read any literature that tries to prove the validity of the Armenian Genocide by comparing it to the Holocaust, because that’s not what this fight for genocide awareness is about. It isn’t about trying to compare ourselves to the Jews, to the Tutsis, to the Darfurians, or to the Ukrainians. It’s about justice and awareness. If you believe that every genocide must be compared to the Holocaust, then you desecrate the memory of both the 6 millions Jewish victims as well as that victims of every other genocide.

      Please, don’t ask me to list the names of Armenians that have made a name for themselves in Europe and North America after their forefathers were forced to leave their homes. There are a good many for any of us to look up to. Or the names of all of the schools that they’ve opened. Or the names of all of the community centres and cultural groups they’ve created. If you think that the only thing Armenians are good for is spreading “genocide propaganda”, then you don’t know very many Armenians. Or you’ve never cared to understand what Armenian diasporan communities are all about and how it is that they still exist. 100 years after the Armenian Genocide, diasporan communities refuse to be lost in a melting pot. Is the Armenian Genocide a common thread that they all share? Of course. Just like the Jews share the Holocaust. This collective pain is one of the things that binds these communities together, whether they’re Armenian, Jewish, Assyrian, Pontian, Tutsi, Darfurian, Cambodian, or otherwise. If you think that Armenians have nothing to contribute, that they’re “useless”, then it’s obvious that the Ottoman Empire’s sentiments still live and grow within you like a tumour.

      What you want is for a filmmaker to make films, a photographer to photograph, a painter to paint, and shut up the rest of the time, right? What about Egoyan’s “Ararat”? Where does that fall on your scale?

      What I call hypocrisy is the fact that you want freedom of speech in the countries that have outlawed Armenian Genocide denial, but you want Atom Egoyan to shut up about it.

  • 2001Sacrament

    Thank you for this – I saw an Armenian Genocide banner over the Bay Bridge leading into San Francisco this weekend and wasn’t sure what it was referring to – it is important to fight for truth in history; there are places for mixed interpretations and there are places for clear labeling not just for a (limited) justice for the victims and generations thereafter who carry the consequences of such violence, but so that we can be informed and wiser in our choices now and in the future.

    • Clare Krishan

      re: “places for clear labeling,” in the spirit of Edward Tufte’s ‘cognitive style of Powerpoint’ rigor in countering propaganda, may I submit exhibit 1, a graphic essay on London’s “Blood Swept Lands and Sea of Red” art installation?
      www{dot}theguardian{dot}com/world/2014/nov/06/-sp-what-would-the-tower-of-london-poppy-exhibition-look-like-if-it-included-global-not-just-uk-war-dead

      Horrific and not for nothing was it called the ‘Great War’ … but imagine if you can what might have happened if in 1915 the TPTB at that time had shrunk back in horror as they verified reports of the unintended consequences of their vainly seeking after military solutions to the human events of Sarajevo in 1914? The war dead of 1916, 1917 and 1918 might not have lost their lives on theblood swept lands, and our modern map’s retelling might feature only puddles of red in the Tower moat representing families bereft of heroes beside a few more splashes of turquoise or pink, blue or red, or yellow representing the grieving of other locales… with a vast flood of orange Armenian genocide victims in orange, not mourned as heroes by anyone, since most of their families died with them, exterminated by their own governing authority as members of the euphemistically-labelled “Central Powers – Civilians killed by military action” set. That’s what’s chilling about the discussion, we need artists skilled in creative visualisation to puncture some holes in the stories we tell ourselves about valor and our “rights” of inheritence to its fruits. Some animals are more equal than others to paraphrase Napoleon the young boar of Orwell’s imagination.

    • Clare Krishan

      re: propaganda and data sets, here’s the 18thC non-Powerpoint version of statistics Tufte quotes to puncture another myth – the valor of the non-fictional Napoleon, whose human folly all subsequent ‘young boars’ have modelled themselves on… to the terminal detriment of many gullible souls | image: www{dot}edwardtufte{dot}com/tufte/minard

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  • http://ljpkjsah.wordpress.com/ G. Murphy Donovan

    Armenia was surely one of many Turkish victims, but Kurdistan was the bigger loss – the largest (40 million), if not the only, truly moderate Muslim ethnic minority in the Levant. Armenia and Kurdistan were both recognized by Sevres only to be spiked by Ataturk three years latter. Among ethnic Muslim cultures, Kurdistan is one of the few Islamic groups that do not suffer, like Turks, Persians and Arabs, under the dead hand of clerical Shia and Sunni supremacists – or Islamic “scholars.” Recognizing the Armenian Holocaust (religious cleansing) would do much to right a historical injustice. Recognizing a state of Kurdistan would send an even better message to contemporary Turkish backsliders and all of irridentist Islam.