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Why the Armenian Genocide matters

By Jed Lea-Henry - posted Tuesday, 5 May 2015

For a moment, try to imagine an unpleasant scenario: The German nation, tired of acting humble and tied of expressing guilt for the crimes of its grandparents, decides to free itself from the burden of the past. The Holocaust is methodically re-labelled as an 'act of war', the deaths of six millions Jews will now be considered little more than an unfortunate accident, and the moral responsibility upon the German people completely expunged.

International condemnation floods in, yet the German state stands firm. And in order to enforce the change internal dissent is suppressed, counterfactual reporting is criminalised, and international diplomacy made contingent upon agreement with this new revision of history.

Pressured by a desire to maintain international relations with the world's fourth largest economy, how long would it take before a selection of countries begin to officially deregister their recognition of the Holocaust as a genocide?


If this seems unlikely, it is a positive reflection upon the nature of the modern German state, and certainly ought not to be an expression of faith in the moral fortitude of the international community. Indeed, Turkey has proven that such a model of coercive denial would almost certainly work: they have, after all, successfully and consistently managed to intimidate the vast majority of the globe into silence over the Armenian genocide.

On April 24, 1915, the 'Young Turk' government of the Ottoman Empire arrested, and later executed, 250 Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul (then Constantinople). This began a series of escalating attacks that resulted in the forced deportation of the Armenian population from the Anatolian region. Those who resisted were killed, just as the majority of those who submitted also died from exposure, starvation and exhaustion, or were simply murdered by the Ottoman soldiers en route.

It is hard to find anyone of academic standing willing to argue that this was not a carefully constructed campaign of annihilation, amounting to the first genocide of the twentieth century; of the 2 million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire at the start of the First World War, 1.5 million were killed during this period.

The consensus here is so overwhelming that it would seem inconceivable for the Armenian genocide to remain a contentious issue today. The reason that it does, can be attributed to a single factor: the sheer determination of the modern Turkish state.

Turkey has gone to considerable lengths to refute the official course of events, to present mitigating information, and to try to show that Armenian wartime deaths should not constitute special consideration:

Turkey considers the true number of those killed to be closer to 300,000; they view the Armenians during the war period as a treasonous fifth column – perhaps in part correctly, considering the presence of open alliances with the Russian Army (150,000 Armenians served with the Russian forces), and a series of Armenian guerrilla attacks on Ottoman infrastructure; and they point out that the Young Turks struggled to support all sections of the Empire, not just the Armenians - statistically an Ottoman soldier was nearly seven times more likely to die from cholera or typhus than from combat itself, and a third of all prisoners of war held by the Ottomans died in captivity, (predominantly from starvation, dysentery and exhaustion); this compares with only four percent of captives who died in German custody.


By presenting the killing of Armenians as a common-place act of war, the Turkish government is deliberately trying to avoid matching the legal criteria of the Genocide Convention. For the label 'genocide' to apply, it is not enough to simply make note of the scale of killing; proof of intention to committed the genocide is also required - and this is notoriously hard to do.

However, with the Armenian genocide this is simply not the case. By their own account, the Ottoman Empire did not have the capacity to protect and sustain their own soldiers, let alone a large body of at-risk migrants. It should therefore stand as common-sense that the forced expulsion of an entire ethic group across inhospitable deserts and mountain ranges would almost certainly amount to the deaths of those people.

Yet if this wasn't convincing enough, the Ottoman Empire openly admitted to the genocide at the time. Just as the Nuremburg trials have made Holocaust denial near impossible, the Ottomans, following defeat with the Armistice of Mudros, set in place a series of court martial proceedings from 1919-1920, in order to investigate the crimes of the Young Turk government.

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About the Author

Jed Lea-Henry is a writer, academic, and the host of the Korea Now Podcast. You can follow Jed's work, or contact him directly at Jed Lea-Henry and on Twitter @JedLeaHenry.

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