Just one of many bloodbaths unleashed by the First World War, the Armenian Genocide of 1915 has long been a source of diplomatic conflict with the modern state of Turkey. The Turkish state, which sees itself, apparently, as the successor state of the Ottoman Empire which perpetrated the genocide, is known to go nuts whenever anyone uses the word “genocide” in reference to the massacres.
According to most everyone except Turkish nationalists, the Turkish state killed from 1 to 1.5 million ethnic Armenians during the first World War, either directly using state agents, or by proxy using various criminal gangs equipped by the Ottoman state.
In recent decades, numerous American and European diplomats have refrained from using the “g-word” to avoid upsetting Cold War alliances (Turkey being part of NATO) or for other diplomatic reasons when Turkey’s acquiescence was desired. If Germany started throwing a fit every time someone referred to the Nazi Holocaust, one can only imagine what the response would be from most of the world. But apparently, when it comes to Armenians, denialism is fine.
But the 100th anniversary of the genocide is upon us, and it looks like the Turkish state’s string of luck on this may be running out. Earlier this week, Pope Francis referred to the Armenian Genocide in official remarks, and Turkish politicians were berserk, indignantly referring to the Pope’s remarks as “unacceptable” and recalling Turkey’s ambassador to the Vatican. It does not look like an apology will be forthcoming from the Vatican any time soon.
It is also probably not a coincidence that the Pope recently declared an obscure (in the West) 10th-century Armenian monk, Gregory of Narek, to be both a Saint and a Doctor of the Church. In part, it is likely that the declaration was intended by the Pope as a statement of solidarity with both Armenians and the Eastern Churches in general, including the now-nearly-extinct Church under the Patriarch of Constantinople which has been all but outlawed by the Turkish government.
And now we find that the European Parliament has adopted a resolution that uses the g-word to describe the killings, and suggests the Turkish government do the same.
Was the old Turkish state particularly bloodthirsty? Probably not. In fact, the Ottoman Empire usually did a remarkably good job of holding together the Empire without bloodbaths or a centralized state apparatus. But the Armenian communities, which the Turkish state considered to be in its own back yard, were ripe for decimation because they Turks did not want a strong (overwhelmingly Christian) ethnic group to assert local autonomy. Moreover, many Armenians were suspected of being a pro-Russian fifth column (the Russians being Christians also) So, the massacres and death camps followed.
It’s important to the Turkish state even today to deny the holocaust because it undermines Turkish state claims to legitimacy and liberality. If the Turkish state can be shown to be founded on ethnic cleansing, it may “embolden” other ethnic minorities seeking greater independence.
Someone should tell Turkish politicians, however, that the hissy fits being thrown over the Pope’s remarks actually make the Turkish state look weak. If the Turkish state can’t handle its past sins being brought to light, one is forced to ask one’s self why it takes so little to undermine the Turkish state. The US state, for example, is in little danger of being torn asunder every time someone mentions the ethnic cleansing of the Plains Indians. The US government simply says “oops” and goes on calling itself a great bastion of human wonderfulness. The Turks might do well to learn from the American propaganda machine, which has long since learned how to blame its many sins on others.3:23 pm on April 16, 2015 Email Ryan McMaken