The French parliament has just passed a bill, proposed by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, that will make it a crime to question whether the Armenian massacres in eastern Turkey in 1915 qualified as a genocide. Sarkozy will doubtless sign it into law next month, just in time for the presidential elections.
It won’t just be a crime in France to deny that hundreds of thousands of Armenians, perhaps as many as a million, were killed in eastern Anatolia in 1915, and that it was the responsibility of the Turkish state. It will also be a crime, punishable by one year in prison and a fine of up to 45,000 euros ($58,000), even to question the use of the word ‘genocide’.
‘Genocide’ doesn’t just mean killing a lot of people, even a lot of civilians. If it did, then the United States would be guilty of genocide because of Hiroshima. Genocide is a deliberate attempt to wipe out much or all of a specific ethnic, linguistic or religious group.
Words matter. The descendants of the Armenians who were killed in 1915, most of whom now live in Lebanon, France, or the United States, desperately want what happened to their great-grandparents to be defined as a genocide and not just a calamity of war. They have even been accused of ‘Holocaust envy’: the belief that they are being short-changed if the Armenian tragedy is not given the same status as the Nazi genocide of the European Jews.
The state of Israel, interestingly, has never been comfortable with this claim, and avoids the word ‘genocide’ when discussing the massacre of the Armenians in 1915.
Of course, this might just be a desire to ensure that no other group’s tragedy is seen as comparable to that of the European Jews. But there are concrete reasons for the Israeli unease with the simple equation: Jewish Holocaust equals Armenian genocide.
About half of the Jewish population of Europe in 1939 was dead by 1945; about half of the Armenians living in eastern Turkey in 1914 were dead by 1918. But what distinguishes the Holocaust from most other atrocities is not the number of deaths, or even the proportion of the population that was killed. It is the motivation behind the killings.
The European Jews were killed as an act of deliberate German policy: a peaceful civilian population was rounded up and transported to camps where they were systematically murdered. What happened to the Armenians of Turkey was less systematic, and probably unplanned.
There is no equivalent in Turkish history to the Wannsee conference of January 1942 at which the Nazis planned the ‘final solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem’. The mass deportation of Armenians in the First World War, during which hundreds of thousands of them died, took place as Russian troops invaded eastern Anatolia and Armenian revolutionary groups staged uprisings in support of them.
The Armenian uprisings of 1915 were tiny and ineffectual, but the Dashnak and Hnchak revolutionaries had indeed been conspiring with both the Russians and the British to support planned invasions of eastern Anatolia. The British attack was switched west to the Dardanelles quite late in the planning process, but the Russian offensive actually happened.
The Turkish government was panicked by the uprisings behind the front and ordered the mass deportation of the civilian Armenian population to Syria. Regular Turkish troops could not be spared from the fighting, so most of the job of ‘guarding’ the columns of Armenian deportees marching through the mountains to Syria was given to Kurdish tribesmen, who proceeded to rob, rape and murder them in huge numbers.
But Armenian civilians living in the cities of western Turkey were not massacred or deported in 1915. Many Armenians in eastern Turkey who were rich enough to buy train tickets to Syria only had to walk where the tracks had not yet been laid. Most of the Armenians who made it to Syria alive were held in camps there, but they were not murdered and burned in ovens. It was horrible, but does it qualify as a case of genocide?
Successive Turkish governments have undermined their own case by insisting that it didn’t happen at all. That is dishonest and stupid. There were certainly horrendous massacres, though the exact numbers of dead cannot be known. However, the use of the word ‘genocide’ remains open to question.