The 1915 Armenian genocide,  affirmed by scholars and historians around the world, remains bitterly contested by the government of Turkey, which (like that of China) has long propounded collective amnesia. Clarity on the “Armenian question” is often bedevilled by the technical issue of whether the assaults constituted genocide as defined by Raphael Lemkin in 1944.
Under the roof of the Ottoman empire, religious and ethnic groups were obliged to coexist—as in Anatolia, where Muslims lived alongside Orthodox Greek and Armenian neighbours. But inter-ethnic violence increased through the 19th century; from 1895 Armenians were frequently the targets of atrocities. With the Ottoman roof crumbling, the 1912–13 Balkan Wars reduced its territory and heightened tensions in Anatolia.
After the outbreak of World War One, by 1915 the Ottoman authorities in Constantinople, anxious to forestall rebellion, executed and deported prominent Armenian leaders and disarmed Armenian soldiers in the Ottoman army. In eastern Anatolia (then still home to Greek Orthodox Christians, besides Turkish and Kurdish Muslims), as Armenians were deported away from the Russian front, around one million were starved, robbed, raped, and slaughtered on death marches to the desert. Armenian assets were expropriated, and the surviving women and children forcibly Islamified, erasing Armenian names and culture. Further massacres followed in 1916. International exposure and scrutiny were helpless to stem the tide. Later the genocide was much admired by the Nazis.
Andrew Finkel (in Turkey: what everyone needs to know, chapter 5) offers a cogent overview of the issues.
On the surface it might seem strange that Turkey would stake so much of its own credibility defending a predecessor empire whose immediate legacy it had itself disowned. Yet it has become part of the catechism of today’s Republic that what happened in 1915 was part of the exigencies of war and not premeditated.
He gamely outlines the Turkish case, that
Turks were themselves the initial victims of ethnic cleansing. […] Cholera and famine (as well as attacks by Kurdish irregulars) also took their toll on the files of refugees. If blame is to be apportioned, the argument runs, it falls on Armenian revolutionaries who disturbed centuries of coexistence between Muslims and Armenians.
With the academic community and world opinion unconvinced that the many wrongs suffered by Turkish Muslims made a right, he explains the niceties of international legal wranglings and the ramifications of genocide resolutions. And he observes changing attitudes within Turkey, with more open discussion, and growing interest in the contributions of Armenians to the Ottoman empire.
The 2004 publication of Fethiye Çetin’s My grandmother: an Armenian-Turkish memoir (one of the five books on the genocide chosen by Thomas de Waal, author of Great catastrophe) “confronted Turks with the Armenians in their midst, both dead and alive”, raising awareness of forced assimilation.
Çetin’s grandmother (1905–2000) only began revealing her story in 1975. Çetin gave her death announcement to the Istanbul newspaper Agos:
Her name was Heranuş. She was the granddaughter of Herabet Gadaryan, and the only daughter of İsguhı and Hovannes Gadaryan.
She passed a happy childhood in the village of Habab, near Palu, until she reached the fourth grade.
Then, suddenly, she was thrown into the painful times about which she would say, “May those days vanish never to return”.
Heranuş lost her entire family and never saw them again. She was given a new name, to live in a new family.
She forgot her mother tongue and her religion, and though she did not once in her life complain about this, she never ever forgot her name, her village, her mother, her father, her grandfather or her close relations. She lived until the age of 95, always hoping that she might be able to see them and embrace them again one day. Perhaps it was this hope that allowed her to live so long; until her very last days, her mind remained sharp. Last week, we lost Heranuş, our grandmother, and sent her to her eternal resting place. We are hoping that this announcement might reach the relations (our relations) that we were never able to find while she was alive, that they may share our grief, in the hope that “those days may vanish, never to return”.
(Clockwise from left to right.)
As the translator Maureen Freely comments In her Introduction, this history has been concealed from four generations of Turkish schoolchildren. The book bears witness, giving voice to those whom history has silenced.
The persistence of Armenians in Anatolia today, “the leftovers of the sword”, is explored in a wonderful book, full of rich ethnographic observation:
- Avedis Hadjian, Secret nation: the hidden Armenians of Turkey (2018).
For Armenians outside Turkey, the clock had stopped in 1915. Until the mid-2000s, most of the Diaspora did not know that there were Armenians left in the ancient provinces of the Ottoman Empire—the conquered territories of Western Armenia and Cilicia. The terrified Armenians that remained would still be subject to daily humiliations, killings, deportations, and armed attacks by the Turkish army and irregular formations, both Turkish and Kurdish, until at least the late 1980s in some parts of the country’s interior. For these Armenians, genocide by other means continued for another century.
In fiction, an engaging appearance of the elephant in the room is Elif Shafak’s The bastard of Istanbul (2006), using the stories of a characterful Istanbul family of women and their teenage daughter Asya, who bonds with the Armenian-American Armanoush, stepdaughter of the family’s estranged brother, as she comes in search of her heritage. I find the novel highly effective in presenting nuanced views through the voices of a polyphonic cast with their seemingly antagonistic stereotypes.
In the Turkish Penal Code the crime of “insulting Turkishness” went back to Article 159, introduced in 1926. In 2005, concerned over the new openness of discussion, the state had replaced it with the controversial Article 301, bringing a slew of prosecutions against several journalists and authors. Written in English, The bastard of Istanbul soon became a bestseller in Turkish, and despite—or perhaps because of—its spirit of reconciliation, Shafak’s book was among the targets of Article 301. While the case against her was dropped, like that of Orhan Pamuk, a prosecution against the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was upheld, and he was soon assassinated by a young ultranationalist, giving rise to popular protests.
Indeed, Hrant Dink was the editor of Agos, where Heranuş Gadaryan’s death notice had appeared, and it was Fethiye Çetin who acted as Dink’s lawyer; she has continued to represent his family.
Having created a climate of fear, by 2008 Article 301 was amended to discourage abuse, but since 2017 it has been invoked again for other purposes (see also Fatma Yavuz).
This 2005 documentary on the Armenian genocide is from ARTE:
 Sources are voluminous. I haven’t attempted to read perhaps the most exhaustive of many studies, Raymond Kevorkian, The Armenian genocide: a complete history (English translation 2011, from the 2006 French original), running to 1,029 pages. Wiki makes a useful introduction (cf. Racism in Turkey); among websites, see e.g. here and here.
For a thorough recent study, see Fatma Müge Göçek, Denial of violence: Ottoman past, Turkish present, and collective violence against the Armenians, 1789-2009 (2016), with sections on Imperial denial of origins of violence; Young Turk denial of the act of violence; Early Republican denial of actors of violence; and Late Republican denial of responsibility for violence. She explores the wider issue of “Why do states and societies insist of denying the acts of collective violence embedded in their pasts and present?” (e.g. Holocaust denial, Native America, Russia, and China, among many cases).
Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi, The thirty-year genocide: Turkey’s destruction of its Christian minorities, 1894–1924 (2019) encourages us to see the wider picture, though some of its detail has been challenged. Note also Ronald Grigor Suny, They can live in the desert but nowhere else: a history of the Armenian genocide (2020).