The Armenian genocide in many ways shook the established world order to its very core.Here was an atrocity so inexplicably depraved that there was no word to describe it, and no system to resolve it.
In this watershed moment in human history, the basis of our modern system of international governance, human rights, and international law were born.
It wasn’t, however, until the crime of genocide was repeated with the annihilation of Europe's Jewish population – inspired in part by the Ottoman Empire's extermination of the Armenians – that these nascent systems of international law and global governance would be fully institutionalized; namely with the establishment of the United Nations.
It was there the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide first formally defined the extermination of an entire group on the basis of its indelible characteristics as a criminal act – the life work of Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish lawyer whose inspiration for coining the term was the lack of legal recourse for the Armenian people to seek justice for the systematic destruction of their people.
Yet despite the centrality of the history of the Armenian people to very concept of genocide prevention and restitution, the Armenian people have long been denied that very justice – and that is due largely to Turkey’s ongoing denial of the genocide.
Elie Weisel referred to denial as a "double killing": the consummation of the process of genocide. It is also widely considered to be the "final stage of genocide," the process by which the memory of a group’s suffering and persecution is forgotten, leading to the risk of repetition.
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From the birth of the Turkish Republic, a concerted effort was undertaken to expunge any mention of the Armenians and their suffering, so as not to undermine the nascent state’s standing within the community of nations - or draw attention to the continuity between it and its predecessor.
Over time, genocide denial became a sophisticated revisionist historiography, a broad church of nationalist conspiracies best encapsulated by Ronald Suny: "There was no genocide, and the Armenians were to blame for it."
Genocide denial soon became Turkey’s greatest export, as it enlisted foreign governments in its obstruction of justice, threatening to sever ties in response to any recognition of historic fact. And while a growing number of governments – including most recently the United States – have recognized the Armenian genocide, many more have evaded using the term to placate Turkey even while acknowledging that mass killings took place.
The failure to characterize the destruction of the Armenian people as genocide has more than just a symbolic impact. Armenians continue to face many of the same threats to their existence today as they did 106 years ago – and this is not mere coincidence. The failure to accurately diagnose genocide has obscured understanding of the continuity of genocidal policies to this day.
A recent article in Haaretz by Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi (The Armenian Tragedy Was Not Genocide, but an Attempt to Exterminate Religious Communities) demonstrates this point well.
Morris and Ze’evi asserts a counterfactual revisionist narrative that refutes the genocide label, replacing it with a caricaturish "clash of civilizations," fueled by an Islamic empire's destruction of its Christian subjects. He therefore posits there was mass murder but not genocide, as it was a proto-jihadist, not nationalist, animus which informed the annihilation of Christian religious communities – not a specific ethnic or national group.
This is nonsensical, because under the UN convention, massacring a religious community clearly constitutes genocide.
But most significantly, Morris downplays the ideological root of the genocide: Turkish ultranationalism.
Then, as today, Turkey’s minorities weren't persecuted solely on the basis of their common religious identity, but because they weren’t Turks, and were therefore the enemy. As Turkish nationalism took root among the ruling elite, a concerted campaign of ‘Turkification’ foreshadowed the annihilation of the region’s Armenian, Greek and Assyrian populations.
These policies also impacted the empire’s non-Turkish Muslim subjects, specifically the Kurds, who were subject to forced deportations at the writ of Talaat Pasha – even as he enlisted Kurdish tribes in the slaughter of Armenians.
Today, Turkey’s President Erdogan is increasingly overcome with Ottoman nostalgia.
In addition to praising Armenian genocide architect Enver Pasha at a military parade in Baku, after aiding in the assault on the Armenian-majority enclave of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), Erdogan caused a diplomatic row with Iran by reciting a poem ("I will not be separated from you. They have separated us forcibly…") widely seen as a symbol of the doctrine of pan-Turkism - the same expansionist ideology propounded by the perpetrators of the Armenian genocide that seeks the unification of the Turkic world and annihilation of everything in between.
After the ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan was signed in November 2020, Turkey’s newly established military presence in Azerbaijan was widely portrayed as a "return of Turkish troops to the Caucasus after 102 years." Azerbaijan and Turkey have long seen each other "one nation, two states" – sharing a common commitment to the realization of a pan-Turkic regional order.
The escalation of this rhetoric also meshes with the expanding influence of the pan-Turkic ‘Nationalist Movement Party’ (MHP) in Turkey, which entered into a coalition with Erdogan’s AKP in 2018, and whose leader has been quoted saying the deportation of Armenians in 1915 were "absolutely correct" and "should be done again if the circumstances were the same."
The party’s youth wing, the "Grey Wolves," not only vociferously denies the Armenian genocide, but has organized and incited violence against Armenians, Greeks and Kurds within Turkey. Unsurprisingly, the Grey Wolves also propagate antisemitic conspiracy theories and Holocaust denial.
As the Armenian people today face an existential threat at the hands of Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey - as they brazenly dehumanize the Armenian people, torture and execute prisoners of war, destroy Armenian cultural heritage sites, and threaten further military aggression - it has become clear what the failure to recognize and condemn historic genocides, by politicians and intellectuals, and the efforts to deny and obscure that history, has cost us.
It is often said that a genocide denied is a genocide repeated. Not only because the impunity afforded the perpetrator risks enabling future violence, but because the failure to identify the crime of genocide after the fact obstructs our ability to address the warning signs before it occurs.
Alex Galitsky is communications director of the Western Region of the Armenian National Committee of America, the largest Armenian-American grassroots organization in the United States. Twitter: @algalitsky