Why is the genocide of the Armenians still denied?

Aghet - genocide of the Armenians

Burak Çopur

To person

Dr. Burak Çopur is a political scientist, Turkey expert and migration researcher at the University of Duisburg-Essen.

About perpetrators, victims and resistors of the crime against the Armenians

Burak Çopur deals with the main factors behind the Young Turkish genocide against the Armenians. In his essay, he demands of Turkey: It must question its founding myth and rethink its understanding of nations and minorities. This is the only way they can come to terms with their history and recognize the genocide at some point.

Members of New York's Turkish community at a counter-demonstration against a memorial service for the Armenian diaspora. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)


2015 marked the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. The genocide under the rule of the Young Turkish movement Committee for Unity and Progress (İttihat ve Terakki Cemiyeti) in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War has been extensively researched by internationally renowned scientists and historians and proven by extensive material from various sources. The Young Turkish triumvirate around the Minister of the Interior Talat Paşa, Minister of War Enver Paşa and Minister of the Navy Cemal Paşa, as the leading group during the genocide of the Armenians, has the main responsibility.

The hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide was an important political occasion to commemorate the Armenian massacre internationally. After Pope Francis described the incidents of 1915 as genocide in April 2015, the European Parliament and the National Council in Austria also passed a resolution that also referred to the genocide of the Armenians. In Germany, Federal President Gauck used the term genocide in his speech to commemorate the Armenian victims; Bundestag President Norbert Lammert also followed suit. After a controversial discussion between representatives of the German federal government and parliamentarians, a cross-party motion was tabled in the Bundestag on April 24, 2015, which the fate of the Armenians as an example of the history of mass extermination, ethnic cleansing, expulsions and genocide of the 20th century defined.

The coming to terms with the extermination of the Armenians has long ceased to be terra incognita in science. Therefore, in this text, attention should be paid to the current political developments in Turkey with regard to the "Armenian question", and at the same time pointers and suggestions for culturally sensitive remembrance and for strengthening the Turkish-Armenian culture of remembrance in Germany are provided.

Three main factors behind the Armenian genocide

The ideological level

An important factor in triggering the crime against the Armenians was the transformation efforts of the Ottoman Empire from a classic multi-religious and multi-ethnic imperial empire to a centralized, homogeneously oriented nation state (Akçam 2004). The Ottoman Empire was based on the Millet system, a legal system derived from Islamic law that also regulated the status of non-Muslim religious groups. The Ottoman people were divided into two classes: Above all groups stood the ruling Muslim class (millet-i hakime), and to this ruling elite, for example, the Greek, Armenian and Jewish non-Muslims were subordinated as millet (millet-i mahkûme). The non-Muslim communities ran schools, hospitals and their spiritual representatives could even judge their members. These freedoms came at a high price, however, because non-Muslims had to pay significantly higher poll taxes (jizya) than Muslims. The collection of this poll tax goes back to the Koran sura 9, verse 29; This meant that the non-Muslims were subject to Muslim rule as "protected persons" (dhimmi).

This system of rule got into a crisis at the end of the 18th century. With the beginning of the French Revolution, liberal-bourgeois ideas also spread in the Ottoman Empire, and the industrial revolution increased the technical advantage of the West over the Ottomans, thereby destabilizing their former economic and military strength. In addition, the situation in the Ottoman Empire worsened due to various state, social and economic crises (including the war-related land losses of the Ottoman Empire, the state bankruptcy and the refugee pressure of Muslims to Anatolia triggered by the national wars of independence in the Balkans). The Ottoman government tried to stop the collapse of the empire through reforms and modernization projects. With the help of pressure from abroad, she implemented the so-called Tanzimat reforms, which were intended to promote equality between Muslims and non-Muslims in 1839/1856. This opened up z. B. also for non-Muslims access to civil service and the discrimination against non-Muslims in terms of taxation has been put to an end.

This reform phase favored national movements among the Christian religious communities in parts of the empire; In the course of the Tanzimat reforms there were also demands for independence in the Balkans, in which some ethnic groups left the empire. And the reforms promoted the economic rise of non-Muslims in the west of the Ottoman Empire, which in turn triggered fears of decline and feelings of competition among the Muslims. With the emergence of the idea of ​​the nation state and the founding of nation states on the former Ottoman territory, not only was the ideological basis of the Millet system steadily eroded, the former non-Muslim subjects who sympathized with the idea of ​​the nation state also appeared to be potential opponents of the empire and later, so at least in the perception of the Young Turks, to internal enemies of the new Turkish nation (Faroqhi 2003; Oran 2006).
The "Genocide Memorial" in Igdir, Turkey was erected in 1999 by the Turkish authorities to commemorate the Turkish victims of Armenian atrocities during the First World War and during the so-called Turkish "War of Independence". (& copy Andy Spyra / laif)

The hostilities towards the Armenians were fueled by the ideology of the Turks' Turks. The Young Turks were initially among those reform movements that arose as a reaction to the sultan's dictatorial behavior. However, they did not want to stop the collapse of the empire with democratization and modernization, but with the establishment of a national identity policy. The young Turks initially opposed Ottomanism and then Turkish nationalism to the sultan's ideology of pan-Islamism. "In the ideology of the Young Turks," writes Mihran Dabag, "a Turkish people was only conceivable as a 'social unit', as an absolute 'harmony' of the individual elements, and as an overall context of culture and progress, territory and race It is no coincidence that Armenians, within the framework of the Young Turkish ideology, are increasingly becoming a fundamentally non-integrable other, an 'inner stranger' and a 'political enemy', an obstacle to the realization of their vision. " (Dabag 2014). Even with the founding of the Turkish Republic under Ataturk in 1923, the young Turks never gave up the claim that the "ruling class" - the Sunni-Turkish Muslims - be defined by belonging to Turkishness and Islam. The last phase of the Ottoman Empire is therefore ideologically much closer to the Turkish Republic than one thinks.
Irfan Ermis is a member of a nationalist Turkish organization in Van. He denies the genocide and speaks of the international narrative of the genocide of the Armenians. Ermis emphasizes that it should actually have been Armenians who carried out massacres of Turks. (& copy Andy Spyra / Laif)

The economic-psychological level

Due to the influences mentioned, animosities, prejudices and hostilities developed among the Ottoman Muslims towards the Armenians. The pressure of refugees from Muslims from the Balkans to Anatolia also triggered greater competitive pressure between Kurds, Turks and Armenians for the scarce economic resources. A large part of the Armenians were simple farmers, but among them there were also highly successful traders and craftsmen who determined the import and export, as well as the banking system in the Ottoman Empire, because many foreign companies for cultural reasons preferred Armenians as economic partners (Gerlach 2003) . Because of their hard work and their economic strength, they were often dubbed the "Jews of the Orient", which gave rise to anti-Armenian stereotypes that resembled the caricature of the "Jewish usurer" (Kieser 2014). The Young Turks also defamed it as an "internal tumor" that posed a threat to the national security of the Reich (Akçam 2012, p. XV). This "perceived danger" formed the breeding ground for the acts of violence of 1915 (Sunny 2003).

The international level

The First World War with the real threat from Russia and Great Britain to the Ottoman government, the lost battles in the east (Sarıkamış), the setbacks in the south (Suez) and the attacks in the west (Battle of Gallipolli) by the Entente with the simultaneous existence of the Armenians as an alleged internal threat, led the Young Turks to a "cumulative radicalization" (Hans Mommsen) in their dealings with the Armenian population (Bloxham 2005). The murder of over 1.5 million Armenians (today only about 60,000 Armenians officially live in Turkey) was ultimately an endeavor of the Young Turks to eliminate the supposed internal enemy as a "fifth column" in order to also destroy the Ottoman in the war Prevent rich. I. E. The genocide of the Armenians, initiated on April 24, 1915 by their deportation from Istanbul and continued under the guise of the Deportation Act of May 27, 1915, was carried out in an organized manner when the deportations began, but before that it was not long in the making planned for the Young Turkish rule, but the way there developed gradually in the context of the war situation described above (Sunny 2003, p. 98). This is by no means intended to relativize the guilt of the perpetrators, but instead to show the international context of the First World War, which the Young Turks used to commit the atrocities of 1915.
The destroyed bridge of the Armenian capital from the 10th century, which once connected Turkey (right) with Armenia. During and after the genocide, the holy Armenian sites were desecrated. Ani is now a museum complex right on the Turkish-Armenian border, but to this day the Turkish state has done little to secure the archaeological sites of historical Armenia in what is now Eastern Anatolia. (& copy Andy Spyra / laif)

The understanding of minorities and nations in Turkey

Turkey insists on its version of the events of 1915, in which the events are seen as mutual assassinations (Turkish: mukatele). This point of view has its origin in the definition of the Turkish concept of minority and in the belief in the Turkish founding myth. The official historiography strongly overestimates the position of the founding father of Turkey Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, because according to it the founding of the state was made possible exclusively through an anti-imperialist struggle and the "resurrection of Turkey from the ashes" in the national resistance against the European powers. The discussion about the Armenian genocide, on the other hand, clearly questions this founding myth of the Turkish Republic. Because through them it is not only the heroic battles of the national liberation war under Ataturk that laid the foundation stone for the Turkish republic, but also the murder and expulsion of the Armenians as a result of a racist policy of the Young Turks who wanted to found this republic as a homogeneous entity. The suppression and denial of genocide thus serves to reinterpret the fall of an imperial empire into a heroic re-establishment of a nation-state. To this day, this founding myth also negates the existence of ethnic, religious and cultural differences within Turkish society.

According to official Turkish state doctrine, the definition of minorities and their rights is regulated by the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) in Section III in Articles 37-45, which are still valid today (Künnecke 2007). Accordingly, there are only three minorities in Turkey whose recognition is derived from this treaty (although they are not explicitly named in the treaty text): the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian and the Jewish minorities in Turkey. The Turkish state counts all three groups among the so-called non-Muslims (gayrimüslimler). Regardless of this, even recognized Christian minorities still do not enjoy comprehensive freedom due to the restrictive interpretation of the law (Oran 2007). This restrictive minority policy of Turkey has to do directly with the Turkish state understanding of a culturally homogeneous nation and the ethnically-religiously defined citizenship concept of a Turkish-Sunni identity, which is "made deep inroads into almost all individual minds and political." platforms through formal and informal patterns of learning and socialization at all levels of life "(Cizre 2014). Because of this self-image of the Turkish state, it is not surprising that almost all parties in the Turkish parliament - with the exception of the pro-Kurdish HDP - have condemned the genocide resolution of the European Parliament of April 15, 2015 by means of a counter-declaration. The defense of a supposedly impeccable Turkish history is diametrically opposed to coming to terms with the Armenian question, as this is still seen by many Turks as a threat to the unity of state and nation (cf. Söylemezoğlu 2005; Halaçoğlu 2006). Although citizenship rights were never officially linked to Turkish or Sunniism, the political and legal implementation of the Turkish constitution and laws should be understood in exactly the same way (Akgönül 2013). Turkey has a long time - and is doing that for example. Sometimes still - minorities are seen as a threat to the unity of state and nation, which is why the term "minority" has a negative connotation in Turkish usage (azınlık) and is still seen by many people today as "splitters", "traitors" and "citizens" second class "is understood. That is why the Kurds are not allowed to learn their mother tongue in regular classes and the Alevi Cem prayer houses are not officially recognized. In a current textbook study for primary and secondary schools in Turkey, the state will continue to deny the genocide of the Armenians for future generations of pupils. In these textbooks, the Armenians are described as the real perpetrators of the events of 1915 and the Armenian question is continuously portrayed as a threat to the national security of Turkey (Akçam 2014; Hermann 2015). In this way, Turkey, with its restrictive minority rights and its policies that are critical of minorities, itself creates the social breeding ground for prejudice and xenophobic hostility towards minorities.

State-backed genocide denial by science

Official Turkey - as has been shown - does not want to recognize the genocide, otherwise the founding myth would be called into question. So the Turkish state developed professional methods to deny the genocide. To put these methods on a "scientific" basis, z. B. Institutions such as the Turkish Historical Society (Türk Tari Kurumu, TTK) created. The stipulations of this organization are also binding in Turkish universities, schools and the media. For 15 years, the TTK was headed by historian Yusuf Halaçoğlu, who is one of Turkey's best-known genocide deniers. In addition, the Armenian genocide is also denied by a minority of Western scholars and historians, including Bernard Lewis, Guenter Lewy, Justin A. McCarthy, Stanford Shaw and Norman Stone. Some of them also receive regular financial grants from Turkey for their research.

In contrast to this state-funded historical commissioned research, a number of historians of Turkish origin, sociologists, political scientists and literary scholars have come together in Turkey and at European and US universities who have been actively and critically concerned with the Armenian question for years.Among them are renowned international scientists such as Taner Akçam, Cengiz Aktar, Fatma Müge Göçek, Ahmet Insel, Kader Konuk and Baskın Oran, followed by a younger generation of researchers from, among others. Burçin Gerçek, Ümit Kurt and Mehmet Polatel. Today you are all part of the (transnational) Turkish civil society, which is committed to coming to terms with the massacre of the Armenians.
Friday April 24th, 2015 in Istanbul: Protesters on Istiklal Avenue hold up pictures of those murdered in 1915. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

Turkish civil society as an engine for coming to terms with the process

Liberal currents in civil society and intellectual circles have long since begun to take on the process of coming to terms with the issue. They shake the country's historical taboos and challenge Turkey's nationalist narrative. Prominent Turkish writers, journalists and scientists in particular devote themselves to addressing the Armenian question (Çopur 2015). For example, the Nobel Prize for Literature Laureate Orhan Pamuk publicly broke a Turkish taboo in the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger in 2005 by declaring that a million Armenians had been killed in Turkey, prompting a storm of nationalist indignation in his home country. Turkish writer Elif Şafak was also charged and then acquitted. She had discussed the Armenian genocide in her novel The Bastard of Istanbul.
Protesters lay signs and flowers in front of the Agos building on January 19, 2012 to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the murder of Hrant Dink. (& copy picture-alliance)
In 2005 critical Turkish scholars organized an Armenian conference for the first time in Istanbul to deal with the events of 1915. Although the conference was originally supposed to take place at Boğaziçi University, it was transferred to Bilgi University due to a lawsuit and could only be thrown against violent protests and eggs Protesters are held. The murder of the Armenian-Turkish journalist and civil rights activist Hrant Dink on January 19, 2007 was also an important turning point in the Armenian question. With the slogan "We are all Hrant, we are all Armenians", Dink's funeral procession with around 100,000 participants became a symbol of the sympathy and identification of large parts of Turkish civil society with the Armenians. The signature campaign "Özür diliyorum" ("I apologize") initiated by Turkish intellectuals in 2008 to apologize for the violent crime against the Ottoman Armenians in 1915, which has so far been signed by over 30,000 people, was of great importance for the historical reappraisal.

Spurred on by these gestures, critical NGOs organized for the first time a public commemoration event on April 24, 2010 in Istanbul on Taksim Square in memory of the Armenian victims in Turkey. These commemorative events with creative ideas now take place annually in various cities in Turkey.

Although the Turkish advocates of a reconciliation process have endured a great deal of hatred, humiliation and violence, they have brought about a change in the language of the official Turkish state ideology: namely from an aggressive denial of genocide or a perversion of victimization and perpetration Recognition of the suffering and empathy towards the victims. In this sense, the official declaration of condolence from Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from April 2014 should be understood with regard to the events of 1915, which is a small, important victory of civil society on the Armenian question. Because the ghost is already out of the bottle and Turkish civil society will continue to challenge Turkey's denial paradigm with regard to the genocide of the Armenians (Aktar 2014). For this reason, Turkish civil society with its commitment is the main vehicle for the historical process of coming to terms with it, and it will remain so in the future. It is precisely for this reason that civil society in Turkey should not be left alone in its work of remembrance, but - in the sense of a Turkish-Armenian reconciliation - should also be promoted through transnational cooperation.

The importance of the "Turkish Oskar Schindlers" for memory work

Just as there were not only perpetrators in the Holocaust, a differentiated view is also appropriate in Turkish historiography. In order to save the Armenians, around 200 people, including many decision-makers and officials of the Ottoman Empire, resisted the orders of the Young Turkish Committee and risked their own lives (Gerçek 2015). The following are mentioned by name: the governors from Konya Celal Bey and from Ankara Mazhar Bey, who lost his post because of his resistance to the deportation of the Armenians; the provincial governor from Kütahya Fâik Áli Bey (Ozansoy), who founded an Armenian school for the deported children and used the money donated by the Armenian communities as a thank you to buy food for the impoverished Armenians. Also worth mentioning are the governors from Kastamonu Reşat Bey and Erzurum Tahsin Bey, as well as the provincial governor of Yozgat Cemal Bey, who all refused to implement the policy of extermination of the Young Turks. They had to pay with their lives for their solidarity with the Armenians, as did the district administrators from Lice Hüseyin Nesîmi Bey and from Beşiri Sabit Bey, as well as the governor of Basra Ferit Bey and the mayor of Malatya Mustafa Ağa Azizoğlu (Hür 2013). But support also came from the people: in particular the Alevis from Dersim, Arameans from Mardin, the Mevlevis from Konya and the Yezidi from Sincarlı reached out to the Armenians and took them into their care. The importance of these "Turkish Oskar Schindlers" should not be overestimated; Nevertheless, they should be emphasized in the coming to terms with the Armenian genocide and made visible in the service of a Turkish-Armenian remembrance work. It is precisely these positive examples that can be used pedagogically as door openers in the school and education system, in order to promote the attention and empathy of most people of Turkish origin in Germany or to loosen their blockage attitude.
Armenians burn the Turkish flag in Yerevan, Armenia on April 24, 2015. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)


In order for Turkey to come to terms with its own history and eventually recognize the genocide, it would first have to rethink its understanding of nations and minorities and question its own founding myth. Only on the basis of Turkey's ethnic and cultural diversity can a contemporary identity be established. This new Turkish identity would then no longer see minorities as a danger and threat, but rather as an opportunity and enrichment.


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