For decades, the survivors of these massacres and their descendants have been fighting for the tragic events that unfolded on the sidelines of World War I to be recognized as genocide. Successive Turkish governments have persistently denied that the 1915 killings were aimed at exterminating the empire’s Armenians.
Yet, some hope Ankara may change its stance soon as it gets closer to the European Union.
Rounded Up And Deported
On the night of 24 April 1915 about 250 cultural and religious Armenian leaders were rounded up in Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and deported. Within several days, many of them died of starvation, dysentery, or at the hands of armed Muslim irregulars on state pay.
The pattern was then applied across the whole empire and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands Armenians.
Those who were not decimated by illness or slaughtered en route met their death in concentration camps such as Deir-el-Zor, in Syria. Armenians say at least 1 million of their ethnic kin died between 1915-17 as a result of a deliberate policy of extermination. They say the policy was initiated by the Committee of Union and Progress (Ittihad ve Terakki Cemiyeti), or CUP, which then ruled over the empire.
Ankara claims the death toll is grossly inflated and that 300,000 Armenians died during these years. It also says the deaths were the result of negligence, interethnic strife, or wartime operations. It says the CUP leaders -- also known as the Young Turks -- had no intention of wiping out the empire’s largest remaining Christian community.
While admitting to the massive deportations of 1915 -- which followed the massacre of 200,000 Greeks -- Turkey’s official historiography says the transfers were aimed at preventing Armenians from collaborating with Russia. Tsarist Russia was then at war with the Ottoman Empire and its German ally.
Turkey’s official historiography also asserts that more than 500,000 Turks died at the hands of Armenians between 1910-22. Up until the late 19th century, Armenians were referred to in the empire as the “Millet-i sadika,” or loyal community. However, this perception changed after Russia’s expansion in the Caucasus and the rise of nationalism throughout Europe. This led to the idea that Christians were the agents of Western powers seeking to partition the empire and to the massacre of an estimated 200,000 Armenians during the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamit in the years 1894-96.
This perception remains vivid in today’s Turkey.
An Organized Campaign?
Addressing Turkish lawmakers on 13 April, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul reiterated Ankara’s traditional stance that genocide allegations originated from allied war propaganda.
“[We are] confronted with a very well-organized campaign, which makes use of every opportunity to discredit Turkey," Gul said. "This organized campaign against our country is based on bias, prejudice, slander, exaggerations, and [historical] distortions that were fabricated nearly one century ago.”
Few in Turkey dare to publicly question the official version of events, for fear of retaliation. Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk recently came under fire for telling a Swiss magazine that 1 million Armenians had been killed during the war. Although Pamuk did not refer to the massacres as genocide, Turkish newspapers castigated him as an “enemy of Turkey.”
The Case Of Taner Akcam
Among those few Turkish voices that openly back the genocide theory is that of Taner Akcam, an academic who fled his native country years ago to teach history in the United States. Addressing a press conference in Yerevan on 20 April, Akcam urged the Turkish state to lift the 90-year-old taboo that has been surrounding the Armenian question.
“There is a European moral standard that says that if you want to be a member of the Western world you have [first] to allow a discussion, a debate on the past, and, second, you have to [be] ready to rectify the wrongdoings of the past,” Akcam said.
Akcam also said Turkey’s insistence in denying the genocide would hamper entry talks with the European Union and hinder normalization of ties with neighboring Armenia.
“The main problem is the denial policy of the Turkish government," Akcam said. "Without recognition of the genocide, there can be no solution for Turkey on its path toward the European Union and in its relations with Armenia.”
Few in Turkey dare to publicly question the official version of events, for fear of retaliation. Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk recently came under fire for telling a Swiss magazine that 1 million Armenians had been killed during the war.
EU leaders in December agreed to open accession talks with Turkey, but made no mention of the 1915 events. Yet, France -- which is among the few countries that have recognized the mass killings of Armenians as genocide -- has said it would like Turkey to come to terms with its past before joining the bloc.
Many in Turkey blame Western politicians for using the genocide allegations to prevent a predominantly Muslim country of nearly 70 million from joining the EU. Only a small minority argues that by reassessing the 1915 tragedy Turkey would give a strong signal that it is resolutely engaged on the path toward democracy.
Etyen Mahcupyan, a columnist for Istanbul’s “Zaman” daily, told RFE/RL that, instead of turning to its own historiography, Turkey should tackle the Armenian issue by making concrete political steps.
“I think history is not on Turkey’s side with regard to [the Armenian issue]," Mahcupyan said. "In Cyprus, history was on our side and Turkey could dig into history to [build up] a policy accordingly. But this is not the case for the 1915 events and Turkey, I believe, should concentrate on politics rather than history.”
Mahcupyan, himself an ethnic Armenian, said Turkey, among others, should offer compensation for material losses imposed by the Young Turks on their non-Muslim subjects.
“We still have problems that remind us of history," Mahcupyan said. "The property of Armenians, Jews, and Greeks that was confiscated by the [Ottoman] state has still not been returned, although it is not legitimate for the [Turkish] state to retain it. That kind of [implies] a state mentality that reminds us of the Terakki (CUP) people’s mentality 90 years ago.”
Yet, some observers believe mentalities are changing in Turkey. In a book on the Armenian genocide published last year, Akcam says that while publicly backing the state’s stance, many Turkish citizens have been privately questioning the official account of the 1915 events.
Citing the breaking of other taboos that had long denied the existence of a Kurdish issue, or that of social classes, the historian notes that society may soon press the state to shed light on the Armenian issue. Mahcupyan also believes things are changing in Turkey.
“I think we will [soon] hear different voices," Mahcupyan said. "We will see that at least part of the public thinks differently -- very differently, in fact -- from the state. We will then obligatorily see a discussion take place between state and society. This is, in fact, democratization.”
Akcam on 21 April said his secret dream is to see Ankara reconcile with its past when it joins the EU. European leaders have suggested that Turkey could enter the bloc in 2015 -- the year that will mark the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
(RFE/RL’s Armenian Service correspondent Anna Saghabalian contributed to this report from Yerevan)