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Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story, written by Krishnadev Calamur in Washington, was published on April 24, 2015, with the title: A century after the atrocities against the Armenians, an unresolved wound. Peter Kenyon, a journalist from Istanbul, wrote this update to reflect developments, including the first US president to formally recognize the massacres as genocide.
For decades, US presidents avoided calling the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turkish forces during World War I an act of genocide.
Now, President Biden is expected to make that statement Saturday as Armenians celebrate the anniversary of the atrocities in 1915, adding the United States to a list of countries including Canada, France and Argentina that officially call the incidents genocide.
The move will be hailed by Armenian communities, lawmakers and human rights defenders who have lobbied for it. But it will also damage already strained ties with Turkey.
Although some Turkish leaders have sometimes expressed regret over the killings, Turkey denies that they constitute genocide and is fiercely opposed to anyone who uses the term to describe the period.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a statement Thursday awaiting Biden’s announcement, said that Turkey “will continue to defend the truths against the so-called lie of the Armenian genocide and those who support this slander with political motivations”.
Many historians, however, agree that what the Ottoman Turkish forces did in 1915 and 1916 amounted to genocide.
Commemorations of duels
This is known: up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed or deported in the violence unleashed by the Ottoman Turks starting on April 24, 1915.
The Armenians, along with many European historians and countries, called it the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey has suppressed reports of the murders for decades and to this day firmly rejects the label of genocide.
In the Istanbul Military Museum, the room dedicated to “Turkish-Armenian relations” is filled with historical photographs, none of which depict a slain Armenian – only the bodies of Turkish soldiers who according to Turkey were tortured and killed by “Armenian gangs” . “
Modern Turkey, which emerged following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, has never accepted the general consensus on the Armenian genocide. We prefer to celebrate a different event, which took place the next day, April 25, 1915: the victory over the allied forces in the battle of Gallipoli in the First World War.
In 2015, Turkey moved a huge celebration of the centenary of Gallipoli’s victory to April 24, in what seemed to critics a transparent effort to stifle the ceremonies centered around the Armenian killings.
The Ottoman Empire once covered parts of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East and was home to Turks, Kurds, Armenians, and many more. But at the beginning of World War I in 1914, it was collapsing. A few years earlier, a group of young army officers – called the Young Turks – had taken power. And in World War I they sided with the central powers – Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire – against the allied powers, Great Britain, France and Russia.
Historian Eugene Rogan, author of The fall of the Ottomans, tells NPR’s Steve Inskeep that the Ottomans entered Russia thinking they could deliver a blow. Instead, they lost. There had been massacres of Armenians in the past, but with the loss to the Russians, he says, the Ottomans began to question the loyalty of the Armenians.
He adds: “What happened was a small number of [Armenian] The militants who switched to the Russian side, who actively sought to recruit Armenians to support the Russian cause, made life extremely dangerous for most Armenian civilians who basically fought no one, did not want to be involved in any war and found themselves under tremendous pressure; soldiers who, suspected by their Turkish comrades, begin to be shot down “.
The Ottomans’ ruling Union and Progress Committee and government officials planned to forcibly transfer the Armenians from Anatolia, where they lived on the border with Russia, to the Arab parts of the empire, where they were deemed less dangerous. But, adds Rogan, the plans for the Armenians went beyond what had been written. He adds:
“It was through the testimonies presented in the trials convened by the Ottomans after the war that we now know that the Committee of Union and Progress agreed to give, orally, orders for the extermination of the Armenians: that men and women would be separated upon departure their villages, that the men would be massacred and that the women would be marched in conditions in which only a fraction of them would survive.
“And the theory put forward by most Turkish genocide scholars was that the Ottoman plan was to reduce the demographic profile of Armenians so that they did not exceed 5-10% in a given province. It was not … to try to eliminate the Armenians in their entirety, but it was to ensure that the Armenians would never form a critical mass to seek separation for the Ottoman Empire as an independent Armenian state. “
Previous violence against Armenians
Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were also targeted in the 19th century, but historians do not call these events a genocide. The reason, writer Peter Balakian tells NPR’s Robert Siegel, was that the early murders were “alleged – they were punishments for the Armenian progressive reform movement. They were not designed to exterminate the entire population or rid the Ottoman Empire of its own. Armenian population, but they begin a very important process of devaluation and dehumanization of this minority ethnic group “.
Here’s what it says was different about the events of 1915:
“I think the Ottoman government’s final solution for the Armenian people of Turkey represented a change in the state-organized and planned mass killings. The Ottoman government was able to accelerate its mass killing of a targeted minority population in a concentrated period of time. So it is important to realize that the Ottoman government killed more than a million Armenians between 1915 and 1916 alone – perhaps 1.2 million is that number by the end of the summer of 1916 “.
The point of view of the United States
The United States, an ally of Turkey, has historically called the killings an atrocity, despite years of pressure from the Armenian community in the United States
The official position of the United States began to change in late 2019, when Congress passed a resolution recognizing and commemorating the Armenian genocide, although the Trump administration refused to support the policy change. On Saturday, the process towards official recognition is expected to be completed with President Biden’s statement.
Biden pledged his support for the recognition of the Armenian genocide when he was a candidate last year, and he had long pushed for it as a senator.
Under US law – including legislation introduced in 1987 by then Sen. Biden – genocide refers to killing, wounding, torture or other acts “with the specific intention of destroying, in whole or in substantial part, a national group. , ethnic, racial or religious “.
The term did not exist at the time of the killings by the Ottoman Turks. It was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer, who combined the Greek word genos, meaning race or family, with the suffix “-cide”, which derives from the Latin for killing, to describe the events of the Holocaust and previous cases in history.
As a teenager, Lemkin was drawn to the story of what happened to the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire after reading about a survivor of the atrocities. And in interviews from the 1940s he described events such as the Armenian genocide.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which describes the events as genocide, claims that Lemkin’s “early exposure to the history of Ottoman attacks on Armenians, anti-Semitic pogroms, and other cases of targeted violence as key to his beliefs about the necessity for the protection of groups under international law. Inspired by the murder of his own family during the Holocaust, Lemkin tirelessly supported this legal concept until it was codified in the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948. “