Why does Turkey deny the Armenian Genocide?

Why does Turkey deny the Armenian Genocide? April 24, 2015

[Update below.]

That’s not a rhetorical question.

I just finished reading the article in wikipedia on the Armenian Genocide.  You should read it — it provides, so far as I can tell, a pretty good overview, both of the actions of the Ottoman Turkish government at the time, a combination of massacring Armenians in their towns and deporting them to concentration camps in the deserts of Syria with provision for neither food nor water, and of the insistence of the Turkish government to this day that what happened was not genocide.  With respect to the latter, there’s an additional article on Armenian Genocide denial, the quality of which isn’t as good, which provides the statement that

The Turkish government acknowledges that during World War I many Armenians died, but counters that Muslim Turks died as well, and claims that the number of Armenian victims has been inflated, and that massacres were committed by both sides as a result of inter-ethnic violence and the wider conflict of World War I.

What’s more:

Regarding the famine and starvation arguments, Turkish authorities acknowledge that many Armenians died, but say many Muslims died too in widespread instances of famine and disease, such as in the region of Greater Syria. As the world war placed great strains upon the empire, so the argument goes, suffering was not limited merely to Armenians and other Christians.

Now, it hardly seems credible to say that the destruction of the great majority of the Armenian people in the Ottoman Empire was simply the result of “inter-ethnic violence,” as if Armenians were giving as good as they got, or brought their deaths upon themselves.  And it’s absurd to claim deaths-by-starvation of people forcibly deported and imprisoned without rations were somehow not the government’s fault because of a famine?

But the excuses the Turks proffer for denying the killings don’t really get at the deeper question:  why do they simply not own up to this historical event, especially given that the modern Turkish democracy* has broken with its Ottoman past in many ways?  Why not say, “that was then, this is now”?  (*Yes, I know that Erdogan has departed from the determined secularism of his predecessors and has become increasingly authoritarian, and perhaps may wish even to revive a greater feeling of connection to the Ottomans, but the rejection of the term “Genocide” long predates him.)

Is it a fear that official acknowledgement, or even relenting on their opposition to official acknowledgement by others, will leave them vulnerable to demands for reparations and reclaiming of property by Armenians on behalf of their ancestors, or by Armenia, the country, with sanctions if they refuse to comply?

Is it a belief, archaic as it might feel to us in the United States who are so far removed, that to acknowledge the Genocide would bring shame and dishonor upon the people of Turkey?

Or is it even more directly a belief that the sins of the fathers are visited on the sons — that the Turks themselves, if they acknowledged the historical reality, would face not just a revision of history books, but individual guilt for their ancestors’ crimes?


President Obama famously promised to acknowledge the genocide when campaigning, but has since clammed up.  In Germany, in the meantime, the President*, Joachim Gauck, has indeed now used the word genocide (or, in German, Völkermorde, or “murder of a people”) — Washington Post story here, and the reaction by Turkey, in the form of a statement by the Foreign Minister, has been predictably, I suppose, harsh.  I can’t find an article in English, but here’s a rough translation from Der Spiegel:  

“Das türkische Volk wird dem deutschen Präsidenten Gauck seine Aussagen nicht vergessen und nicht verzeihen,” teilte das Außenministerium . . . 

In der Mitteilung des türkischen Außenministeriums hieß es weiter, Gauck habe keine Befugnis, der türkischen Nation eine Schuld anzulasten, die den rechtlichen und historischen Fakten widerspreche.

“The Turkish People will not forget and will not forgive the statement of the German President Gauck,” said the Foreign Minister.

The Turkish Foreign Minister’s statement also said that Gauck had no right to burden the Turkish people with a guilt (responsibility?) that legal and historical facts contradicted.

(* Yes, President Gauck, the official head of state, who typically would give such as speech rather than the Chancellor.)

Also:  here’s an article from CNN with the headline, “Why Turkey won’t say the G-word when it comes to the Armenians,” which is actually pretty useful, for a CNN article, that is.  The key piece to the puzzle, that I hadn’t known, is this:  by the time of the genocide, Turkey was already transitioning from the Ottoman Empire to the modern Republic of Turkey, and the very leaders who paved the way, the “Young Turks,” were the ones who were also responsible for the genocide.

Turkish schools have long taken an airbrush to the “Young Turks.” The movement, which began in 1908, was comprised of the army officers who were in power as the country transitioned from the hands of spoiled sultans to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk — the much-adored leader who came to power in 1923 and is credited with founding the modern Turkish state.

. . .

Calling the events of 1915 a genocide would undermine the very narratives the Turks hold most dear, says Burcu Gultekin Punsmann, a senior analyst at Ankara Policy Center who has studied Turkish-Armenian relations for a decade. She says the country simply isn’t ready to dismantle the foundation it was built on, or stain the legacy of its founders.

. . .

But there are other issues, including fears that an official recognition of genocide could unleash a flood of lawsuits against the Turkish government.

UPDATE 4/27:

An article in Newsweek (as retweeted by Instapundit) reports,

A former member of ISIS has revealed the extent to which the cooperation of the Turkish military allows the terrorist group, who now control large parts of Iraq and Syria, to travel through Turkish territory to reinforce fighters battling Kurdish forces.

Which, if true, makes pressure to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide pretty much beside the point, and all a part of a charade, pretending that Turkey is a “western”/”civilized” country in the first place.

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