Guenter Lewy: Revisiting the Armenian Genocide

Roundup: Talking About History

[Guenter Lewy is professor emeritus of political science, University of Massachusetts, and the author of The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide (University of Utah Press, 2005).]

The debate over what happened to Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I remains acrimonious ninety years after it began. Armenians say they were the victims of the first genocide of the twentieth century. Most Turks say Armenians died during intercommunal fighting and during a wartime relocation necessitated by security concerns because the Armenians sympathized with and many fought on the side of the enemy. For genocide scholars, the claims of the Armenians have become incontrovertible historical fact. But many historians, both in Turkey and the West, have questioned the appropriateness of the genocide label.[1]

The ramifications of the dispute are wide-reaching. The Armenians, encouraged by strong support in France, insist on a Turkish confession and apology as a prerequisite for Turkey's admission into the European Union. Ankara's relations with Yerevan remain frozen because of the dispute. Across the West, Armenian activists try politically to predetermine the historical debate by demanding various parliaments pass resolutions recognizing the Armenian genocide.

The key issue in this controversy is not the extent of Armenian suffering; both sides agree that several hundred thousand Christians perished during the deportation of the Armenians from Anatolia to the Syrian desert and elsewhere in 1915-16.[2] With little notice, the Ottoman government forced men, women, and children from their homes. Many died of starvation or disease during a harrowing trek over mountains and through deserts. Others were murdered.

Historians do not dispute these events although they may squabble over numbers and circumstances. Rather the key question in the debate concerns premeditation. Did the Young Turk regime organize the massacres that took place in 1916?

Most of those who maintain that Armenian deaths were premeditated and so constitute genocide base their argument on three pillars: the actions of Turkish military courts of 1919-20, which convicted officials of the Young Turk government of organizing massacres of Armenians, the role of the so-called "Special Organization" accused of carrying out the massacres, and the Memoirs of Naim Bey[3] which contain alleged telegrams of Interior Minister Tal√Ęt Pasha conveying the orders for the destruction of the Armenians. Yet when these events and the sources describing them are subjected to careful examination, they provide at most a shaky foundation from which to claim, let alone conclude, that the deaths of Armenians were premeditated....
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