Armenians, Turks, and the Genocide Question

About this Episode

Guests
Ronald Grigor Suny, Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer, John Quigley

April 24, 2015 marks the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Beginning in 1915 in the midst of the strains of World War I, Ottoman officials oversaw the deportation and massacre of anywhere between several hundred thousand and 1.5 million Armenian people. The result was the physical annihilation of the Armenian communities that had lived in the Anatolian peninsula for more than 2500 years. But labeling it as a “genocide” has proven controversial and unacceptable for the Turkish Republic. Join your History Talk hosts Leticia Wiggins and Patrick Potyondy as they interview Ronald Grigor SunyAyse Baltacioglu-Brammer, and John Quigley to discuss what is now known about the  history of these events, the meaning of the legal and historical label “genocide,” and why coming to terms with mass atrocities is so difficult today.

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Cite this Site

Leticia R. Wiggins, Patrick R. Potyondy , "Armenians, Turks, and the Genocide Question" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
April, 2015
https://origins.osu.edu/index.php/historytalk/armenians-turks-and-genocide-question?language_content_entity=en.
April, 2015

Transcript

Leticia Wiggins 

Welcome to History Talk from Origins: Current Events and Historical Perspective. I'm your host Leticia Wiggins at Ohio State University.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And I'm your other host, Patrick Potyondy. Today's show focuses on an event that has proven controversial now for 100 years. In 1915, in the lands of what would become modern day Turkey, the Ottoman Empire committed what has come to be known by some as the Armenian Genocide. In the midst of the brutalizing strains of World War One, and as the Ottoman Empire suffered through what we now know were its last days, Turkish officials oversaw the deportation and massacre of anywhere between several hundred thousand and 1.5 million Armenian people. The result was the physical annihilation of the Armenian communities that had lived in the Anatolian Peninsula for more than 2500 years.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

But labeling the event a quote unquote genocide has remained controversial to say the least. Turkey has steadfastly refused to call the Armenian deaths a genocide, arguing that the Armenian victims were not as numerous as some Armenians might hold. And that they were actually combatants in a civil war. The perpetrators face no real consequences in the years that followed, and some would go on to form the modern Republic of Turkey in 1923, with its aggressive focus on secular Turkish nationalism. The Armenians, meanwhile, have long called for the word to reconcile with the past, seeking official and public recognition of the 1915 mass killings as a genocide.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

On today's History Talk. three guests join us to discuss this fraught history and its continuing legacy. And to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of this violence. We'll ask them about the background of the Ottoman Empire, the fundamental disagreement between the Armenians and the Turks over what happened, and among many other issues, the complexities of the label genocide in history and international law. So stay tuned.

 

Dr. Ronald Grigor Suny 

I'm Ronald Suny. I'm at the University of Michigan history professor and the author of a book that is just now coming out called," They Can Live in the Desert, but Nowhere Else: A History of the Armenian Genocide", published by Princeton University Press.

 

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 

Hi, I'm Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer. I'm a PhD candidate at Ohio State University. I'm mainly working on Muslim minorities of the Ottoman Empire.

 

Dr. John Quigley 

I'm John Quigley, from the College of Law at The Ohio State University. I've done some writing on genocide. I have a book about the Genocide Convention. It's called "The Genocide Convention from 2006". And I've been involved in some international litigation in relation to genocide.

 

Leticia Wiggins

Wonderful, we thank all three of you for joining us today. This this event took place place in eastern Anatolia and 1915. We were wondering who was living there, and how did they end up in the Ottoman Empire? And what were the Ottoman policies toward the region in the years leading up to 1915 and Ron will ask you to begin here.

 

Dr. Ronald Grigor Suny 

Eastern Anatolia, what had been historic Armenia had been conquered by the Turks. First the Seljuks and then the Ottomans, beginning in the 12th century, 11th century, 12th century, and then right through to the 15th and 16th centuries, and in that area, there were Greeks Armenians, Kurds, and eventually Turks as well. And the Armenians by the 19th century had become a minority in the area. In most places, though here in there in this village or that town like Van. They were a large plurality or even a majority. So it was a very mixed population. And the Turkish government was relatively weak. The Ottoman government relatively weak in that area, though, occasionally, they would try to assert their authority against the local Kurdish Emir's or nomadic peoples, whatever. So Armenians were suffering, particularly from the predations of the nomads, and from the sort of lacks, and often repressive government of the Ottoman Turks, which in fact, led to massacres most particularly in 1894 1896 actually a time when my grandmother and her family left the area. The relations between Ottomans and Armenians had been relatively, we could say benign or tolerant up through the 1870s. But then it began to turn as Armenians began to demand rights and protections from their government begin to negotiate with some foreign powers, about protections. And after that, growing suspicions developed between the government's first under Abdulhamid then second, and then the young Turks after 1908.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

There has been some kind of fundamental disagreement between the Armenians and the Turks over what happened in 1915. And so we kind of like to explore here, you know, what does each side say happened? What is the party line of each side and Ayse maybe if you wanted to take off here and then others can feel free to jump in.

 

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 

The Turkish of show historiography, that follow The Young Turks movements ideology argues or have been arguing that this was a civil war and inner war situation. And what Ottoman officials, Young Turk officials wanted to do to move Armenians who were kind of collaborating with foreign powers, mainly Russians in the region and creating some problems for the Ottoman government who was already in a war, which is the World War I and Ottoman situation wasn't actually very great when we look at the main battles that the Ottomans were involved. So the Ottoman, the republican narrative says that they were mainly forced to move from main cities but not all cities of Anatolia. They emphasize that all the time, and they were forced to move to some parts of Syria and Lebanon. And the intention wasn't to annihilate them intention wasn't to massacre them, but some of them, or most of them, depending on who you are talking to, lost their lives on their way to those refugee camps or their new destinations. For the Armenian side of the story, maybe someone can join us, help us.

 

Dr. Ronald Grigor Suny 

I do like to think that it's there's an Armenian side or Turkey side. There's a side that historians generally almost all except a few, accept as a story, and we now have so many documents, German documents, Austrian documents, American documents, missionaries, diplomatic accounts, that we can now begin, as I tried in my book, to tell the story more accurately. I should actually very nicely put forth the official Turkish republican narrative and the historians of now and D, by the way, Turkish and Kurdish historians in Turkey as well have come to this position. Basically, the government of the young Turks, most particularly decided that the Armenians were an existential threat to their Empire. And though the Armenians were trying to demonstrate their loyalty, and thousands of Armenians were actually in the Ottoman army fighting against the Russians, the perception was that no, the rest of the Armenians we're collaborating with the Russian saber, a danger, and they had to be removed. So what began as deportation, in fact, metastasized quickly into massacres killing, people, committing suicide, and eventually, even when the people reach the Syrian desert, there were additional massacres going into 1916 until somewhere between 600,000 that's a low figure, to a million plus, people were killed. Basically, there was no insurrection by the Armenians. There was some resistance once the massacres became known, or were expected in places. There were a number of different places, etc. But in general, the Armenians were simply victims, largely unarmed victims, against the Turkish state and against the Kurds in the area.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

And kind of tying into that, and this is one more throw Next question. Armenians call the events of 1915 a genocide and have struggled for years to have it designated as such, Turks have struggled for just as long to prevent the events being designated as a genocide. And so we turn now to kind of question what is a genocide as opposed to other types of mass killing and why does it matter so very much to both sides to have or prevent the label genocide? I'll throw this question first to John, too.

 

Dr. John Quigley

Yes, I think it's a bit unfortunate that the issue has come down to that of whether it is or is not a genocide. It's much more sensible to analyze it the way Ron has been telling us, and people can draw their own conclusions about what they think was done. Of course, the concept genocide didn't exist at that point in history, so no one was analyzing it at that time. under the rubric of genocide. Genocide really only came into being as a legal concept in 1948 with the Genocide Convention. And the definition of genocide in that convention is a rather strange one. It is, you might say change over time since 1948. So putting these events into that straitjacket, if I can call it that, becomes a bit problematic. In 1979, I was asked to be an expert witness in Phnom Penh, Cambodia at the trial of Paul Pot. And he was being tried for genocide because Cambodia was a party to the Convention on genocide. And so the question they posed to me was whether the its leadership had had been guilty of genocide. And when I looked at it, I realized that no, really nobody knew what genocide meant, apart from what had been written in the Genocide Convention, which is rather strange. The way that definition reads, you can kill large numbers of people without it being genocide. On the other hand, you can kill a very small number, and if you have the correct intent, it would be genocide. So, you know, to talk about whether what happened in 1915 is or is not, you know, is not the question that makes me comfortable. I mean, I've been involved with genocides definition when it mattered, as it did in the Cambodia situation. I also represented Bosnia when it sued Yugoslavia for genocide in the International Court of Justice and, and there we needed genocide to establish jurisdiction because one of the features of the genocide convention is that the if one state that's a party doesn't fulfill its obligations, it submits itself to jurisdiction in the International Court of Justice. So we weren't especially anxious to call what had happened genocide, but we needed it to be genocide before we could get it before the court. So for me to talk about what happened in the past, and whether it constitutes genocides, it seems a bit academic.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And so and so it seems like intent here, though, is a key component of it being labeled a genocide?

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Yes, under the definition, you are guilty of genocide if you commit certain acts and killing members of the group is one of them. And there has to be some group whose members are being killed. It doesn't necessarily have to be killing it can be that you're taking children out of the group. So you know, if you remove all children from a group that that's considered genocide and the theory that you're, you're destroying the group, but the intent element that you're talking about is key. And that is an intent to destroy the group as such, in whole or in part. And it's hard to know in a situation like what occurred in in 1915. Whether you have that intent. Obviously you had substantial killing, was it to remove the people or was it to destroy them as a group, and we in fact, had to litigate something rather similar in the International Court of Justice in the Bosnia case, because there you had killing of people with the aim of moving them out of a certain territory and the International Court of Justice in 1993, granted us an injunction seem to say that what was going on in 1992 around Sarajevo constituted genocide primarily on a theory that it was moving the people out. But then the courts final judgment in the case, which came only in 2007, the court was more restrictive and said that what happened around Sarajevo was not genocide. But they said that what happened in 1995, was genocide because you had much more substantial concentrated executions.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Yeah, Ron?

 

Dr. Ronald Grigor Suny 

If I could add something to that?

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Great.

 

Dr. Ronald Grigor Suny 

John's perfectly right. This way you define genocide that would give this particular taste of that label or not. So in my own work, what I've tried to do is go keep close to the UN definition, which is itself is somewhat problematic, and close to the original intention of Raphael Lemkin, the jurors to in fact invented the term genocide during the Second World War. And so I argue that it is the targeted intentional killing by a government by a state and the destruction and rendering impotent a racial, ethnic, cultural, national group of some kind. And that can be done by a variety of processes. And in the case of the Armenians, it was done in three different ways: one deportation, that is uprooting them from their own territory, their homes, their removal and dispersion. They actually spoke about, there'll be no more than 5% of Armenians in any particular area. And the second was actual physical killing. And if lots of evidence that these killings were carried out by the special organization related to the Young Turks, by Kurds, by order of Young Turks leaders, etc. So we have that. And the third and most interesting is it also was assimilation, that is forced Islamization that as you can render people no longer Armenian by bringing mostly women and children into the families of Turks, Arabs and the Kurds. And this was done to hundreds of thousands of women and children, men mostly were killed. This was a kind of gendered genocide. And the descendants of those Islamicized Armenians are today reappearing in Turkey. And they may number in the millions, in fact, out there in eastern Anatolia.

 

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 

And what I would like to add is that reducing the discussion into if it is it was a genocide or not actually creating some I can say unintended consequences. When you look at the Turkish government's approach to the issue. They actually want to have this discussion going on so they can legitimize their approach saying, oh, this wasn't a genocide the intent wasn't clear, intent wasn't what you saw in the following decades in Europe, so they also want to keep discussion around the various very narrow  debates about if it was a genocide or not. So I think the discussion should move beyond that to what actually happened, how it happened. And rather than labeling it in this way or that way, so the understanding the conditions and understanding the aftermath as he said, like in modern Turkey, there are so many people coming out and saying that their grandmothers and grandfathers were actually adopted by Turkish families, they changed their religion, they changed their name. So these are ongoing, and to me more important discussions that we should actually take part take into consideration.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Yeah, that's, that's really interesting. And kind of on a related note, um, so yeah, what why is this genocide so often than left out of history books or passed over so quickly? That is, I guess, you know, what I'm trying to say is why is it that while the debate is passionate for Armenians and Turks, it is often a note and forgotten, unknown and forgotten to others around the world. And maybe Ron if you wanted to start off here, and then and then other can reply.

 

Dr. Ronald Grigor Suny 

First of all, it happened far away from Europe. It happened during a time of war, as a kind of communication and knowledge that will eventually be understood during the time of the Holocaust was simply not available. It was known at the time, hundreds of articles were published in The New York Times ,published many things about it at the time. But then it was forgotten, Turkey became an ally of the United States and important ally in the Cold War, it's still an ally in the wars that Americans are carrying out in the Middle East as well. So, because of that, the United States will not recognize the events of 1915 as a genocide. But also part of, a part of the reason is that the Turkish Government has relatively effectively until recently been able to obscure, confused and as you put it earlier, make controversial, the events of 1915. This mass killing, which by any reasonable definition would be considered genocide, if there weren't all this contestation against it, officially, that's been obscured and confused, obfuscated in all kinds of ways. But that's changing, because as I said before, in Turkey itself, very courageous historians, journalists and others, including my friend and our collaborator who was murdered in 2007, on the streets of Istanbul, for in fact, talking about this subject, these things are happening, people are developing, and that was we approached the hundredth anniversary of the genocide, which will be commemorated on April 24, this very month of 2015, they'll be demonstrations, they'll be commemorations, they'll be religious ceremonies, people are going to march in Istanbul in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, in Washington, in New York, in Los Angeles.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

As we're working to remember this event, why should we? So Ron, you bring up a great point, people are marching people are kind of commemorating it. We're wondering too. But what about these passionate debates and what we can learn from this event, and the historical lessons of the mass death and the struggle to define this memory? And how do we then move forward from here when two sides can't necessarily agree right away? And, John, maybe you can start us off here?

 

Dr. Ronald Grigor Suny

No, that's a hard one. And it's being raised in the public sphere, most recently by the Pope. Pope Francis is apparently you know, made a statement recently about the Armenian genocide and has caused some ruffled feathers, let's say in the Turkish Government. But, I think if somehow there is a way of achieving a more sensible discussion about the whole thing and not making it yay or nay, not asking, you know, the government of the state of Idaho to pass a resolution saying something about the Armenian Genocide, not doing as in France where they proposed a law that would make it a crime to deny the Armenian genocide. There's got to be some way. because as Ron says, the people who have looked at this seriously are more or less in agreement about what happened. And clearly what happened was very bad. And that's where the process should start.

 

Dr. Ronald Grigor Suny 

Yeah, I might add to that, that one of the ways one begins to have reconciliation is to bite the bullet and take a hard look at your own past. That's very difficult for nations to do. The Japanese can't look squarely in the face at what they did to Koreans, or to the Chinese. Americans have had trouble dealing with slavery, with the genocide and ethnic cleansing of American Indians, or what we've done in Vietnam and have done in other countries around the world. This is a difficult this thing if the Turks honestly looked at their own history, they would have to change and revise their own foundational myths about them, the war of liberation that founded the Turkish Republic. The Turkish Republic is a relatively homogeneous state, because it massacred Armenians, the Ottomans massacred Armenians, drove them into the desert. And then later had population exchanges or expulsions of the Greek. And they tried even to repress the millions of Kurds who live in that country today. So those things would have to happen. And by the way, I wouldn't let Armenians off the hook either. I think Armenians too have to look at their own history and what they've done and how they got a homogeneous country. And why aren't there Azerbaijanis living in Armenia anymore? What happened to the several hundred thousand Azerbaijanis who were pushed out and live as refugees now in Azerbaijan? Almost every country on, every modern nation state not all, but Israel driving up Palestinians. Australians dealing with the Aborigines. And the Americans as well have had some kind of ugly spots in their early history. And if you want reconciliation and understanding, you've got to face those hard facts straight on.

 

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 

And I would like to add that noosphere true and official denial or denial in public minds, I think is almost like the last step. And this is I think, the hardest one to go beyond once people get rid of this denial once, as he said, they're able to look back and see where what they did wrong and why they did that, why they committed that wrongdoings they are going to be able to go further in a better way. And when I look at the Turkish society now, where the where that denial comes from, especially for younger generations, whose parents or grandparents weren't even alive when the massacres or genocide happened. So there are some recent events like the Armenian terrorist organizations in 1970s 80s, or what had happened in Azerbaijan between Armenia and Azerbaijan or massacres there. So the I think the one of the things that Turkish Government intentionally did to keep the memories alive for public to associate this wrongdoings of Armenians, and saying that, even if we did something wrong, look, they are not immune to blame. So that's why we are not going to just sit and accept what we did. So first, we have to separate these events. And then we have to evaluate them separately to come to a better and more useful conclusion for both Turkish society and Armenian society both in Armenia our diaspora.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Thank you very much to all three of our guests Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer, Origins author and actually second time History Talk guest today, John Quigley of OSU Law school and Ronald Suny of the University of Michigan. Thank you all for joining us today.

 

Ayse Baltacioglu-Brammer 

Thank you.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

This edition of the Origins podcast History Talk was brought to you by the Public History Initiative and the Goldberg Center history department at The Ohio State University. Our main editors Steven Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle, our executive producer is David Staley, our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer. Our audio producers and hosts are Patrick Potyondy, and Leticia Wiggins. We would like to offer a special thank you to local Columbus based band The End of the Ocean for providing our music. Some of the band information can be found on our website. You can find our podcasts and more on our website origins.osu.edu, on iTunes and on SoundCloud, and as always, you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. Thank you for listening.

 

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