Scholars Discuss Dark Moment in Turkey’s History

100 years later, the Armenian genocide remains a political lightning rod.

From left: Hope Harrison, Ronald Grigor Suny and Cory Welt at Monday night's event. (William Atkins/GW Today)
September 23, 2015

By James Irwin

Every year, on Armenian Remembrance Day, the president of the United States releases a statement, recognizing the anniversary of one of the 20th century’s great atrocities. The problem for the White House is figuring out what to call it.

“‘Annihilation,’ ‘forced exile,’ ‘appalling tragedy,’ ‘massacre,’ ‘murder.’ It’s like taking out the thesaurus and finding everything possible short of ‘the g-word,’” said Hope M. Harrison, associate dean for research at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs and the former director for European and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council.

The “g-word” is “genocide.” According to historians, Armenian genocide is exactly what happened in Turkey in 1915—though Turks insist that isn’t true, that it was a tragic outcome of war. Therein lay the problem, Dr. Harrison said Monday night at a GW discussion hosted by the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies.

Among her other duties at the NSC in 2000 and 2001, Dr. Harrison was responsible for working on the first drafts of the president's annual commemorative statement.

“In the time leading up to that day there is an incredible amount of lobbying of the White House by the Armenians and the Turks,” she said. “Each came into my office with their own history books, putting them down and saying, ‘Dr. Harrison, here is what happened. And it’s important the president understand this.’ Needless to say, the books the Armenians gave me and the books the Turks gave me were quite different.”

An expert on international affairs, history and geopolitics, Dr. Harrison knows the backstory—the mass displacement, forced assimilation and slayings of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915 and 1916. The Armenian people, and the Armenian diaspora, say those events—which resulted in more than 1.5 million deaths—meet every definition of genocide. But the Turkish government calls it something different, said Ronald Grigor Suny, the William H. Sewell Jr. Distinguished University Professor of History at the University of Michigan.

“The Turkish government argues that Armenians were a rebellious group of insurgents who planned to overthrow the Turkish government or separate from the Ottoman Empire,” said Dr. Suny, whose book, “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else,” was released earlier this year.

Those assertions, he is quick to add “are false,” and there exists consensus among scholars, he said, that the massacres and deportations ordered by the Ottoman government that resulted in mass killings of Armenians “fulfill all the requirements of the United Nations definition of genocide.”

Shant Mardirossian, the father of Elliott School of International Affairs junior Alexandra Mardirossian, underwrote the event commemorating the 100th anniversary of the American response to the Armenian genocide. A portion of his gift went to support the GW Armenian Students Association. (William Atkins/GW Today)

Still, this remains one of the toughest historical issues to tackle, a geopolitical cactus that pricks anyone who tries to touch it. Turkey won't admit to something it doesn't believe to be true—or doesn’t want to be true—Dr. Harrison said, and the United States needs Turkey as an ally in the world's most volatile region. As presidential candidates, both George W. Bush and Barack Obama publicly said they would call the Armenian genocide a “genocide” if elected. Neither of them have done so.

“Once you get into the White House, the lobbying community around Turkey as an important NATO ally get activated,” Dr. Harrison said. “Political uses of history are very, very old, and the stakes of interpretations of history are very, very high.”

Adding to the mess: The term “genocide” wasn’t coined until 1944, in response to the Nazi’s extermination of European Jews. But 30 years earlier, Henry Morgenthau, the United States ambassador in Constantinople, used a deconstructed translation of the word to describe the events taking place in Turkey in the summer of 1915, calling it “a campaign of race extermination.”

“He sends a cable to the state department,” said Shant Mardirossian, a GW benefactor and chair of the Near East Foundation (NEF). “Notice the choice of words ‘race extermination.’ When you translate that it literally translates to ‘genocide’—genos is the Greek word for ‘race’ and cide is the Latin word for ‘murder.’”

Amb. Morgenthau’s cable gave rise to a group of American leaders who provided critical relief to the Armenians—a group that later became the NEF. More than a century later, some progress has been made. A delegation of representatives from Turkey attended the 100th anniversary ceremony in Armenia last April, Mr. Mardirossian said. In 2000, Dr. Suny and Turkish, Armenian and Kurdish colleagues formed the Workshop for Armenian/Turkish Scholarship (WATS), beginning a series of seminars that discuss why the late Ottoman Empire became a scene of mass killing, deportation and forced assimilation. The results, he said, have been substantive.

Still, the semantic debate continues, with real consequences. The border between Turkey and Armenia remains closed, creating an economic barrier—especially for landlocked Armenia. And Turkey, Dr. Suny argued Monday, might be stunting its own growth by holding to its version of the truth in the face of heavy opposition.

“A democratic Turkey would recognize the genocide,” he said. “But the effort to get Turkey to look at its own dark spots in its history have been part of the democratizing efforts within Turkey.”