Turkey’s historical bias boosts Armenian Genocide research

The Turkish government launched an English-language Armenian genocide denial website this week, underscoring the extent to which history in Turkey is less about facts and scholarly analysis than a favourable portrayal of past events. 

“This website will respond to Armenian genocide slander used against our country at every possible opportunity in the international area, by putting historical information and data to the fore," Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun said, referring to the new site

For years, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) has proposed the establishment of a commission to analyse Ottoman and Armenian archives to determine whether the Ottoman Empire committed genocide against Armenians from 1915. But the government already appears to have its answer. 

“The main voice that counters research on the Armenian genocide is the Turkish government, that is the base truth,” Ryan Gingeras, associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and one of the more widely respected historians of the late Ottoman era and early Republican period. 

Yektan Türkyılmaz, a Kurdish-origin historian who has worked in the Turkish and Armenian archives, took a similar view. “Genocide is not an event, it is a process,” he said. “Denialism is a part of this process.”

Erdoğan’s government makes three assertions in regards to the label of genocide. The first is that historians have yet to review an immense repository of documents in the Armenian and Ottoman archives. 

Gingeras points out that Turkey’s Interior Ministry keeps some of its archives off-limits, but acknowledged that there were likely records within the archives that could better illuminate the events of 1915-1919. 

“There is still a lot to learn about the period, about not simply what happened to Armenians, but how the government thought about it, how they went about prosecuting the genocide, how they went about making sure that the effect of the Armenian genocide wasn’t reversed, meaning that Armenians don’t come back,” he said. 

Türkyılmaz pointed out that Turkey’s military archives were only partially open, and that the land registry archives, which are crucial because they reveal demographic change through home ownership, remained closed. 

Even if these archives were open, he said they might not reveal much. “Archives function as a display window of a state,” he told Ahval in a podcast. “They form an exhibition where a state curates itself.”

Turkey’s second argument is that mostly amateurs and non-historians have analysed the issue, but at least a dozen respected historians have written at length about the Armenian genocide, and in the past decade many strongly researched books on the issue have been published. 

Turkey’s third assertion - that the label of genocide is not supported by the available evidence - is likely the most dubious. “There is almost unanimous agreement in academia about what happened to Armenians in 1915,” said Türkyılmaz. 

There is also a growing global consensus, as government bodies in 32 countries, including the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Brazil have recognised the genocide. 

Last week, U.S. Senator Kevin Cramer blocked a resolution that would have officially recognised the Armenian Genocide in the Senate, following its passage in the House in October. It was the third time in a month that a Republican prevented the Senate from voting on the resolution.

Cramer said the move would anger Turkey during a time of sensitive negotiations on Turkey’s offensive in northeast Syria and its purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile systems. 

“I’m not sure the U.S. government is an appropriate agent to make these kinds of decisions,” said Gingeras, who understands the Armenian diaspora movement to bring pressure on Turkey. “Is this something that Congress should be busying itself with, and to what end?” 

This echoes Turkey’s new website, which warns foreign governments against making formal pronouncements about the genocide that could hurt Turkish-Armenian relations. The site also calls for “leaving history to historians” and points to “fatalities on both sides” - common rallying cries from the Turkish perspective. 

Türkyılmaz offered a rejoinder to those who say the Turkish and U.S. governments are only politicising the issue. “Nothing about the Armenian genocide is politically neutral, including the definition of genocide itself,” he said. 

More than any other period or issue, Turks are taught about the era before, during, and after the country’s birth, according to Gingeras. But the role of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, an Ottoman general who founded the Republic of Turkey after the collapse of the empire in 1923, tends to be over-glorified, while the suffering of Armenians is significantly under-played. 

In March 1916, Atatürk became a field commander in eastern Anatolia, the scene of many of the massacres and mass deportation of Armenians the year before. As such, Atatürk was surely aware of what had happened, but we have no record of his thoughts on the issue, Gingeras said, only that in an interview after the war, Turkey’s founder described the massacres as “villainy that belongs in the past”. 

Atatürk nevertheless appointed former Ottoman officials, such as Şukru Kaya and Abdülhalik Renda, who had helped facilitate the genocide to ministerial posts in the new republic.

Though legal cases against those who describe the events as genocide are now rare, the ferocity with which Turkey’s government pushes its perspective means most Turkish citizens remain reluctant to discuss the issue from any other angle. 

“In Turkey itself, history is taught as doctrine,” he added. “History is taught from the top down. It represents, essentially, state ideology.”

Yet in an ironic twist, scholarly research on the Armenian genocide has become so strong over the years largely thanks to the doubts of the Turkish government. 

“It’s certainly helped shape the field, helped shape the sensitivity with which historians go about it,” said Gingeras. “They have to know what they’re talking about, they have to be somewhat conscientious about sources and where their research fits within the broader framework of the study of the Ottoman Empire and especially this period of time. There’s a really high standard.”