This article appeared in the Washington Post’s 11 March edition.
It is dimly lit and dank as a cavern inside the old National Bank building two blocks from the White House. The electricity is off, and we make our way around with the aid of a flashlight. Its narrow beam reveals an impressive three-story atrium with a carved wood ceiling, dated-looking ATM machines and an old bank vault, its yard-thick steel door yawning open.
I’m exploring this vintage space with Ross Vartian of the Armenian National Institute (ANI), a branch of the increasingly powerful Armenian Assembly of America, an ethnic lobbying group. The ANI bought the building last year for $7.25 million, with the aim of transforming it from a place that safeguarded money to one that will preserve a memory. Four years from now, Vartian tells me, this space will be a $50 million museum and memorial filled with mural-size photos, personal artifacts and interactive exhibits chronicling the history of an atrocity that time — and politics — have long obscured: the Armenian genocide of 1915 to 1923. Visitors will learn how, in those eight years, 1.5 million Armenians living in the eastern Anatolia region of present-day Turkey were massacred or perished in forced death marches ordered by the nationalist Turkish regime of the declining Ottoman Empire.
Vartian says he wants the museum to be as emotionally powerful and historically accurate as Washington’s hugely popular U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. That means being honest about not only the Turks who slaughtered Armenians, but also those who tried to save them. “Just about every Armenian who survived, including a member of my own family, was saved by a righteous Turk,” says Vartian. But whether it honors righteous Turks or not, the museum will not be seen as historically accurate by the Republic of Turkey.
Turkey has long and forcefully insisted that the genocide never happened. At most, it claims, 500,000 Armenians died, mostly of disease, and only as the tragic consequence of a civil war started by Armenian separatists. Still, short of building its own Armenian Genocide Myth Museum, there’s not much Turkey can do. It will be the Armenian version of events, not the Turkish, that the public visiting the ANI museum will absorb and — as is increasingly the case throughout the West — accept as historical fact.
After more than 80 years, during which the Armenian side struggled to present its case, Western scholars, politicians and the public are coming around to the view that what the Armenians suffered was not a tragic wartime loss,but a deliberate genocide, and that not recognizing it as such is a profound moral offense. This shift is most obvious on the political front. About two decades ago, the Armenian diaspora — which includes about 300,000 Americans of Armenian descent — began trying to persuade Western governments to pass resolutions acknowledging the genocide. Lobbyists funded by the Turkish government thwarted almost every attempt by appealing to the importance of the U.S.-Turkish strategic alliance and by publicizing — and sometimes subsidizing — historical studies that questioned Armenian claims.
But recently, the tide has begun to turn. The Belgian Senate passed an Armenian genocide resolution in 1998. The French parliament did the same in January, leading Turkey to cancel an array of contracts with French firms.
Last fall, for the first time, an Armenian genocide resolution made it past the International Relations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Speaker Dennis Hastert supported the measure, hoping it would lift the reelection prospects of Republican Rep. James Rogan of California, who was in a tight race in a district with a large Armenian American population. The Clinton administration strongly opposed the resolution, believing it would undermine U.S. interests in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Turkey threatened, among other things, to deny the United States use of Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey for patrolling the no-fly zone over northern Iraq. After personal appeals from President Clinton, Hastert pulled the resolution off the House floor minutes before it was to be voted on. Its demise was a crucial victory for Turkey, but probably a temporary one, as a similar measure will almost surelybe introduced in the new Congress.
Today, no American politician wants to be on record as denying the genocide. In 1990, when the U.S. Senate considered an Armenian genocide resolution, several prominent senators, including Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Colorado’s Tim Wirth, publicly questioned whether historians knew for certain that the genocide had really occurred. By last fall, even those House members who opposed the resolution shied away from casting doubt on the historic fact of the genocide. Instead, they argued against the measure on other grounds: that Congress shouldn’t be passing judgment on the histories of other countries; that the resolution would be a slap in the face of a valued U.S. ally; that it would harm U.S. interests in the region; and that it would make Turkey defensive and less likely to reexamine its history.
Bill Clinton opposed the resolution, but every year, on or around April 24, the day the genocide is officially commemorated in Armenia, he issued a statement acknowledging “the deportations and massacres of roughly one and a half million Armenians in the final years of the Ottoman Empire.” George W. Bush has gone even further. During last year’s presidential campaign, he wrote to Armenian American groups that Armenians had been subject to a “genocidal campaign” and that, if elected, he would “ensure that our nation properly recognizes the tragic suffering of the Armenian people.” Armenian Americans will be watching to see if the president uses the word “genocide” this April 24.
In academia, the trend is similar. In 1985, 69 American scholars signed a petition questioning claims of an Armenian genocide. Today, only a handful of academics maintain such skepticism, and only one, University of Louisville historian Justin McCarthy, will say so publicly. McCarthy told me the drop-off is due in part to the harassment that he and like-minded scholars have received from militant Armenians — including, he says, threats of violence. Another reason, writes Turkish columnist Sukru Elekdag, a former ambassador to the United States, is that the Turkish government has failed to fulfill a promise it made in 1985 to give American academics unfettered access to Turkish historical archives.
Vahakn Dadrian, a leading Armenian American scholar, offers a third explanation: more and better research on the events of 1915 to 1923 has convinced once-skeptical academics that what Armenians suffered was indeed genocide. The number of scholars who publicly acknowledge the Armenian genocide is large and growing. Last year, 126 Holocaust scholars signed a petition affirming that “the World War I Armenian Genocide is an incontestable historical fact” and urging the government of Turkey to “finally come to terms with a dark chapter of Ottoman-Turkish history.”
For decades, the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews defined what most people thought of as genocide. But in the wake of more recent government-sponsored slaughters, from Cambodia to Bosnia to Rwanda, scholars have come to see the Armenian tragedy as a more typical example of genocide, arising as it did from an ethnic battle over territory. At the time, the Ottoman and Russian empires were fighting on opposite sides of one of the many fronts of World War I. Armenian revolutionaries in Russia had joined the czar’s army and were attempting (with little success) to recruit Armenians on the Ottoman side in the hopes of creating an autonomous Armenian homeland that would include eastern Anatolia. The Ottoman government, then controlled by the nationalist “Young Turks” regime, responded by massacring — or ethnically cleansing — almost the entire Armenian population of the region.
Turkey claims that the forced relocation of the Armenians was justified by the war and that there was no government plan to slaughter them. Yet even in Turkey, there’s now some dissent from that view. In February, Turkish television broadcast an unprecedented six-hour debate on the Armenian genocide issue. Four of the show’s panelists expressed the government view that accusations of genocide are lies propagated by Turkey’s enemies. A fifth panelist, however, disagreed. “The constant refrain of ‘We are not guilty,’ and the parallel blaming of the Armenians, the victims, very much hurts the cause of Turkey,” insisted Taner Akcam, a Turkish scholar at the Armenian Research Center of the University of Michigan-Dearborn. “Unless we distance ourselves from the perpetrators of this crime, which was a genocide, we will never be able to extricate ourselves from this burdensome onus.” A few minutes later, an outraged Semra Ozal, the wife of Turkey’s late president, Turgut Ozal, phoned in to the show. “How dare you let this man speak?” she shouted. “Shut him up!”
It’s easy to understand why views like Akcam’s aren’t well-received in Turkey. Most Turks honestly believe their country is being asked to admit to crimes their ancestors did not commit. Turks also believe that any admission of genocide would lead to demands that Turkey pay restitution or give back land in eastern Anatolia — ideas Armenians haven’t dismissed.
With world opinion turning against the Turkish position, some ex-government officials in Turkey are advocating a new approach: convening a panel of scholars from around the world, including Turkey and Armenia, and giving them full access to all archives to look at the historical record. This would benefit Turkey by taking the issue of the Armenian genocide out of the political realm, at least for a while. The idea also appeals to Western diplomats and politicians who, more than anything else, want the issue to go away.
But Armenia and the powerful Armenian diaspora have no interest in taking the issue out of the political realm, where they are winning. Even participating in such a research panel, say Armenians, would validate precisely the premise they reject: that there’s any doubt that Armenians suffered genocide.
Ending this long-standing dispute will help Turkey achieve itsprimary national goal: winning entry into the European Union. Not ending it will put Turkey on a collision course with any number of nations that might pass Armenian genocide resolutions in the future, including the United States. In the end, the genocide issue isn’t going away. Like Ross Vartian’s museum, it will be a permanent fixture in Washington, and a perpetual sore spot with the rest of the Western world. And that’s something Turkey is going to have to adjust to, one way or another.
Paul Glastris, a former correspondent for U.S. News & World Report and former speechwriter for President Clinton, is a senior fellow at the Western Policy Center, a Washington think tank specializing in Eastern Mediterranean and Balkan security issues.