Clashing versions of an 86-year-old mass slaughter are straining relations between Turkey and some of its key European allies.
France and Turkey are locked in a diplomatic skirmish over a decision last week by the lower house of France’s parliament to classify the killings of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in 1915 as genocide.
Meanwhile, the Armenian issue has complicated Britain’s plans to commemorate victims of genocide in the country’s first-ever Holocaust Memorial Day this Saturday.
The event, more than a year in the planning, was originally intended to draw attention to atrocities committed since 1939, taking the mass extermination of Jews in World War II as a focal point for a day of tributes.
Those plans remain on course, according to the UK Home Office, which has also sent out invitations to representatives of the Rwandan and Bosnian communities in London, among others.
But organisers say victims of the Armenian slaughter — which preceded the Holocaust by 24 years — will also be acknowledged in a 15-minute introduction to a British Broadcasting Corporation television documentary on genocide to be aired on the day of the remembrance.
Stephen Smith, director of Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre, argues that calling the Armenian genocide by any other name would mean “allowing us to be persuaded by the argument of those who would deny that the genocide occurred at all.”
He added: “History is greater than our temporary interpretation of it and one day it will be called the genocide because the historical facts bear that out.”
Privately, one official involved in the planning for the Holocaust remembrance said some British government officials, wary of angering Turkey, have tread a fine line between doing what they felt was morally right, and diplomatically appropriate.
“I think the government and the committee have gone out of their way to show that there is a real concern for the victims of the Armenian genocide,” said the official, who requested anonymity. “But there is a political sticking point the government still has to deal with.”
Britain may be extra wary given Turkey’s reaction to the French parliamentary decision to label the Armenian killings as genocide.
Turkey swipes back
The French move prompted a swift retaliation from Turkey, which recalled its ambassador from Paris and, on Tuesday, scrapped a $149 million project with a French firm to build and launch a high-tech spy satellite by 2003.
The fall-out continued on Wednesday, as a Turkish deputy introduced a bill to parliament that recognises as genocide France’s massacre of Algerians in its war against the former colony in the early 1960s.
Armenians claim they lost 1.5 million people between 1915 and 1917 in a campaign orchestrated by a then-dying Ottoman Empire to expel them and their Russian allies from Anatolia, on modern-day Turkey’s eastern fringe.
Turkey, founded as a nation in 1923, after the Ottoman Empire’s collapse, scoffs at such claims.
It says the Armenian death toll is wildly inflated, numbering at most 500,000. The killings that did occur, the argument continues, were not a systematic attempt to exterminate a race — as genocide is defined in international conventions — but the natural casualties of a hard-fought war that also claimed thousands of Turkish lives.
“What is believed here in Turkey is that this happened in World War I, when the Armenians were fighting for their homeland within the Ottoman Empire,” said Hasan Koni, a professor of international relations at Ankara University, in the Turkish capital.
Koni accused the French parliament of “double standards”, given France’s own failure to confront its chequered past in Algeria, a former colony that waged a war of independence against its occupier during the 1950s and early 1960s.
Koni was referring to the French deputies’ recent decision to forgo an official probe into the killing of Algerians during that war, preferring to let future historians pass judgement.
Western historians say such views, shared by the country’s president and prime minister, points up the degree to which Turkey remains in denial about a dark episode of its own history.
It also reflects, they say, the starkly differing approach towards difficult historical episodes from that adopted by Germany, which has publicly grappled with questions over its leading role in the extermination of six million Jews in the Holocaust.