Other People's Genocides

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

One of the big stories this week, at least in terms of US foreign policy, was Joe Biden's characterization of the Ottoman massacres of Armenians in 1915 as a genocide in comments he made last Saturday. The genocide is considered to have begun on April 24, 1915. 

“The American people honor all those Armenians who perished in the genocide,” Biden said in a statement Saturday.

This is considered a big deal because the Turkish government rejects this characterization, preferring instead to emphasize the degree to which the events of 1915 resemble a "civil war" rather than a genocide. Unsurprisingly, Ankara has sharply criticized Biden's comments, saying they have opened a "deep wound" in US-Turkish relations. 

The problem with discussions about genocide is that everybody seems to be operating from their own, seat-of-the-pants definition of the concept.

What is genocide? Back before I started studying history professionally, my understanding of this term was that it constituted an effort to wipe out an entire "race" of people. That is indeed something that would count as genocide, but the term, as it was defined by the United Nations in 1948, is actually much broader than that

Article II

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: 

  1. Killing members of the group; 
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; 
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Without question, under the definition that is offered above the events of 1915 count as a "genocide." The thing is, just about every developed country in the world is guilty, according to the definition above, of having committed genocidal acts at some point in its modern history. 

Why then, one might ask, is Turkey being singled out as a country with a genocidal history--especially since the events in question were committed some eight years before the Republic of Turkey was established in 1923? 

Part of the reason is the high level of denialism in Turkey regarding these events. The Turkish government, and the Turkish educational system in particular, inculcates the notion among Turkish citizen that the "genocide issue" is simply a lie that the rest of the world likes to indulge in as a way of rhetorically attacking Turkey.  

On the other hand, it would be interesting to see how Americans, or the US government, would respond if, say, the Russian government passed a resolution accusing the US of genocide with respect to any number of events in this country's past. Is it possible that Americans, in that situation, might similarly react defensively? Without question that would be the case--despite the fact that the US is a big and powerful country that doesn't have the experience of foreign occupation and partition plans that Turkey's modern history is full of. 

But still it's worth asking: why is it that 32 countries and numerous US states have been prompted to recognize the events of 1915 as a genocide, but no one seems interested in recognizing the histories of the US, France, the UK, Russia, and any number of other countries as genocidal? Indeed, just four years before the UN produced the genocide convention that included the definition listed above, the Soviet Union had carried out a genocide of Crimean Tatars and Chechens in a manner strikingly similar to the genocide of Armenians in 1915. Why isn't that something that people bring up in this context?

I think that in the minds of a lot of people, genocide is something that is usually committed by black and brown people--or Nazis. Indeed, in the case of Turkey the so-called "genocide debate" is something that is routinely used as a political cudgel, and not a straightforward effort to "better understand history." I think Americans and Europeans are inclined to feel sympathy with Armenians because they are seen as Christian and therefore European and civilized. So, we're all supposed to cheer about the evil Turks finally getting their comeuppance, and we're supposed to ignore the genocide against Azeris that Armenian forces committed in Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s. Because genocide isn't something that nice Christians do, apparently. 

To a certain degree, I hate having to make this argument, because this shouldn't be something that people take sides over with respect to which country they like best. Indeed, even the Crimean Tatar leadership--which presumably would be able to identify with the victims in the Armenian Genocide--has traditionally been outspoken in supporting Turkey on this issue. It should be possible to recognize that there was a genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire which began in 1915, and also note that Muslims in the Balkans and the Caucasus were the victims of a series of genocides taking place in the 19th and 20th centuries--genocides that hardly anyone knows or cares about now. 

Most of these genocides were different in some important ways from the Nazi Holocaust of Jews and other communities. Unlike the genocides committed by Germany and its allies during the Second World War, just about all of the genocides occurring in the Balkans, southern Russia, and the Middle East in the 19th and early 20th centuries--including the Ottoman genocide of Armenians--were not only genocidal, but also included elements of civil war. Armenian Dashnak militias, taking a page from the independence movements of Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, and other Balkan countries, massacred Muslims in Anatolia in 1915 because they wanted to create an independent Armenian state in eastern Anatolia. They did this for the same reason that separatist militias in the Balkans had massacred Muslims in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: according to the logic of the time, if you could chase your rivals out of a certain piece of territory during war, you would be given that territory in the peace settlement. The point was not necessarily to kill every last person (in the way that the Nazis, with their theories of racial superiority, were trying to do). Rather, the goal was to force people out so that you could keep their land once the fighting was over. This is what had happened to scores of Muslims--murdered and "cleansed" from their territories in the Balkans and the Caucasus. And this is what happened to the Armenians, too. 

I wrote above that I hate having to make this argument, but I feel prompted to do so nonetheless when I see the simple, celebratory manner in which this issue is discussed in the media. Yes, the Ottoman government committed genocide, but it's hardly because the leaders of the Young Turks just woke up one morning and decided to kill off the Armenians. The Young Turk leadership came from--you guessed it--the Balkans. They knew firsthand how Balkan countries were able to gain their independence, and they applied those lessons to Anatolia. 

What they didn't count on, however, was the fact that when Christians commit genocide against Muslims it is eventually forgotten or explained away. When Muslims commit genocide against Christians, it is never forgotten. 


As for US-Turkish relations, I couldn't help but notice that Joe Biden called Turkish President Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan on the 23rd--the day before the announcement

For sure, we can expect Erdoğan to freak out and fulminate over this--he freaks out and fulminates over a lot less. But to some degree, as is always the case with Erdoğan, there's a lot of political theater taking place here. Ankara's narrative surrounding the Armenian genocide--that this is a nothing issue that has been cooked up by the rest of the world simply to keep Turkey down--is a sentiment that is honestly shared by the vast majority of Turks. For Erdoğan--who always needs an enemy to rail about--this is a rare chance to be publicly angry over an issue about which he actually has the support of the majority of the country, and not just his base. As angry as he presents himself to be in public, my bet is that Erdoğan probably appreciates the opportunity to show himself as the defender of the country's honor. 

Behind the scenes, though, my guess is that it probably wasn't coincidental that Biden and Erdoğan just happened to talk on the phone the day before. Both presidents, in my view, will ultimately make hay from an historical issue that has become thoroughly politicized. 


I've written a number of times regarding this issue. You can find those posts here if you're interested. 


Are you a Turk across empires? Order a copy today, then get another one for your library.

More commentary, photos, and links can be found in the Borderlands Lounge.   


  1. A well argued piece, Jim. What do you think about the Yugoslav war or wars in the 1990s?

    Ignorance about the multiple genocides of the British Empire is probably one of the main factors in the British exceptionalism that led to Brexit, as well as the continuing success of the jingoistic Conservative party.

    1. To clarify: What do you think about the Yugoslav war or wars in the 1990s, in the context of how genocidal acts are perceived and reported?

  2. That's a good question about Yugoslavia. As the wars were happening in the 90s, without question they were generally reported (largely correctly, in my opinion) in terms of Serb aggression against Muslims and others. But in the years that have passed since then I think this narrative has been largely forgotten. At MSU I teach a class about those wars and find that most of my students--at the beginning of the semester--have never heard of these events. Indeed, within just a few years of those wars ending, they were already being explained away in the context of 9/11. Whenever people would tell me that the 9/11 attacks represented a broader "crisis in the Muslim world," I'd ask them if Serbs slaughtering innocent people in the name of Christianity similarly implicated all Christians--and would typically get nothing more than eye-rolling or surprised looks.