A new book describes why Turkey is right to have an uneasy conscience over its treatment of the Armenians

Yesterday, before celebrating Mass for Divine Mercy Sunday, Pope Francis made a pointed reference to the centenary of what is called by Armenians their “martyrdom” and by others as their genocide. Speaking of the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915 and addressing members of the Armenian rite who were present at Sunday’s Mass, the Pope recalled that “in the past century our human family has lived through three massive and unprecedented tragedies. The first, which is widely considered ‘the first genocide of the twentieth century’, struck your own people, the first Christian nation.”

His words were quoted from a common declaration signed by both St John Paul II and Supreme Armenian Patriarch Karekin II in 2001. Inevitably, they have caused great annoyance in Turkey, which has never publically admitted the part it played in the events of 1915.

It so happens I have been reading a fascinating book, Family Politics: Domestic Life, Devastation and Survival 1900-1950 by Paul Ginsborg, professor of Contemporary European History at the University of Florence, in which, along with Spain, Italy, Russia and Germany, he examines the history behind the rise of modern Turkey. He makes it quite clear that although the numbers currently thought to have died in the genocide, roughly 1.5 million Armenians, are probably somewhat lower, actual historical evidence for what happened is incontrovertible.

As with other 20th century genocides, such as that of the Jews under Nazism, the deliberate killing of the Ottoman Armenians came about for several reasons. The “Young Turks”, under their Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) had wrested power from the crumbling Ottoman Empire in 1913. Their political objective was “Turkism”, a deliberate appeal to the nationalistic aspirations of the majority Muslim population of Turkey. The two million Armenians among the population, who for centuries had co-existed side by side with their Muslim neighbours in a mainly cordial fashion, were now regarded with growing hostility.

World War I brought its own huge upheavals to this increasingly unstable situation. Turkish Armenians were accused of making contact with Russia, the Turks’ official enemy; in Anatolia and the Caucasus land ownership began to be disputed between the Turks, the Armenians and the Kurds; and the Armenians themselves had started to assert their own nationalistic aspirations. Ginsborg adds two more elements that tipped this volatile situation into genocide: the huge death toll of WWI which brought its own callousness and indifference to the value of life; and “a Turco-Ottoman leadership intent on the survival of their state at any cost.”

The Turks had also suffered terrible losses at the hands of the Russians in the Caucasus in 1914. Their fury at defeat made them turn on the Armenians whom they identified as their principal internal enemy. The CUP leaders began the grisly process of ethnic cleansing and mass deportations in the spring and summer of 1915. Generally the men were killed immediately and the women and children were subsequently deported on appalling long forced marches into what is today northern Syria and Iraq. The CUP masked the deliberate genocide of their Armenian population as the “transference” of peoples to another location. They also covered up the evidence of their deadly policies by ordering all corpses on the march to be buried and their effects immediately burned.

According to Ginsborg, most genocide scholars estimate that, through the killings and deaths from exposure, starvation and thirst, between 700,000 and 900,000 Armenian Ottomans died – some 50% of the pre-war population. He also argues that the victorious Western Powers were complicit in what took place: faced with the existence of the new Republic of Turkey and morally exhausted by the War, they let the question of genocide drop in their wish to make peace with Mustafa Kemal’s new country.

Thus the new Republic was never called to account for its crimes when the historical evidence was still fresh in people’s memories. It was allowed to deny that genocide had ever taken place without protest and to pretend that what happened was simply part of the civil and political unrest and chaos during WWI. Nonetheless, Ginsborg is clear that Kemal’s regime was “packed from top to bottom with participants in the murders of 1915-1916”. That their successors today still cannot face what their predecessors did – unlike Germany after WW2 – is a sign of a nation with an uneasy conscience. To refer to the word “genocide” became a crime in Turkey, an indication of a wound that still festers in the national consciousness.