On April 5, 2023, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar delivered a lecture at an Armenian Genocide denial conference held at Ankara’s Bilim University. In his speech, he reiterated the traditional denialist views, which were developed and disseminated by the Turkish state for decades, aimed at opposing the recognition and condemnation of the Armenian Genocide.
This policy is activated every April, and the leading figures of the Turkish state assume the role of those who voice the denialist rhetoric. This highlights the immense significance of the topic of the Armenian Genocide and the importance for the Turkish state to reverse the narrative.
Despite the scientific consensus on the reality of the Armenian Genocide and the political success achieved with more than 30 countries accepting and recognizing it, we must not become complacent. While there is a general agreement on the Armenian Genocide in public perception, we must continue efforts to combat denialism. Decades of enjoying the fruits of victory can lead to complacency, and denialism can spread like a weed if not countered.
The Roots of Denial: From Conspiracy of Amnesia to Criminalization
According to the “Encyclopedia of Genocides and Crimes Against Humanity”, the denial of the Armenian Genocide is considered “the most patent example of a state’s denial of its past…”
The roots of denial can be traced back to the years of the Armenian Genocide and its immediate aftermath. In 1919, Mustafa Kemal, in his keynote speech in Ankara, outlined several key points of denial that were to become part of state propaganda. For Kemal, this issue was not only a means to justify the Turkish nation and whitewash the crimes committed, but it also served clear political goals. Kemal’s inner circle was comprised mostly of the perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide, and the Turkish population had participated en masse in the murder of Christians. Therefore, Kemal’s denial of the Armenian Genocide made him a natural supporter and ally of these groups. Kemal’s fundamental speech, Nutuk, delivered from October 15-20, 1927, during the second congress of the Republican People’s Party, lasting a total of 36 and a half hours, became the only official and sanctified account of the formation of the Turkish nation. In his text, not only what was said is important, but also what was ignored and silenced. Armenians and other minorities were erased from this foundational myth, and what happened to them was forbidden to be remembered.
The Ministry of Education of Turkey, conveniently overlooking the terrible episodes of violence committed by the Ottoman Empire, began to instill in the new generation the image of the enemy and traitorous Armenia. Moreover, the Turkish state did everything in its power to prevent any discussion of this topic outside the country. For instance, in 1934, when the American MGM company bought the screen rights to the book “40 Days of Musa Dagh” by Austrian writer Franz Werfel, Turkey put diplomatic pressure on the United States. The U.S. State Department intervened, demanding that MGM suspend the project.
The tactic was exceedingly simple: to buy time, forget the matter until the witnesses of the Medz Yeghern pass away, and no victim can talk about that heinous crime in court.
Only in the 1970s did Turkish society become abruptly extricated from this conspiracy of oblivion, as it encountered the resolute determination of a new, younger generation of Armenians to remind the world of the atrocities their ancestors had endured. In 1965, Armenian communities worldwide commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. The younger generation started blaming their parents for keeping silent and not raising their voice for so many years. An era of activism commenced, against which the Turkish ploys of silence were no longer effective. Armenian studies’ centers were established in various universities, and communities began to strive for the remembrance and condemnation of the Armenian Genocide. ASALA (Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia) and other groups assassinated several Turkish diplomats and attacked the premises of a number of Turkish institutions.
Under these circumstances, the uproar in Turkey shattered the long-held silence. The Turkish state had to revisit a topic that it had intended to consider already resolved. Several retired diplomats were entrusted with building a new wall to counter the more vociferous voices speaking out about the atrocities committed against the Armenians. Among the most prominent instances are Kamuran Gürün, Şinasi Orel and Süreyya Yuca, who selectively extracted several documents from the Ottoman State Archives confirming their arguments and tried to revive and lend an air of scientificity to the old claims based on them. An entire industry of denialist literature was created.
In addition to fabricating scientific theories, substantial resources are devoted to suppressing discussion of the topic beyond Turkey’s borders. Public relations agencies have been hired in the United States with the primary objective of organizing a campaign against the recognition of the Armenian Genocide. These firms emphasize the significance of the U.S.-Turkey alliance, military collaboration, and the potential risks for Washington’s Middle Eastern policy. In 1985, 69 researchers published a statement in the New York Times urging the U.S. Congress not to pass a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide. However, most of the signatories lacked expertise in the history of the region and were funded by the Turkish state. The Turkish government donated $3 million to establish the Institute of Turkish Studies in Washington in 1982. Furthermore, Turkish history and culture chairs are sponsored by the government in renowned universities throughout the world, in which the policy of denial plays a crucial role. The Turkish Studies project, headed by Hakan Yavuz at the University of Utah, is particularly active.
Financial resources are provided to academics who disseminate Turkish opinions on the topic. Professor Stanford Shaw, whose “History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey” vehemently denies the reality of the Armenian Genocide, is one such example. In his work, he depicts the Armenian victims as disloyal, rebellious and terrorists, while simultaneously blaming them. Ottoman period specialist Heath W. Lowry, who became the first incumbent of the Ataturk Chair in Turkish Studies at Princeton University in 1994, is another academic who receives financial support from Turkey. The chair was created through a $1.5 million grant from the Republic of Turkey. Heath W. Lowry and Justin McCarthy are other Armenian Genocide deniers who were the doctoral students of Stanford Shaw.
The primary objective of these Turkish and Western academics has been to construct an alternative history that bears little relation to the truth and refutes the Armenian Genocide.
The Armenian Genocide is a source of great distress for Turkey, both domestically and internationally. Article 301 of the Turkish Criminal Code stipulates imprisonment of up to two years for “insulting Turkishness.” The Armenian Genocide issue is considered as one form of such insult. Nobel Prize laureate Orhan Pamuk, and Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink are among the accused under this law. Concurrently, the resolutions of different countries’ parliaments on recognizing the Armenian Genocide serve as occasion to accuse those nations of promoting “false Armenian claims” and to mount diplomatic protests.
Debunking the Denialist Myths
Genocide is largely based on the following theses:
Genocide Implementation Plan
Firstly, the existence of an intentional plan to carry out the genocide is questioned. Turkey argues that there is no written evidence of such a plan. However, the notion that the Armenian Genocide was premeditated is supported by a plethora of evidence, such as official documents kept in the archives of Germany and Austria-Hungary – Turkey’s allies during WWI, reports from ambassadors and consuls of those countries, telegrams from Henry Morgenthau, the American ambassador to Constantinople, and testimonies from numerous foreign witnesses. Additionally, the massive amount of factual material collected and the verdicts passed during the judicial prosecutions of the Young Turkish leaders in Istanbul provide strong evidence of the genocide’s planning and organization. Yet, this last piece of evidence is often questioned with the argument that the trials of the Young Turks took place under the pressure of the great powers that had won the First World War. However, this argument is futile as it would call into question the judgments of the Nuremberg trials, which were also conducted under the control of the countries that won the war and whose verdicts Turkey accepted unconditionally.
Deportation and Not Massacre
Turkish historians attempt to downplay the gravity of the Armenian Genocide by arguing that the displacement of Armenians from their places of residence was not a premeditated, systematic act of mass extermination. Rather, they contend that it was an effort to transfer a part of the Armenian population from the war zone, as Christian Armenians were deemed an unreliable element during the war against Russia. The Turks also claim that only a small fraction of those who were displaced died from hunger, diseases and other causes, including attacks by gangs operating in some regions that were subject to anarchy during the war.
However, these arguments are flawed and fail to withstand scrutiny. The forced deportation of Armenians was not limited to “Eastern Anatolia” (Western Armenia), which was the theater of war, but also included areas from all over Anatolia, and even places far away from the war front.
The Civil War Hypothesis
Another thesis put forward to deny the Armenian Genocide is the claim that along with the Armenians who were killed, Turks were also killed, and the hypothesis of civil war and an Armenian uprising is suggested.
However, the rebellion hypothesis is completely untrue. Many reports from the Turkish command attest to the loyalty of Armenians during the war. The self-defense of Van, which is often cited as an attempt at rebellion, occurred in April 1915, after the deportations and mass killings had already begun in March, and before the Van resistance Armenian villages around the city were destroyed. Furthermore, almost all contemporaries, regardless of their nationality or religion, whether they were Armenian or foreign, friend or foe of Turkey, have described the scenes of slaughter and noted the direct involvement of state officials and the military in the killings. The existence of a vast amount of photographic material further validates the fact that the Armenian people were systematically exterminated under the pretext of deportation.
One of the main topics debated by the Turkish side is the number of Armenians killed during the genocide. It is simply impossible to deny the mass murders of Armenians and deniers attempt to question the death toll of one and a half million to cast doubt on the entire phenomenon. For example, Justin McCartney, a well-known denier of the Armenian Genocide, based on controversial research, notes that only one and a half million Armenians lived in the empire until 1915. Similarly, Yusuf Halaçoğlu, the former president of the Turkish Historical Society, claims that the number of Armenian victims was only 56,000, of which only 10,000 were killed.
Even if we enter into this debate, the most eloquent argument is the official Turkish statistics. After the fall of the Young Turk Party in December 1918, a commission was formed at the initiative of the Minister of Interior, Mustafa Arif, to investigate this issue. It worked for three months and presented the results to the public court under the new Minister of Internal Affairs, Jemal Bey, on March 14, 1919. According to these data, the number of Armenians killed in 1914-1918 was 800,000.
However, it is odd to use such an argument. Those responsible for the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia were condemned by the International Court of Justice in The Hague as perpetrators of genocide, even though “only” 7,000 people were killed there.
The Myth of the Ottoman Archives
In 1980, after the military coup in Turkey, a huge amount of documents were simply burned – an unprecedented step that was kept quiet. In 2004, during the conversation with the U.S. ambassador, Turkish historian Halil Berktay noted that such a purge took place in the 1990s as well, casting doubts on the authenticity of the archive’s content.
This claim is accompanied by the propaganda work on the opening of the Ottoman archives. They contain a vast amount of material not only about the history of the Turks but also about the peoples who were under Ottoman rule for a long time. Ankara has understood since the 1960s that these archives could pose a threat to Turkey. As a result, only rare specialists were allowed access to the archives for many years, and the selection and coordination of archival documents were carried out under the leadership of Ismet Miroglu, the director of the General Archives Department of Turkey.
On May 16, 1989, the Turkish government announced the opening of the Ottoman archives, which was declared an unprecedented step. Documents about Armenians were being opened, and only 10,000 of the 7 million classified documents by the special commission were opened. However, it was kept quiet that in 1980, after the military coup, a significant number of documents were simply destroyed.
However, even if the Ottoman archives were not “cleaned”, it is unlikely that a decision or direct instructions about the mass extermination of Armenians could be found in the Ottoman archives. The decision was made by a narrow circle of the Young Turkish elite, and the orders were mostly given verbally and in secret, trying to conceal the guilt.
New Tactics of Denial
Today, the denial of the Armenian Genocide has become a mainstream policy in Turkey, infiltrating almost all historical organizations, major newspapers, and television and radio channels. However, as the recognition of the genocide by mainstream scholars worldwide and many states and peoples increases, denial has become more sophisticated and subtle in the last decade.
Ahead of the 100th anniversary of the Genocide in 2015, Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmet Davutoglu, in 2014 introduced the concept of “just memory” and the term “common pain,” equating the victims of genocide and the First World War. This approach deliberately obfuscates the issue by suggesting that not only Armenians but also Kurds, Arabs, Turks, and millions of other citizens living in the Ottoman Empire suffered and died during the war years. It creates an unjustified positive impression among the international community regarding Turkey’s willingness to engage in dialogue while completely distorting the essence of the problem.
The falsity of this rhetoric was made evident by the Turkish government’s trick of scheduling the Gallipoli battle on April 24, 2015, to overshadow the events organized in Tsitsernakaberd, Yerevan. Furthermore, Erdogan used to emphasize the large number of Turkish losses in recent years in the same context as the Armenian victims, putting the victim and the perpetrator on the same level and blurring the reality, which has a clear legal definition: genocide.
In addition, the latest denial tactics involve rhetoric of switching places between the victim and the perpetrator. Some have gone so far as to suggest that it was the Armenians who massacred the Turks, a complete inversion of the historical record.
Behind Turkey’s Denial of the Armenian Genocide: Three Factors Rooted in Fear
Why do Turks refuse to acknowledge the fact of genocide? Admittedly, the leaders of the “Unity and Progress” party were previously found guilty by a Turkish court of committing mass murders of Armenians and other crimes.
In theory, one could rationalize the annihilation of Armenians by attributing the atrocities to the Ottoman Empire and arguing that it has no relevance to the present-day Turkish Republic. However, actually, the Turkish state apparatus and society adamantly deny any culpability, and there are justifiable grounds for this denial. Several researchers have addressed these reasons, primarily identifying three factors rooted in fear.
a.Fear of Retaliation: Armenians were one of the most culturally advanced and economically influential communities in the Ottoman Empire. Following the genocide, immense wealth was transferred to the perpetrators and instigators of the massacres. The wealthiest Turkish business families and economic enterprises possess an Armenian lineage in their history of accumulating wealth. Many of them are based on stolen Armenian property. These entities are apprehensive that recognizing the genocide will prompt demands for reparations. In the event that the Turkish state cannot satisfy the required restitution, the compensation could transform into territorial claims.
b.Fear of Discrediting Heroes: Another reason for Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide is the fear of tarnishing the reputation of their heroic leaders. Many members of the former Young Turks party, who were convicted for their crimes against Armenians, joined the Kemalist movement to escape culpability. These individuals eventually attained prominent positions in the newly-formed Turkish Republic and were enshrined as national heroes.
For instance, Shukru Kaya, the General Secretary of the People’s Republican Party founded by Kemal and the Minister of Internal Affairs, played a pivotal role in the deportation of Armenians. Similarly, Mustafa Abdulhalik Renda, the governor of Bitlis and Aleppo, who orchestrated the burning of thousands of Armenians to death in Mush, became the president of the National Assembly during the republican era. If the true history is acknowledged, the republic’s founders will be exposed as murderers and criminals.
c. Fear of Identity Crisis: Another reason for Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide is the fear of an identity crisis. One of the main obstacles to discussing the problem openly is the loss of collective memory in modern Turkish society. When Atatürk founded the new state, he replaced genuine history with official history, omitting war defeats and violent crimes against national and religious minorities, which are thus removed from public discourse. The Kemalist leaders rewrote history and reshaped national identity, and the Turkish state now suppresses any initiative to bring up this “forbidden history.”
Accepting the Armenian Genocide would shatter the very foundations of the history of republican Turkey. It would reveal that the “anti-imperialist” war was, in fact, a war against the Armenian and Greek minorities. The first people’s squads, Kuvay-i Milliye, presented as fighters for independence, would be exposed as gangs that enriched themselves directly from the property of the victims of the Armenian Genocide. Consequently, it would appear that Mustafa Kemal did not wage a national-liberation struggle and founded the Republic of Turkey but merely implemented the backup version of the Young Turks, exterminating the Armenians and Greeks to preserve the fragmented empire.
This reality, especially in 2023, when Turkey intends to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the declaration of the Republic, is unacceptable. However, denying the truth will not solve anything. Instead, it will perpetuate the trauma of genocide and impede any prospects of reconciliation not only with the Armenian community, but with Turkish society itself.
 Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, (ed.Dinah Shelton), Macmillan Reference USA; 2004, vol., p. 244
 Kamuran Gürün, Ermeni Dosyası [The Armenian File] (Ankara: Turkish Historical Society Press, 1983) ; Şinasi Orel and Süreyya Yuca, Ermenilerce Tâlât Paşa’ya Atfedilen Telgrafl arın Gerçek Yüzü [The Truth about the Telegrams Attributed to Tâlât Pasha by the Armenians] (Ankara: Turkish Historical Society Press, 1983)
Magazine Issue N18
A survivor of the 1915 Armenian Genocide, Soghomon Tehlirian assassinates Talaat Pasha, the mastermind behind the attempted annihilation of the Armenian nation in Berlin on March 15, 1921. Historian Suren Manukyan examines the repercussions and consequences of that act of revenge.Read more
The recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the U.S. stemmed from its own interests. Other allied powers are considering following suit. Will Armenia be able to take advantage of this shift in global geopolitics?Read more
For Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, and for Syrian-Armenians in Yerevan, crafting served as a way of earning a living and as a process of rebuilding and reimagining a social world through the temporal markers that help them nurture a sense of “home.”Read more
Through the voices of his great-grandparents, Varak Ketsemanian gives the reader a small glimpse into the inner world of Genocide survivors.Read more
Many took the harrowing experience with them to their graves. Others would share only fragments of memories. All of them suffered unimaginable loss. They were the orphans of the Armenian Genocide and their stories must never be forgotten.Read more
Magazine Issue N4
Turkey continues to fight against the recognition of the Armenian Genocide through falsification of history, anti-Armenian propaganda, using all political, economic and lobbying levers at its disposal.Read more
Armenia’s defeat and the loss of land in Artsakh took place exactly 100 years after the Turkish-Armenian War of 1920. Armenian society started drawing parallels between the fortress cities of Kars and Shushi.Read more
The Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia consolidated and synthesized cultures, giving new breath to the traditional, by creating a new, more complete Armenianness. Surviving for 300 years demanded tremendous civilizational potential from the Armenian people.Read more
The secular, religious and cultural elites of what became Armenia’s Golden Age were able to turn challenges into a stimulus, setting in stone the Armenians' mark over their territory that would last for centuries.Read more