Last month, Turkey made an unprecedented gesture by offering its neighbor Armenia to conduct a joint study of the historic events that took place during World War One in Anatolia, the Asian part of Turkey. Armenia rejected the proposal.
Peter Balakian, author of several books on Armenian history, says ample research has already been done. He notes that many studies, including one by the International Association of Genocide Scholars, concluded that mass killings and deportations of Armenians from Anatolia under the direction of the Ottoman government amount to genocide.
“I think there is a growth in recognition of the Armenian genocide worldwide –- the Canadian government last year, the French government in 2000, the Swiss government last year, the Danish Parliament, the Italian Parliament the Vatican and many countries in Latin America and the Middle East as well. It is the result of education, of the fact that scholars have done increasingly brilliant work over the last couple of decades, writing objective, detached histories of the Armenian genocide.”
According to Armenians, on April 24, 1915, the government headed by the Young Turks , the ruling political party of the Ottoman Empire, began to deport and massacre its Armenian Christian minority population, approximately 2.5 million people. Turkey denies that there was a planned campaign to eliminate Armenians from Anatolia. It says that both sides suffered losses in the war. Atrocities may have occurred, they say, but only at the hands of rogue groups or individuals, Turkish as well as Armenian. Turkey says no more than 300-thousand Armenians perished in the clashes.
Turkish-born Muge Gocek, a historical sociologist at the University of Michigan, says ordinary Turks have denied the massacres for many years because they haven’t had access to their historic documents.
“Turkish society knows very little about what happened in its own past for two reasons, says Professor Gocek. "One is because of the alphabet reform that happened in Turkey in 1928, where the Arabic script was abandoned and Latin script was adopted. Turks cannot read their own past historical documents. And the second is that things from the past were selectively translated and therefore very little scholarly information has been made available to them about the Armenian question.”
But after World War One, says professor Gocek, there was an international condemnation of the Turkish atrocities and the allies conducted trials against the perpetrators.
"They had more than a thousand trials held, but only a couple of people were punished. The rest were not at all punished for these crimes because a lot of them joined the nationalist movement, the war of independence. And as such they became important people who went on to found the Turkish Republic,” says Professor Gocek.
In the 1920’s, Turkish reformist leader Kemal Ataturk established a strong and independent Turkey, which was able to use its political clout to squelch Armenian claims for reparations and return of their land. Turkey continued to do so later as a strategic US ally and a member of NATO. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the government of the newly independent Armenia began a worldwide effort to gain international condemnation of the World War One massacres as genocide. Subsequent mass killings of civilians in Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda and Sudan focused international attention on such crimes. And scholars say, this has renewed interest in the Armenian question worldwide and among many in Turkey.
Some groups are interested in fostering reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey. David Phillips, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, says pre-conditions to reconciliation would be counterproductive.
“The idea that exists in some ultra-nationalist circles in Armenia that before you even talk to Turks, they have to admit the genocide, pay the reparations and give back territory is completely a non-starter. Ultranationalists in Turkey also oppose any movement on Armenian issues and try to link that with the restoration of so-called occupied territories in Azerbaijan.”
David Phillips says both countries need to be moderate while acting in their national interests. And, he adds, Turkey and Armenia would benefit from opening their common border for travel and trade. That, many analysts agree, would be the quickest road to reconciliation.