WASHINGTON - An estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed as the Ottoman Empire disintegrated during World War I, according to a version of events accepted by many historians but disputed by Turkey - which is blamed for the atrocities. As Armenians across the globe commemorate the 102nd anniversary on April 24 and honor those who perished in what they characterize as genocide, debate continues about the politics of that word.
“We do not blame today’s modern day Turks for what happened 102 years ago, but there is a moral responsibility that the leadership of the country that claims succession from the Ottoman empire to address that,” says Armenia's Ambassador to the U.S. Grigor Hovhannissian, who also told VOA that “Turkey’s denial is the only denial that matters to us because Turkey is our neighbor.”
But he also said that Armenians have a lot to be grateful for.
“The challenge was to survive. The fact that we survived, there are Armenians in the world, there is a Republic of Armenia, a tiny little country, but it still exists, is an act of defiance, a miracle - so obviously the genocidal intent failed. That’s what we celebrate.”
Turkey says the death toll has been inflated and those killed were victims of civil war and unrest. Two years ago, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan invited both sides to investigate.
“If we want to discuss the Armenian issue, we first need to present the incident in actuality, and this is a job for historians … we are opening our archives. Armenia should open its archives too,” Erdogan said.
Broad acceptance but some hold-outs
While the atrocities are broadly accepted by the United Nations, the pope and many countries as genocide, recent U.S. administrations have resisted using the word.
Armenian National Committee of America’s Executive Director Aram Hamparian says Turkey is to blame.
“The Turkish government seeks to exercise a veto over what the American government can and can’t say about the Armenian genocide. There’s a broad based civil society congressional effort to overturn that veto, to reject that gag rule," he said.
Part of that this year, Hamparian told VOA, was “a letter by 84 members of the U.S. House [of Representatives], including the top Democrats and Republicans on the Foreign Affairs and Intelligence committees who came together and asked President [Donald] Trump to speak honestly about this crime when he makes a statement on April 24."
VOA was unsuccessful in its attempt to reach out to the Turkish embassy for comment.
“Obviously it was in the context of a war, [in] which Turkey itself felt threatened," said Thomas de Waal, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Europe, and author of “Great Catastrophe – Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide.” "Lots of Turks died in that war. Some at the hands of the Russian army. Turkey itself was occupied and broken up. So the Armenians themselves were identified as the enemy … although it was collective guilt being attributed to the whole population, men, women and children, for the actions of a few who certainly were fighting for the Russians against the Turks at that time.”
“When it was all over," de Waal said, "and Turkey kind of saved itself through Kemal Ataturk, who founded the new modern republic of Turkey, Turkey kind of invented this myth about itself that it’s been born in purity, that it was a Turkish homeland and the other minorities didn’t really matter, so Turks grew up with this feeling that they’ve done nothing wrong.”
Changing attitudes in Turkey
But de Waal says Turks are beginning to see things differently.
“Turkish historians and scholars have started writing about it. Books are being published in Turkey. My own book on this issue was published in Turkey earlier this year, which would’ve been unthinkable a few years ago. So society has changed a bit,” de Waal said.
While lots has been accomplished during the centenary, what now? Waal asked. With a closed border with Turkey and the nonresolution of the Azerbaijan conflict, de Waal says that while genocide recognition is very important, the Armenian diaspora should also think about ways to turn the Armenian economy around.
Meanwhile, the movie “The Promise” set against the backdrop of the mass killings and deportation of Armenians during the World War I, is bringing the story to moviegoers and is set to officially open this week throughout the U.S.