The Stakes in the Recognition of the Armenian Genocide

The 24 April 2015 marked the 100th anniversary of the launching of the Armenian genocide. In the face of its denial by the Turkish state, the historians have lead the battle to promote this now indisputable truth: the destruction of the Armenians of Anatolia has been methodically conceived, and planned and executed. This article attempts to outline the causes of the genocide and the current stakes involved in its recognition.

On the 22nd August 1939, Hitler confides to his chiefs of army staff that he intends to exterminate the Polish civilian population, before adding: ‘After all, who speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’

After the legal action begun by [the government then in power in] Istanbul against the principals responsible for the politics of extermination, during 1919-22, under pressure from the victorious powers, the Armenian genocide quickly sinks into oblivion. Since the foundation of Kemalist Turkey in 1923, the official version of Ankara has not varied: the Armenians have fallen victims to the severity of war, of fatal epidemics and of isolated acts of violence. The Ottoman state could thus be attributed no responsibility for this slaughter.

The mechanics of genocide

From the summer of 1914, even before Turkey’s entry into the War on 26 September, numerous witnesses estimate that the Anatolian Armenians are threatened with extermination by the ‘Young Turk’ government of the Committee of Union and Progress, in power since 1908. General mobilization for war marked in effect the onset of generalized surveillance of this minority, suspected of sympathy for the Tsarist Empire, while its villages are submitted to an oppression more and more brutal: arbitrary taxation, confiscations, searches and arms seizures – notably those of revolutionary organizations.

In the border zones with Russia, special units composed of Muslim refugees from the Balkan Wars (1912-13) and with criminal backgrounds, installed by the CUP and under orders, launch the first wave of massacres and of selective deportations of Armenians, accused of collaborating with the enemy.

The defeat at Sarikamis (north-eastern Anatolia) against the Tsar’s army (end of 1914 – beginning of 1915) led to an extreme radicalization of politics, Armenians being considered as a major obstacle to the common resistance of Muslim populations of Turkish origin against the Russian advance.

It is in this context that, in March 1915, the CUP took the decision to organize the expulsion and extermination of the totality of the Armenian population of Anatolia. The local governors receive from the Minister of the Interior a coded message ordering the expulsion of the civilian population, whilst the part of the directions communicated orally ordered summary execution of any males not enrolled in the armed forces. On their side, Armenian soldiers are disarmed and murdered, as are younger men or those older engaged in work brigades (navvies, porters, etc.).

It is impossible to enumerate the victims, forced to dig their own graves before being killed on the perimeters of their village, or carted off to the Black Sea to be drowned.

The systematic expulsion, on the other hand, begins in May-June 1915, in the eastern provinces, followed by those of the central and Western provinces. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians, survivors of massacres in situ, are forced onto a long march towards the south. Those who are not killed en route by police or hostile locals, encouraged to plunder their meager possessions, or who don’t die from exhaustion or hunger, are regrouped in concentration camps in the vicinity of Alep, before being repelled into the desert where a certain death awaits them.

Given some survivors who early escaped into exile, some forced converts and survivors of the horror itself, an estimation of the total number of deaths varies between one half and one million and a half (800,000 according to the then Interior Minister immediately post-War), on a total population of some 2.1 million individuals.

The rationality of genocide

From the perspective of the Ottoman state, the Armenian genocide is a desperate response to save by any means an essentially ‘Turkish’ political entity in the face of plans for partition of the Empire, a partition that Russia and the Western powers contemplate more and more openly.

After the achievement of Greek independence (1830), Bulgarian, Serb, Montenegrin, Romanian (1878) and Albanian (1912), there are additionally Arab regions that threaten succession, no doubt with the European colonial powers’ support.

Some years later, on the morn of the October Revolution, the victorious powers even attempt to divide up territories and establish spheres of influence in Anatolia, supporting an Armenia, indeed a Kurdistan, partially independent. In such a likelihood, the Empire could see itself being reduced to a rump Turkish state, in the north-centre of Anatolia.

Confronted with these dangers, the CUP envisages the possibility of a compensatory expansion forwards the East, fed by a pan-Turk or pan-Islamic project, in the Caucasus, of Azerbaijan, of the north of Iran and of Iraq. It is with this hope that it decides to enter into the war, in September 1914, on the side of Germany and Austro-Hungary. This ambition, however, will be soon frustrated by Russian defeats of the Ottoman army at the onset of the First World War.

It is in these particular conditions, when a deathly struggle takes place for the control of eastern Anatolia, that the government in Istanbul initiates, in particular, the deportation of its Christian Armenian populations, to the profit of the great landowners and Muslim colonists. From the spring of 1915, as we’ve seen, this policy will be generalized to all of Anatolia, unleashing a veritable genocide.

Behind the amnesia

In 1918, the Empire has lost 85% of its population and 75% of its territory of 1878. The new Ottoman government, now dominated by elements hostile to the CUP, hopes to avoid the partition of territories still under its control by agreeing to prosecute, judge and condemn those responsible for the Armenian genocide.

From June 1919, after the occupation of Istanbul by the French, British and Italians, then of Izmir by the Greeks, Mustafa Kemal regroups the nationalist forces in the centre of Anatolia, gathering around him a good proportion of the ‘young Turk’ militants, after the [self-]dissolution of their Party in [October] 1918. He thus establishes a second force at Ankara which, in the first instance, does not distance itself from the judicial prosecution pursued by Istanbul against the CUP leaders, principal organizers of the genocide.

Together, for a moment, Istanbul and Ankara agree to the prosecution of the chief Party leaders and responsible government officials, so that only those directly implicated in the planning and implementation of the massacres should be judged (the great majority of the CUP militants are thus not implicated), that they should answer before a national jurisdiction, but that the territorial integrity of Anatolia should not be at issue. Mustafa Kemal at the time accepts to acknowledge the figure, determined by Istanbul, of 800,000 Armenians killed, attributing however this mass murder to a small number of persons responsible.

In this context, the priority of the victorious European powers given to the colonialist objectives of the Treaty of Sèvres (August 1920), which envisages the partition of the Ottoman Empire (including Anatolia), justifies in the eyes of the popular sectors the offensive phase of the Turkish war of independence, lead by Mustafa Kemal against the Greek forces, from the beginning of 1921, with the support of the young Soviet Union. This all the more so as the principal European leaders justify their partition of Anatolia in terms of ‘punishing’ the Turks.

Between times, Ankara’s resistance sparks a political radicalization, declaring openly its adhesion to a project of republicanism. This in turn induces the promotion at an accelerated pace, from the top, under enemy fire, the foundations of a Turkish nationalism, then in its infancy. The project utilizes symbols attracting broader adhesion (Islam, Ottomanism, pan-Turkism) but appropriates these means henceforth in relation to a territory arbitrarily determined by the circumstances, Anatolia – which in turn becomes Turkey.

It is in these particular conditions that Kemalism readily abandons its initial declarations in support of prosecution of those responsible for the genocide and in support of the rights of Christian minorities. On the contrary, the final victory of its troops, in the autumn of 1922, opens the road to an enduring negationist position of the new state with respect to the extermination of the Armenians of Anatolia.

In effect, the republic defines itself from that time as a state homogeneous on a basis religious, national and social. This is the expression of a single Turkish nation (in reality a majority, the Kurds being labeled ‘Turks of the mountains’), ‘represented’ by its unique Party. Its ‘citizens’ adhere purely to the Muslim religion, even if the social manifestations of such are henceforth strictly codified by the political power. Finally, its citizens know no class division, a diktat that allows the new state bourgeoisie, supported by the army, to prevent the formation of unions and of independent worker Parties.

Recognizing the Armenian genocide: the current stakes

As the political analyst Benedict Anderson has shown, nations are always ‘imagined communities’. That of the Anatolian Turks has been constructed in times of war, in the framework of the collapse of a previous multinational empire, under the threat of a particularly cynical colonialist program of partition, claimed justified, at least in part, as redress for the Armenian genocide.

Since the 1990s, with the implosion of the USSR and, more recently, with the collapse of the Syrian and Iraqi neighbor states, Turkey faces a significant identity crisis. That is why the recognition of the Armenian genocide, like that of the national rights of the Kurds, are of crucial important to permit this country’s society to develop a democratic order founded on the exercise of popular rights, facilitating also the expression of claims and aspirations of the working class.

For the international Left, the demand for the recognition of the Armenian genocide is inseparable from an uncompromising defense of democratic liberties in Turkey, against a state perennially drawn to authoritarian control. It presumes at the same time the unconditional support of the national rights of the Kurdish people, as of the political and organizational rights of the working people of the entire country. Such demands must also go hand in hand with the denunciation of the imperialist designs of the victors of the First World War, who bear an indirect responsibility for the Armenian genocide.

At the same time, a socialist settlement of ‘the Eastern Question’ (name given by the Western chancelleries of the 19th Century to their colonialist rivalries) is today inconceivable without the triumph of the democratic and social aspirations of the peoples of the former Ottoman Empire, from Syria to Palestine, Bahrain to Yemen, Egypt to Tunisia.

For this reason the Left and the international popular movements must support unreservedly the revolutionary mobilizations of the peoples of the Middle East and of North Africa, who have no other ally in the face of the forces of counter-revolution: the various imperialisms (US, European and Russian), Iran and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the other petro-monarchies, reactionary Islam and murderous jihadism.

For that it is necessary to abandon an interpretation of these conflicts reduced merely to a confrontation between states to grasp above all the fundamental social contradictions that feed them, and the popular forces that, in combating different forms of oppression, work towards their emancipation. As Rosa Luxembourg said, in October 1896, in an article in defense of a socialist position on the national struggles in Turkey:

“It is no accident that in the questions dealt with here, practical considerations have led to the same conclusions as our general principles. For the aims and principles of Social Democracy derive from real social development, and are based on it; therefore in historical processes it must to a great extent appear that events are finally bringing grist to the social democratic mill, and that we can look after our immediate interests in the best way by maintaining a position of principle. A deeper look at events, therefore, always makes it superfluous for us to make some diplomats into the causes of great popular movements and to seek the means of combating these diplomats in other diplomats. That is just coffee-house politics.”

This article was originally published in Spanish at It has been reproduced in a French translation at contretemps. It has been translated from the French by Evan Jones.