In Depth

Armenian genocide: why the debate rages, a century on

Turkey says there was no systematic attempt to wipe out Armenians, but many scholars disagree

150420-armenia.jpg

As the 100th anniversary of the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks approaches, controversy over what took place shows no sign of abating.

What happened?

On 24 April 1915, Ottoman authorities began arresting the members of the two million-strong minority Christian community, explains The Guardian. First, around 50 community leaders and intellectuals were arrested and executed. The same fate befell Armenians in the Ottoman army.

In the months that followed, Ottoman Turks deported Armenians en masse from eastern Anatolia to the Syrian desert and other areas. They were killed or died from starvation or disease. It was the biggest atrocity of the Great War.

Describing the horrors the victims faced, the New York Times quotes respected historian David Fromkin, who wrote: "Rape and beating were commonplace. Those who were not killed at once were driven through mountains and deserts without food, drink or shelter. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians eventually succumbed or were killed ."

Who were the Armenians and why were they targeted?

Armenians, an ancient people who converted to Christianity in the third century AD, had been persecuted in Ottoman Turkey in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Turkish propaganda began to present the Armenians as traitors and a pro-Russian "fifth column".

How many died?

This remains one of the event's most contentious issues. Armenians say 1.5 million were killed, but Turkey estimates the total to be 300,000. According to the International Association of Genocide Scholars, the death toll was "more than a million".

Was it genocide?

This, too, is still a fiercely debated question. Article Two of the UN Convention on Genocide of December 1948 describes genocide as carrying out acts intended "to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group".

Turkey has never accepted the description of "genocide". Officials accept that atrocities were committed but say they happened in wartime, when death was widespread. They insist that there was no systematic attempt to destroy the Christian Armenian people.

However, scholars widely view the episode as genocide and so do many other states. Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Italy, Russia and Uruguay are among more than 20 countries that have officially recognised genocide against the Armenians. However, the UK, US and Israel are among those who do not.

Among Israelis, the state's refusal to recognise the genocide has caused red-hot debate. A recent editorial in the Jerusalem Post argued that Turkey's actions influenced and emboldened Adolf Hitler to later target Jews.

Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently acknowledged that Armenians had suffered and offered his condolences. This was the furthest any Turkish leader has gone on the issue, but he remains unbowed on the genocide point.

"The Armenian diaspora is trying to instil hatred against Turkey through a worldwide campaign on genocide claims ahead of the centennial anniversary of 1915," he added recently. "If we examine what our nation had to go through over the past 100 to 150 years, we would find far more suffering than what the Armenians went through."

How is the anniversary being marked?

On April 24, Armenians from Turkey and the diaspora will assemble in Istanbul's central Taksim Square. There will also be a concert featuring Armenian and Turkish musicians.

However, rather than formally recognise the anniversary, Turkish authorities have scheduled for the same day a centennial commemoration of a separate event - the Battle of Gallipoli.

Reality television star Kim Kardashian - who has Armenian ancestry ­ has visited Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, to draw attention to the issue.

In response to the headlines the visit generated, Turkish media complained about "'genocide' propaganda" and accused the Armenian lobby in the US of making Kardashian into a "genocide' ambassador".

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