The Armenian Genocide, in History and Politics: What to Know


At the risk of infuriating Turkey, President Biden formally announced on Saturday that the United States regards the killing of 1.5 million Armenians by Turks more than a century ago to be a genocide — the most monstrous of crimes.

Mr. Biden was the first American president to make such an announcement, breaking with predecessors who did not wish to antagonize Turkey, a NATO ally and a strategically pivotal country straddling Europe and the Middle East.

The announcement carries enormous symbolic weight, equating the anti-Armenian violence with atrocities on the scale of those committed in Nazi-occupied Europe, Cambodia and Rwanda.

Use of the term is a moral slap at President Tayyip Recep Erdogan of Turkey, a fervent denier of the genocide. He has fulminated at other leaders, including Pope Francis, for describing the Armenian killings that way.

About 500,000 Armenians survived, and many eventually scattered into Russia, the United States and elsewhere in what became one of the world’s most far-flung diasporas.

Many historians now consider the deaths of the Armenians to be the first genocide of the 20th century. For many Armenians, it is a scar carried down through generations, still evoking strong emotions, aggravated by Turkey’s insistence that the genocide is a fiction.

Genocide is generally defined as the deliberate killing of people who belong to a particular racial, political or cultural group, with the intent to destroy that group.

The term did not exist until 1944, when a Polish Jewish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, combined the Greek word for race or tribe, “geno,” with “-cide,” from the Latin word for killing. Mr. Lemkin said the killings of the Armenians and the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis shaped his thinking.

The International Court of Justice, the highest court of the United Nations, ruled in January 2020 that Myanmar must take action to protect Rohingya Muslims, who have been killed and driven from their homes in what the country’s accusers have called a campaign of genocide. The ruling, which has no enforcement power, was the outcome of a lawsuit filed on behalf of Muslim countries that wanted the court to condemn Myanmar for violating the genocide treaty.

Turkey’s government has acknowledged that atrocities were committed during that period but has argued that a large number of Turks were also killed and that the Armenian casualty figures are wildly exaggerated. A succession of Turkish leaders have denounced the genocide as a falsehood intended to undermine their account of the creation of modern Turkey.

Turkey’s denial of genocide is ingrained into Turkish society. Writers who have dared to use the term have been prosecuted under Section 301 of Turkey’s penal code, which bans “denigrating Turkishness.”

The denial is taught at an early age, with school textbooks calling the genocide a lie, describing the Armenians of that period as traitors and declaring the actions by the Ottoman Turks as “necessary measures” against Armenian separatism.

Some have come close. President Ronald Reagan tangentially referred to the “genocide of the Armenians” in an April 22, 1981, statement commemorating the liberation of the Nazi death camps.

But American presidents have generally avoided describing the killings this way to avoid any backlash from Turkey that would endanger its cooperation in regional conflicts or diplomacy.

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Biden signaled his intentions a year ago in a speech on April 24, Armenia’s official day of remembrance of the genocide. He used the term “Armenian genocide” and asserted that “we must never forget or remain silent about this horrific and systematic campaign of extermination.” And in recent years, bipartisan anger toward Mr. Erdogan has grown. In 2019, the House and Senate passed resolutions calling the Armenian killings a genocide.



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