Turkey is a country with two right wings. One is nationalist and secular, built on the oversized legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the nation’s first president. The other is nationalist as well, but rooted in Islam and a renewed interest in the legacy of the Ottoman Empire. For all their differences, the two sides share some crucial features: besides being nationalist, they are also anti-imperialist, see Turkey as having a unique role to play in the region, and are not inclined to consider themselves as being on the right. Although the Islam-based wing currently governing the country—with Tayyip Erdogan of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) at its head—has gained popularity by casting itself as a more benign alternative to the authoritarian and militarist tendencies of the secular Kemalist leadership, in its actions and even its views, it has increasingly come to resemble its adversary: initiating repressive measures against the opposition, upholding and in some cases expanding limitations on free speech and freedom of the press (imprisoning no fewer than seventy-six journalists), and continuing to restrict the use of the Kurdish language and limit the extent of Kurdish political representation in the country. Like the secular Kemalists before it, the Erdogan government also disapproves of anyone using the term “genocide” to describe the widespread slaughter of Armenians that occurred in 1915 in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor to the modern Turkish state.
What exactly happened to the Armenians, and why are so many Turks still sensitive about the issue? According to a number of Turkish scholars, including Türkkaya Ataöv, a professor emeritus at the University of Ankara, Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were armed and fighting actively in World War I alongside the empire’s enemies in the Entente, and so posed a threat to a state that was already on the defensive. Their fate cannot count as genocide because it was decided by a “civil war.” In talks he has given on college campuses and to audiences around the world, Ataöv generally does not offer any figures to establish how many Armenians lost their lives in this “civil war,” except to say that of the 235 who were removed from Istanbul, just three of them died, one of natural causes and two at the hands of thugs who were later tried and executed for their crime. Ataöv’s is an especially extreme version of denialism. Other Turkish scholars have conceded that the Armenians suffered great losses, reaching even into the hundreds of thousands, though many argue that the massacres were the work of bandits or marauding Kurds rather than Ottoman Turkish officials operating under orders from the government.
Internationally, a growing number of scholars agree that the fate of the empire’s Armenians was not determined by civil war but instead amounted to a genocide. Just after the start of World War I, the Ottomans suffered a catastrophic defeat by the Russians in the battle of Sarikamis, with some Armenians fighting alongside the Russians. Afterward, most of the Armenians living in the eastern borderlands of the Ottoman Empire were rounded up, placed in camps, and deported to various locations throughout Anatolia and the Levant—men, women and children alike who in the course of these deportations suffered expropriation, starvation, rape, abduction and massacre at the hands of groups with ties to the Ottoman army and government. In the accounts by these scholars, the number of Armenian dead generally ranges from about 1 million to 1.5 million.
There are many apparent paradoxes in the history of what happened in 1915, and they nourish the ongoing ambivalence about whether the Turkish state’s treatment of the Armenians was criminal. For instance, several of the perpetrators were tried by Ottoman authorities over the period from 1919 to 1922, and some were even executed. Around the same time, the Great Powers (primarily Britain) initiated a separate investigation, but the suspects, detained on the island of Malta, were not prosecuted and were ultimately allowed to go free. There were also Armenian nationalists who, as World War I came to an end, downplayed the number of dead and emphasized Armenian military engagement on the side of the Entente (including Russia). They sought to position themselves to claim that enough Armenians had survived and done their bit in the war to merit being granted an independent, or at least autonomous, Armenian state.