Page last updated at 22:22 GMT, Thursday, 4 March 2010

Head to head: Were massacres of Armenians genocide?

The Foreign Affairs Committee of the US House of Representatives has approved by the narrowest of margins a resolution stating that Armenians were the victims of genocide in 1915.

Historians agree that a massacre of Armenian civilians took place in Turkey during World War I, when some Armenians sided with Russia against the Turks.

But not all agree that it was a case of genocide, as defined by the UN Convention on Genocide.

Here, two prominent American professors of political science argue for and against.


The argument of those who deny that the Ottoman Turkish government carried out a genocidal deportation and mass killing of its Armenian subjects in 1915 might be summarised as:

"There was no genocide, and the Armenians are to blame for it! Armenians, after all, were rebellious, seditious subjects who presented a danger to the empire and got what they deserved."

There was no intention or effort by the Young Turk regime, they say, to eliminate the Armenians as a people.

Sadly, most historians know that in fact orders went out from the Young Turk government early in 1915 to:

  • Demobilise the Armenian soldiers serving in the Ottoman army and execute them
  • Round up and deport (later kill) the Armenian intellectuals and members of parliament in the capital on 24 April
  • Force march the women, children, and elderly from their homes in Anatolia into the deserts of Syria

Somewhere between 600,000 and 1.5 million people perished. In some places, like Van and Musa Dagh, Armenians resisted. Many thousands fled north to Russia.

The difficult question is not whether but why the Young Turks committed genocide.

Their leaders themselves provided suggestive answers: The Armenians were seen as an internal threat allied to the advancing Russians; the very success of their middle class in business, even their European manners, created resentments among Muslims; and the ruling junta believed that a more Turkish, more Islamic empire, without the Christian Armenians, promised a more secure future for their regime.

Insecurity and a pervasive sense of threat led to a catastrophe, both for the Armenians and, ironically, for the Ottoman state.


According to the Genocide Convention of 1948, intent is a necessary condition of genocide - intent to destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.

Hence the crucial question in this controversy is not the huge loss of life experienced by Ottoman Armenians during World War I, in and of itself, but rather whether the Young Turk regime intentionally sought the deaths that we know to have occurred.

The relocation of most Armenians to the interior of the Ottoman Empire was most likely to have been a badly mismanaged wartime security measure, rather than a premeditated programme of extermination and hence genocide.

Many aspects of the relocation support this position:

  • The large Armenian communities of Constantinople, Smyrna and Aleppo were not relocated and survived the war largely intact. These exemptions are analogous to Hitler failing to include the Jews of Berlin, Cologne and Munich in the Final Solution.
  • The relocation experienced much variation that depended on geography and the attitude of local officials. In many places Protestant and Catholic Armenians as well as needed artisans were exempted. The same goes for the large number of Armenians who often were allowed, or even forced, to convert. In the absence of a large Kurdish population, no massacres took place in Cilicia, and a substantial part of the exiles sent to Southern Syria and Palestine survived.

Well-known scholars of Ottoman history, such as Bernard Lewis and Andrew Mango, question the appropriateness of the genocide label.

It is time to acknowledge that we are dealing with a genuine historical controversy that should be resolved by scholars rather than politicians.

Ronald Suny is the author of Looking Toward Ararat: Armenia in Modern History (Indiana University Press, 1993). Guenter Lewy is the author of The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide (University of Utah Press, 2005).

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