Against The Grain: The Armenian genocide - why Britain is at fault

February 20, 2009
Source: The Independent (London)

Interview by: Chris Green

Donald Bloxham is professor of modern history at the University of Edinburgh. He argues that the extermination of approximately one million Armenian Christians by Ottoman-Turkish authorities during the First World War was genocide, and that Britain is guilty of hypocrisy in its attitude towards the events.

Scholarship on the Armenian genocide is dominated by two strands, both very simplistic. One is the Turkish nationalist strand, which effectively tries to deny that it occurred, and that the Armenians who died were only killed as a direct result of their own treacherous behaviour. The second strand comes from the Armenian diaspora, whose scholars argue that genocide did occur: but their explanations for this are sometimes based on dubious evidence and are often polemical. The truth transcends both. Genocide was a policy choice made by a specific regime under specific conditions, not a culturally determined crime.

No one knows exactly how many people were killed, but in the immediate aftermath of the First World War at least 800,000 deaths were acknowledged by the new Turkish nationalist leader Mustapha Kemal Atatürk. Of around two million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1914, only 400,000 remained after the war. So the question is: what happened to them all? We know they were deported to harsh desert regions, and although some escaped to Arab states, most were massacred on the way by Ottoman paramilitaries. Putting the death toll at 200,000, as some Turkish nationalists do, is utterly untenable in terms of simple mathematics. It was one of the most intensive killing campaigns of the 20th century.

Yet both the USA and Britain still refuse to recognise it as genocide. They accept that a lot of Armenians died during "tragic wartime events", but say that the issue is best left to Turkey and Armenia. This is partly because a lot of Turkish state funding goes into official denial campaigns. In Britain, Holocaust Memorial Day assiduously tries to avoid mentioning the Armenian genocide, as a direct result of Turkish state pressure. So, a day supposedly dedicated to the commemoration of extreme events – to ensure that they never happen again – can't even confront one of the major genocides of the 20th century.

This is not just a matter for the history books. There's a direct line between Turkey's failure to confront what happened to the Armenians and the continuing persecution of Turkey's Kurds. Greater international pressure for freedom of speech and human rights in Turkey is the best way to improve the Kurdish situation. As for Britain, it should be wary of making grandiose but easy moral gestures about humanitarian issues if it is going to crumble under pressure. This isn't something that's going to go away.

Donald Bloxham's latest book, 'The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians', is published by Oxford University Press.