The Turks in 1915 destroyed the minority of Armenians in their midst, killing probably as many as a million and a half, and driving hundreds of thousands into exile. Such a nation-wide exhibition of human brutality takes its lasting place in the collective memory. Yet Turkish officials and spokesmen for the past hundred years have refused to accept responsibility for this great crime, much less apologize for it.
They contest the numbers of victims. A world war had opened, and bad things happen in war everywhere. Armenians, they like to say, were making common cause with the Russian enemy, and ethnic cleansing was therefore a security measure. Turks as Muslims were waging jihad, but Armenians as Christian infidels had brought it all on themselves. In “Minorities,” one of his most judicious essays, Elie Kedourie ascribes much of the blame to the handful of Armenians who had let nationalist ideology take possession of them, a malady or infection “eating up the fabric of settled society.” In his summary of their fate, “the Armenians were forced to be free.”
But that was then. Why have the Turks ever since tried to hide what they did? Why haven’t they tried to come to terms with it rather than fester in mendacity? They reject any application of the word “genocide” to their misdeeds. Turks like the Nobel Prize–winner Orhan Pamuk or the internationally known pianist Fazil Say are brought to court to face accusations of slandering the nation just because they dare speak of genocide. Shame is obviously one component, and profiteering from Armenian dispossession is also obviously another.
The Nazi genocide of Jews has some common characteristics, first and foremost the willing participation of hundreds of thousands of criminal perpetrators. Although neither Hitler nor the ruling Young Turks left signed orders for genocide, both leaderships created the moral breakdown whereby crime was service to the nation. The Germans showed that it is possible to restore civilization by means of confession and reparation. Unless and until Turkey goes down that same path, it will remain an untrustworthy and haunted nation, not the candidate for the European Union that it aspires to be.