24. Recognizing the Armenian Genocide: A Step Too Far?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is very angry at President Biden for declaring Ottoman Turkey guilty of genocide of Armenians during World War I. He says it has caused a "deep wound" in this key relationship between two NATO allies. And all this over something that happened more than a century ago. Does Erdogan have a point?

No. Apart from the fact that Turkey needs the U.S. more than the U.S. needs Turkey under Erdogan's cantankerous leadership, it is the morally correct -- and long overdue -- step to take. Thirty nations have taken it so far (not including Israel, for whom Turkey is more important).

The word hadn't been invented yet, but Ottoman savagery on its "Armenian Question" was the first genocide of the twentieth century. This has long been recognized by nearly all historians outside Turkey and even by some Turkish scholars.

The Ottoman rulers saw Russia as their primary enemy; the two nations fought 13 wars over the centuries. They suspected the Christian Armenian minority in the Ottoman Empire of sympathy for Russia, and as often happens the persecution of a suspect minority becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Already in 1895-96 there were Ottoman massacres of Armenians.

The Ottomans jumped into World War I early, encouraged by German victories over Russian forces. They began by rounding up Armenian men in areas near the Russian front, where the bulk of the Armenians lived. Many were executed.

This was followed by an order to deport Armenians from this area to concentration camps in the Syrian desert. Some 800,000 to 1.2 million were forced into death marches; only an estimated 200,000 survived. The death total in all was from one to one and a half mlllion.

At one point the Tigris and Euphrates were blocked by the huge number of bodies dumped into the rivers upstream.

Many of the women and children were forcibly assimilated into Turkish families. This "Turkification" also fits the accepted definition of genocide from the 1951 Convention: "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group."

Turkish governments have always argued that while there were massive civilian casualties, they resulted from civil war and not from a deliberate genocide. But the record of intent to eliminate the Armenian minority in Turkey is clear.

But why does today's Republic of Turkey find it so hard to disown actions of the Ottoman regime that it replaced a century ago? In part, because the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, was one of the Ottoman military commanders involved in clearing out Armenian populations.

In fact Ataturk later completed the job of "ethnic cleansing" of the reduced Turkish state by forcing out remaining Armenians and almost the entire Greek population, while attempting to assimilate the Kurds.

And his eventual successor, Erdogan, seems intent on reviving the Ottoman heritage of Turkey. That leaves little room for acknowledging its crimes.