University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


  • Denial



    Those who initiate or participate in genocide typically deny that genocide occurred, or that if it did take place they weren't responsible, or that the term "genocide" is inaccurate for whatever extermination did take place. Denial is a routine defense to evade sanctions against the perpetrator. Such sanctions might include punishment claims for reparation, or restitution of territorial rights. The United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948 declared that genocide is a crime under international law, whether committed during wartime or peacetime.

    Turkey's vigorous ongoing campaign of denial is a classic case of shifting strategies. These have proven effective due to unwillingness of other countries to weaken their political and economic relationship with Turkey. The grounds for denial are varied, but all serve the same goal.

    The process of denial began in 1915 even as the Armenians were being slaughtered. Publications of the Young Turks accused Armenians of disloyalty or subversion and forced the government to take extreme measures of deportation. In 1918, distraught Armenian troops in the Russian army committed atrocities when they found the Armenian regions depopulated. Their 1918 rampage was cited as the cause of and justification for events in 1915!

    Losing the war with first-hand evidence too fresh to ignore, Turkey was forced to address the issue. The Tribunal in Constantinople was eager to place all blame on the Young Turks and the Special Organization, and thus absolve all other Turks from complicity. Simultaneously, Talaat Pasha, living in comfortable exile, rejected any responsibility by his government and shifted the blame to bandits and the masses of ignorant Turkish peasants.  Talaat claimed that the resettlement policy was honorable and that the mass killings were unfortunate but spontaneous rather than premeditated.

    After the Treaty of Lausanne ended the "Armenian Question," Turkey shifted emphasis to the progressive "New Turkey" and used diplomatic channels to deny the genocide. The most prominent instance was the cancellation of the film production of "40 Days of Musa Dagh," based on Franz Werfel's novel about the Armenian Genocide. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bowed to pressure from the U.S. State Department, which was anxious to placate Turkey. Through this period, the emphasis was on avoiding any mention of the Armenian Genocide rather than on rewriting history.

    The resurgence of Armenians in 1965 brought widespread public attention to the Armenian Genocide. Diplomatic pressures proved ineffective and Turkey was forced into the public arena. The failure of stonewalling techniques led to an active campaign of counter propaganda by Turkey, targeting foreign governments, media and legislators. The pamphlets and brochures sent from Turkey were filled with contradictions and distortions. They failed significantly.

    Beginning in 1977 with the American historian Stanford Shaw, a new strategy of revisionism - using foreign Turkophiles to present the facts "objectively" - has been more successful. The passing of original eyewitnesses, foreign and Armenian, and a new militancy by the Turkish government have handicapped Armenian efforts to introduce the genocide into the diplomatic arena. Turkish lobbying prevented the inclusion of Armenians in Human Rights reports of the United Nations.  Non-governmental groups including the World Council of Churches and the European People's Tribunal have authenticated the Armenian claims, but have little diplomatic leverage.

    Turkey has not been willing to face its own history and has maintained a continual campaign of denial, repudiation, and vilification, in effect acting as an "accessory after the fact" in the extermination of the Armenians. Taking advantage of its strategic geopolitical and military importance, the Republic of Turkey has repeatedly impressed on other governments its opinion that remembering a complex but no longer relevant past would be unproductive, disruptive, and unfriendly. The Armenian Genocide, formerly recognized as an incontestable fact, is now described in the media as "alleged" or "asserted."

    The lesson? "Might Makes Right."

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