President Biden could call the massacres of Armenians ‘Genocide.’ here’s what that means

ISTANBUL (NPR): A previous version of this story, written by Krishnadev Calamur in Washington, was published on April 24, 2015, with the headline: A Century After Atrocities Against Armenians, An Unresolved Wound. Peter Kenyon, reporting from Istanbul, wrote this update to reflect developments including the first U.S. president to formally recognize the massacres as genocide.

For decades, United States presidents have avoided calling the World War I-era mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turkish forces an act of genocide.

Now, U.S. lawmakers expect President Biden to make that declaration on Saturday as Armenians mark the anniversary of the atrocities in 1915, adding the U.S. to a list of countries including Canada, France and Argentina that officially call the incidents genocide. News reports indicate that while the move is likely, Biden has not made a final decision.

The move will be hailed by Armenian communities, lawmakers and human rights advocates who have lobbied for it. But it will also damage already strained ties with Turkey.

Although some Turkish leaders have at times voiced regret for the killings, Turkey denies that they constitute genocide and fiercely opposes anyone using the term to describe the period.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a statement Thursday in anticipation of Biden’s announcement, said Turkey “will continue to defend truths against the so-called Armenian genocide lie and those who support this slander with political motivations.”

Many historians, however, agree that what the Ottoman Turkish forces did in 1915 and 1916 amounts to genocide.

Dueling commemorations

This much is known: Up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed or deported in the violence unleashed by Ottoman Turks starting on April 24, 1915.

Armenians, along with many historians and European countries, have called it the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey suppressed accounts of the killings for decades, and to this day staunchly rejects the label of genocide.

In the Military Museum in Istanbul, the room devoted to “Turkish-Armenian relations” is filled with historical photographs, not one of which depicts a slain Armenian — only the bodies of Turkish soldiers that Turkey says were tortured and killed by “Armenian gangs.”

Modern Turkey, which emerged following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, has never accepted the general consensus about the Armenian genocide. It prefers to celebrate a different event that took place a day later, on April 25,1915: the victory over Allied forces at World War I’s battle of Gallipoli.

In 2015, Turkey moved up a huge centennial celebration of the Gallipoli victory to April 24, in what looked to critics like a transparent effort to drown out ceremonies focused on the Armenian killings.

The background

The Ottoman Empire once covered parts of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East and was home to Turks, Kurds, Armenians and many others. But by the start of World War I in 1914, it was crumbling. A few years earlier, a group of young army officers — named the Young Turks — seized power. And in WWI, they sided with the Central Powers — Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire — against the Allied Powers, Britain, France and Russia.

Historian Eugene Rogan, author of The Fall Of The Ottomans, tells NPR’s Steve Inskeep the Ottomans crossed into Russia thinking they might be able to strike a blow. Instead, they lost. There had been massacres of Armenians in the past, but with the loss to the Russians, he says, the Ottomans began to question the loyalties of the Armenians.

He adds: “What happened was a small number of [Armenian] militants who did cross over to the Russian side, who did actively try and recruit Armenians to support the Russian cause, made life extremely dangerous for the majority of Armenian civilians who basically had no fight with anyone, did not wish to be drawn into any war and found themselves under tremendous pressure; soldiers who, suspected by their Turkish comrades, begin to get shot down.”

The Ottomans’ ruling Committee of Union and Progress and government officials planned to forcibly relocate the Armenians from Anatolia, where they lived, bordering Russia, to the Arab parts of the empire, where they were deemed to be less of a threat. But, Rogan adds, the plans for the Armenians went beyond those that were written down. He adds:

“It was through testimony presented in trials the Ottomans convened after the war that we now know that the Committee of Union and Progress agreed to give, orally, orders for the extermination of Armenians: that men and women would be separated at the moment of departing their villages, that the men would be massacred and that the women would be marched under conditions in which only a fraction of them would survive.

“And the theory that most Turkish scholars of the genocide are putting forward was that the Ottoman plan was to reduce the demographic profile of the Armenians so that they would not exceed 5 to 10% in any given province. It wasn’t … to try and eliminate the Armenians in their entirety, but it was to make sure that the Armenians would never constitute a critical mass to seek separation for the Ottoman Empire as an independent Armenian state.”

Earlier violence against Armenians

Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were targeted even in the 19th century, but historians don’t call those events a genocide. The reason, writer Peter Balakian tells NPR’s Robert Siegel, was that the earlier killings were “putative — they were punishments for Armenian progressive reform movement. They weren’t designed to exterminate the entire population or rid the Ottoman Empire of its Armenian population, but they begin a very important process of devaluing and dehumanizing this ethnic minority group.”

Here’s what he says was different about the events of 1915:

“I think that the Ottoman government’s final solution for the Armenian people of Turkey represented a shift in organized, state-planned mass killing. The Ottoman government was able to expedite its mass killing of a targeted minority population in a concentrated period of time. So it’s important to realize that the Ottoman government murdered more than a million Armenians between 1915 and 1916 alone — perhaps 1.2 million is the number you come to by the end of the summer of 1916.”

The U.S. view

The U.S., an ally of Turkey, has historically called the World War I-era killings an atrocity, despite years of lobbying by the Armenian community in the U.S.

The official U.S. stance began to change in late 2019, when Congress passed a resolution recognizing and commemorating the Armenian genocide, although the Trump administration refused to support the policy change.

On Saturday, the process toward official recognition could be complete. Biden pledged his support for recognition of the Armenian genocide when he was a candidate last year, and he had long pushed for it as a senator.

Under U.S. law — including legislation introduced in 1987 by then-Sen. Biden — genocide refers to killing, injury, torture or other acts “with the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in substantial part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.”

The term wasn’t around at the time of the killings by Ottoman Turks. It was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer, who combined the Greek word genos, meaning race or family, with the suffix “-cide,” which comes from the Latin for killing, to describe the events of the Holocaust and previous instances in history.

As a teenager, Lemkin was drawn to the story of what happened to the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire after reading about a survivor of the atrocities. And in interviews in the 1940s he described the events as the Armenian genocide.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which describes the events as a genocide, says Lemkin’s “early exposure to the history of Ottoman attacks against Armenians, anti-Semitic pogroms, and other cases of targeted violence as key to his beliefs about the need for the protection of groups under international law. Inspired by the murder of his own family during the Holocaust, Lemkin tirelessly championed this legal concept until it was codified in the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948.”