At least 20 countries officially recognise the acts of the Ottoman Empire from 1915-1923 against the Armenians as genocide. Others, such as Germany Britain, Israel and the United States, continue to debate just how to refer to them.
Two months ago, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, visiting Armenia, prepared the way for new legislation in the matter.
Sarkozy said: “If a great country like Turkey were to recognise dark pages in its history, and therefore the genocide of the Armenians, France, like Armenia, would see that as a very good step forward.”
Turkey’s response was immediate and cutting.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: “The French president visits Armenia and from there makes biased recommendations to Turkey, using the question for electoral ends.”
He told the Frenchman to get his facts straight.
But the facts, documented by many disinterested parties in the 19th and 20th centuries and now, have limited sway over interpretation and argument.
What is undisputed is that, toward the end of the 19th century and up to World War One, the Ottoman Turkish Empire lost 85 percent of the territory over which it had reigned at its height. The Great War presented an opportunity to reconsolidate some of this.
The Ottomans took the side of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany, against Britain, France and Russia. The Christian Armenians, who for centuries had suffered “unutterable contempt” under the Moslem Turks, according to one British ethnographer, saw Russia as a possible protector and tried to throw off repression once and for all.
They failed and were massacred and deported. Most did not survive. Estimates of the deaths start at 600,000. Some say one and a half million.
The Republic of Turkey, founded after WWI, has always disputed whether the organised killing may accurately be called a genocide. Most of the Armenian diaspora communities stem from that time.
But while the world frowned, and the survivors grieved, Turkey always sought to defend its honour and its identity. It felt that to admit any shame would weaken the modern nation.
France, with which Turkey today has sore relations notably over French opposition to it joining the European Union, wrote into law its recognition of the historic events against the Armenians as genocide in 2001.
În 2006, steps were taken to go further but Sarkozy’s conservative party later deferred the project, only reviving it now ahead of presidential elections. Critics say it is to bolster keeping Turkey out of the EU, and to sway France’s ethnic Armenian voters. They outnumber and politically outweigh France’s ethnic Turkish community.