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The History That Happened: Setting the Record Straight on the Armenian Genocide

For a brief moment this fall, world interest fixed its attention to an event of the past. News that the U.S. Congress approved a formal resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide was carried as a leading story by media outlets worldwide. Most analysis of the vote focused on the immediate political implications. With U.S.-Turkish relations still reeling from earlier confrontations over Syria and Ankara’s ties with Russia, Washington was simultaneously preparing to welcome President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in only a few weeks’ time. Most outlets in the United States accepted the material substance of the resolution at face value.

Turkish media sources struck a stark contrast in their treatment of the resolution. Newspaper commentators and television personalities reiterated the Turkish government’s categorical rejection of the bill. More than a few outlets condemned Congress’ decision as an insult, one inspired by the political tensions of the day. Embedded within this coverage was a staunch rejection of the resolution’s historical premise. “The Armenian bill,” in the words of Turkey’s presidential spokesperson, was “one of the most embarrassing uses of history in politics.” He added, “Those who charge Turkey with genocide should look at their own history.”

On this side of the Atlantic, it has been difficult to find voices in support of Ankara’s point of view. Among the most prominent to detail such criticisms was Edward Erickson, retired professor of history from the Marine Corps University. In an essay in War on the Rocks, he agreed that Congress erred factually in passing the bill. The significance of this fallacy, the article contends, goes beyond Congress’ folly in passing judgment on Turkey’s national history. Acknowledging this history, he poses, promises to “damage[s] Turkish-American relations at a time when neither country can afford it.”

My aim in responding to Erickson’s article is limited: It is not my intention to debate the efficacy of Congress’ decision to recognize the Armenian Genocide (or other genocides for that matter). Nor is it my intention to delve into how Congress’ actions may affect relations between Washington and Ankara. My goal here is to dispute two of the essay’s central contentions: that historians are divided on this issue and that the available data related to the Armenian Genocide is either exculpatory or has been left untapped. I write this response as someone who has spent the whole of his career writing about the end of the Ottoman Empire. Each book I have written is predicated on archival research in Turkey and outside of it. I write this response as someone who has not only written specifically about the fate of Ottoman Armenians but also more broadly about the violent conditions that beset the empire’s collapse. My first book was a comparative history of Ottoman Muslims and Christians who were victims of mass violence at the hands of the government.

Erickson’s article is riddled with gross inaccuracies. His mischaracterization of the state of research regarding the Armenian Genocide cannot be chalked up to differences over perspective. It is wrong and misleading on multiple counts.

Read entire article at War on the Rocks