April 24 is being commemorated as the 100th anniversary of the commencement of the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Turks at the beginning of World War I. While other world leaders have been reluctant to take sides in the controversial issue, Pope Francis has waded in.

Earlier this month he described the deaths of up to 1.5 million Armenians as “the first genocide of the 20th century”. The Turkish government was furious and recalled its ambassador to the Vatican. “We will not allow historical incidents to be taken out of their genuine context and be used as a tool to campaign against our country,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  

To clarify the issues involved, MercatorNet interviewed the German author of a recent book on the Armenian genocide, Michael Hesemann.

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MercatorNet: Do you think that Pope Francis’s intervention in the bitter dispute over the Armenian genocide was wise? 

Michael Hesemann: It was not only wise, it was prophetic. It was the victory of truth over diplomacy. A Christian should never be afraid of the truth! I participated in the solemn Mass commemorating the centennial of the Armenian martyrdom and was very proud of Francis. Once again he has proved that he is a great political Pope, the moral conscience of the world, a religious leader who uses his popularity to lend his voice to the voiceless, the victims. It was a beautiful manifestation of the “ecumenism of the blood”, of the interdenominational solidarity with all persecuted Christians.

Wherever the Armenian diaspora is influential, people acknowledge the existence of a genocide in 1915. But the Turkish government denies it. Is there another side to the issue?

No, there isn’t. There are the historical facts and there is the Turkish propaganda denying those facts. I have studied 2500 pages of hitherto unpublished historical documents in the Vatican Secret Archives, which gives a very detailed insight into the events of 1915/16. They prove every single claim of the Turkish version of those events wrong.

Was the deportation of Armenians planned before the alleged uprisings in the spring of 1915?

There were no uprisings in 1915. There was a group of young Armenian deserters who were being sought by the Turkish police and who hid in the ruins of an abandoned monastery. Under siege by the Turkish police, they defended themselves, killed some policemen and were eventually killed themselves.

In the second case, in the city of Van, the Armenian community learned about Turkish massacres in the villages of their province. When Turkish soldiers and their commander arrived to recruit all male Armenians, they were afraid that their wives and children would be massacred, too. They offered a smaller number of men, they offered the usual fee payable by those who refused to serve in the troops. When the Turkish threats got more violent, they barricaded themselves in a suburb with an Armenian majority. They were besieged by the Turks until the Russian army conquered the province of Van and forced the Turks to withdraw. There was no contact between the Armenian resistance in Van and the Russian invaders.

The Turks have never presented a shred of evidence for any Armenian conspiracy against the unity of their ottoman homeland. Instead, several Vatican documents mention a long-term plan of the Young Turk government to exterminate the Christian minorities in the country. Indeed, the Young Turks were Turkish nationalists literally possessed with the idea that religious and ethnic pluralism weakens a nation when homogeneity would strengthen it.

And that’s exactly what the Turkish Secretary of the Interior, Talaat Bey, told Johann Mordtmann of the German Embassy: “the Turkish government uses the Great War to get rid of their interior enemies – the local Christians of all denominations – without any diplomatic intervention from the foreign nations.” And indeed Christians of all denominations – Chaldean, Assyrian and Greek Orthodox and Catholics – were persecuted as well as the Armenians.

Did Armenians do anything which could have justified harsh reprisals by the Turkish government? 

No, they certainly didn’t. When the war broke out, both the Armenian Church and the Dashnak party, the leading nationalist party, pleaded for loyalty with the Ottoman Empire. Yes, there were Armenian politicians who requested equal rights for Armenians and equal representation in the provincial administrations, but both claims were legitimate. In a 20th century nation there should be no second-class citizens without political rights.

The Turkish government had a legitimate right to fight against a conspiracy or revolt if it had existed. But instead of arresting suspects and prosecuting those whose guilt was proven, a great number of Armenian men were massacred and Armenian women, children and elderly were deported to concentration camps in the Syrian desert and sent on endless death marches through the Anatolian highlands. Nothing can ever justify the extermination of a whole nation, women and children included. Besides, as pointed out before, not only Armenians were affected but also Christians of other denominations.

Three separate and mutually suspicious Armenian communities were recognised by the Turkish state as separate ethnic groups. Were any of them given favoured treatment?

Yes, the Armenians were split into Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant communities. Only the Protestants were mostly spared, obviously to keep Germany happy, because it was an ally of Turkey in World War I.

Was the deportation of Armenian communities necessary for their own safety?

Not at all. It is true that the northeast provinces of Turkey were invaded by the Russian army, but the Orthodox Russians spared the Armenians. Besides, most deportees originated from provinces far away from the frontier – including Central Anatolia and even the south. There was only one reason to send them on those endless marches through rocky highlands and into the Syrian desert: to kill them by fatigue, starvation, thirst and disease – and to massacre those who remained.

To what extent does the Armenian policy of the Young Turks satisfy internationally recognised criteria for genocide?

According to the UN resolution 260 (A) of 9 December 1948, genocide means “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: a. Killing members of the group; b. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; c. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part (…) e. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

This is exactly what happened to the Armenians in 1915/16. Indeed the term “genocide” was originally defined by the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin after he studied the legal consequences of the events in Anatolia 1915/16. Therefore the Armenian genocide can rightly be called “the original genocide”. It even inspired Adolf Hitler when he planned the Holocaust.

Is there any sign that the Turkish position on the genocide is changing?

Unfortunately, there isn’t. Instead, in April last year, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sent his condulences to the Armenian community, as you would do it for a natural disaster. But the Armenian genocide was not a natural calamity, but a man-made one. It was planned and performed by Turks. In this moment, the Turkish government is fighting a lost war, a war against the truth. It cannot, will not and should not win this war, since every cover-up of a genocide encourages other genocides.

As Adolf Hitler stated before he marched into Poland: “Who still speaks of the extermination of the Armenians?” We cannot allow later generations to protect the murderers of 1915/16. If Turkey wants to return to the community of civilized nations, it only has one option: to admit the truth and to apologize for it!

As a Catholic, I believe that any sin can be forgiven if the sinner confesses and repents it. Without confession and repentance there is no forgiveness, no reconciliation. Those wounds will never heal! 

Michael Hesemann is the author of a recent history of the Armenian genocide (Völkermord an den Armeniern). More information can be found at his website.