One of the stronger arguments against conspiracy theories is the decades-long silence that would need to be maintained by the extraordinary number of people that would have to be involved in them.
To be sure, governments have perpetrated misdeeds and attempted to cover them up. But the difference between, say, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments and the moon landing is that a whistleblower exposed the former, while none of the hundreds of NASA employees or other scientists have come forward to explain how a lunar hoax was perpetrated.
And whereas Watergate was blown open by two tireless reporters, thousands of birthers have dedicated eight years of what passes for their lives to proving where Obama was born and have yet to produce a birth certificate from a Nairobi hospital. Anyone genuinely interested in the truth would have been satisfied with a birth certificate from Hawaiian officials and birth announcements in Honolulu newspapers. But conspiracy theorists, by their nature, consider contrary evidence to be part of the cover-up.
But I wanted to address perhaps the only case of overwhelming evidence being denied, at least officially, by persons that would probably not be called conspiracy theorists. It centers on Turkey’s denial of the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire during and after World War I.
Many governments and academics have endorsed this idea. With national governments, the denial is usually through inaction. Where’s an Asimov robot when you need one? The governments probably won’t say it didn’t happen, they will just resist all requests to acknowledge it. Denialists in academia, meanwhile, hold a stronger position.
Governments are reluctant to acknowledge the genocide because of Turkey’s position in the world, both literally and figuratively. Istanbul is the only city that occupies two continents and this is symbolic of Turkey’s not-quite-east, not-quite-west status that gives it an advantageous middle ground from which to operate. It sits between two vastly different regions and cultures, as one can drive from Bulgaria to Syria and hit only Turkey in between. It may be the only nation that maintains friendly ties with both Israel and Iran. Evidence for the Armenian genocide is as strong as is proof for the ones perpetrated in Rwanda, Cambodia, and Bosnia, those other countries lack Turkey’s diplomatic power standing.
The U.S. is one of more than 150 countries that has refused to acknowledge the genocide. Even Israel, founded largely because of the Holocaust, has remained silent. This has sparked a conspiracy theory that Armenian genocide denial is fueled by Jews so the Holocaust will remain the sole focus of genocide studies and remembrances. An even smaller competing claim is that the denial is an Islamic invention, an assertion that ignores that Syria and Lebanon have recognized it.
Ironically, Armenian genocide denial IS a conspiracy that would normally cause theorists to drool on their keyboards. It involves powerful governments and universities working in concert do hide an atrocity and even attempting to punish those who dare expose it. But the truth is too widely known to excite conspiracy theorists, who prefer to operate outside the mainstream, so they instead dream up Israeli and Islamic angles.
As to the garden variety denial, much of it comes from Turkey’s funding of academic studies, a funding which evaporates if genocide denial is insufficiently parroted. Israeli scholar Yair Auron has explained, “The Turkish government has supported the establishment of institutes affiliated with respected universities, whose apparent purpose is to further research on Turkish history and culture but which…further denial.”
Of course, the fact that academics are being paid indirectly by Turkey to promote its position is not enough to prove the genocide. For that, one must look to history.
Young Turks came to power in 1908 and they made it clear they wanted non-Turks out, especially if they were Christian. The genocide has a known staring point of April 24, 1915. On that day, the Turkish government ordered the arrest and execution of several hundred Armenian intellectuals. Soon after, everyday Armenians were targeted. Roving bands known as Butcher Battalions employed barbarous execution methods such as throwing children overboard or adults off cliffs. Other victims were burned alive or crucified.
The genocide had two phases. The first was the killing or enslavement of all healthy males. Next came women, children, the elderly, and the infirm being forced to walk to the Mesopotamian desert without food or water. Those denying the genocide are so pedantic that these death marches are referred to as “immigrant relocation.”
Turkey concedes that many Armenians were killed in areas controlled by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1918. But they contend this was a byproduct of war, not the systematic murder of more than one million unresistant civilians and children. However, there is strong documentation to refute the Turkish denials. There is photographic evidence shot by diplomats and missionaries, as well as reports from German soldiers to their superiors. There also exist many telegrams from Interior Minister Talaat Pasha that made clear the Turks’ genocidal intent. One read, “Kill every Armenian man, woman, and child without concern.”
Additionally, using the Great War as an excuse fails since the genocide outlasted the Armistice. Turkey ignored a 1920 treaty that created Armenia and occupied the nascent country, continuing extrajudicial executions until 1922.
Turkish authorities insist the responsible parties were convicted, and there is a small measure of truth to this. As early as 1915, Great Britain, France, and Russia had warned the Young Turks they would be held accountable for war crimes. When hostilities ended, the victors demanded that the Ottoman government prosecute the accused, and the resulting verdicts acknowledged the genocide and the perpetrators were sentenced to death. However, most of the guilty were granted amnesty in 1921 or were allowed to escape the country, and denial has since been Turkey’s official position. The only perpetrators to be held accountable were those who were tracked down by intelligence service agents, who then tipped off vigilantes to the perpetrator’s location.
Historians Torben Jorgensen and Matthias Bjornlund have written, “Denial of the Armenian genocide is founded on a massive effort of falsification, distortion, cleansing of archives, and direct threats initiated or supported by the Turkish state.”
Normally, denial of something this heinous in the face of overwhelming documentation would be confined to YouTube channels and Illuminati hunters. But Turkey’s powerful diplomatic standing and its academic funding means Armenian genocide denial is afforded a much loftier status than it would normally attain. And it’s sadly ironic because Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide to describe what had happened to the Armenians.
Despite the pressures, there are 30 countries that recognize Armenian genocide, including the usually neutral-at-all-costs Switzerland. A handful of those countries make denying the genocide a crime, a gesture than may be well-meaning but which ironically uses the power of government to deny the power of government. The opposite is true in Turkey, where espousing that the genocide took place is illegal. The criminal offense is “Insulting Turkishness, ” which is an amusing term until one realizes that violating it can bring three years in prison. So those reading this in Ankara should refrain from sharing it.