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Museum G-Brief

Dangerous legacy of Turkey

by Hayk Demoyan -Director of the Museum-Institute of the Armenian Genocide


“…the Government has already begun to apply to the Kurdish elements… the policy which so successfully disposed of the Armenian Minority in 1915. It is a curious trick of the fate the Kurds, who were principal agent employed for the deportation of Armenians, should be in danger of suffering the same fate as the Armenians only twelve years later”.

Sir George Clerk, British ambassador in Turkey, 1927. (Quoted from David McDowall, A Modern History of Kurds, New York 1996, p. 199).

During the Cold war, Turkish TV channels, available for the Soviet Armenian public, practiced stand-by cadres while posting photos of the former Armenian cities such as Kars, Erzerum, Ani accompanied by Armenian music to remind Armenians about the loss of their homeland. Most probably, this type of propaganda was intended to inflict further pain on the Armenians still suffering the painful memories of the genocide, and inflicting a more nationalistic sentiment at home. This time around, Turkey was also participating in psychological warfare played out as part of the Cold War propaganda.

Since 1992, Turkey has closed its border with Armenia and put forward a number of outlandish preconditions for re-establishing diplomatic relations with Armenia. For example, Armenia must never raise the issue of the Armenian genocide, give up any alleged territorial claims on Turkey and accept a more obedient position over the Karabakh issue i.e. in favor of Azerbaijan. Ironically, by blockading Armenia and pressuring the country to accept its preconditions, the Turkish authorities indirectly declared their sympathy with the genocidal policy of their Ottoman predecessors.

Obviously, the Turkish leadership uses the absence of an Armenian population in Eastern Turkey (historic Western Armenia) as a tool to exert a policy of economic, political and psychological pressure upon the Republic of Armenia. However, in doing so, they also express their solidarity with the Young Turks, who had established an anti-Armenian policy that eventually led to the genocide of the Armenian people.

The current position of the Turkish policymakers proves that Turkey continues its initial alignment in the early Republican years of denying the existence of any Armenian statehood, or marginalizing the very existence of such an entity. Today, Turkish denial and activities against the international recognition of the Armenian genocide are conducted in a more sophisticated manner. Furthermore, international recognition of the genocide is largely viewed by Turkish authorities as a serious national security problem. The present reality indicates that growing nationalism and decreasing democratization in Turkey paired with an antiquated value system burdened with taboos has polarized policymakers and has created a very difficult environment to reevaluate its own history. In Turkey, where the cult personality is still practiced and shameful articles are embedded within the country’s Penal code, the genocide issue has turned into an enormous challenge for Turkish identity.

As more countries throughout the world join the community of those nations that have publicly and officially recognized the Armenian Genocide, over time, Turkish government disputes against the recognition of the Armenian Genocide have become trivial and meaningless. In France and Switzerland, the denial of the Armenian genocide has become, by law, a punishable act. However, in Turkey, this growing recognition of the genocide is viewed not only as a threat to the Turkish State, but also as a threat to the Turkish identity. Ankara’s current stance, if maintained, could result in the moral isolation of Turkey.

The revived “Armenian question” seems to have somehow tuned into the “Turkish question.” Now creating a new round of victims, the Turkish populace have become victims of their own State sanctioned manipulation and misinformation. Regrettably, instead of facing the historical fact of the Armenian genocide, modern Turkey uses the same antiquated methodology of problem solving, denial.

Recent Turkish polls claim that 13 percent of Turks believe that the Armenian genocide did in fact occur. This is a small, yet important victory for many ordinary Turkish citizens, but not for their State. We could witness a dramatic polarization of positions between those of the Turkish officials and Turkish society in the future indicating a surge of democratization challenging the very basis of the Turkish “deep state.” Another indicator of the further democratization of Turkish society would be the tolerant attitude towards the Armenian presence and identity in the Eastern Anatolia, as well as the restoration of historical Armenian monuments and their corresponding original identities.

Turkey reacted harshly once again by opposing, on every level possible, the intent of actor Sylvester Stallone to film a story portraying the heroic Armenian battle against the Turks on Musa Dagh, depicted in Franz Werfel’s famous novel, “Forty Days of Musa Dagh”. Ankara reacted with such dread about the making of this movie as if it feared the making of a second “Midnight Express.” Understandably, the film is likely to present dramatic episodes in both, Armenian and Turkish histories, where specifically the Turkish Army (and not the gendarmes or Kurdish irregulars) was used to carry out the slaughter of innocent Armenian villagers. The inherent danger for Turkey lies in fact that the Turkish army is still considered the protector of the State and as such, transcends any sort of denigration whatsoever. Ironically, today, the very same Turkish army practices the same brutal techniques against the Kurdish population exactly on the same geographic territory where the Armenian massacres happened.

Any new attempt to deny and/or manipulate scholarship or historical data on the Armenian Genocide wedges Turkey further on the path of defeat. As stated by a US diplomat recently, “Turkey lost the war for the past.” Indeed. Turkey still insists on refuting tens of thousands of documents, eyewitness accounts and hundreds of photo materials about the Armenian genocide. There is but one, major visible difference between the “Official Turkish historiographers” and Turks who accurately write about the Armenian genocide, these unorthodox authors are in fear of their losing lives over the question of the Armenian extermination in the Ottoman Empire. Their efforts must be officially acknowledged before the joint talks begin a discussion on topics of common interest.

Currently, the Turkish courts want to prosecute Taner Akcam, a Turkish historian who is subjected to a criminal investigation in Turkey for asserting that the Armenian deportations of 1915-17 constituted genocide. Charges are pending under Turkey's notorious Articles 301.1 (`insulting Turkishness), 214 (`instigation to commit a crime’), 215 (`praise of a crime and a criminal'), and 216 (`instigating public animosity and hatred').

The consequences of their denial will measure concurrently with the destructive effect on the national psychology, dignity and overall image of Turkish citizens, putting them on the difficult path of historical reexamination. Longer still, will be the process of regret and apology, a painful fact for the next generation of Turks to deal with accordingly.

Turkish journalist, Mehmet Ali Birand, who urged his government during 1980’s to be steadfast in their opposition of the Armenian genocide recognition so that it doesn’t create huge problems for Turkey in the future, now confesses: “We have been living with this nerve-wracking matter for years.”

Modern Turkey rests on the consequences of the Armenian Genocide. The very assertion of a contemporary Turkey was based on the genocidal policies started by the Young Turks and completed by the Kemalists by killing and repulsing the remaining Christian population in Turkey.

The very same Turkish officials who offer to establish a joint commission, until recently, have also rejected the very existence of 10-15 million Kurds in Turkey. Examples of Turkish public discourse and diplomacy are indicative of such an implicit rejection of Kurdish identity and ethnicity. In the 1960’s, Gelal Gursel, then President of the Turkish Republic, declared in Diyarbekir that Turks should “Spit in the face of [all] those who call you a Kurd.” Former President, General Kenan Evren implied that Kurds were Turks who lived in the mountains and therefore, the existence of a distinct Kurdish ethnicity is excluded. Indeed, he noted, “The term Kurd does not have any meaning; when the mountain people walk on the snow the sounds their boots make when they step away sounds like ‘Kard, Kurd,’ [establishing] the origin of the word ‘Kurd’…”

Ankara, once again affirmed its commitment to come to blows against historical facts and evidences with its, “joint effort between state institutions and non-government organizations” to refute “allegations that the Ottoman Empire committed an act of genocide against its Armenian community.” Furthermore, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul noted, "The fight against the Armenian allegations requires a collective effort and co-operation among state institutions and non-governmental organizations…We need [the] contributions of universities, vocational organizations and businessmen to this end." It seems in Turkey, many officials will soon be involved in fighting genocide policy, turning it into a full time job for the sake of the state.

What is the intent of establishing a joint commission of Turks and Armenians to study the past, when Turkish scholars already have a prearranged government agenda to disavow the Armenian genocide? A joint commission consisting of both Armenian and Turkish historians to discuss common past could be effective if it were based on the principles of academic freedom and free speech, something that is endangered in modern Turkey.

Unfortunately, things are far from being idealistic on the Turkish side. The ever present “hidden hand” of Turkish nationalism and its active involvement in government in academic discourse is a constant threat to justice and historical posterity. Dozens of Turkish historians, writers, publishers, including Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, have been prosecuted for insulting the Turkish nation. Consistently failing to confront the ugly and shameful episodes of its history, Turkey is struggling to come to terms with its own past.

They say, being brave is being afraid of something and doing it anyway. Hrant Dink bravely spoke out about a common Turkish-Armenian past in Turkey and paid for it with his life.

The issue of the Armenian Genocide is more of a global concern and the recognition of the Armenian Genocide is not just a Turkish problem. The interests of entire International Community are served when the ability to prosecute these criminal acts committed against humanity have no statue of limitations. If we intend on preventing future crimes against humanity in the world, we should stridently condemn and not forget the crimes of the past, especially the First Genocide of the 20th century.

In other words: Never again.

P. S.

“… Because of the high birth rate in the Kurdish regions and of the vitality of Kurdish nationalism both inside and outside the country, a change in population balance could, in the long term, constitute a danger. Research indicates that by the year 2010 the Kurdish population could make up 40 percent of the total population of Turkey and that by 2025 it would have passed the critical 50 percent level. With such a growth rate Kurdish nationalism would come to the fore and its reflection in the number of Members of Parliament could, in the future, have serious consequences…”

From the report of Turkish National Security Council
“Milliyet” newspaper, December 18, 1996.




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