The French parliament has set an alarming example of arrogance, ignorance and gross hypocrisy with the passage of a law which makes it a crime to deny that Armenians in Ottoman Turkey were the subject of genocide in 1915-18. The state which prides itself on freedom of expression ? for example publication of cartoons poking fun at the Prophet Mohamed ? is now laying down the law on a subject which is a matter of debate and mixed evidence among neutral historians. The country with plenty of colonial war crimes to its name is sitting in judgment on events in Turkey nearly a hundred years ago when France was in the process of trying to invade that country.
The basic facts are well enough known. Starting in 1915, several hundred thousand Armenians were either massacred, driven into exile in neighboring states or forcibly moved to other parts of the Ottoman empire. The reason was very simple. The Ottoman empire, as part of the wider First World War, was at war with Russia. Its forces had recently been defeated by the Russians at the battle of Sarikamish and Russian forces were advancing on Erzurum, the major city in eastern Turkey. The Turkish commander, Enver Pasha, blamed his defeat on the Armenians. That was not entirely fiction. Several thousand Armenians from Turkey had indeed joined the Russian forces in response to a call by Tsar Nicholas II who sent the following message to the Armenian National Council in 1915:
?From all countries Armenians are hurrying to enter the ranks of the glorious Russian Army, with their blood to serve the victory of the Russian Army... Let the Russian flag wave freely over the Dardanelles and the Bosporus?
In other words many Muslim Turks saw the Armenian community as a threat to their nation at a time when it was also being attacked from the west ? Anglo-French landings on the Gallipoli peninsula in April 1915 aimed at seizing the capital, Istanbul. The Russians saw an alliance with the Christian Armenians, who straddled both sides of the Russia/Ottoman border as one of their weapons in their long cherished desire to regain Istanbul for Christendom and provide Russia with a direct outlet to the Mediterranean.
The Gallipoli landings ultimately failed at huge cost to both sides, and particularly the Australian and New Zealand contingents who were part of the British effort. But for the Turks their victory in the west was overshadowed by the loss of Erzurum to the Russians in a battle in which they sustained 80,000 casualties against a much larger Russian force. Their army in the east had been deprived of men and equipment due to the attack in the west.
The relocation of many Armenians, who were mostly in eastern Turkey, was part of official policy and some massacres were evidently carried out with the connivance of local officials. But most appear to have been, at least according to neutral historians, caused by populist reaction against the Armenians rather than official state policy which would qualify as genocide. Armenians in Istanbul and other cities in western Turkey were little touched.
Anti-Armenian sentiment had been growing well before the war in an Ottoman empire which for centuries had been seen as a model of tolerance in which Christian and Jews could live safely and prosper, subject only to some extra taxes. But tensions in the late 19th century as the Ottoman Turkish heartland became the place of refuge for huge numbers of Muslims fleeing Russian expansion into the Caucasus and the Ottoman retreat from what are now Bosnia, Albania, Montenegro and Bulgaria. The Russians virtually wiped out the Circassian nation which had been 3-4 million strong occupying the northeast coast of the Black Sea, those who were not killed scattering around the Ottoman empire and beyond.
The Russians and other Slavs were much more fervently Christian than the Ottomans were Muslim so the rise of religious tensions in the Ottoman Empire owed more to Russian expansionism and western European support for Christians everywhere, than to the Ottomans themselves.
None of this excuses the massacres. But how many of the French parliamentarians who doubtless remember Gallipoli know of Sarikamish, Erzurum and the Muslim refugee issues?
As for the deportations and forced resettlement of Armenians by the Ottomans, it is difficult to see that these were any worse than the post-1945 deportations and ethnic cleansing by the western powers and Soviet Union of millions of Germans from territories they had settled for 800 years. Perhaps the French could revisit the history of 60 years ago before they penalize anyone for doubting that the word genocide applies to the Armenian massacres.
Or maybe they can show their commitment to free speech by arresting the author of probably the finest book on the subject: ?The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide? by American academic Guenther Lewy.