France’s new law, making it illegal to deny the Turks’ genocide of Armenians, raises all sorts of questions, and not just among the Turks.
First, what is genocide? If we define the word rigorously, it means massacre of an ethnic or racial group specifically because of its ethnicity or race. However, in our semantically loose times, the term is often misleadingly applied to any mass murder. This distinction may be a fine point, but intellectual and legal integrity is balanced on fine points. All else confusion, as Lord Tennyson would say.
For instance, the Nazi holocaust of 6,000,000 Jews definitely was genocide, but the Bolshevik murder of some 60,000,000 Soviet citizens wasn’t: they weren’t killed for their race. However, there were aspects of genocide within Bolshevik atrocities, such as the artificial famine in the Ukraine that killed about 5,000,000 in the 1930s, or the mass deportation of the Chechen, Ingush and Balkar in the 1940s, during which these populations were reduced by half.
There is absolutely no denying that many ethnic groups suffered persecution in the Ottoman empire, not just Armenians, but also Bulgarians, Greeks and other Christians. Mostly, this didn’t qualify as genocide: those people suffered for their religion, not race. Nor were all victims killed: the Turks would frequently kidnap Christian boys, mostly Bulgarians, and place them with Turkish families who would raise them as fanatical Muslims. When they grew up, the boys would join the elite Janissary corps and often conduct murderous raids against their own ethnic group, including their kin.
For such reasons, the term ‘Armenian genocide’ is usually used in the narrower sense to describe the atrocities perpetrated by the Young Turks government during the First World War. The number of victims is variously estimated to fall between 300,000 and 2,000,000, with the low-enders and high-enders tending to split the difference to arrive at 1.5 million. Those people were killed — but were they killed specifically because they were Armenians?
In the 1920s the post-Ottoman nationalist government of Turkey held two trials that settled the issue. In one, on the basis of much evidence, the Young Turks government was found guilty of genocide. In the other, a young Armenian’s assassination of the wartime Interior Minister Talaat was ruled to be justifiable homicide.
Of the many pieces of juicy evidence presented in both trials, one stands out: Talaat’s wartime telegram stating the Young Turks’ intent with lucid clarity: ‘…the government by the order of the Assembly (Jemiet) has decided to exterminate entirely all the Armenians living in Turkey [about 2,000,000 at the time]. Those who oppose this order can no longer function as part of the government. With regard to women, children and invalids, however tragic may be the means of transportation, an end must be put to their existence.’ If there’s a difference between this document and the Wansee Protocol, it escapes me.
Actually, there is one difference. Germany, the nation that issued the Protocol and faithfully carried out its prescriptions, has since repented its crimes and compensated the victims’ families as best it could. Too little, too late and all that, but at least it’s something. On the other hand, Turkey responds to accusations of genocide with the ‘who, me?’ indignation of wounded innocence — as demonstrated by her reaction to the ruling by the French Senate yesterday.
Turkey is about to recall her ambassador to France, a measure that’s certain to be reciprocated, and trade relations between the two countries will suffer somewhat. The amount of suffering can’t go beyond ‘somewhat’, as Turkey is locked into a customs union agreement with the EU and a military union within NATO.
For the time being, it’s mostly rhetoric, with Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan overstating the case in the heat of righteous wrath. According to him, the measure represents a ‘murdered freedom of thought’. He also accused France of pandering to ‘considerations of political agenda’ — that is, presumably mollifying the 500,000 Armenians living in France. This last accusation is nonsensical, considering that the new law is likely to enrage many of the 10 million French Muslims. But the first charge merits discussion.
Erdogan probably meant freedom of expression, not thought. For such matters ought to be governed by hard facts, not free thinking. A reasonable person must be free to think that Christianity is a more sound religion than Islam, or vice versa. But, on pain of no longer being considered reasonable, he isn’t free to think that the earth is flat — this freedom has been abrogated by facts.
Thus, though some debate is still possible about the precise number of victims, facts make the case against the genocide of Armenians unarguable this side of reason. Similarly, it’s valid to argue on the basis of facts that the number of Jews murdered by the Nazis during the holocaust was lower than 6,000,000, or that the number of Soviets murdered by the Bolsheviks didn’t quite reach 60,000,000. Khrushchev, for example, only owned up to 20,000,000 but then he meant just those murdered by Stalin in the 1930s — all others were presumably fair game. In general, criminal regimes aren’t known for actuarial accuracy in their body count. They are, however, known for their tendency to suppress incriminating evidence.
But Erdogan would in my view be right had he said that the new French law strikes a blow against the freedom of expression. For this freedom to have any meaning at all, it must cover the expression of ideas we find repugnant. After all, allowing people to say only things we agree with wouldn’t be much hardship. I do think that denying malignant idiots the right to express malignantly idiotic ideas — provided they fall short of inciting violence — does more harm than they themselves could ever do by speaking up.
Do let’s allow the likes of David Irving to claim that the Nazis didn’t murder that many Jews — he, along with other neo-Nazis, will only hang himself with his own intellectual rope. Do let’s allow Russian communists, who still poll second in most Russian elections, aver that Stalin never murdered anyone — even though, given the political innocence of most Russians, such permissiveness may backfire. And do let’s allow the Turks to be as provincially defensive as they like. Our own institutions and traditional liberties will only be the stronger for it.
I am, however, aware that many people would disagree with me — and they would do so not just on the basis of emotions, but also with the facts in hand. Well, they too ought to be allowed to speak they minds.