Guenter Lewy is the author of, among other works, The Catholic Church & Nazi Germany, Religion & Revolution, America in Vietnam, and The Cause that Failed: Communism in American Political Life. His new book, The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide, is forthcoming from the University of Utah Press.
The First Genocide of the 20th Century?
The term “genocide,” coined in 1944 by the Polish-Jewish émigré lawyer Raphael Lemkin, was meant to describe Hitler’s then-ongoing campaign to exterminate the Jews of Europe. But Lemkin’s interest in this most heinous of crimes—what he and others would define as the planned effort to destroy an entire people or ethnic group—long predated the rise of the Nazis. The atrocities that first drew him to the issue emerged from a different world war and a different context. They were the vicious actions not of Germans against Jews in the early 1940’s but of Ottoman Turks against Turkey’s Armenian minority in 1915-16.
Today, however, the Armenian case remains controversial in a way that the Holocaust, outside the fevered confines of the Arab world, does not. Like every one of its predecessors since the rise of modern Turkey, the current government in Ankara vehemently rejects the charge of genocide, and has exerted strong diplomatic pressure against any attempt by outsiders to place the events of World War I in a class with Hitler’s Final Solution. In this, the Turks have been seconded not just by pro-Turkish apologists but by a number of respected historians, including, most notably, Bernard Lewis, the dean of American Orientalists and an expert on Turkey.