A Question of Legacy: The Armenian Genocide’s Role in the Fate of Modern Turkey

Nick Danforth
3 min readApr 23, 2017

On April 24th the world will commemorate the 102nd anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, a seminal tragedy of the 20th century that modern Turkey still refuses to recognize.

With authoritarianism and ethnic violence taking a brutal toll on Turkey today, it is tempting to draw a connection between the country’s current suffering and its unacknowledged original sin. In recent years, liberal scholars in Turkey and abroad have offered eloquent and cogent arguments explaining how the legacy of genocide and its denial contributes to the persistence of the Turkey’s war against Kurdish separatists and its ongoing failure to democratize.

Indeed, the legacy of the genocide may persist in specific manifestations of modern Turkey’s social and political dysfunction. But stepping back to look at Turkey from a broader historical and geographic perspective reveals an alternate, perhaps more disturbing, narrative: after the murder of over a million people, the modern Turkish state that emerged in 1923 has actually experienced less political violence than most neighboring countries the Middle East, the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Mediterranean. By the grim standards of the 20th century, Turkey’s post-genocide history has been, for its region, relatively peaceful and democratic.

This is not to discount the enormous violence the citizens of modern Turkey have endured, but simply to question in what causal sense it can be considered the “legacy” of genocide. Contrary to the widespread assumption in which state violence begets violence and government repression begets repression, in this case the story seems more complicated.

By 1950, a Turkish regime that still included unrepentant genocidaires among its members had successfully kept Turkey out of World War Two and then made a voluntarily transition to multi-party democracy. Meanwhile, across Europe, political leaders without this bloody background followed the path of fascism and irredentism into a continent-wide conflagration with incalculable human costs. After 1950, Turkey remained imperfectly democratic but hardly free from violence. In 1955 anti-Greek programs, sometimes referred to as “Turkey’s Kristalnacht” led to the death of 11 ethnically Greek citizens and the expulsion of tens of thousands more. Following a coup in 1960, the first of four in modern Turkish history, the country’s prime minister and two of his colleagues were executed. In the late 1970s rising left-right political struggles claimed thousands more victims. After another coup in 1980, hundreds of political prisoners were executed, and countless others tortured. Most brutal of all was the country’s decades long, still ongoing, civil war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a conflict in which as many as forty thousand people have been killed. More recently, an attempted coup last summer led to the death of 265 citizens, and a retaliatory wave of purges in which more people have been tortured or killed.

Yet during this same period of time, most countries in Turkey’s wider region suffered significantly worse violence with significantly less democracy; consider, in turn, the experience of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania and Yugoslavia.

Without delving too far into crude tallies of human cruelty, the comparison between Turkey and its neighbors should at least give us pause when presenting modern Turkey’s tribulations as a consequence of, or perhaps punishment for, the Turkish state’s foundational crime. The true victims of the Armenian genocide were, quite simply, the victims — the people who were killed, the people who survived, their families and their descendants.

Because of the genocide, and its subsequent denial, Turkey has faced ongoing, and entirely justified, international condemnation. But, in defiance of our moral expectations, it has not necessarily endured a unique legacy of violence or authoritarianism that nearby countries without the same dark history were spared.