- - Monday, May 3, 2021

The massacres and deportations of Armenians in 1915 made headlines again when President Biden became the first U.S. leader to recognize the killings as a genocide perpetrated by the Young Turk leaders of the Ottoman Empire.

Mr. Biden was willing to use a word past American officials avoided, often using verbal contortions, to placate Turkey, a longtime NATO ally. Turkish leaders forcefully deny to this day that their nation committed genocide during World War I.

What happened in 1915, and why does it matter now? Those questions are the focus of the latest episode of the History As It Happens podcast.

“As [the Ottomans] went into the war, they very much saw it as an existential war, and by that time they had already perceived non-Muslims as a potential threat within the empire,” said Howard Eissenstat, an associate professor of Middle Eastern history at St. Lawrence University.

“As it became clear that the Ottomans were in for a nasty fight, as it became clear that they were not going to have an easy war, they began to look at the Armenians as an enemy within,” said Mr. Eissenstat, who agrees with the historical consensus that the Turks committed genocide.

There was no mystery at the time. Major newspapers, including the New York Times, U.S. and European diplomats, Christian missionaries and German military officials documented the killings as they took place. As many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed, although Mr. Eissenstat cautions that it is impossible to arrive at an exact number.

Mr. Biden’s announcement came at a time of strained relations between the U.S. and Turkey, whose autocratic ruler Recep Tayyip Erdogan has moved closer to Russia while pursuing his own foreign policy in the region.

To Mr. Eissenstat, both countries are realizing they no longer need each other as much as they did during the Cold War, when Turkey was a critical geopolitical ally to Western Europe.

“NATO is having a bit of an identity crisis,” Mr. Eissenstat said. “Turkey has long aspired, for many, many decades, for a more multivalent foreign policy, one that is less dependent on the West, and for a greater role in world affairs.”

More succinctly, the historian quipped, the U.S. and Turkey are just not that into each other anymore.

For more of Mr. Eissenstat’s observations about what happened in 1915 and why it matters today, listen to this episode of “History As It Happens.”

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