Why do people want to deny genocide occurred?

The Wall Street Journal featured a full page ad from a group denying the Armenian genocide.

The content of the ad itself is pretty bland (“Truth = Peace” and a peace sign could be swapped in for almost any cause), but its purpose is not: To deny that as many as 1.5 million Armenians were systematically rounded up and murdered by the Ottoman government in what is now Turkey, mostly in the year 1915. The modern Turkish government has famously scoffed at the truth of this historical event, despite a century of scholarship and eyewitness accounts. Measures in the United States to officially recognize the genocide (through a congressional resolution, for example) have gained wide support but ultimately failed, mainly because of Turkey’s role as a regional military ally.

It’s also a familiar argument that they make.

The ad contains a URL for the genocide-denial group FactCheck Armenia, the unfounded arguments of which boil down to 1) It wasn’t actually that many people, and 2) The Armenians started it. That group is itself a part of Turkic Platform, a pro-Turkey group that attempts to distract from discussion of the genocide with events like Times Square dance routines. That the caption on that Getty photograph refers to the ethnic cleansing as “the 1915 incident” shows how much success the deniers have had in this country.

Isn’t that always the case? The Jews were wrecking the German economy, and besides, the Nazis didn’t kill 6 million of them, but only a million, tops. The Indians killed white settlers on their land, making it necessary to fight them, and there weren’t that many of them living here, and besides we gave them those nice reservations to live on. It was Africans who sold their own people to slave traders, and we weren’t killing them — we gave them a nice life suitable to their abilities. It just goes on and on.

I have two thoughts when I hear that vileness.

The photo the article referred to is a perfect example of one.


You want to argue that it wasn’t all of 1.5 million people murdered. What number is acceptable? Because I see one dead child and that’s too much.

My second thought is an assumption. Why do you want to deny this historical fact? Because you want to do it again..


  1. numerobis says

    One esteemed colleague of mine told me that it was a confusing time (true), lots of massacres on all sides (true), and the Armenians just left (um…)

    A Lithuanian tour guide in Vilnius told us as we toured a synagogue that the pre-war population was 40% Jewish, but that they left after the war.

  2. says


    The Indians killed white settlers on their land, making it necessary to fight them, and there weren’t that many of them living here, and besides we gave them those nice reservations to live on.

    An additional favourite of bigots and deniers: some Indian tribes enslaved Indians from other tribes, so they were bad people to begin with, no one talks about that!

  3. karpad says

    The funny thing is, I don’t think anyone would blame anyone alive in Turkey, or involved in Turkish politics for the Armenian Genocide in any way if they would simply own up to the fact that it happened. By making excuses for it, by defending and denying it, these individuals are claiming ownership of it which does make them responsible.
    “That is a bad thing that happened. That should not have happened. That was morally wrong” and they’re off the hook. All they have to do is not name their pending NFL expansion team the Bursa Armenians as a “tribute” and they’d not have to think or deal with this in any way at all.

  4. numerobis says

    karpad@6: people are loath to admit their ancestors, no matter how distant, ever did anything wrong. And in the Armenian case, it’s within my lifetime that the last perpetrators passed away; it’s hard to keep up a fiction for 50 years and then shed it.

  5. Who Cares says

    Wouldn’t point two (and make point 2 point 3 since that is also a possibility) be more of the following:
    Tribalism. The denial that my tribe did something like that else I’d have to admit it performed an evil deed. Which due to my inclusion in said tribe would have made me do or condone an evil deed and since I’m not evil that means that that evil action X has not happened.

  6. empty says

    You want to argue that it wasn’t all of 1.5 million people murdered. What number is acceptable? Because I see one dead child and that’s too much.

    As someone who in the days of usenet wasted hours reading voluminous posts on this, I don’t think the argument is really about whether huge numbers of Armenians were murdered, it is whether the mass killings fit the technical definition of genocide. I tried in those days to ask what the exact issue was but got inundated with minutiae about telegrams, typefaces, and if I remember correctly, a comma. The Turkish government has in the last few years begun putting out messages of condolences and sorrow on Armenian remembrance day – so, maybe there’s hope.

  7. Zeppelin says


    One would like to think so…but as a German abroad I’ve been called a Nazi on multiple occasions, so maybe not. And in fact many people on highbrow discussion platforms like Youtube just assume as a matter of course that Germany denies the Holocaust and censors information about WWII (presumably because that’s what they would do), and then insult us for it. Remember that Family Guy bit about the German tour guide?

    Might be a harder thing to swallow for someone from a country that isn’t deeply suspicious of things like “national pride” to begin with. Of course the Holocaust is rather higher-profile than the Armenian genocide, so that might help.

  8. rietpluim says

    I’ve never understood it either. You’d think that an anti-Semite would be proud of the Holocaust.

  9. says

    Why do you want to deny this historical fact? Because you want to do it again..

    I think it’s more that there’s a tendency to want to keep one’s options open…

    Unfortunately, when we look at history, a lot of great (or at least memorable) things were built on genocide and slavery – usually together. It’s as if people look and think, “well, we may need to expand down into Mexico someday and all those people will be really inconvenient…”

  10. penalfire says

    There are more motives than the motive to repeat the genocides. Some
    critics want to downplay all non-Holocaust genocides in order to keep the
    focus on Jewish suffering. That can then be exploited to justify Israeli
    atrocities (and increased funding of Israeli aggression).

    Guenther Lewy has dedicated his career to discrediting non-Holocaust
    genocides. He’s written books questioning the atrocities in Vietnam, the
    Native American genocide, the Armenian genocide, even the extermination of
    non-Jews in the Nazi holocaust. To get an idea:


    There’s a lot of unseemly massacre ranking in there. Have a look at this
    grotesque passage:

    David Stannard, for instance, states that
    just as Jews who died of disease and
    starvation in the ghettos are counted among
    the victims of the Holocaust, Indians who
    died of introduced diseases”were as much
    the victims of the Euro-American genocidal
    war as were those burned or stabbed or
    hacked or shot to death, or devoured by
    hungry dogs.” As an example of actual
    genocidal conditions, Stannard points to
    Franciscan missions in California
    as”furnaces of death.”

    But right away we are in highly debatable
    territory. It is true that the cramped
    quarters of the missions, with their poor
    ventilation and bad sanitation, encouraged
    the spread of disease. But it is
    demonstrably untrue that, like the Nazis,
    the missionaries were unconcerned with the
    welfare of their native converts. No matter
    how difficult the conditions under which
    the Indians labored — obligatory work,
    often inadequate food and medical care,
    corporal punishment — their experience
    bore no comparison with the fate of the
    Jews in the ghettos. The missionaries had a
    poor understanding of the causes of the
    diseases that afflicted their charges, and
    medically there was little they could do
    for them. By contrast, the Nazis knew
    exactly what was happening in the ghettos,
    and quite deliberately deprived the inmates
    of both food and medicine; unlike in
    Stannard’s “furnaces of death,” the deaths
    that occurred there were meant to occur.

    Norman Finkelstein criticized him as follows (with regards to the
    downplaying of gypsy suffering in the Nazi holocaust):

    Lewy’s argument goes like this: Gypsies
    were ruthlessly slaughtered by the
    Einsatzgruppen like the Jews, but only
    because they were suspected of spying;
    Gypsies were deported to Auschwitz like the
    Jews, but only “to get rid of them, not to
    kill them;” Gypsies were gassed at Chelmno
    like the Jews, but only because they had
    contracted typhus; most of the few
    remaining Gypsies were sterilized like the
    Jews, not however to prevent their
    propagation but only to “prevent
    contamination of ‘German blood.'” It’s not
    hard to imagine the public and scholarly
    reaction if one replaced Gypsies with Jews
    in Lewy’s book.

    On his downplaying of atrocities in Vietnam, Chomsky writes:

    In discussing the treatment of prisoners,
    Lewy shows his reasonableness by
    acknowledging “several cases of US
    maltreatment and torture.” These are
    treated with antiseptic brevity, and Lewy
    takes pains to put them into a context of
    the “frustration resulting from fighting an
    often unseen enemy, the resentments created
    by casualties,” etc. In dealing with
    Communist inhumaneness, however, he gives a
    plenitude of detail, with an unconcealed
    moral indignation totally absent from his
    grudging admission of US-Saigon torture,
    and factors that might explain such acts by
    the enemy are treated with sarcasm. He even
    matter-of-factly explains Saigon torture:
    “The police were not highly professional,
    prison guards were underpaid, and South
    Vietnamese have a low regard for human

  11. unclefrogy says

    a distinction without a deference
    all of the arguments against these holocausts and atrocities are mostly just hair splitting any way and often just boil down to semantics, They do not like the words used they want nicer sounding ones instead. They never seem to be able to see the reality of real people doing these terrible things nor the reality of the people experiencing these terrible things. It is much more comfortable not to look too closely you might see yourself in there.
    uncle frogy

  12. lpetrich says

    I’m reminded of Serdar Argic, someone who would spam Usenet very heavily about this issue early in 1994. He’d claim that it was the Armenians who were trying to commit genocide — genocide against the Turks. He even had some fake quotes that supported his claims.

  13. anbheal says

    Well the whole notion of “The War Of Northern Aggression” didn’t really kick off until the 1980s, once Southern states got enough organized electoral clout to start doing the horrible shit they’ve done to the country over the last 30 years. But there are Libertarians in the north now who will swear up and down that it wasn’t slavery so much as happy workers, singing and dancing the way black folk do, under the kind old avuncular patronage of the nice man in the Tom Wolfe suit. And the North ruined that lovely historic symbiosis. Goaded by Jews, probably.

    The signage between Krakow and Auschwitz is somewhere between lacking and non-existent. If you ask any random Pole how to get to Oswiecim, they’ll shrug and say they never heard of hit. Pampers Wojtyla (that hideous Pope friend of Reagan’s) claimed he never knew it existed, despite contemporary accounts saying you could smell the burning flesh every single day in Krakow. And at the two camps (Auschwitz and Birkenau), once you finally figure out how to get there, there are signs everywhere saying “Twelve thousand normal respectable Poles, not fags or kikes or stinking gypsies, were also put to death here — the REAL tragedy is that nobody remembers those wonderful Polish people, and only remembers the goddamn Jews!” I’m only exaggerating slightly. Everybody I know who visits there says the same thing, how hard the Poles try to excuse the deaths of Jews while still saying the Nazis weren’t nice to Poles either.

    And I’ve watched all 15 hours or so of Shoah, and still the most vivid scene, for me, is when the residents of Vilnius are interviewed, and they shrug off the disappearance of the Jews — “it was a lovely time for us, we were able to move into their abandoned houses downtown, the nicest houses in the town”, “yes, I enjoyed it, it stopped my husband from ogling all those dark-haired beauties”, “I think the Germans did the right thing, turning over all their property to us, after all we deserved it more”, “I enjoyed my new house, although I missed watching their buxom young women in the shops”. It wasn’t a genocide for the Christians of Vilnius, it was a redistribution of property from the unworthy to the worthy.

  14. F.O. says

    I’m not convinced that’s “because you want to do it again”.
    Tribalism is more than enough to justify it: you need your group to have the moral high ground, in fact, you need the perpetrating group to look like the victim.

  15. nutella says

    A little-known example: Argentina is now a majority-white country and also has a fair number of indigenous people. Some years ago there were also black Argentinians and now there are almost none.

    Jorge Luis Borges who was born in 1899 mentions black workers when he talked to Paul Theroux about growing up in Buenos Aires. Wikipedia says blacks were “15% of the total population in 1857… and 1% at present.” Where did they all go?

    The common claim today is that all the black men were drafted into the war with Paraguay that ran from 1864 to 1870 and that was that. They didn’t come home and that’s why there are no more black men, women, or children in Argentina now.

    This story sent a chill down my spine when I first heard it so I have asked people from the area about Argentina’s black population and they either deny it ever existed or giggle nervously. No one admits they even existed or where they ‘went’. I expect that they think I’m an awful person for even asking.

  16. chrislawson says

    Not-so-fun fact: the Allies actually contributed to the genocidal treatment of homosexuals. After the war, many of the gays in concentration camps were re-imprisoned to serve out the terms of the sentences passed on them under Nazi trials. They were sent to normal prisons, which is a big step up from concentration camps, but still…

  17. says

    I remember watching a documentary on the Armenian genocide a while ago, and from what I recall the Turks didn’t set out to eliminate the Armenians. Their argument is easily dismissed as semantic, but the truth seems to lie somewhere between the Jewish genocide and the internment of Japanese Americans.

    The Turkish government was extremely afraid of insurgency from within, and decided to ‘deport’ every Armenian they could get their hands on for security reasons. That deportation turned into a death march for reasons of incompetence and negligence. I doubt the people in charge really cared one way or the other what happened to their problem, so long as it went away.

    None of which is to say that those crimes should not be acknowledged and recorded. I do think it’s worth paying attention to the finer grain though, the causes of the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust are not the same. We need to understand them if we’re going to prevent their modern equivalents.

  18. John Phillips, FCD says

    Ian King, but we’re not saying that they are the same, except that both involved a lot of people dying. One is called the Armenian Genocide and the other the Holocaust. I don’t think I have heard anyone call it the Armenian Holocaust, though that is not to deny some might have. However, as to why it happened, if it has the same ultimate outcome as a deliberately planned genocide, then to my mind it is genocide.

  19. Nick Gotts says

    I would add the genocide that the Israelis presently perform. – jack16@4

    Israeli treatment of the Palestinians is vile enough. But it’s an odd sort of “genocide” that is compatible with a decades-long rapid increase in the “genocided” population.

  20. says

    That’S a common thread in German holocaust denial as well:
    1. Claim it never happened
    2. Lament that you cannot send people to Auschwitz any more.

    And yes, there’s a clear difference in how Jewish and non-Jewish victims of the Nazis were treated. Gays, communists, Sinti and Roma, they all had themselves to blame. Sinti and Roma are still one of the most discriminated groups in all of Europe, something not imaginable with Jews.*

    *Not that I blame them. Sure, they got a good lobby, but just because others get treated wrong doesn’t mean I’m opposed to them getting treated right. I want justice for all, not injustice.

  21. photoreceptor says

    reply to 18: Nutella, my girlfriend is argentinian, after reading your comment, right out of the blue I asked her if she ever heard about the black population: she replied instantly that they had been sent off to the wars against Paraguay and that virtually none returned. She learned it in history at high school, nobody tried to hide or deny the fact. It was the spanish colonialists who were actually responsible, they sent the blacks first, then the native indians, probably without weapons. So I doubt that people giggle nervously, they have no need to. They (the argentinians) don’t like certain groups of caucasians (a reference to another PZ item) very much (ie. spanish and english), but given the historical events it is fully understandable.

  22. says


    She learned it in history at high school, nobody tried to hide or deny the fact. It was the spanish colonialists who were actually responsible

    Of course they all vanished upon liberation…
    I think that’s a nice way of distancing yourself from atrocities by othering a group. Of course the ruling classes of Latin America descended from the colonialists the same way the US American Oligarchy did.
    I’d say the “it was them, not us and it was a long time ago” is also a common form of making atrocities look less bad.
    Also, if all the black men were drafted and killed, what happened to the women?
    Spanish Wikipedia lists the Yellow Fever and emigration to not quite as racist countries as other factors for the disappearance of the black population.

  23. anat says

    left0ver1under, the strange thing is that at least in my generation ‘everyone’ knew how witnessing the Armenian genocide (or more likely, encountering refugees escaping from it) motivated Sarah Aaronson to join her brother’s spy network, in order to bring an end to Ottoman rule over Palestine.

  24. Derek Vandivere says

    #15 / IPetrich: Was he the guy who always appended ‘ian’ to people’s last names?

    I think a lot of the Turkish denial has to do with the mythification of Ataturk and the birth of modern Turkey. Acknowledging it might put the whole self-image at risk…