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US academics join rush to deny Turkish massacre of Armenians

Slaughter viewed as accident of First World War
In a country where denial of the Jewish Holocaust could yet become a crime, denial of an earlier but almost equally vicious genocide - that of the Armenians by the Turks in 1915 - is becoming an almost day-to-day affair in the United States.

Thanks to the diligent work of the Turkish embassy in Washington, a group of passive US congressmen and pro-Turkish academics at several leading American universities, the century's first holocaust - in which 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered - is being transformed, against all the evidence to the contrary, into a mere side-effect of the First World War rather than a deliberate act of race persecution.

Barely an hour after The Independent had telephoned an American public relations company which is bidding to work for the Turkish government,documents was delivered to my Washington hotel, all of them purporting to prove that the Ottoman Turks never set out to slaughter 1.5 million Armenians in 1915. Many suggested that the tens of thousands of Armenian women and children sent on death marches into what is now Syria during the First World War were the tragic victims of civil war unrest rather than the victims of deliberate annihilation.

One paper, by Justin McCarthy, a history professor at the University of Louisville, stated bluntly: "I do not believe the Ottoman government ever intended a genocide of Armenians ... it was in fact in the regions where Ottoman control was weakest that columns of Armenians suffered most."

In reality, captured Turkish government papers, diplomatic accounts, contemporary newspaper reports and witness evidence prove beyond doubt that the Turkish authorities - suspecting treachery among the Ottoman empire's minority Christians - set out to annihilate their Armenian community in 1915.

Across southern and eastern Turkey, Armenian men were rounded up and butchered in mass Bosnia-style killings while their families were sent into the Syrian desert where they died in their tens of thousands, raped and murdered by Kurdish tribesmen as well as by Turkish gendarmerie. A cave in which thousands of Armenians were deliberately asphyxiated with smoke by Turkish militiamen - the 20th-century's first primitive gas chamber - still exists in the Syrian desert. Western newspaper correspondents, Methodist missionaries and Henry Morgenthau, the US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, all compiled evidence of the massacres in which the Turks were involved. Even military advisers from Germany - Ottoman Turkey's First World War allies - complained to Berlin about the atrocities, which were debated in the Reichstag.

Yet denial of the Armenian holocaust continues to gather pace in the US. Turkish government endowments to American universities suggest that Ankara might, in the words of the Boston Globe, be trying "to buy academic absolution from the dark past of the Armenian massacre".

The Turkish government has given $3m (pounds 1.8m)to US universities, including Harvard - which denies there are any conditions attached. But the most controversial appointment has been at Princeton where Dr Heath Lowry, who disputes the reality of the Armenian holocaust, holds the Ataturk Chair in Turkish Studies. In one of his works, Dr Lowry claims that the account of the genocide by Ambassador Morgenthau, who was Jewish, comprises "crude half-truths and outright falsehoods ... from cover to cover".

In his new book Black Dog of Fate, Armenian history professor Peter Balakian - whose family survived the Armenian massacres - describes how, while he was speaking at a meeting in New York to mark Armenian holocaust day, Turkish demonstrators handed out pamphlets claiming "Armenians were deported because they were a security threat and were massacring Muslims ...".

Mr Balakian, who is also a poet, has lobbied Congress to mark 24 April, when the massacres started among the Armenian intelligentsia, as Armenian holocaust day.

But to no avail. Turkish lobbyists have regularly prevailed upon the US administration not to mark the day, reminding congressmen of the vital Nato role played by Turkey and its alliance with Washington, and insisting that the Armenian holocaust was merely a badly handled "relocation" of Turkey's Armenian population.

Mr Balakian believes that Turkish pressure groups began to achieve success in the US as long ago as 1934 when MGM dropped a project to film The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, the story of the Armenian resistance to Turkish attacks on a mountain town in 1915.

Yet despite the support of Jewish academics for acknowledgement of the earlier Holocaust, Israel failed the Armenians in 1982 when it gave way to pressure from Turkey and forced the cancellation of a conference on the Jewish Holocaust and its 6 million victims in which Armenians would have described their own genocide. Elie Wiesel, the Jewish Holocaust survivor, pulled out of the conference after pressure from the Israeli foreign ministry. Turkey is today Israel's most powerful Muslim military ally.

Mr Balakian said. "What this is about is a refusal to acknowledge genocide. We should have apologies from the Turks and the proper moral representation in history.

"Genocide denial is the last phase of genocide. It denounces the victims and rehabilitates the perpetrators. It also robs the victim's culture of all moral order ... I feel we Armenians are being stalked by the perpetrators 82 years later.

"We can't heal until there is a full confirmation of the Armenian genocide in the public discourse of world history."