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Oyku Gurpınar

Teaching the Armenian genocide: A comparative analysis of national history curriculums and textbooks in Turkey, Armenia and France

14 Feburary 2018
  • genocide of Armenians
  • historical education
  • textbooks
  • Aghed


In an attempt to explore the different historiographical and pedagogical approaches to the Armenian Genocide, from denial to recognition, from contextualization to historicism, from nationalism to human rights, this paper focuses on the national history curriculums of three countries (Turkey, Armenia and France). These three countries were selected in order to demonstrate the variety of historiographies according to the different socio-political and ideological contexts. In this sense, there exist two levels of comparison: i) the general approach towards history education, along with human rights education, framing the national history curriculum, the publications and instructions of the Ministry of Education determining its implementation; ii) peculiarities concerning the case of the Armenian Genocide (1915–16), involving the given historical context, its ideological position and interpretation, and its dis/connection to the claimed stance. By this comparative analysis, the paper aims to revisit the problems of the divergence concerning the education of history, particularly in the case of crimes against humanity.


The link between the nation-states and the education of history has been one of the much-discussed issues. From nationalist ideologies to political expediencies, from the consolidation of national identity to the formation of ideal citizens, from grand historical narratives to pedagogies of moralvalues, the nation-states are often criticized for controlling and influencing the education of history in line with their interests. Within this frame of reference, the instruction of contested and sensitive historical events represents one of the essential controversies, revealing the political intentions behind educational practices. In an attempt to comparatively analyse the different approaches to the Armenian Genocide, this paper explores the different historical narratives, contextualizations and political stances of three countries (Turkey, Armenia and France), through their national history curriculums, as well as their history teaching plans and exemplary history textbooks. For this purpose, the paper consists of three sections. First, a brief overview of the curriculums of each country is presented regarding their development and transformation, along with the intentions affecting their regulation and implementation. Second, the position of the Armenian Genocide within the national curriculums and history teaching plans is illustrated, accompanied by the political stances of each country towards the issue. Last but not least, the way the Armenian Genocide is taught in history textbooks is comparatively analysed in relation to their explanation of the causes and conditions resulting in the decision of deportation and its implementation, as well as the consequences and long-term effects that can be traced up to the present.

History education and the curriculum

The curriculum is the core of education: it consists of guidelines responding to questions such as ‘what should be taught, to whom, under what circumstances, how, and with what end in mind’ (Null 2011, 5). Curriculum is what signifies i) aims and objectives of education, ii) subjects, iii) their distribution at different levels of education, iv) educational materials and their content, v) teaching methods. In this regard, school curriculums are of the utmost importance in the formation of ‘ideal’ citizens, their apprehension of certain moral values, civic rights and duties, fundamental knowledge and, naturally, the history of their nation.1

History first appeared in the national curriculums in the 19th century when public education systems were more or less established in many countries – almost at the same time that history became a modern academic discipline. This early inception within the educational system also showed the significance of history in terms of the formation of future citizens (Carretero and Bermudez 2012, 634). Concerning the role of history in relation to the construction of national identity, there are three different approaches: the ‘romantic’ promotes social cohesion, the ‘empirical’ stresses the transmissionof historical knowledge, and the ‘civic’ concentrates on the development of civic competence (Carretero, Asensio and Rodríguez-Moneo 2012, 4). To give an individual a sense of belonging to a nation and to promote his or her self-identification as a citizen of that nation and the awareness of the responsibilities it enforces, historical knowledge and a consciousness of a common past plays an essential part.

As it is the curriculum-makers who determine which subjects should be emphasized and which should be excluded or ignored, how to represent historical events, people, facts and in which context, the curriculum is also a reflection of what constructs the national unity of a particular ‘present’ (Brehm 2014, 319). The national curriculum consolidates a uniform identity administered to all students and leads to the quest of establishing a single ‘grand narrative’ that would eliminate alternative narratives and compel the teaching of a precise interpretation of the past (Ahonen 2001, 190). However, since the circumstances that define the national unity tend to change given the politics of a certain time, so does the curriculum. Therefore, the history curriculum is one of the most unstable components of education, continuously altered depending on the transformations that occur in the socio- cultural and historical-political conditions of a specific country (Brauch 2017, 597). Consequently, a comparison of national history curriculums in Turkey, Armenia and France requires taking into account the country-specific circumstances and their transformation over time.

Approaches to national histories: comparing curriculums

To start with, in Turkey, the national history curriculum has undergone several major reforms that are mostly invoked by three political stances: nationalism, Islamism and a democratic initiative. Nationalism, as the first and foremost, contains ideological shifts and escalations that are marked by the socio-political context of the era. The 1930s witnessed the establishment of nationalist ideology of Kemalism, which introduced a series of reforms to depart from the Ottoman legacy, in particular its religious character, in order to embrace Western values, based on six founding principles of the Turkish Republic: populism, secularism, revolutionism, nationalism, republicanism and statism (Zürcher 2005, 181). In this period, as an extension of the efforts to demolish the claims of other nations over national territory, the ‘Turkish History Thesis’ claimed the roots of the Turkish nation were deeply established in Anatolia, where its early civilizations and inhabitants were originally Turk (Akpınar et al. 2017, 14). By the 1960s, as the first militarycoup in the history of the Republic took place, the nationalist tone of its history education was principally influenced by a political attempt to balance Islam and modernization, that is, the emerging ‘Turkish-Islam synthesis’, and the main objective of national education was identified as a means of forming ‘self-sacrificing and virtuous citizens who are loyal to their family, nation, country, Turkish revolutions and ideals’ (Akdağ and Kaymakçı 2011, 858). After the 1980 coup, the ‘Turkish-Islam synthesis’ became the dominant ideology in educational practices. As a result, the life and principles of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938), the founder of the Turkish Republic, were integrated into the curriculum, along with religion – that is, Sunnite Islam – becoming a compulsory subject in order to educate moral values; it reflected an attempt to reconcile Kemalism with Islam, by stripping it of its traditional connotations, particularly that of secularism (Nohl 2008, 36).

From this perspective, it can be argued that the second political stance, that of Islamism, eroded the emphasis on secularity that had been perceived as one of the pillars of national education in Turkey. Hence, the Islamization of education constitutes one of the central disputes that can be traced back to the 1950s, a period marked by the emergence of Imam Hatip schools that specialized in religious education and the training of imams (Kafadar 2002, 354). This political stance is particularly enhanced by the many educational reforms in the 2000s, initiated by the governments formed by the AKP (Justice and Development Party), the conservative political party that has been in power since 2002. Aside from the consolidation of many existing religious aspects of the national curriculum and the introduction of new elective courses, such as Kur’an-ı Kerim [Qur’an], Hz. Muhammed’in Hayatı [Prophet Muhammad’s Life] and Temel Dinî Bilgiler [Fundamentals of Religion], these reforms also seek to establish an Islamized approach to citizen formation (Kaya 2015, 58). One significant example would be the association of moral values with religious content, explaining ‘tolerance’ with ‘Muhammad’s “tolerant attitude” towards the Christians of Yemen’ or ‘human rights’ with the ‘farewell sermon [khutba] of the prophet’, followed by the argument that human rights are integral to and guaranteed by Islam (Türkmen 2009, 391, 395).

Though currently replaced by an Islamized context, the introduction of global citizenship and the education of universal values was actually an extension of Turkey’s drive for membership to the European Union (EU), and therefore the educational reforms at the beginning of 2000s prescribed a transformation of the overall system to adhere to EU standards. Thedemocratic initiative simultaneously has marked this period and has been mirrored in education as well. As the long-ignored minorities of Turkey – Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Alevis, etc., as well as oppressed groups such as lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transsexuals and intersexuals (LGBTIs) – have started to voice their demands for equality and recognition, elective courses in several local languages have been introduced, textbooks have been partially cleared of discriminatory statements, and subjects concerning human rights and democracy have been added to the curriculum (Çayır 2014, 2–5; Akdağ and Kaymakçı 2011, 860–61). Despite these developments, a certain Islamized version of the Kemalist nationalism still persists, and thus, the curriculums and the textbooks ‘still portray Turkey as a country that is homogenous, monolingual, and mono-religious’ (Çayır 2014, 115).

For Armenia, the conditions leading to the educational reforms can be categorized not in the sense of the chronological transformations in political stances, but rather in terms of extending existing approaches towards educational policy: that is, of constructing a post-Soviet national identity through creating a sense of citizenship, aligning with international educational standards and the educating the diasporic communities. In the 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of an independent Republic of Armenia, the reforms bore a twofold objective in shaping the curriculum: to remove Soviet ideology from education and to redefine what it meant to be Armenian. However, this did not necessarily mean that the legacy of Soviet Armenian education was excluded from the history education of the newly independent Republic. On the contrary, though ‘stripped of communist internationalism and saturated with nationalism’, the historical narrative more or less remained similar: ‘starting with ethno-genesis, followed by the struggle for national liberation and culminating, this time, in independent nationhood’, instead of the development of class consciousness directed towards communism as it was during the Soviet period (Akpınar 2017, 43).

It is also important to stress that, as asserted by the historian Ronald Suny, Armenian nationalist thinking has had a complex evolution that can be dated back to the late 18th century. It persisted even during the Soviet period, when Armenian historians successfully fought against the denationalization of their history. The nationalist tone of the historical narrative was contextualized and consolidated by using repetitive themes such as the antiquity of the Armenian people, the continuous occupation of its indigenous ‘homeland’ and the perpetual struggle for survival and freedom despite betrayals, invasionsand being abandoned by the Great Powers (Suny 2001, 885–87). Nevertheless, the attempt to construct a post-Soviet Armenian identity and the desired rupture from Armenia’s Soviet past required concrete strategies, which were founded in the transition to Western/European educational standards that would introduce the concept of global citizenship. The hopes of gaining acceptance to European Union, along with guidance and support of multiple international organizations, extensively influenced the educational reforms of the post-Soviet transition process by including democratic values such as tolerance, human rights and openness into the national curriculum (Terzian 2010, 166). Nonetheless, these global and national contexts surrounding the educational system have resulted in the development of a dual policy: the primordial myths of Armenian History, such as the Armenian Church, coexist with concepts of tolerance and civic practice (Terzian 2010, 169).

One final link that also intersects the global and national dimensions in the Armenian context would be the diaspora. Since the Armenian Genocide caused the Armenian people to be dispersed to all over the world, maintaining Armenian heritage has been a primary concern for both the diasporic institutions (political organizations, churches, schools, etc.) as well as the newly founded independent Armenian state. On an emotional level, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Armenian diaspora has hoped to reunite with the homeland, and support its transition to an independent nation-state. Nonetheless, the Armenian governments’ policies towards the diaspora, the disagreements on national priorities and the definition of the nation itself have complicated the situation and raised concerns (Ishkanian 2005, 138–39). Instead, at the beginning of the 2000s, the notion of nation was redefined in terms that exceeded the political and territorial frontiers of the state, and accordingly, merged the diaspora and the state into one nation: national unity was re-established as Armenia became a trans-nation (Barseghyan 2007, 294). This was also echoed in the educational reforms with regards to the ‘preservation of national identity’; as described in the State Programme for Education of 2011–15: ‘the educational system of the Republic of Armenia is bound to support the activities of educational centres of the Armenian Diaspora [...] thereby creating conditions for uniting the globally dispersed Armenian potential’ (Government of Armenia 2011, 16), and as suggested by the Ministry of Education and Science, history textbooks in several foreign languages were produced for the Sunday schools of the diaspora, in order to ensure that the national identity could be preserved through Armenian education (Movsissyan 2016, 3).

In France, where the national education is arguably excessively centralized (Baqués 2006, 105; Egéa-Kuehne 2003, 329), the educational system contains a tension caused by two polarized points of view: on the one end, there is the 19th-century heritage of a national identity and republican values, on the other, there is European identity and citizenship. In the course of the 19th century, France was one of the ‘historical nations’ whose history was documented in archives, causing a ‘revolution’ in historiography whereby writing history depended on archival documents. Thus, at the beginning, it was their history that was written and taught (Wallerstein 2004, 5). Education, deemed ‘secular, compulsory, and free’ was an essential part of the French Republican tradition, with a national curriculum enforced on every future citizen, no matter what their social class or where they lived.

As one of the national priorities, education had – and is still argued to have – a critical role in transmitting both historical knowledge and a sense of being French (Corbett 1996, 5). From this perspective, from the 19th century onwards, the teaching of history has been a tool for political socialization, creating French citizens by inculcating them with the republican values of democracy, freedom and equality, but at the same time imposing respect for the established order and their glorious ancestors (Lantheaume 2003, 125). As of the beginning of the 21st century, the French curriculum still put a great emphasis on national identity, and social cohesion is perceived as loyalty to essential principles of the Republic, especially that of human rights, highlighting the intolerance of racism and discrimination (Osler and Starkey 2001, 287–301). Be that as it may, since the 1980s, the reforms to the French curriculum have increasingly encouraged a sense of European identity (Baqués 2006, 106). With the institutional formation of the European Union in the last decades of the 20th century, the tendency to Europeanize the educational systems and develop the European dimension in education has resulted in a reevaluation of European history throughout the century with the aim of emerging a European consciousness. Yet, this approach has not necessarily lead to the abandonment of a nationalist perspective; instead, in the case of France, it has meant a reinterpretation of national identity as an open concept compatible with European identity. Hence, as Europe became the focus of French national education, the curriculum reforms then cultivated a sense of dual citizenship, that of both national and European (Legris 2010, 139–43).

What is striking in three of the cases is the compliance to a trend that appeared in the second half of the 20th century, whereby internationaleducational standards were adopted and a global citizenship perspective developed.2 However, as illustrated in this section, in spite of the reforms enacted in order to meet with these criteria, a certain inclination to uphold the national values and national identity as the fundamental basis of citizen formation still persists in Turkey and Armenia, as well as in France, which results in a duality of national and global policies towards educational systems.

The Armenian Genocide in the educational frame:
a brief comparison of history textbooks

One of the important outcomes of the evolution in educational systems in the second half of the 20th century can be pinpointed to the appearance of the history of the present, relying upon a disciplinary knowledge of the contemporary world, most particularly that relating to memory. Since the Second World War there has been an immense rise in human rights issues triggering memory activism, fuelled by the duty to remember and to ensure that a crime against humanity, such as the Shoah, would ‘never again’ be possible. From the 1970s, despite the enduring nationalist element in educational policies, human rights education became a principal theme, along with the memories of victims (Meyer, Bromley and Ramirez 2010, 113). Even though, from a neutral point of view, teaching the Armenian Genocide would fit into this picture, the curriculums and textbooks of each country imply that it remains much more problematic and does not easily fit into the political agendas of Turkey, Armenia and France.

In terms of curriculum design, both Turkey and Armenia have official decrees on the Armenian Genocide. In the case of Turkey, as an extension of the struggle against the ‘alleged genocides’, on 14 June 2002 the Board of Education and Instruction ordered different grades at primary and secondary schools to be taught about all the issues concerning the claims of the Armenians, along with those of the Greeks and the Assyrians, through the terms set out by the Ministry of National Education in decrees 272–73 (Ministry of National Education 2002). The teaching plans for the history courses for the tenth grade (that is, at the age of fifteen) show that the issue is taught thematically, including but not limited to, the treatment of non-Muslim minorities in Ottoman Empire, Armenian revolts and atrocities, the role and intentions of the Great Powers in these revolts, the necessity of the decision to expel Armenians, intentions behind the terrorist acts of Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), the definition of the concept of genocide and its comparison with Armenianclaims (Ministry of National Education 2011, I–VI). The history textbooks, produced or approved by the Ministry, present the issue exactly as it has been regulated by these decrees, as a subject of ‘the Ottoman Empire in the First World War’, under the subchapter ‘the Caucasian Front’, hence providing a detailed picture of the ‘Turkish thesis’3 (Tüysüz 2017, 201–8).

In the case of Armenia, with the order N925 A/C, approved by the Ministry of Education and Science on 9 July 2013, the optional course entitled ‘History of the Armenian Question’ was regulated for eleventh grade (that is, at the age of sixteen) as an introductory course on the subject. As explained in the appendix of the order, the aim of this course is to teach the Armenian Question, that is, ‘the national liberation struggle of the Armenian people for the sake of restoring the national statehood in its historical homeland and creating a free, independent, and united Armenia’, which also includes the Armenian Genocide as a subject (Ministry of Education and Science 2013, 3). According to the standards and teaching plans of history in secondary education, the Armenian Genocide is taught in the eleventh grade as a part of the compulsory Armenian History courses. The teaching plan traces the Armenian Genocide chronologically: starting with the mass murders in Western Armenia at the end of 19th century, escalating to the Young Turks’ policy in line with the Hamidian programme of the destruction of Armenians, and reaching to a total act of genocide in 1915, during the First World War. The themes also include the role of the Great Powers, the trial and punishment of those responsible, the Armenian’s ‘heroic’ self-defence and the process of recognition of the Armenian Genocide (Ministry of Education and Science Centre for Educational Programmes 2008, 17–18). This approach is evident in the history textbooks of the eleventh grade, particularly under the chapter ‘Armenia and the Armenian People during the Years of the First World War’ (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 246–68).

In the case of France, a law that recognized the Armenian Genocide was enacted in 2001, therefore increasing its visibility in history education (Falaize and Mériaux 2006, 12). The French curriculum does not contain any direct reference to the Genocide, except from one phrase appearing in the History/ Geography programme for the third class of the fourth cycle (corresponding to ninth grade in a twelve-year education system, that is, at the age of fourteen) concerning the First World War during which ‘combatants and civilians suffer extreme violence, as witnessed particularly by the genocide of the Armenians in 1915’ (Ministry of National Education 2015, 315).

The history textbooks of this grade dedicate two pages to the Armenian Genocide under the title ‘Europe, a Major Front of Total Wars (1914–1945)’, within the context of ‘the brutalization of society’ during the First World War (Blanchard and Mercier 2016, 46–47).

The secondary-education history textbooks of all three countries that cover the First World War discuss the Armenian Genocide to some extent, yet with a different narration of the historical events. Within the framework of this paper, in order to provide an accessible comparison, the different ways of teaching the Armenian Genocide is primarily discussed through the previously cited history textbooks.4

Escalation of events

An important subject preceding the Genocide narration is Armenian–Ottoman relations. To be precise, before the chapters concerning the First World War, history textbooks of both Turkey and Armenia briefly examine the situation of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, yet with different interpretations. The Turkish history textbook explains that, during the empire, the Armenians had flourished in every possible way – economically, socially, culturally, if not politically – thanks to the Ottoman policies towards non-Muslim minorities, particularly emphasizing the ‘harmony’ of Armenian–Ottoman relations, treating the Armenians as loyal subjects [millet-i sadıka] (Tüysüz 2017, 72–73). Whereas the Armenian history textbook does not accept any possibility of coexistence, instead reviewing Armenian–Ottoman relations in terms of discrimination, oppression and the occupation of Western Armenia, while showing the Ottoman efforts as attempts to deceive Armenians. Describing the Ottoman Empire as ‘backward’, the narration accentuates the necessity of a liberation movement, with a certain stress on the destiny awaiting the Armenians (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 182–205). In the French history textbook, there is no reference to the conditions of the Armenians, with only one phrase expressing that they were living as a minority in the Eastern parts of the empire (Blanchard and Mercier 2016, 46).

Regarding the Armenian involvement in warfare, the central subject consists of Armenian political movements and their actions during the First World War. Both the Armenian and Turkish textbooks confirm that the Armenians of the Caucasus sided with the Russians. In the Armenian case, participation is presented as a ‘voluntary movement’, whereby the supportof Russian military forces would bring about the liberation of Western Armenia. Though there existed different political positions amongst Armenians towards the war and the voluntary movement,5 the comprehensive interpretation of the textbook suggests that the movement stands as a triumphant part of the history of the Armenian struggle for liberation (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 250–53). From the perspective of the Turkish textbook, the Armenian actions are depicted as ‘separatist revolts’ against the Ottoman Empire, aided by the Entente Powers with the aim of expelling the Ottomans from the war. Therefore the Armenians, who were ‘backstabbing’ the Ottoman army, are accused of becoming one of the reasons for the empire’s failure on the Caucasian Front (Tüysüz 2017, 201). The French history textbook, once again, does not mention the Armenian involvement in the war, however, but it does remark on the military defeats of Ottomans and the tensions within the governance of the empire as the reasons for genocide (Blanchard and Mercier 2016, 46).

Decision, implementation and consequences

The narration of the genocidal process can be compared from this sequence of events: the decision of deportation, the stages of implementation and the consequences. From the perspective of the Turkish history textbook, because of the Armenian revolts and treachery, the Ottoman ruling elite had to take the decision to ‘deport’6 only after every other measure – such as the enactment of martial law or the arrests of separatist Armenians – had failed to provide a satisfactory outcome. Demonstrating the four articles of the deportation law, the decision was justified by only targeting those who had disturbed peace, who has fought with weapons and rebelled against the authorities, and who had conspired or betrayed the country. Moreover, the textbook also criticizes the representation of the deportation in Western media, followed by a long explanation about the measures adopted for the protection of the deportees (Tüysüz 2017, 203–4). The French history textbook chooses to show the decision to deport with a communiqué of Talaat Pasha, then minister of the interior, ordering the deportation of Armenians with the exception of the sick and the disabled, and the arrest of those who disobeyed. The communiqué presented also cites the prohibition of Armenians to sell their property and real estate, as their exile is only temporary7 (Blanchard and Mercier 2016, 46). The Armenian history textbook recounts a more politicized picture of the Genocide, concentrating principally on the Young Turk policies towards Armenians. According to this perspective, the political aspect of the Genocide was a consequence of Sultan AbdülhamidII’s plan, devised long before the war,8 to build a new homeland for the Turks that territorially involved Western Armenia. The economic factor at play was the confiscation of Armenian wealth and property in order to provide capital for the state (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 255–56).

Concerning the stages of implementation, all three history textbooks demonstrate a certain timeframe for the beginning, development and conclusion of the event. In the Turkish textbook, the precautions against Armenian uprisings start in April 1915 with the arrests of those involved, intensify with the enactment and exercise of the deportation law and conclude in October 1915, when the state decided to suspend the deportations, convinced that the objective had been achieved (Tüysüz 2017, 203–5). The French textbook, with a small timeline and a map illustrating the acts of violence against Armenians, presents the start of the Genocide with the arrests of Armenians in April 1915, followed by two waves of deportations, the first between May and July 1915 and the second between the end of 1915 and the summer of 19169 (Blanchard and Mercier 2016, 46). The Armenian textbook also acknowledges the commencement of the process with the arrests of the Armenian leaders, however on a different date, October 1914. Following the entry of the Ottoman Empire into the First World War, able Armenian men were first recruited into the Ottoman army to be ultimately eliminated, and then the Armenians on the Caucasian Front were massacred. By April 1915, the arrested Armenians had been hung, signifying the beginning of massacres in every region. The Armenian response to the planned massacres was self-defence, which extended the genocidal process until the end of 1916 (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 258–9).

As for the consequences, the Turkish history textbook offers plenty of numbers, as a matter of fact, it almost resembles a balance sheet. According to the textbook, out of 1.3 million Armenians living in Ottoman territory, 413,067 were deported, 400,000 to 500,000 were not, 383,000 deportees reached the final destination, 350,000 to 500,000 voluntarily ‘immigrated’ to the Caucasus, thus estimating a ‘casualty’ of 57,000 Armenians during the overall process (Tüysüz 2017, 205). In the French textbook, for which the main objective seems to be demonstrate the suffering of Armenians, the number of murdered Armenians is estimated between 1.2 and 1.5 million, without any reference to the total number of Armenians living under the Ottoman Empire, nor to the other consequences of the Genocide (Blanchard and Mercier 2016, 46). In the Armenian textbook, the narrativeabout regional massacres and self-defensive actions gives precise numbers. However, the number is eventually rounded up to 1.5 million victims out of 2.5 million, which also signifies the official claim. Furthermore, the textbook examines the consequences of the Genocide in a much broader sense: the destruction of Western Armenian civilization, which is portrayed as a great loss not only for Armenians but also for the whole world; the continuation of economic and cultural genocide, that is, the annihilation of Armenian cultural heritage, a process that continues up to the present day, not only in Turkey but also in Azerbaijan; the emergence of the Armenian diaspora and the destiny of the survivors, including those who were forced to convert to Islam; and the effects of the Genocide on the following generations of the Armenian nation (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 259, 262–63).

Table 1. Comparison of the Factual Differences in Textbooks

  Turkey Armenia France
Context within the First World War Caucasian Front Caucasian Front Mass violence and brutalization
Armenian involvement in warfare Armenian separatist revolts Armenian voluntary movement for liberation -
Reasons Failure on the Caucasian Front because of Armenian treachery Confiscation of Armenian properties (economics), Young Turk policies (politics) Military defeats of Ottomans, tensions within the state
Decision Deportation Massacres and Genocide Deportation and Genocide
Stages Arrests of Armenians involved in revolts
end of implementation
Arrests of Armenians
Recruitment of Armenian men
Massacres on the Caucasian Front
Hanging of Armenian leaders
Massacres in every region
Armenian self-defense
Arrests of Armenians
First wave of deportations
Second wave of deportations
Period April 1915 to October 1915 October 1914 to end of 1916 April 1915 to summer 1916
Consequences in numbers 57,000 casualties out of 1.3 million Armenians 1.5 million Armenians victimized out of 2.5 million 1.2 to 1.5 million Armenians murdered


Claims and Genocide definition

The aftermath of the Genocide constitutes an important interruption of the chronological narrative in both the Armenian and Turkish textbooks; rather they continue with different stages of recognition and/or denial, with conflicts lasting up until the present.10 The Turkish textbook jumps to the conclusion of the First World War and the treaties signed in order to establish the present territorial boundaries – a topic that is actually examined elaborately in the succeeding chapter – as means to demonstrate the irrelevance of the Armenian claims over territory, particularly according to the internationally acknowledged Treaty of Lausanne. Moreover, the textbook argues that the Armenians developed their scheme against Turkey as a strategy to protect national consciousness and prevent further the assimilation of Armenians in the diaspora. In this context, a four-stage plan was introduced to enforce the recognition of the Genocide, leading to monetary compensation and territorial restitution. For this purpose, Armenians founded terrorist organizations, such as Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), to attract international attention to the Armenian cause by killing Turkish diplomats and their families. After the independence of Armenia, the conflicts became an issue for the foreign policies of both countries, this time marked by the attempts of the Armenian lobby to influence the international community (Tüysüz 2017, 205–8).

The Armenian textbook pursues another route towards the recognition process. The aftermath of the Genocide is discussed through international reactions towards the issue, including testimonies, publications, journals, reports and condemnations of the massacres by political figures. As the first step to recognition, the textbook notices the trials of Young Turks in 1919 by Turkish court-martials, which sentenced the perpetrators to death for their crimes against Armenians. Yet, the textbook implies, since the perpetrators had already fled the country, the punishment was not carried out by Turkish authorities or the Entente Powers, but by self-sacrificing Armenians with operation ‘Nemesis’, inspired from the Greek mythological goddess of retribution, which sought the assassinations of all those responsible for the Armenian Genocide. Stating that the recognition process has entered a new phase after the Second World War, the textbook affirms the rise of international recognition of the Genocide and the persistence of Turkey’s denial, an aspect that still, after a hundred years, determines political relations between two countries (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 262–67).

Since all three textbooks provide a definition of ‘genocide’, one convenient comparison would be the purpose behind the introduction of the concept. For the Turkish and the Armenian cases, the objective seems quite obvious: the former to denounce the claims of genocide and the latter to proclaim it. The Turkish textbook, citing the definition from the UN Convention, asserts that the deportation did not aim at Armenians per se, rather those who threatened the security on the Caucasian Front, adding the fact that the intention was not their extermination, because if it were the case, then the Ottoman ‘state’ would not have made the effort to deport them, but just would have murdered the Armenians where they were (Tüysüz 2017, 208). In the Armenian textbook, the invention of the concept by Raphael Lemkin (1900–59) is explained by his overview of the Armenian case, and a full legal description of the concept is cited, along with five acts defining an event as genocide. Since the Turks carried out all of the five actions, the textbook declares the legitimacy to address the events as ‘genocide’ in accordance with the UN Convention (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 264–65). For the French textbook, however, the objective remains ambiguous, since the definition appears as an exercise in words, and the self-evaluation questionnaire demands students to count three factors that justify the events to be described as an ‘extermination’ rather than a ‘genocide’11 (Blanchard and Mercier 2016, 46–47).


The comparison of different approaches to teaching the Armenian Genocide clearly shows that history education continues to be exposed to political influence. In the cases of Armenia and Turkey, the instruction of the Armenian Genocide confirms the countries’ political stances towards the issue: Turkey, in denial, attempts to construct an interpretation of the historical events that refutes the claims of genocidal intentions, whereas Armenia interprets the historical significance of the Genocide in their struggle for national independence. That being said, it is important to remember that, within the framework of history education in Armenia, the Genocide holds a fundamental part of the centuries-long battle against foreign occupation and the national struggle for liberation, which persists as the central theme in the national history curriculum (Akpınar et al. 2017, 45). While in the case of Turkey, the historical significance of the Genocide cannot be viewed without considering contemporary conflicts, hence its historical contextualization contains only the elements that affirm the official thesis. Additionally, given the fact that the Turkish stance tends to alter over timedepending on the political state of affairs or the allegations, the historical narrative evolves accordingly.

The French approach towards teaching the Armenian Genocide might appear intriguing in respect to the historical neutrality of the country. However, the French position seems to involve a lot of political, historiographical and pedagogical confusions. It is political because the position tends to fluctuate according to political influence and international diplomatic relations, as demonstrated in the comparisons of the 2012 and 2016 editions of the same history textbook. Historiographical because, as ascertained by Sophie Ferhadjian in her analysis of how to teach the Armenian Genocide, the attempt is to explain the issue without addressing the essential historical context such as the history of the Armenians, the rise of nationalism in the 19th century or the Eastern Question as well as the Armenian Question (2006, 4–5). Pedagogical because, as stated by Falaize and Mériaux, multiple constraints characterize its instruction: the authors of the textbooks do not have a comprehensive knowledge of the issue; the time and place devoted to it within teaching plans are very limited; it lacks documentation to prove it as ‘genocide’, and thus the civic aim of introducing such ‘brutalization’ of society is in vain (Falaize and Mériaux 2006, 13). In this regard, including the Armenian Genocide in the French history curriculum does not seem to have any intention other than to illustrate an example of mass violence preceding the Shoah.

Briefly, the comparison of national history curriculums and history textbooks of the aforementioned countries suggest that the teaching of disputable and sensitive historical events still remains problematic. The primary concern appears not to teach about this crime against humanity in order to raise consciousness and responsibility, but to use it either to consolidate national identity as in case of Armenia, or to confirm a political position as in case of Turkey, or to reaffirm republican values with a de-contextualized example of mass violence as is the case of France.


Oyku Gurpınar is a PhD candidate in History and Civilizations at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (French: Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales; EHESS), Paris. Her studies on the Armenian Genocide include themes such as familial memory of the Genocide, transmission of memory between generations, perceptions of the Genocide among Armenian youth, as well as the historiography and pedagogies concerning the Genocide. For this purpose, Gurpınar has participated in three research projects, conducted field studies in Turkey, Armenia, France and Lebanon, published articles and presented papers at international conferences.


1 According to Anderson, nation is an imagined community in the sense that i) its members lack face-to-face interaction with most of the other members, ii) and yet it assumes a horizontal comradeship amongst its subjects, iii) these communities are distinguished from one another depending on the manner they are imagined, iv) thus, the limits of a nation define the boundaries of where one nation ends and another begins (Anderson 2006, 6–7). In this regard, Anderson asserts that nationalism indeed accords with the evolution of educational systems, since schools and universities (re)produce the most preeminent imagination of a national community (Anderson 2006, 71).

2 It is essential to underline the fact that in the context of French education what is perceived to be ‘European’ citizenship corresponds to ‘global’ citizenship in the contexts of Turkey and Armenia. However, in the case of France, since the values of the republic are considered as ‘universal’, this duality is assumed to be complementary instead of conflictual. Nevertheless, this does not absolve French education from its nationalist tendencies, especially regarding the colonial past and confrontation with it (Lantheaume 2003, 138).

3 According to Gürpınar, the ‘Turkish Thesis’ on the Armenian Genocide constitutes a complex combination of three distinct approaches: a right-wing version, a left-wing version and a centrist version. Diverging in their justification of Ottoman response to Armenian militancy, the three versions also follow a concurrent path in the development of the official thesis. The right-wing version contextualizes the issue in terms of ethnic conflicts and nationalist movements, accusing Armenians of treachery and savagery, while the left-wing version emphasizes the imperialist hegemony of the era, targeting Armenian separatism through its collaboration with the Great Powers, and thus becoming the servant of imperialism. Finally, the centrist version claims a state-centric argument, denouncing the Armenian revolts as disobedience to state sovereignty (Gürpınar 2016, 221).

4 It is also important, at this point, to point out the fact that each country has a different policy towards textbook production. In Turkey, textbooks are produced either directly by the Ministry of National Education or by private publishers, also the Ministry can set up an independent commission to write a draft or order the purchase of existing textbooks. In any case, the textbooks are subjected to inspection and approval of the Ministry of National Education before being circulated (Akpınar et al. 2017, 19). In France, however, the production of textbooks is highly regulated by a very competitive market whose primary actors are private publishers where the only constraint is to follow the national programmes (Baques 2007, 127). Armenia stands somewhere in between, having both the market-oriented system and the central commission for the selection of textbooks. In this regard, the textbooks are produced by the private publishing houses to be enlisted for the competition held by the Ministry of Education and Science, and the results are declared as the authorized textbooks of the following academic year (Zolyan and Tigran 2008, 17).

5 The textbook dedicates a whole page for the four positions apropos the voluntary movement. According to the textbook, Hunchakians, linking Armenian’s autonomy to victory, openly declared for the Entente Powers, while the Dashnakians advised Armenians to fulfil their military duties to the country of which they are subjects, resulting in a divided position depending on the region; in Western Armenia they called for the maintenance of neutrality, whereas in the Caucasus they supported reunion with Russian troops. Bolshevik Armenians, as a representative of the diasporic opposition, alleged the war as unjust and disclaimed the Armenian struggle for liberation (Melkonyan et al. 2015, 254).

6 The Turkish history textbook addresses the events only as ‘deportation’, in fact the word ‘genocide’ is only used with the adjective ‘alleged’ in front of it.

7 What is most thought‑provoking is the fact that this document, originally found in the Ottoman Archives, is frequently employed by the denialists for the rejection of genocidal intentions, as it implies the ‘return’ of the Armenians. The 2012 edition of the same history textbook prefers to give reference to the testimonies of Henry Morgenthau, which includes a quotation from Talaat Pasha explaining the deportation decision (Blanchard, Veber and Lozac’h 2012, 42). A discussion concerning the French history textbooks might help explain the reasons for such a transformation. According to an article published on a Franco-Turk website, the instruction of the Armenian Genocide in these history textbooks lacked historical objectivity and trustworthy historical evidence such as archival documents and ignored historiographical developments on the issue, therefore bypassing the Turkish position in a way that would provoke the Turkish diaspora and complicate diplomatic relations (Houssay 2014). 8 Reference to Hamidian massacres as a contextual precedent of the Genocide also appears in other Armenian history textbooks, with a specific emphasis on the ‘Turkish way of resolving issues, and that is through massacres’ (Akpınar et al. 2017, 56).

9 A curious point revealed in the comparison between the Turkish and the French textbooks would be the fact that the date considered as the completion of implementation by the former is viewed as the beginning of a new phase by the latter. Indeed, the Turkish history textbook does not mention at all what has befallen Armenians between the end of 1915 and December 1918, when a law was enacted permitting the return of Armenians (Tüysüz 2017, 205).

10 Once again, the French history textbook reports neither the conflicts, nor the recognition process concerning the Genocide. Be that as it may, the 2012 edition of the same history textbook mentions the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by both the United Nations and France, as well as the denial of Turkey (Blanchard, Veber and Lozac’h 2012, 42).

11 Another interesting comparison between the 2012 and 2016 editions of the French history textbook would be the approach to the concept concerning the Armenian case. The former redirects the reader to another page for the definition of ‘genocide’, which is to be found in the chapter dedicated to the Shoah, also in the self-evaluation questionnaire the activity is to develop arguments that justify the events in 1915–16 as ‘genocide’ (Blanchard, Veber and Lozac’h 2012, 42–43, 78).


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This article has been published in the sixth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of Violence in 20th-century European History.

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