‘Who remembers the Armenians?’, Hitler is supposed to have asked scornfully as he prepared to invade Poland in 1939, referring to the deaths of perhaps 1m people during the First World War at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, now Turkey.
Now for the first time, the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has offered his ‘condolences’ over the mass killings. The Turks still reject the idea that they constituted genocide, and Mr Egoyan talked instead of the ‘shared pain’ of the Turkish and Armenian peoples for their losses in World War One.
Even so, the comments are a marked step forward. In 2006, Orhan Pamuk, the first Turk to win the Nobel Prize, was threatened with prosecution for insulting ‘Turkish identity’ when he drew attention to the killings.
At the start of the First World War, after years of inter-communal tension the Turks feared the Christian Armenians might help their enemy, Russia. They began a mass deportation during which perhaps 600,000 were murdered, while another 400,000 died from hardship.
*Tomorrow at Shoe Lane Library, London EC4, 1230 my talk on Flood: Nature and Culture