The Armenian Genocide is Not Past
William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
And so it is with the Armenian Genocide. For although it began one hundred years ago this month, the Armenian Genocide is an ongoing catastrophe whose consequences continue unabated.
The Armenian Genocide was the world’s first modern genocide and the template for those that followed. Of the two million Armenians living under Ottoman Turkish rule, one-and-a-half million were systematically murdered by their government; survivors were exiled around the world.
These killings were not an isolated event, but rather the culmination of a series of massacres begun in the 19th century that had already resulted in over 300,000 Armenian dead.
The 1915 genocide, however, was fundamentally different as it succeeded in eliminating the Armenian people from their ancestral homeland.
The current Republic of Armenia represents only the easternmost tenth of historic Armenian lands, and survives solely because this province had been under the political control of Russia, rather than the Ottoman Turks who had conquered the majority of Armenia in the 16th century.
Mount Ararat, the Armenian national symbol, the mythic mountain around which our nation developed 5,000 years ago, lies in what is now eastern Turkey, just over the Armenian border. Looming over Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, yet agonizingly out of reach, this beloved mountain is a daily, painful reminder of what we have lost.
What Motivated Turkey To Slaughter Its Armenian Citizens?
In the years leading up to the genocide, Armenians, with European support, had been agitating for equal rights for Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities. By eradicating the minorities, the problem was solved.
Like the Nazis, the Young Turk government embraced an extreme nationalistic and racist ideology, in this case Pan-Turanism, whose goal was an ethnically pure and unified Turkic empire stretching to Central Asia. Armenians were a geographical and cultural obstacle. Even today, Armenia is blockaded on its western and eastern borders by Turkey and Azerbaijan, close Turkic allies who proclaim they are “one nation, two states.”
Material theft was a powerful motivation, as the state sought to create a Turkish-Muslim bourgeoisie by massacring Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks and bestowing their properties on Turks and sometimes Kurds. A 1917 report from a provincial governor to the Ministry of Trade trumpets his success in fulfilling “the government’s aims.” “My province,” he wrote, “has been cleansed of Christian elements. Two years ago, eighty percent of the merchants and business owners were Christian; today ninety-five percent are Muslim.”
After Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established the Republic of Turkey in 1923, survivors were legally prevented from reclaiming their properties — not surprising, since the majority of Atatürk’s nationalist movement had been Young Turks. Men who had executed the genocide became high-ranking government officials in the new republic.
Those most responsible for the genocide are lauded today as national heroes. Former Minister of the Interior Talaat, the genocide’s principal architect, has streets, mosques, and even schools named for him. In 1943, Turkey re-interred his remains with full state honors, a delegation from Nazi Germany in attendance.
A Crime Against Humanity Goes Unpunished
Once Armenians had been physically removed from their homeland, Turkey began to erase all traces of an Armenian cultural presence, changing Armenian place names into Turkish ones, and demolishing thousands of churches. Armenian properties were either claimed by the state or distributed to Turks and Kurds. The confiscated villa of a wealthy Armenian was transformed into Turkey’s presidential palace. Gezi Park, where thousands demonstrated against the government in 2013, was built over the Armenian Pangalti Cemetery, razed in the 1930s.
The term “crimes against humanity” was used for the first time in a May 1915 joint declaration by Britain, France and Russia condemning the Turks’ massacres of Armenians and vowing to hold them responsible. After the war, however, Armenia was sacrificed in the Allies’ frenzied pursuit of economic interests, particularly oil.
Turkey escaped unpunished.
Raphael Lemkin, the man who created the word genocide and who was most responsible for the passage of the United Nations Genocide Convention, described in his autobiography how the Armenian Genocide caused him to conceive of state-directed, mass murder as a crime. He explained that he was shocked when he learned “all Turkish war criminals were to be released,” and he wondered why “the killing of a million is a lesser crime than the killing of an individual.” “At that moment,” he wrote, “I felt that a law against this type of racial or religious murder must be adopted by the world.” Lemkin, who lost 49 members of his family in the Shoah, always referenced the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust as examples of genocide.
Turkey Spends Millions to Deny the Armenian Genocide
Yet fearing restitution and reparations, among other reasons, Turkey denies it committed genocide and falsifies history both at home and abroad. Turkish teachers are required to instruct their students that Armenians were traitors and terrorists who rebelled against the state and massacred thousands of Turks. Courageous Turkish human rights activists and scholars who acknowledge the genocide face criminal charges.
Disinformation has infiltrated American academia, as well, through Turkey’s funding of university chairs, centers, and scholars. The Turkish government has spent millions of dollars on an army of high-powered lobbyists to fight genocide recognition. One measure of their success is that our media routinely includes Turkish denials in any piece on the Armenian Genocide.
It is also a testimony to the power of state-sponsored denial that so many today are unfamiliar with the Armenian Genocide. At the time, American newspapers published thousands of articles about the massacres, including eyewitness accounts from US diplomats and missionaries.
Following the genocide, the American people donated $117 million in relief for survivors, an amount that today would be equivalent to $1.8 billion.
America’s most prominent leaders, including five presidents, publicly advocated for Armenia. In 1920, Woodrow Wilson, at the behest of the Allies, determined the boundaries for an Armenian state; his arbitration included many historic Armenian territories that are now in eastern Turkey.
Herbert Hoover later recalled that the “name Armenia was in the front of the American mind…known to the American schoolchild only a little less than England.”
Yet the process of forgetting had begun.
American Government Refuses to Recognize the Armenian Genocide
The American government abandoned justice for Armenians in favor of an alliance with Turkey, a position it maintains to this day. The US defends its complicity in denial by citing geopolitical considerations, such as the strategic importance of Turkey’s Incirlik air base, built, ironically, upon what was an Armenian cotton farm prior to the genocide.
I personally experienced these arguments a few years ago when I found myself seated next to a State Department diplomat at a wedding. When she discovered I was Armenian, she began to criticize the campaign for genocide recognition because it caused problems with Turkey. To my surprise, however, she eventually conceded, “Don’t quote me, but the Armenians are right, of course.”
The Armenians are right, of course.
Still, our government refuses, thus far, to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide even though it rightly affirms the Shoah and other genocides. Imagine what Armenians felt when they heard President Obama declare in 2012 that we should condemn “any attempts to deny the occurrence of the Holocaust,” while his administration colluded in Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide. Imagine what they thought when they witnessed former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen named co-chairs of the US Genocide Prevention Task Force, after both had lobbied Congress not to recognize the Armenian Genocide.
Transgenerational Trauma Affects Survivors’ Descendants
There have been numerous studies of Holocaust survivors and their families on the effects of transgenerational trauma. Second and third generation descendants of survivors can experience elevated levels of anxiety, stress, and depression. Now imagine that your family’s trauma has not been resolved, that the perpetrators say it never happened, and that your country abets the unrepentant state that killed your people.
Like most diasporan Armenians, I am the descendant of genocide survivors, and I have no doubt that one of my grandmothers suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. She would become highly agitated if anyone asked her about the genocide; she simply could not talk about it. She had witnessed her husband and all but one of her children die on the death marches — and she never saw that son again, as they were separated and ended up in different countries. She came to America and married my grandfather, who had also lost his entire family. Their only child, my father, finally met his half-brother in the late 1970s, when he traveled to what was then Soviet Armenia where his brother lived. It was the only time they were ever to meet. Sadly, by then, my grandmother was no longer alive to witness it.
Conversely, my children’s paternal great-grandmother, a genocide survivor who passed away in 2012 at the age of 106, described to us in harrowing detail what she had endured, relating exactly how her father, mother and two sisters were killed. She lived only because her mother had handed her to an Arab shopkeeper along the deportation route. Her mother, she later learned, died the very next day.
The Armenian Genocide Is Not Past
Two and three generations later, we live with the unresolved trauma of the Armenian Genocide, and will do so until it is universally recognized and justice achieved.
Genocide scholars tell us that denial is the final stage of genocide, so in that respect alone, the Turkish government continues to perpetrate the crime. Because the republic’s economy was built upon expropriated Armenian lands, properties, and wealth, Turkey still benefits from the genocide today. Meanwhile, Armenia struggles to survive.
Last March, Al-Qaeda attacked the Armenian village of Kessab, Syria, founded by genocide survivors; it was widely reported that Turkey opened the border to the attackers and provided them with artillery cover. Media accounts have also detailed Turkey’s material support for ISIS, which in September destroyed the Armenian Genocide Memorial Church and museum in Deir-Zor, Syria. Sometimes called Armenia’s Auschwitz, it housed the bones of victims who died in the Syrian sands.
In May 1919, Theodore Roosevelt declared, “the Armenian massacre was the greatest crime of the war, and failure to act against Turkey is to condone it…the failure to deal radically with the Turkish horror means that all talk of guaranteeing the future peace of the world is mischievous nonsense.” And he was right.
Shortly thereafter, the Nazi press began extolling Turkey as a “role model.” In 1923, one influential Nazi paper wrote, “The bloodsuckers and parasites on the Turkish national body were Greeks and Armenians. They had to be eradicated and rendered harmless . . . The Turks have provided the proof that the purification of a nation of its foreign elements on a grand scale is possible.” Hitler invited the article’s author to discuss Turkey with him and his Storm Detachment leadership, adding, “What you have witnessed in Turkey is what we will have to do in the future as well.”
Hitler, who later famously said, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” often referred to Atatürk as his “teacher.”
After Nuremberg, the world joined the Jewish people in vowing “Never again.” But as we all know, genocide has been committed again, and again. One reason, I believe, is that the Armenian Genocide serves as a counterpoint to the Holocaust, a compelling example that one can kill with impunity and profit from this ultimate crime against humanity.
If we truly wish to end the evil of genocide, we must never elevate economic, strategic, or political considerations over fundamental human rights. We must speak the truth about genocide, consistently, and dedicate ourselves to achieving justice for all its victims. We must gather together to remember and honor all those who have perished through this barbarity.
And we must strive unceasingly to prevent genocide’s recurrence.
This talk was given at Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Massachusetts, on April 17, 2015, during its annual commemorative service for Yom HaShoah.
Laura Boghosian is a writer and activist working on genocide-related issues. A former editor of “The Armenian Weekly,” she co-founded the Coalition to Recognize the Armenian Genocide and co-chaired the most recent Armenians and Progressive Politics conference.
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