Still Too Turkey to Call it the Armenian Genocide
This past weekend marked the 96th anniversary of the beginnings of the Armenian Genocide. On April 24th, 1915, Ottoman Turks commenced the annihilation of what historians estimate to be more than 1.5 million Armenians.
The problem is that those who perpetrated the mass murder are those who are vehemently opposed to calling it genocide, the century’s first in a macabre string of ethnic cleansing.
More than a century ago, the Armenians, a Christian people who had mostly settled in the eastern regions of Turkey, had limited rights in the Ottoman Empire: They could not testify on their behalf, nor bear arms, and they were subjected to a higher tax. As Turkey entered the 19th and 20th Centuries, Armenian demands for political reforms and protections from the state only served to create suspicion amid Muslim Turks. Under the rule of Sultan Abdul Hamid (1876-1909) nearly 300,000 Armenians were massacred.
In 1908, a new political group called the Young Turks seized power, promising religious and civil freedoms to all minorities. But this promise did not materialize. Teaming up with Germany and Austria-Hungary, the new Turkish government formed the third arm of the Central Powers alliance. By using the guise of World War I and conspiracy theories that claimed Armenian collusion with the Russians, the Turks set off to eliminate the Armenian people. First, Turks executed able-bodied men. Then, resettlement programs, as they were called, transformed into death marches. Along these routes, Armenians were slaughtered by newly released Turkish convicts, ultra-extremist Muslims, and enlisted Kurds. Armenians were also starved to death or asphyxiated in caves transformed into gas chambers—brush was set aflame at the entrance. And even when the mass killings ended, Turks enslaved survivors, who were forced to adopt the religion and language of their captors.
Although more than 400 officials of the regime were arrested in connection to the atrocities and the ruling triumvirate was condemned to death—though they would escape justice by hiding out in foreign countries—the Turkish Republic to this day denies that genocide was committed, claiming that it was not a deliberate plan to exterminate the Armenian population. Not even a half-hearted mea culpa has been offered up. Turkey also rebukes world leaders who may mention the massacre, but take the politically obsequious route and avoid labeling it genocide. (“President Obama’s statement is a wrongful, distorted and unilateral political description of history,” Turkey’s ambassador said of the president’s respectful address to the American-Armenian lobby on Sunday, despite using euphemisms instead of the word genocide, which he had pledged to do during his campaign.) Turkey further contends that they should not bear the burden since it was Ottoman Turks that were in power, not the republic, which took over in 1923.
To address the latter point first: A year after the Iron Curtain dissolved, a very different Russia under Mikhail Gorbachev expressed “profound regret” for the killing of 22,000 Polish prisoners of war in the Katyn Forest, while the previous regime had obfuscated the truth. Additionally, the Germans today do not represent the Germany of Hitler’s Third Reich, but they have still apologized for the actions of their countrymen and have taken legislative measures restricting Nazi symbols and neo-Nazi propaganda. It was the Holocaust that tarnished their country’s reputation; taking responsibility for past wrongs has only helped Germany reach its level of prominence today and has helped facilitate the healing process. I’ve met many young Germans and nothing has caught me more off guard than when I sat with a young German man who told me that the Holocaust “was very important to me when we learned of this in school.” It was more than sixty years later and still a tear of sympathy for a wrong he did not commit—but clearly understood—came to his eye.
A country that does not recognize and admit to their wrongdoings, whether it is their own or that of their ancestors, is a country that squanders educational opportunities, which are the most important tool in preventing future mass atrocities.
But traversing through that threshold that divides pride and shame is a difficult one to cross. Especially when Turkey’s denial contradicts the observations of the wartime US Consul Leslie Davis and the communiqués of Ambassador Henry Morgenthau.
Davis, as he passed through the Harput Plain in July of 1915, stated:
“Any doubt that may have been expressed in previous reports as to the Government’s intentions in sending away the Armenians have been removed and any hope that may have been expressed as to the possibility of some of them surviving have been destroyed. It has been no secret that the plan was to destroy the Armenian race as a race…”
Morgenthau wrote in a confidential telegram: “Deportation of and excesses against peaceful Armenians is increasing and from harrowing reports of eye witnesses it appears that a campaign of race extermination is in progress under a pretext of reprisal against rebellion.” He added that only the use of force would be sufficient to end the mass killings, since, “Protests as well as threats are unavailing and probably incite the Ottoman government to more drastic measures as they are determined to disclaim responsibility for their absolute disregard of capitulations…”
In Morgenthau’s conversations with the Minister of the Interior, Talaat Pasha, about the Armenian people, he writes:
“I argued in all sorts of ways with him but he said that there was no use, that they had already disposed of three quarters of them, that there were none left in Bitlis, Van, Erzeroum, and that the hatred was so intense now that they have to finish it… He said they want to treat the Armenians like we treat the [N]egroes. I think he meant like the Indians. I asked him to make exceptions in some few cases which he promised to do.”
But most incriminating are the words of the triumvirate. Enver Pasha, the War Minister, declared, “The Ottoman Empire should be cleaned up of the Armenians and the Lebanese. We have destroyed the former by the sword, we shall destroy the latter through starvation.” Talaat Pasha told the German embassy, “Turkey is taking advantage of the war in order to thoroughly liquidate its internal foes, [for example], the indigenous Christians, without being thereby disturbed by foreign intervention… The question is settled. There are no more Armenians.”
In 2000, 126 Holocaust scholars, holders of academic chairs, and directors of Holocaust research and study centers—among them Nobel Laureate for Peace, Elie Wiesel—signed a statement affirming that what took place in Turkey was a genocide of the Armenian people and it urged governments of Western democracies to recognize it as such.
But most Western democracies play politics and pander to Turkey by refusing to invoke the appropriate word—genocide—leaving an entire peoples marginalized and unserved, while allowing an entire country to be disgraced with a false history and to miss an important opportunity to inculcate in their young people the tragic, yet necessary, lessons that come from truth.
Even Hitler recognized this point. On August 22, 1939, nine days before storming Poland, the first steps toward his Final Solution, he said to Reichmarshal Hermann Goering and his commanding generals:
“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
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