Gertrude Stein was perhaps being coy (more likely obtuse) in her frequent references to the qualities of a rose. Sometimes things and events are just what they are and there is little room for debate. To call them by any other name is a fool’s errand. No matter how you spin it, it usually is what it is.
Armenia has prided itself in being one of the first countries to formally adopt Christianity, in the early 4th century. Yet throughout much of its history its people have been subjugated by the Roman and Byzantine empires, the Arabs, Persians, and finally, by the Ottoman Turkish empire before part of the Armenian homeland was incorporated into the former Soviet Union following the Turkish defeat in World War I.
That war was particularly harsh on the fate of the Armenian people. The Ottoman Empire had allied itself with Imperial Germany and the Central Powers in November 1914, and by the following spring the Turks were being pressured by the Allies on several fronts. The British Royal Navy, supported by the Australian-New Zealand Army Corps [ANZAC], had launched an offensive against the Turks along the Dardanelles on April 25, 1915 in the hope of linking up with the Russian navy in the Black Sea, and Russian troops advancing steadily through the Balkans and the Caucasus to the east to force a Turkish capitulation. The British offensive turned into a trench war stalemate on the Gallipoli Peninsula south of Constantinople, but the Turks largely blamed the Russian advance on the local Armenian population accused of aiding the Turks’ Russian foes. To compound matters, the Turks faced the prospect of losing their territories in the Middle East and on the Arabian peninsula.
One hundred years ago today, the day before the beginning of the Gallipoli Campaign, the Ottoman Turks initiated the deportation of its ethnic Armenian population out of Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Anatolia and into the deserts of Syria and beyond. It began quite innocuously with the arrest of 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople, but this policy eventually resulted in the systematic extermination of approximately 1.5 million Armenian Christians between 1915 and 1922 through mass slaughter, starvation and deportation. Over 50,000 were murdered in a single day - May 1, 1915 - in the Van province in Eastern Anatolia where Armenians had lived for over two millennia. Today this atrocity is known as the Armenian Genocide which gave rise to the Armenian diaspora communities throughout the world. There were also large-scale Turkish massacres of the Greek, Assyrian and Kurdish minorities as part of the same campaign of ethnic cleansing. The Armenian church sent a plea for help to President Woodrow Wilson and the United States, yet sadly nothing was done as it might appear to violate strict American neutrality in the war. The Armenian Genocide and related programs of ethnic cleansing are today acknowledged by historians and much of the international community to have been one of the first modern genocides - the greatest atrocity of World War I which was an immense atrocity in its own right. How quick we forget as it was soon to be followed by the Jewish Holocaust during World War II.
To this day the government of the Republic of Turkey, the legal successor state to the Ottoman Empire, refuses to recognize the suffering of the Armenians and other minorities as “genocide;” they were simply the unfortunate victims of war and internecine fighting. How can this be? It has been pointed out that, if you accept the events in Bosnia, Cambodia, and Rwanda as genocide, how is it possible to call what happened to the Armenians at the hands of Turkey anything else? I have learned though my own decades-long research into the evolution of the Jewish Holocaust that denial of genocide is, in fact, the final stage of genocide. The Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt has said: “Denial of genocide, whether that of the Turks against the Armenians, or the Nazis against the Jews, is not an act of historical reinterpretation . . . the deniers sow confusion by appearing to be engaged in a genuine scholarly effort. The deniers aim at convincing innocent third parties that there is ‘another side of the story’ when there is [none]; denial of genocide strives to reshape history in order to demonise [sic] the victims and rehabilitate the perpetrators.” Once you have killed the people, you must also destroy the memory and understanding of the killings. Perpetrators become the victims in this revisionist history which creates what the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has called "a morally counterfeit universe for the survivors and their legacy."
Thankfully not everyone in modern Turkey is ignorant of their past and the complicity of their government in its denial of the atrocities committed against the Armenians and others. Turkish scholar and journalist Cengiz Aktar speaks for many of his fellow citizens: "The Armenian genocide is the Great Catastrophe of Anatolia, and the mother of all taboos in this land. Its curse will continue to haunt us as long as we fail to talk about, recognize, understand and reckon with it." But there is a very real danger in today’s Turkey for anyone who does so. Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk was a victim of telling the truth. Following a 2005 Swiss interview in which he alluded to the suffering of the Armenian people during the Genocide, the Turkish press attacked Pamuk, accusing him of being a traitor and urging all good Turks to “silence” him. He went into hiding abroad for several months after receiving death threats. He eventually returned to his home in Istanbul only to be charged by the city’s public prosecutor with the “public denigration of Turkish identity.” He faced three years in prison if convicted. Pamuk shared Aktar’s position. “What happened to the Ottoman Armenians in 1915 was a major thing that was hidden from the Turkish nation; it was a taboo. But we have to be able to talk about the past." Turkey must come to terms with its history and this would only be possible through freedom of speech. Fortunately for Pamuk, the charges were eventually dropped. Others have not been so fortunate with the continuing break down of civil and human rights in Turkey under the regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. But there is always hope. Today, on the centenary of the beginning of the Armenian deportations from Constantinople, Turks are standing up for what they know to be true, gathering in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, site of last year’s government crackdown on free speech and human rights, to honor the victims of the Genocide. The Erdoğan regime in Ankara will not participate in any of the memorials being held throughout Turkey. Instead, it has scheduled a centennial commemoration of the Ottoman Turkish victory in the Gallipoli Campaign. It is a shame that Prince Charles and Prince Harry of Great Britain have agreed to attend this “commemoration” in Ankara designed to draw attention away from the centenary of the Armenian Genocide. This denial will only perpetuate the sad memories and ill-feeling that has lasted a century.
The fate of the Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks is responsible for the coining of the word “genocide.” Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer who escaped the Nazi subjugation of his homeland, emigrated to the United States in 1941 where in 1943, when the scale of the Nazi extermination of the Jews was gradually coming to light, he used the word “genocide” – the wholesale and premeditated exterminations of an entire race of people – to describe the massacre of the Armenian during World War I, and its legal implications. Following the war, Lemkin drafted a resolution for a genocide convention to persuade the new United Nations to ban and punish future acts of genocide. With the support of the United States, who had failed to address the massacres in 1915, the resolution was placed before the General Assembly for consideration. The United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by the General Assembly in late 1948 in Paris. It went into effect in January 1951. Its definition of “genocide” in Article II is simple - “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group . . . ” which are punishable under the provisions of the convention. The United States was one of several nations that signed the Convention on December 11, 1948 with reservation; it opposed granting consent to trial of its citizenry before an international court for the crime of genocide. The US did not fully ratify the Convention for four decades, until November 4, 1988. Not a very stirring act of moral courage.
Turkey is behind the curve as the world community continues to stand up for the truth borne on historical facts about the Armenian Genocide. At least 25 countries, including Germany, Austria, France, and Russia, call the atrocity against the Armenians a genocide. The Council of Europe and the European Parliament (of the European Union), have passed resolutions recognizing the Armenian Genocide. The United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities has also described what happened to the Armenians as genocide. Some countries, including Switzerland and Greece, have gone so far as to make the denial of these facts a criminal offense.
In a recent mass celebrated at the Vatican to commemorate the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, Pope Francis joined a large community of historians and nations who have characterized the killings and the mass persecution as the first modern genocide of the 20th century. “Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.” Turkey recalled its ambassador to the Holy See. Not to be intimidated by Turkish intransigence, the Holy Father furthermore urged the international community to recognize the Armenian Genocide for what it was and not simply some unfortunate collateral damage as suggested by the current Turkish government who believes the Holy Father’s rhetoric will only perpetuate a crisis between Muslims and Christians. “The 1915 events took place during World War I when a portion of the Armenian population living in the Ottoman Empire sided with the invading Russians and revolted against the empire,” the Turkish news agency Anadolu reported earlier this week. “The Ottoman Empire relocated Armenians in eastern Anatolia following the revolts and there were Armenian casualties during the relocation process.” Nothing less, but certainly nothing more. A little truth, but not enough truth. Some say a little truth can go a long way. I am sorry. Not in this instance.
In the wake of Pope Francis’s pronouncement, the parliament of the European Union passed a new resolution calling on the Erdoğan regime, which at one time sought entry into the EU, to accept its responsibility as the successor state to the former Ottoman Empire, and to recognize Ottoman/Turkish complicity in the Armenian Genocide of a century ago. Turkey responded by suggesting that European countries should look to their own histories and their own complicities in so-called “genocide” before condemning Turkey. Volkan Bozkir, Turkey’s minister for European affairs, went further and took a pot shot at Pope Francis and his fellow countrymen in Argentina by suggesting that they had been brainwashed by Armenians in their midst, noting that “Argentina was a country that welcomed the leading executors of the Jewish Holocaust, Nazi torturers, with open arms.” The pot calling the kettle black?
It is time for the current government of Turkey to recognize the historic reality of the genocide perpetrated against the Armenian people throughout eastern Anatolia one hundred years ago. It is history and should be recognized as such. It was genocide and to call it anything else is ignorance in its purest form. It is time to move on just as Germany has moved on by recognizing its complicity in the Holocaust. It has been said that there can be no reconciliation until the truth is told. Here is an opportunity for Mr. Erdoğan to make the history he so much wants to be a part of.
And while we are at it, perhaps it is time for the United States to join other countries and come down on the right side of history as it has promised to do so many times. Realpolitik should not dictate that we remain silent on the truth about the Armenian Genocide. Still, Turkey continues to assert pressure on successive American administrations to keep silent in order to maintain good relations with an important and influential ally in a region boiling over with secular and religious conflicts. Turkey is reported to be spending millions of dollars to lobby against scholarly and cultural events about the genocide in the United States, and to defeat congressional resolutions on the genocide. Turkey has threatened several times to close US NATO facilities in Turkey, if Congress passes as much as a non-binding statement acknowledging the events of 1915 as genocide. On April 10, 2014, on the eve of the 99th anniversary, the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations reported on a Senate Resolution 410 condemning and commemorating the Armenian Genocide, describing it as an act of "elimination of the over 2,500-year presence of Armenians in their historic homeland". It was approved by a committee vote of 12-5. The resolution had enough votes to pass the full Senate yet it was killed at the recommendation of the State Department. It seems that truth plays a second fiddle in this country when the chips are down.
There is still hope. Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA), a lead sponsor of a new House resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide, trusts that Pope Francis’ pleas from the Vatican will "inspire our president and Congress to demonstrate a like commitment to speaking the truth about the Armenian genocide and to renounce Turkey's campaign of concealment and denial." Let us keep our fingers crossed that braver souls in Congress will prevail and not acquiesce to pressures from a country who only acts like a loyal American ally when it fits its own world view, a position reinforced yesterday by two former US ambassadors and other American experts on Turkey at a panel discussion I attended at the Bipartisan Policy Institute here in Washington, DC.
It is also time for President Obama to show some backbone and to honor a pledge he made when first running for President. Many of his predecessors from both parties have continually skirted the issue. After all, it happened long ago and now Turkey is a NATO ally and an influential political and economic power in a very unstable region of the world. The term “genocide” was avoided as it angered Turkish sensitivities. When Obama first campaigned for president in 2008, he used the term “genocide” when speaking on the Armenian atrocities. A year later, after his election and during a visit to Ankara, he asked the Turks to deal honestly with the events of a century ago . . . without honoring his campaign promise to refer to Armenian genocide as just that . . . a genocide! "My firmly held conviction [is] that the Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence." Unfortunately, Obama has moderated his language since taking office, calling that dark era “an atrocity,” but resisting all efforts by Congress to bring a resolution on the question to a vote. Why??? He knows what happened and he knows what it is called and what it should be called. Why censor himself against conventional wisdom? Why placate a so-called ally who act less and less like one with each passing day?
Pope Francis’ use of the term “genocide” in a mass of commemoration of that sad chapter of human history raised speculation that Mr. Obama might honor his old pre-election promise and tell Erdoğan he will no longer be bullied from doing the right thing. Sadly, President Obama has chosen to be cautious yet again, to be cajoled rather than to take the moral high ground and lead. In a statement released from the White House last night, he referred to the Armenian Genocide only as “the first mass atrocity of the 20th century." Obama explained what happened. “Beginning in 1915, the Armenian people of the Ottoman Empire were deported, massacred, and marched to their deaths,” Obama said in his official statement. “Their culture and heritage in their ancient homeland were erased. Amid horrific violence that saw suffering on all sides, one and a half million Armenians perished.” Is that not genocide??? “I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view has not changed,” the president said. But yes it has Mr. President! Why not call it what is was. Genocide is genocide is genocide.
As I watch the world community stand up to Turkey and its revisionist view of history, I continue to wonder why my own country, my president, refuses to do what is morally correct. Why won’t they step up to the plate? I join the Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee in expressing our mutual deep disappoint that “President Obama has chosen to break his promise and stand apart from the global community on speaking the truth about the Armenian Genocide on its 100th Anniversary.” Once again a broken Obama promise. For seven years in a row he has failed to keep his promise. A follower, not a leader. He has chosen to turn "a blind eye to genocide for political expediency." How ironic that his current Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power won a Pulitzer Prize for her book on the Armenian Genocide. She has constantly taken US policy makers to task for failing to acknowledge such atrocities. "No U.S. president has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence,” she wrote. “It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on."
How can we expect Turkey to respect and acknowledge historical truth when our own leaders here in the United States - especially our president - do not have the moral courage to honor their promises to speak the truth. The Erdoğan regime has no more loyal friend than Mr. Obama and the United States government. What a shame it continues to spit in our eye and those of the world at large.
In closing, let me say that I see no change in American policy in future administrations. What about Hillary Clinton, you ask? As Secretary of State in 2012, she cautioned against calling the Armenian Genocide just that . . . “because whatever the terrible event might be or the high emotions that it represents, to try to use government power to resolve historical issues, I think, opens a door that is a very dangerous one to go through. So the issue is a very emotional one; I recognize that and I have great sympathy for those who are just so incredibly passionate about it.” Another follower. Not a leader.
We must remember that not calling it a genocide also stirs passions among persons of all nationalities and ethnicities who have vowed not to be silent about what they see as attempts to liquidate entire peoples.
Let’s not mince words, OK? If it looks and smells like a genocide, it most certainly is.
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