In the midst of the noise and clamor, and—in the jargon of the day—“bitter partisan divide” generated by the imminent impeachment of President Donald J. Trump, people may be forgiven if they have overlooked the fact that, more than 100 years after the Turks set themselves the task of engaging in the mass murder of Armenians, the United States Senate on Thursday voted unanimously to recognize the Armenian Genocide. One cannot simply ascribe the inordinate delay in acknowledging the brute fact of the Armenian Genocide to amnesia, since Armenians have been especially vigilant in drawing the world’s attention to what has sometimes been termed the “first holocaust” of the 20th century. Nevertheless, Armenians have also had to live with the fact that the world has often chosen to overlook the genocide that was directed at them.
It may well be a cliché to invoke Hitler’s chilling observations on the Armenian Genocide, but they remain as disturbing now as they were when he issued a statement on 22 August 1939 in anticipation of his plan to attack Poland. His war aim, Hitler said, was not merely to break the barriers of defense and, together with Stalin, to carve up the world between the two of them, but to aim at “the physical destruction of the enemy.” His death squads had orders “to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians? [emphasis added].
Who, indeed, would have heard of the annihilation of gypsies, homosexuals, the physically and mentally disabled, Slavs, and many others that the Nazis deemed deviants and worthy only of extermination if the Third Reich had triumphed? Perhaps that may have been, in those circumstances, the fate, too, of Jews—six million in all. And yet, in those twists that history is forever heir to, the very word “genocide” appears to have arisen, we may say, in consequence of Hitler’s observation. It was the Polish Jew Ralph Lemkin, who made his way out of Warsaw—five days after the beginning of the German onslaught—to Lithuania and then to Stockholm, before leaving two years later for the United States, who coined the word. “I became interested in genocide”, he was to say some years later in a television interview, “because it happened so many times. It happened to the Armenians, then after the Armenians, Hitler took action.”
The US Senate’s first explicit acknowledgment of Armenian Genocide comes after decades of such similar attempts, all foiled on the pretext that American foreign policy objectives would not be served well by antagonizing Ankara. Even the present action by the Senate came in the teeth of determined opposition from the White House, which has described even such symbolic recognition as the Senate vote offers to the Armenian people as inimical to American national interest. We may put aside, as a matter of greater interest to those who feed on the nitty-gritty of realpolitik, the question of how the tangled foreign policy objectives of both Turkey and the United States impinge on the question of recognition of the Armenian Genocide. What is rather more germane is that Turkey has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that the killings amount to genocide. Turkey does not deny that some killings of Armenians occurred at the hands of the Ottoman military, but it disputes both the alleged scale of the atrocities—estimates of those killed vary, from 600,000 to 1.7 million, with most scholars settled upon something in the vicinity of a million deaths—and the supposition that the intent was to, in the words of contemporaries, “assassinate a race”. Ottoman officers and soldiers behind the killings of Armenians, on this view, acted of their own volition rather than at the behest of superiors or because of a clear directive of a state policy of extermination. World War I, the Turkish argument goes, disturbed the social order of things: millions of people were killed, innocents and civilians as much as soldiers; many more were displaced, as people were forced out of their homes and the borders between political entities shifted; and in this state of acute social anomie Armenians were sometimes killed, but more often than not succumbed to disease and starvation.
The Turkish view has been rebutted by a legion of witnesses and scholars, and those who deny the Armenian Genocide have no more standing than those who deny the Shoah. There are, however, intellectual questions worthy of exploration: why is it, for example, that the Armenians, who had been subjects of the Ottoman Empire since the 15th century, only faced the threat of extermination in the late 19th century? No one pretends that Armenians, as a Christian minority in the Ottoman Empire, had (to use what is really an anachronism) “equal rights”; at the same time, it is also widely accepted among scholars of the Ottoman Empire that Armenians (and Jews), despite the liabilities under which they suffered, such as the payment of the jizya (until 1856) and the baddal-sarkari in lieu of military service thereafter, did quite well for themselves and even flourished. Armenians were better educated than Turks and excelled in trade and entrepreneurship. Their success would not only come to be deeply resented but, as the Ottoman Empire began to crumble in the second half of the nineteenth century, may have been one of the reasons why they began to be perceived both as a provocation and as scapegoats. Jews were similarly better integrated into socio-cultural life and educational institutions in Germany than they were in France and Britain: as Freud might have said, it was the proximity of Jews to German national life that eventually made them, in the eyes of the Nazis, so dangerous.
Contemporary scholarship on the Armenian Genocide has delved into many of these questions at length. Those who are of the view that American foreign policy calculations forestalled the recognition of the genocide have, it could be argued, a relatively benign and, ironically, even apolitical view of the matter. In 1980, Richard Diran Kloian released a massive compendium, distributed by the San Francisco-based Armenian Commemorative Committee, entitled The Armenian Genocide: First 20th Century Holocaust. What astonishes is the extent to which the genocide was reported in 1915-17 in leading American publications, among them the New York Times, New Republic, Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, Current History, The Century, Current History, Literary Digest, Living Age, and The Outlook. The headlines state the truth candidly, unequivocally, even brutally: “Turks Depopulate Towns of Armenia: 600,000 Starving on Road” (New York Times), 27 August 1915; “1,500,000 Armenians Starve” (New York Times), 5 September 1915; “Why the Armenians Were Killed” (The Literary Digest), 11 November 1916; “The Assassination of Armenia” (The Missionary Review of the World), November 1915; and “Exterminating the Armenians” (The Literary Digest), 9 October 1915. There were hundreds even thousands more such pieces in this vein. The reporters and commentators were incredulous that starving women and children could be described as the “enemy”. “500 Armenians Slain under Turkish Order”, a New York Times reporter put it in a brief newspaper article on 15 January 1916, adding this sub-heading to his piece: “Forced by Cold and Hunger to Surrender, Men, Women, and Children Were Put to Death.” Or, as the young Los-Angeles based poet David Garyan has put it in his epic poem, “Armenian Genocide” (2019):
The murderer lies, claiming Armenians
were the enemy and had to be destroyed,
but I’ve never seen enemies who were women
and children die without weapons in hand.
The murderer lies, claiming Armenians
were dangerous and the desert marches
served as brief relocations,
but I wasn’t aware that people must be raped
and deprived of food on long
walks to their new home.
The United States has never had an easy time with the subject of genocide, for the more than obvious reason that its own history is thoroughly blood-stained. As American power diminishes, we should not be surprised if countries will be demanding that the US openly acknowledge the genocides it has wrought, at home and abroad. It is even conceivable that countries will pass resolutions condemning the treatment of native Americans and African Americans. That the present US Congress hosts a sizable number of legislators who feel that the United States has absolutely nothing to be apologetic about is of course known to everyone, but it would not be too much to say that it also hosts a number of legislators who, as their conduct in the recent impeachment hearings and conduct of the President suggests, remain unrepentant racists. It will take a lot more than supposed “foreign policy objectives” to understand the deep-seated American anxieties around the idea of genocide.