Belated Recognition for a Genocide:  The Armenian Holocaust

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.

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Cover of the massive compendium put together by Richard Diiran Kloian (1980), and distributed by Armenian Commemorative Committee of San Francisco Bay Area.  Collection: V. Lal.  The following three images are drawn from the same source.

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

4 thoughts on “Belated Recognition for a Genocide:  The Armenian Holocaust

  1. Hi Professor! One of the things I find interesting is how one of the reasons that both Armenians and Jewish people were targeted was a type of jealousy of their success and flourish in the 20th century. This jealousy grew into a hate that manifested itself to a desire to eliminate the races all together, with the government believing this would solve the problem. To me, it is ironic how the two genocides share commonalities, yet one is renowned across the world where the other is left forgotten. I believe it has something to do with both location and race. Whereas the Holocaust took place in Europe against a predominantly white religion, the Armenian genocide took place in the Middle East in the Ottoman Empire amongst a group of non white people. I believe this plays a big role into the reasons why we don’t learn about the Armenian genocide nor know a lot about the atrocities that accompanied it. It makes sense to me how America has difficulty addressing and speaking out against genocide when it committed many of its own acts of genocide against the Native Americans as well as inflicted the hours of slavery upon Africans. How can they speak out against a subject that they have have repeatedly taken a part in. Even in the eyes of many Americans, the horrors committed against the Native Americans is not considered a genocide. Similar to the Armenian genocide, it is also swept under the rug and mostly forgotten about even though there are multiple groups of people who demand justice and speak out to raise awareness. As you say in your post, I find it astonishing that so many articles were printed with the titles addressing the genocide; however, knowing the time period they were printed in, it does not entirely surprise me that Americans would be ignorant towards the situation. Segregation was rampant during WW1, and for Americans to think about the good of any other people besides the white Americans in the US would be off brand for the times. 100 years later, the situation still has not changed as articles being published about human rights violations of the Uyghur Muslims in China are being largely ignored similar to the ones printed in WW1 times.

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  2. Professor,

    I was born in the Balkans in the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars. For me, coming from a Muslim family, genocide and its consequences have been something I have had to reckon with for my entire life. While the Bosnian genocide and Armenian genocide have obvious differences, the most obvious being the contexts in which they occurred, I cannot help but think of the U.S.’s (comparatively) quick response to and denouncement of the genocide in Bosnia in comparison to the sluggish response and recognition of the genocide in Armenia. Interestingly, it was Biden who both led the American response to Serb aggression and whose administration recognized the Armenian genocide. As you mention, the U.S. has a complicated history with genocide and many factors, not just foreign policy objectives, influenced the recognition of the Armenian genocide. I wonder what combination of factors caused the U.S. government to act in Bosnia but ignore Armenia. Was it just a consequence of the times? That is, were people more ready to reckon with genocide in the 1990s than they were in the 1910s? Did the U.S. have something to gain from NATO intervention in Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo, as many people argue?

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    • This will take too long to address. But it is worthwhile recalling that Hitler used the world’s indifference to the Armenian genocide to argue that it was quite possible that the world and especially Europe would similarly be oblivious to the extermination of the Jewish people. Whoever remembers the Armenian genocide, he said at a speech on Aug 22, 1939, just several days before his invasion of Poland. “Genocide” was not a crime under international law in 1910, 1920, or even 1930; the term is of later vintage and attributed to Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew. An international human rights regime has only developed in the post-World War II period, not that it has been able to prevent genocides and crimes against peace and humanity.

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  3. I believe that we need to be more educated on egregious crimes against humanity and without being educated on it, there is no way in which we can prevent these things from happening again. Of course, I would like to remain optimistic and assume that one day we could live in a world where it does not matter which country is allied with which country for whatever reason if there is a crime done, such as this, it should be punished. However, as I grow older, it becomes more and more obvious that we do live in a world where the benefit of a certain group of people comes before even the lives of other groups of people and by this, I mean that there are crimes that are excusable as long as the perpetrator is allied with the correct people. For example, this last year, Azerbaijan began to bomb cities, schools, and hospitals using illegal weapons such as white phosphorus, execute and torture prisoners of war, etc. Almost every war crime and human rights violation were committed, but there was not even a statement issued by some of the “world powers” as people refer to the western countries. Of course, this has to do with politics, but I think that it definitely has to do with the fact that crimes such as these go unpunished. As these crimes go unpunished, more will happen and there will be no end to the amount of human rights violations that can occur as long as crimes such as this go unpunished and people remain uneducated about events in history such as this.

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