Speaking of the Armenians

Addressing a group of German army officers at his Obersalzberg home in August 1939, Adolf Hitler assured them that their upcoming razing of the Polish nation-state was an act that they could get away with, since global attention to such events had tended to be fickle:

[O]ur war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy. Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formation in readiness – for the present only in the East – with orders to them 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 that we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?

Some historians have doubted the authenticity of the document containing a record of this speech, particularly the final rhetorical question, but whether or not Hitler ever invoked the memory of the Armenian Genocide in his speeches, the event itself and the failure thereafter to bring most of the perpetrators to justice must surely have crossed not just his mind but also those of other criminally-minded rulers of the last century as they were planning their various new orders. The word “genocide”, denoting as it does the deliberate mass murder of a race or people, was actually coined by a Polish Jew, the lawyer Raphael Lemkin. Even before the Nazis forced him to flee to Sweden (and most of his relatives did not survive their onslaught), Lemkin was campaigning to make massacring people because of their identity punishable under international law. Interviewed about his work after the War, Lemkin insisted that he was not thinking solely of his or his family’s experiences:

I became interested in genocide because it happened so many times. It happened to the Armenians, then after the Armenians, Hitler took action.

Exactly a hundred years ago, the Ottoman Turkish government ordered the arrest and deportation of over 200 Armenian intellectuals – considered to be natural leaders of the nation – in the imperial capital of Constantinople. This has traditionally been taken as effectively the starting point for a grim process of deportation, forced marches, burning, shooting, gassing, and deliberate starving by the government of the Empire’s Armenian subjects, purely on the ground of their race – although the process had actually begun months before, in the wake of the Turks’ catastrophic December 1914 defeat by the Russians in the Battle of Sarikamis. Unable, or unwilling, to admit that his incompetence and poor leadership might have had something to do with the disaster, Turkey’s then head of government and military commander, Ismail Enver Pasha, started the process of persecution by blaming the losses on local Armenians collaborating with the Russians. It’s yet another depressing example of how, when your political career is on the line, you can side-step the buck by resorting to crude chauvinism, bigotry, and worse.

As the killing got underway, it did not take long for journalists on the ground to wake up to the enormity of what was going on: a number of newspaper headlines in the spring and summer of 1915 employ the words “race extermination”. Not only that, but some in the Ottoman government were completely shameless about it. Responding to protests by US ambassador Henry Morgenthau, the interior minister Mohamed Talaat Pasha bluntly explained that they had to kill more Armenians than just those suspected of collaborating with the Russians, since ‘those who are innocent today may be guilty tomorrow.’ Talaat even had the gall to ask Morgenthau for a list of Armenian subjects who had taken out life insurance policies with American firms, so that the government in Constantinople could claim the money.

Mohammed Talaat Pasha (1874-1921)
Mohammed Talaat Pasha (1874-1921)

Estimates as to how many Armenians were murdered vary considerably, ranging from around 700,000 to over 1.5 million – it depends on who the historian is, and where he/she stands on the issue. Where one stands on the Armenian Genocide is, of course, where the controversy comes in. For its part, the Turkish government is insistent that what happened in the north-east of the Ottoman Empire in 1915-16 was not genocide, but a civil conflict between Armenians, Turks, and Kurds, in the Empire’s dying days, in which people of all different racial and national groups died.

The Turkish government’s line on the Genocide has, in fact, shifted somewhat over the years. Initially, it was to deny that any killing went on beyond the usual deaths by military conflict. Then, the line was that, yes, people were killed, but there weren’t that many of them, and those who were killed were collaborators with the enemy. Finally, the government’s line changed to yes, innocent people were killed in 1915-16, but the number did not exceed 300,000, and it was part of communal conflict, not a policy of deliberately targeting Armenians because of their ethnicity. Turkey’s first President, Kemal Ataturk, did at one time call the massacres of Armenians “a shameful act”, but much farther than that he was unprepared to go: as enlightened as he was, relatively speaking, he was unwilling to do anything that would imperil his position among his strongly nationalist (and denialist) government. The Turkish government has also insisted that judging events like should be the preserve of historians, rather than politicians from Armenia and elsewhere. The thing about that tack is that most reputable historians have, by and large, come to the same conclusion: that those who invoke the G word have got it right. It does seem, therefore, that the concerted pressure that has built up over the years from Armenians and various campaigners and historians is making progress, albeit slow progress.

Such is the context behind the recent row between Turkey and the Vatican. The Turkish government certainly had stern words with the Pope’s man in Ankara after Francis I dared to use the word “genocide” at Mass in St Peter’s when talking about the Armenians nearly a fortnight ago. Other governments, such as those in Britain and the States, are less willing to use the G word, concerned as they are about offending a strategically valuable NATO ally at a time when Vladimir Putin’s Russia is still in the international picture. There is also a sense among some Turks that the Armenian issue is being used cynically by European governments as yet another barrier to a Muslim nation joining the EU (although the EU has insisted that this isn’t the case). Similarly, the historian Ian Almond is one writer who sees an element of double standards in the Armenian campaign in Europe:

Whilst Turkey is (quite rightly) exhorted to acknowledge and fully examine the systematic ethnic cleansing of its Armenian populations in 1915, the largest genocide in the world to date – that of the Belgian Congo, twenty years earlier, where an estimated 10 to 15 million Africans are said to have died between 1877 and 1908 – is wholly unacknowledged by any of the European countries involved.

Today, the Genocide is being commemorated in locations around the world – though not in Turkey, where President Erdogan is marking the centenary of another event: the Gallipoli invasion, which coincidentally got underway in the same week as the swoop on the Armenian intellectuals. As for Hitler’s rhetorical question (which he may or may not have asked in his Obersalzberg speech), the answer is that more and more people are speaking of the annihilation of the Armenians, thanks in no small way to the courage of Pope Francis and other international figures prepared to stick their neck out for the sake of setting the historical record straight. That is what happens when those in the public eye show courage and leadership, for, as Elizabeth Gaskell once wrote, ‘Evils, once recognised, are half-way on towards their remedy.

Based in Birmingham, Dan is a journalist, broadcaster and actor.

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