National chauvinism led to the extermination of countless Armenians. A hundred years later, it continues to erase their past as well
The age-old debate over whether or not the Armenian Genocide was actually a genocide has received a celebrity facelift over the course of this year.
Kim and Khloe Kardashian, on a highly publicised trip to Armenia earlier in April, laid tulips at the eternal flame of Yerevan’s Genocide Memorial.
Just a few days later Pope Francis ruffled diplomatic feathers by referring to the slaughter as “the first genocide of the 20th century” (ignoring the fact that that grim milestone belongs to the Herero and Nama Genocide, in what is modern-day Namibia, that is now only a faint reminder on the palimpsest of history).
But more significantly, at the start of the year Amal Clooney entered into the fray. Clooney took up the case against Turkish politician Dogu Perincek, who in 2008 was found guilty by a Swiss court of denying the genocide ever took place. Perincek later won on appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that Switzerland had violated his freedom of expression - an appeal challenged by Clooney, alongside her boss Geoffrey Robertson QC.
Regardless of one’s views on the right to deny genocide, to actually imagine that there was no systematic attempt by the Ottoman Empire to exterminate its Armenian, Assyrian and Greek minorities, in light of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, requires a great deal of wilful ignorance.
What is almost as difficult to imagine is that Israel - a state founded in the wake of one of the greatest atrocities in human history, as a refuge for Jewish victims - could itself be in the business of genocide denial.
Yet Israeli ambassador to Azerbaijan Rafael Harpaz recently reaffirmed Israel’s commitment to downplaying the suffering that Armenians and other minorities endured under Ottoman Turkish rule. His voice is only one among a chorus that casts doubt on the genocide.
The persecution of the Ottomans' Christian minorities peaked during the tumult of World War I, as the government of a crumbling empire embraced an increasingly virulent form of nationalism, orchestrating an incessant propaganda campaign that vilified Armenians and other minorities. Though preparations for a highly premeditated campaign were already in place, the genocide is widely considered to have begun in earnest after hundreds of Armenian political leaders and intellectuals were rounded up by authorities in Istanbul in late April 1915.
What followed was wholesale slaughter and brutality. Able-bodied men were torn from their families and shot en masse, while women, children, the sick and the elderly were forcibly deported from their homes. Staggering numbers succumbed to exhaustion and starvation as they were driven through the Hadean wastelands of Syria and herded into concentration camps.
Even by conservative estimate, the genocide claimed well over a million lives, although the Turks insist that hundreds of thousands on both sides were killed. But while the specific casualty figures are widely disputed, what is less in doubt among academics is the fact of genocide.
Unlike the Nazi Holocaust almost two decades later, the world witnessed the Armenian Genocide in print, as the corpses piled up. The Nazi death camps exterminated their inhabitants with industrial efficiency but kept the killing largely out of sight. The Armenian Genocide was different - it captured headlines from the beginning. The New York Times, for instance, extensively covered the organised slaughter, rape and pillaging. According to one tally, the paper of record carried 145 such articles in 1915 alone.
British Journalist Robert Fisk, in his weighty book The Great War for Civilization, devotes a long and detailed chapter to the genocide and its many denialists. In it, his interviewees recall with gruesome clarity the fate that they and those less fortunate suffered at the hands of Turkish troops and their Kurdish and Arab accomplices. Together with the vast collections of archival records and witness accounts from diplomats, missionaries, soldiers and other witnesses to the horror, the proof of genocide is irrefutable.
Israel joins in genocide denial
And yet, speaking to Azeri news website Trend earlier this year, Ambassador Harpaz said Israel will maintain its stance of not officially recognising the Armenian Genocide. This may seem strange coming from the representative of a country that derives so much of its legitimacy from the Holocaust, but Harpaz’s remarks are in step with those of previous Israeli governments.
In 2001, for instance, then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said that what happened to the Armenians was “a tragedy”, but made clear it was “not genocide”.
More recently, Israel’s right-wing President Reuven Rivlin, who has won the respect of even his rivals for his willingness to speak frankly about Israel’s own ugly past, appeared to be changing his tone on the matter. Rivlin, who was once a staunch advocate for recognising the Armenian Genocide, for some reason decided late last year not to sign an annual petition calling on his government to do so. For most Israeli politicians, it seems, only one genocide really matters.
And while Israel’s leaders continue to hold a monopoly on the memory of suffering, they would prefer not to upset an influential neighbour by drawing attention to a lesser tragedy.
In the Trend interview, Harpaz explains that “Israel is a democratic country, everybody has two opinions,” adding that “the government has a very clear opinion”. That opinion, it appears, is that political expedience is far more important than any moral obligation to the victims of one of the 20th century’s worst crimes against humanity.
Just imagine the reaction if a Turkish ambassador told the press that it was not for Turkey to say whether the Nazis committed genocide or not because Turks had different opinions on the matter.
The reason Israel stubbornly refuses to recognise the genocide has little to do with historical veracity, and a lot to do with political relations with Turkey. While relations between the two countries have soured in recent years, ties with Turkey remain crucial for Israel, and the government is intent on mending them.
It’s the same rationale that informs other governments that have been accomplices to Turkey’s offensive on history. Turkey, after all, is a member of NATO and a key Western ally in a rough region.
In 2009, heavily redacted UK Foreign Office files laid bare the UK’s shameful role in covering up the past. The documents showed in no uncertain terms that the government would shirk its moral responsibility to the genocide’s victims owing to "the importance of our relations… with Turkey”.
It’s a similar story on the other side of the Atlantic, where US President Barak Obama drastically toned down his rhetoric on the fate of the Ottoman Empire’s victims after he became president. He now shies away from the label “genocide”, preferring instead the more euphemistic “atrocity”.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the genocide. But it also marks a century of its continued denial. Turkey has robbed its victims of their victimhood and turned reality on its head by depicting them as the aggressors.
True to his peculiar form, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier this year invited his Armenian counterpart to partake in the Gallipoli centenary, brought forward to coincide with and divert attention from commemorations marking the Armenian genocide on 24 April. The move was breathtakingly brazen considering there are no diplomatic ties between Yerevan and Ankara, largely because of the latter’s intransigence on the genocide issue.
There was never any redress for the genocide’s victims, and nothing like the spectacle of the Nuremberg trials for the perpetrators. Several arrests were made and three lower level officials were executed for their roles in the killings, but international developments and a lack of political will prevented the courts from delivering any meaningful justice.
Nowadays, the Turkish government sees recognition of the genocide as nothing more than anti-Turkish propaganda. Not only does Turkey still refuse to own up to its bloody past, but it has tried to expunge it through a crude rewriting of history. It has routinely engaged in diplomatic warfare against governments that recognise the genocide, and persecutes journalists and academics for "insulting Turkishness" when they try to expose the uncomfortable truth.
National chauvinism led to the extermination of countless Armenians. A hundred years later, it continues to erase their past as well.
- Micah Reddy is a journalist and media activist currently based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a former managing editor at the Yemen Times and has also worked as a freelancer and editor in Cairo and Jerusalem. He can be followed on: @RedMicah
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo credits: US reality TV star Kim Kardashian (C) and her rapper husband Kanye West (3rdL) visit the genocide memorial, which commemorates the 1915 mass killing of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire (AFP)