Genocide (n.) – The deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation.
-UN Convention, Article II
If you’ve been following the coverage for the last week or so, you know that April 24 is the date Armenians mark as the centennial of the start of the genocide that resulted in the deaths of 1.5 million of their ancestors. You may also be confused by the continued denial of the genocide by the current Turkish government, which claims that the loss of life occurred on both sides of the ethnic divide in the midst of a civil war that took place in the years of the First World War.
It can all be a little confusing, especially if you add the fact that the United States (through its succession of presidents) has never officially declared the killings as genocide. If it was a genocide—the first of the twentieth century as most historians note—why hasn’t Turkey (or at least the United States) so declared it?
I’m a second generation Armenian-American. My parents’ parents immigrated to the United States in the diaspora that resulted from the genocide or in the years of unrest leading up to it. To be specific, my father’s father was sent to the U.S. with his brothers by their parents when things began to get scary in the late 1800s. My father’s mother was an infant when her parents came to the U.S. around the same time. My mother’s father and mother came later. My maternal grandfather came just before the genocide began. My maternal grandmother was orphaned by the genocide and got to the United States as a young woman during or shortly after the main period of the genocide (historians mark its years from 1915-1923, with the largest number of deaths occurring during the years of the world war).
So let’s understand this much: there is no historical issue regarding the deaths of over one million Armenians who had been living in Ottoman Turkey when they were killed (or deported to their deaths). The events were documented by Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey at the time. He provided first-hand accounts as the atrocities were taking place and pleaded with the Turkish rulers to stop the killings (and deportations, which were death marches into the Syrian desert). He then documented the genocide in a 1918 publication that was widely reported by the American press (and is available online—google “Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story”). The post-war international criminal courts then prosecuted the Turkish leaders (in absentia, since they had fled after the fall of the Ottoman Empire) and found them guilty of the mass killings (genocide was not a recognized term at the time).
In the years following the genocide it was acknowledged as such by the United Nations, where the term was adopted officially through the advocacy of Raphael Lemkin, who first coined the word in 1944 and applied it to the Turkish plan to eradicate the Armenians (a plan promulgated by the Ottoman rulers, as documented by Ambassador Morgenthau). More recently, every president has promised to recognize the genocide as such when he ran for the office, only to revert to less specific language on taking office.
Candidate Obama, for example, said in 2008, “The facts are undeniable. As President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.” President Obama, however, has referred instead to “one of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century” on each April 24 anniversary since he has been in office. He’ll have another opportunity to honor his 2008 pledge this week.
Obama’s reluctance matches that of his predecessors, all of whom are overwhelmed on taking office with the strategic importance of Turkey in the global struggle against whatever threats the U.S. would potentially be facing at the time. (During the Cold War that threat was seen as Soviet hegemony; more recently the focus is on the “war on terror,” or the Middle East powder keg). And Turkey adamantly refuses to recognize the acts of its Ottoman predecessors and reacts with righteous indignation when any government or world leader officially acknowledges and condemns the genocide. Just last week, for example, Turkey angrily recalled its ambassador to the Vatican when Pope Francis recognized the genocide, saying that to do otherwise would be “denying evil.”
Why does Turkey persist in denying its predecessors’ evil? On this point there are a bunch of theories. None are justifiable, but the most practical is that surviving descendants with proof of their ancestors’ deaths could claim reparations or otherwise sue for the return of property confiscated during the genocide. Other reasons could be national pride and religious identity. (Turkey is a Muslim state; Armenians are Christians. The nation of Armenia was the first to declare Christianity as its state religion in the year 301.)
Whatever the reasons, Turkey’s continued denial, to the point of offering a wholly unsupportable revisionist history, is shameful. Imagine Germany refusing to acknowledge the Holocaust. Imagine what the civilized world’s reaction would be. To bring it closer to home, imagine the United States only referring to the Holocaust as “the worst atrocity of the twentieth century.” Would the Jewish community understand the diplomatic wording? Or would there be an outcry demanding full recognition of the Holocaust, with no mincing of words to appease the sensibilities of the current German government and its people, even if they don’t represent the Nazi ideology that killed six million Jews any more than today’s Turkey represents the Ottoman rulers’ genocide?
But even that comparison is less than accurate, because Armenians suffer the indignity of the Turkish denial in the continuing hostility of the current Turkish government towards neighboring Armenia, which Turkey denies trade with and which Turkey restricts from trade with neighboring states.
So to understand the commemoration of the Armenian genocide, you need to understand that the collective memory demands recognition. Armenians everywhere continue to grieve the deaths of their ancestors. And they grieve even more the continuing injustice of those who refuse to recognize the historical record or who seek to placate a government that “denies the evil” its predecessors promulgated.