How life can commemorate death: the Armenian Genocide

Abstract

The 1915-23 Armenian Genocide was indisputably homicidal, despite the continued denials, says an international legal and ecumenical consultant. The historical evidence is overwhelming, but this terrible event is about much more than the past. Beginning with a telling comparison with Poland and Russia, where the remembrance of the long-denied Katyn massacre has finally been acknowledged (in the midst of present tragedy and the struggle to transcend it), Dr Hagopian looks at the way the facts and disputes around the Armenian horror at the beginning of the twentieth century have been handled, as well as the current politics of recognition and non-recognition. Lobbying for international acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide – including that of the US and UK governments – is important, he says. But a positive approach to handling it in the present is also needed. By choosing "living unity over deathly disunity", Armenians can be effective witnesses against official Turkish denial, letting their present define their past and showing that the refusal to forget can be integrated with healing, as well ensuring that the crimes of history are not repeated in the future. This essay does not seek to be cold, dispassionate analysis, but comes from a perspective of acknowledged engagement which still seeks to see the wider picture, to promote justice for all, and to locate facts and feelings within a sphere of humanising concern shaped by faith.

"When will the moment arrive that the crime of the annihilation of the Armenians in 1915-1916 will be recognized as fact?"- Günter Grass, German Nobel Prize winning author in Istanbul, on 14 April 2010.

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Introduction: A telling comparison

On 10 April 2010, tragedy struck Poland when a Tupolev Tu-154 ploughed into trees while attempting to land in fog on Smolensk’s military runaway. The deaths included President Lech Kaczynski, as well as Poland’s former president-in-exile Ryszard Kaczorowski, a hero of the Solidarity movement Anna Walentynowicz and a host of political, financial and ecumenical dignitaries and office-holders. The large 96-person delegation were flying to Russia to attend the 70th anniversary commemorations of the massacre in April 1940 of 22,000 interned Polish officers by the Soviet secret police, the Narodny Kommisariat Vnutrennikh Del (NKVD), a fifth of whom were shot and dumped into pits in Katyn Forest. I would guesstimate that at least a million Poles today can claim a link via lost relatives to this horrible massacre.

So traumatic was the Katyn chapter for Poles that General Wladyslaw Sikorski broke off relations with Moscow when it came to light shortly before his death in July 1943, and it was not until 1990 when the then USSR president Mikhail Gorbachev admitted some responsibility for this massacre. And it seemed that after years of denials and half-truths, much headway was made in recent months to overcome tensions and resentments over the Katyn killings - including Vladimir Putin's Letter to Poles in which he set out Russia’s position on this and other “blank spots” and called for mutual understanding - though without apologising explicitly or admitting legal culpability.

But why am I mentioning the Katyn massacre in the context of this horrific air-crash when my piece focuses on the 95th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and its ongoing denial by Turkey and some other countries? It is for no other reason than to highlight the stark contrast between recognition, even half-heartedly, of the Katyn massacre by Russia and denial, almost whole-heartedly, by modern-day Turkey of the Armenian Genocide.

From the equivocal position of the UK government to ‘denialism’

On 29 March 2010, a short debate took place in the House of Lords on a motion by Baroness Cox asking HM’s Government whether they will re-consider their official position and recognise as genocide the events that occurred in Ottoman Turkey during WWI - particularly in view of Geoffrey Robinson QC’s Legal Opinion of 9 October 2009. The debate challenged the standard - and consistently impassive - UK Government response to every single query about this genocide with a ready-made answer that the Government recognises “the tragic suffering of the Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th Century”, and that its position is “to continue to work for rapprochement and reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia.” In other words, there is no indication that the mounting evidence and scholarly opinion have anything to do with a changing of minds or a re-appraisal of the views by those mandarins at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

However, as the ever-challenging Christopher Hitchens opined in the Calgary Herald earlier this month: “April is the cruellest month for the people of Armenia, who every year at this season suffer a continuing tragedy and a humiliation. The tragedy is that of commemorating the huge number of their ancestors who were exterminated by the Ottoman Muslim caliphate in a campaign of state-planned mass murder that began in April 1915. The humiliation is of hearing that the Turkish authorities deny that these appalling events ever occurred or that the killings constituted genocide.”

It seems that the Turkish institutional mindset refuses to shift gears on denial despite ample facts and figures. For instance, in an interview recently (April 2010) with Christiane Amanpour, the CNN anchor and chief international correspondent, the Turkish prime minister maintained the line that Turkey will re-consider its denial only if there is a judgment by a commission that validates the charge of genocide. Yet, what more does the prime minister wish to see when the majority of respectable historians and reputable genocide and holocaust scholars or organisations world-wide have affirmed time and again that the Armenian experience was genocide by name and deed? Or is he clinging to denial, applying the policy of the ostrich by wheeling out predictably the same - rather few - historians who peddle the official Turkish refutation and then coercing or cajoling other countries - namely the USA, the UK and Israel - to be complicit in denial or else face Turkish ire and retribution?

However, such denialist positions often resemble political truculence. After all, whether in Scotland, Wales, Europe or many other continents, executive or legislative bodies have already recognised the genocide and even passed laws against denial. But it seems that some politicians at times tend to forget or overlook - conveniently in the case of PM Reçep Tayyip Erdogan during his CNN interview - that President Ronald Reagan had also recognised this genocide in Proclamation #4838 (1981), as did the House, which also passed Resolutions acknowledging the Armenian experience as ‘genocide’ in 1975 and 1984 too.

Moreover, in a brief filed with the International Court of Justice at The Hague in 1951, the US government cited just two genocides in modern times: the one committed by Turkey against Armenians and that committed by Nazi Germany.

Indeed, an ever-growing number of Turkish academics, thinkers, writers and activists, the likes of Taner Akçam, Ragip Zarakolu or Erol Özkoray, as well as genocide scholars, historians and sociologists worldwide, have been challenging such denial. In fact, only today, the Istanbul branch of the Turkish Human Rights Association (IHD) are holding a gathering at the entrance of Haydarpa?a Station “to commemorate the victims of the 24th April arrests and to say NEVER AGAIN.” But if so, why is there such strident denial by Turkey - and its allies - in the face of overwhelming evidence and some consensus?

Turkey’s position: the politics of guilt

There are three sets of reasons why Turkey refuses to admit its guilt. The first is a sense of overweening pride and nationalistic dignity within Turkish officialdom and across some of its grassroots which refuse to accept that the Ottoman Empire could have committed acts that are synonymous with genocide and are similar to the evils of the holocaust. The second is that Turkey also seems quite worried that recognition will ipso facto expose it to legal remedies and demands for reparation and even restitution - something a number of Armenian organisations or individuals are already claiming as a natural progression of the campaign for recognition. But the third and final reason is even more profound in that it has to do with the continuity of the policies pursued by the Ottomans and the Republic - in other words one of state responsibility.

In the shadow of the Ottomans: state responsibility

Let me touch briefly upon Özkoray’s three-pronged thesis of this causal nexus:

[1] Mustapha Kamal based his Republican regime on the nationalist ideology of a Turkic race whereby Anatolia had to be ‘cleansed’ of all ‘foreign’ elements. Policies of ethnic, cultural, economic and social cleansing eliminated much of the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek groups albeit failed to do so with the Kurds - hence the Kurdish problem today.

[2] The monies or goods confiscated from the Armenians helped finance the War of Independence (Kurtulus Savas or Istiklâl Harbi, 19 May 1919 - 29 October 1923) and formed a new social class that owed its wealth to Armenian property also (for instance, the porter Haci Ömer Sabanci is the ancestor of today's Sabanci family, and grocer Vehbi Koç the progenitor of today's Koç family).

[3] Some of the perpetrators of the genocide became the political and administrative elites of the new Republican regime, such as Sükrü Kaya (Minister of the Interior, Secretary General of the People's Republican Party), Mustafa Abdülhalik Renda (President of the Turkish Grand National Assembly), Arif Fevzi (Minister), Ali Cenani Bey (Minister of Industry), Rüstü Aras (Foreign Minister). Mustapha Kamal feigned ignorance of such facts but he benefited from these people by offering them prominent positions within the Republic.

Unlike differing ‘official’ historical theses, I too would infer that the Armenian genocide was one of the foundations of the Turkish Republic. This explains the diplomatic traumas or political tantrums every time someone utters the phrase ‘Armenian genocide’, since any discussion of this genocide or its recognition would be tantamount to questioning the constituents of the whole Kamalist republic. But to counter this drawback, and to overcome its gangrenous failings, Turkey needs to couple a large-scale educational campaign with a culture of democracy that freely informs and as such also liberates public opinion.

A gentle challenge to Armenians today

Yet, in the midst of this maelstrom of Turkish paradoxes, what should be the attitude of Armenians world-wide today? Should they for example simply applaud the Proclamation signed by the Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger on 8 April 2010, dedicating the week of 19 - 26 April as “Days of Remembrance of the Armenian Genocide” and then up the ante even more vocally toward recognition? Or should they throw up their hands and agree with, say, Bashir Abdul Fattah’s piece in Dar Al-Hayat on 17 April 2010 that global realpolitik issues would explain American recalcitrance toward challenging Turkish denial?

Should they resign themselves to the thesis put forward by Dr Katerina Dalacoura, lecturer in International Relations at the LSE, on the Q&A session of the CNN web-site, that the real reason for US reluctance to proceed with recognition lies in its national interests whereby the military base at Inçirlik is militarily important for America, and so it cannot jeopardise its security at a time when it is involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and possibly in an impeding showdown with Iran?

Armenians are not naïve and are quite aware of the acrid political realities facing them. But we - and our supporters - should nonetheless persevere relentlessly with our concerted campaigns that challenge denial. After all, we also know that the Ottoman intent was to eliminate every single Armenian citizen in Turkey bar one (who was meant to be exhibited at a museum). Yet, Turkey failed miserably in this quest as the Armenian demographic numbers prove today, and so I would contend that our strategic choice for recognition should now match our celebration of the future by nurturing more creative new generations. After all, what is the best obituary for death than fresh life? Instead of being singly focused on the doleful hokehankisds / requiem services that warm up cold deaths, we should also undergird with faithful gusto the newness of life.

As some Armenians already do, we should not only grieve for our fallen martyrs, but also stand vocally in solidarity with all victims of genocide world-wide. Whilst recognising that we have been victims of a dreadful experience, we should underline that we are also victors who have vanquished death with life.

Living unity versus deathly disunity

Let our present define our past: the genocide was indisputably homicidal, and well over one million victims the likes of Gomidas Vartabed are its perpetual reminder in Armenian psyches, but would our strength not be even greater if we also pour more of our energies into our living and thriving children, women and men? I know this is a hard choice for any people that have suffered near-annihilation, but I am confident we Armenians have the forward-looking stamina to achieve this renewal by choosing living unity over deathly disunity. I submit that this would be the sharpest riposte to Turkish spin and denial, much more pungent than solely lobbying countries for recognition, a source of backing for Turkish or foreign supporters and a healthier commemoration of collective Armenian memory.

© Harry Hagopian, 24 April 2010.

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FURTHER RESOURCES

Armenian National Institute - http://www.armenian-genocide.org/

Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide - http://www.crag.org.uk/

European Armenian Federation - http://eafjd.eu/?lang=en (English language site)

United Human Rights Council (Armenian Youth Federation) -
http://www.unitedhumanrights.org/genocide/armenian_genocide.htm

Genocide 1915 Info - http://www.genocide1915.info/ and blog http://armenians-1915.blogspot.com/

The Forgotten (Flash online AV presentation, contains disturbing images) - http://www.theforgotten.org/

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THE AUTHOR

Harry Hagopian, a former executive secretary for the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) is now an ecumenical, legal and political consultant for the Armenian Orthodox Church and well as an interfaith adviser to the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales. A regular contributor to Ekklesia (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian), Dr Hagopian is also involved with ACEP, the Paris-based Christians in Political Action (http://www.chretiensenpolitique.eu/). His own website is called Epektasis. http://www.epektasis.net/