The Armenian Genocide:

The first genocide of the 20th century and the template for other genocides to follow.

The Armenian Genocide of 1915 was the supremely violent historical moment that eliminated a people from its homeland and wiped away most of the tangible evidence of its three thousand years of culture. This first full-scale genocide of the 20th century was unprecedented in scope and duration. It may be seen as the culmination of the persecutions and massacres of Armenians that had already occurred in the Ottoman Empire since the 1890s. Or it may be placed in the context of modern nationalism and the great upheavals that brought about the dissolution of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire and the emergence in its place of a Turkish nation-state based on a mono-ethnic and mono-religious society.

Mass killings under the cover of war did not begin with the Armenian Genocide. Throughout history, civilian populations have fallen victim to the brutality of invading armies and other forms of indiscriminate killing. In the Armenian case, however, the government openly disregarded the fundamental obligation to protect its citizens and instead turned the full might of the state against one element of the population.

Estimates of Armenian dead vary widely. A report of the United Nations human rights sub-commission put the figure at “at least one million.” The important point in understanding a tragedy of such magnitude is not the precise count of the number who died –that will never be known– but the fact that more than half the Armenian population perished and the rest were forcibly driven from their ancestral homelands. What befell the Armenians was by the will of the government. Although large segment of the general population participated in the massacres and plunder, many Turks were shocked by what was happening, and some helped to rescue and shelter Armenian women and children.

The defeat of the German and Ottoman empires and the collapse of the Young Turk dictatorship at the end of 1918 presented the Allied Powers with the opportunity to fulfill their pledges regarding punishment of the perpetrators and rehabilitation of the Armenian survivors. A Turkish military court martial tried and actually sentenced to death in absentia several of the notorious organizers of the genocide. Yet no attempt was ever made to carry out the sentences, and thousands of other criminals were neither tried nor even removed from office. The Allied Powers, having become bitter rivals over the spoils of war, failed to act in unison to implement the provisions for Armenian restoration and rehabilitation included in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, and instead signed the Treaty of Lausanne three years later that yielded to the demands of the triumphant Turkish Nationalists. The Armenian Question was completely abandoned, and there was no mention of rehabilitation, restitution, or compensation.  In fact, the words “Armenia” or “Armenian” did not even appear in the treaty. The Armenian victims had become invisible.

During the years that followed, the dispersed Armenian survivors concentrated their collective energies on resettlement and the creation of a new diasporan infrastructure of cultural, educational, and religious institutions. Embittered by world indifference, the diasporan communities internalized their frustrations, trauma, and even creative talents. They commemorated the genocide through  requiem  services and observances, yet on substantive issues they could not make their voice heard in the international arena. Meanwhile, the strategy of the perpetrators and their successor government, that of the Republic of Turkey was to avoid public discussion of the genocide, believing that in the course of time the survivors would pass from the scene, their children would be assimilated into their host countries, and the issue would be forgotten.

It was not until the fiftieth anniversary of the genocide in 1965 that a revival of Armenian activism began to undermine the Turkish strategy of avoiding discussion of the mass killings of the victims. In its response to this development, the Turkish government launched a concerted campaign of denial that became progressive more sophisticated through the 1970s and ‘80s. This initiative was aided by certain American and European academics who, rather than adopting the previous unconvincing approach of absolute denial, attempted to give a scholarly veneer to the propaganda by placing the “alleged genocide” in the highly distorted context of the turmoil and exigencies of war. By the 1990s the denial literature had become polished, complete with notations, archival references, and bibliographies. In the face of this tenacious denial, the Armenian worldwide community pursues the struggle to win international recognition of what the entire world acknowledged and knew to be the truth during and in the immediate aftermath of the genocide.

Genocide shapes not only the outlook of the immediate survivors, but also of subsequent generations. Victim groups, rather than viewing the world as a good place with a sense of order, are filled with mistrust and fear of what may come from a horrible world. It becomes essential, therefore, for victims to understand that the terrible events they have experienced are not normal, but rather are aberrations of a generally good world order. Continued denial makes this impossible and reinforces the feelings of insecurity, abandonment, and betrayal. TO overcome these emotions, the victims need to share their pain and sorrow, to voice their outrage, to have the world comprehend their suffering, and especially to receive expressions of regret and remorse from the perpetrator side. Only they can a sense of justice and rightness be restored. Until that time, the pain and the rage fester and the healing process is blocked.

For the descendants of the perpetrators, it is of vital importance to engage in introspection, to face and learn from their history, to question how such violations could have occurred, to examine what there was and may still be in their society that led them to resort to genocide, and to find some redemption through appropriate acts of condition, beginning with acceptance of the truth. If they are unable or unwilling to deal with the truth and instead try to maintain a righteous self-image, then they may again be placed on a path toward the victimization of other groups. The plight of the Kurds in the former Armenian provinces of the Ottoman Empire (now referred to as Eastern Anatolia) is a case in point.

It has been said that powerful states seek to vanquish not only the people they subjugate, but also the cultural mechanisms that would sustain vital memory of historical crimes. Holocaust scholar Terrence Des Pres has written that national catastrophes can be survived only if those to whom disaster happens can recover themselves through knowing the truth of their suffering. And the great Czech writer Milan Kundera has rightfully observed that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

Richard G. Hovannisian 
Professor of Modern Armenian History, University of California, Los Angeles

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