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Moving Beyond Collective Armenian Memories?
A Personal Response

4 February 2001   |   Armenian Issues   |   Subject  The Armenian Geocide

On 24 April 1915, close to a year into World War I, thousands of Armenians living in Constantinople were rounded up and force-marched into detention by the Ottoman authorities. This gruesome episode proved to be the beginning of the Armenian genocide in which well over one million Armenians - one third of the Armenian population in Turkey at the time - had their lives deleted brutally.

On 9 November 1938, the German Nazis smashed the windows of Jewish shops, burnt their synagogues and rounded up thousands of Jews who were then sent to concentration camps at Sobibor, Treblinka and Auschwitz / Birkenau. That grisly night, Kristallnacht, was only one incident in the history of the Jewish holocaust. Between 1933 and 1945, roughly two thirds of the Jewish population also had their lives expunged brutally.

To my mind, one of the most spine-chilling expressions of the deadly vinculum between the Armenian genocide during WWI and the Jewish holocaust during WWII hangs today on the walls of the Holocaust Museum in Washington. A quote from Adolph Hitler in 1939 gloats, “Who today remembers the massacre of the Armenian people?” In the words of the American philosopher George Santayana who once warned that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it, Hitler’s remark was meant as a reassurance to his generals who felt somewhat uneasy about the international repercussions of the planned mass ethnocide of Jews in parts of Eastern Europe. His question implied that the ‘civilised’ world would shrug off the mass killing of Jews, just as it had accepted the Armenian mass exterminations some twenty-three years earlier.

Such historical memories came back into sharp focus in my mind last week. Many of the readers are aware that the French Senate recently ratified a bill that validates the historical veracity of the Armenian Genocide. Subsequently, the Turkish Armenian religious and civic bodies published a Declaration underlining the futility of such political acts which do not enhance the historical memory of Armenians - either those killed during the massacres or those living in Armenia and in the Diaspora today. Indeed, and over the past few days, many people ranging from President Kocharian of Armenia to other Armenian and non-Armenian commentators, have contributed their views and suggestions to this on-going debate. A live - and largely inconclusive - ‘show-down’ was even aired between a Turk and an Armenian on the Jazeerah satellite television a few days ago.

However, the reason why I started this personal reflection with two historical examples is that an analogous event took place in the UK on 27 January 2001. Britain joined several other countries in remembering as Holocaust Memorial Day the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army in 1945.

When the idea was first introduced, HM Government emphasised that it wanted such a Memorial Day to serve not just as a tribute to the six million Jews who perished under the Nazis but as a warning of what may still lie ahead if civilised nations do not address the racism that is rife in their midst. Hence, other crimes against humanity were included in the rubric - such as the slaughter of the Tutus in Rwanda in 1994. Controversially though, the Armenian Genocide of 1915 was left out. Prime Minister Tony Blair was blamed for excluding the Armenians for fear of offending the present Turkish government in Ankara. If this were true - and other instances such as in the USA corroborate the fact that Turkey does take offence quite readily when the issue comes up - such realpolitik appears to drive a coach and horses through the idealism without which the idea of a Memorial Day becomes hollow. Indeed, either such a Day is something conscience itself demands, or it becomes a sanctimonious political gesture which could belittle the very suffering it is meant to commemorate.

Looking at the issue first from an academic viewpoint, wholesale massacres tend to evoke in peoples two sets of divergent reactions. Historians such as Irving Greenberg believe that such barbarities promote an ethic of survival whose inherent defensive psyche requires that the only way to ensure future survival - and thereby to avoid further massacres - is through the amassing of power. Conversely, theologians the like of Marc Ellis postulate that atrocities of this scale engender an ethic of solidarity with all victims of oppression where the victims of one atrocity will stand in solidarity with others who are themselves the subjects of mass killings.

But how should an Armenian like myself react to events such as those that unfolded recently?

My own family lost many of its members during the massacres that left a trail of countless skulls leading up to the Deir el-Zor desert in Syria. My maternal and paternal grandparents saw with their own sad eyes the killing and maiming of some of their relatives. But is a political declaration by any legislative body the right way to go about it? Do such statements not prove to be counter-productive and render any communication between Armenians and Turks even more precarious? How judicious are Armenians in the Diaspora in pursuing their own plans without thinking out the consequences of their actions upon their fellow Armenians in Turkey - and Armenia? Who suffers when Turkey closes its air space to Armenian planes in a fit of punitive muscle-show? In the final analysis, and without sounding exculpatory, is it not time to conclude that both sides must move beyond the unhealthy signs of triumphal point-scoring?

Hebrew scripture counsels us with regard to such instances, “Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast ... know ... that I act with steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth ...” (Jr 9:23 -24). I recall an article in the Israeli English language daily Jerusalem Post entitled ‘Revisiting History’ which read, “... being self-critical [is] an acceptance that no one side has the monopoly over the historic truth, because there is no such thing” [as one historical truth]. The article added that “the historical narratives of the ‘other’ groups’ ought to be heard too.”

Armenians and Turks have for long been caught up in this vortex of mutual recrimination and [even] the occasional guilt transference. It is high time they learn the virtue of forgiveness - which implicitly requires an acknowledgement that a wrong has been committed against an ill-fated and defenceless people. After all, no matter the justifications or allegations offered to ‘give a political or military interpretation’ for the massacres, the fact that a wrong was committed is quite clear. Or else, where did all those Armenians living in Ottoman Turkey prior to 1915 suddenly disappear? Such an acknowledgement will inevitably facilitate the redemptive process of forgiveness which alone can ultimately help both parties move beyond the memory.

And it is in this sense that I bow down to the wisdom of what the Turkish Armenian community - headed by HB Patriarch Mesrob II - are endeavouring to accomplish today. Who am I to disagree ... let alone to object?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   Armenian Issues   |   4 February 2001


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