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Who Speaks for Me?
First they came for the Jews, And I did not speak out Because I was not a Jew, Then they came for the communists And I did not speak out Because I was not a communist, Then they came for the trade unionists And I did not speak out Because I was not a trade unionist, Then they came for me And there was no one left to speak for me! - Pastor Martin Niemoller, 1892- 1984

24 Aprl 2003   |   Armenian Issues   |   Subject  The Armenian Geocide

Martin Niemöller was the captain of a German U-boat during WWI, and later in the1930 ’s became a church pastor in a comfortable Berlin suburb. But Niemöller did not start out as a great advocate for intellectual freedom. He initially supported Hitler, but severed his support once Hitler issued his racial decrees. Joining other disaffected ministers from various Protestant denominations, he founded the Confessing Church in1934 . He openly opposed Führer Hitler’s policies and was incarcerated in the Dachau (northwest of Munich) and Sachsenhausen (north of Berlin) concentration camps. He also became President of the World Council of Churches between 1961 and1968 . A few days before his death, he remarked, “When I was young, I felt I had to carry the gospel. Now that I am old, I know that the gospel carries me.”

However, Pastor Niemöller often berated himself for not doing more to combat racism and injustice. His famous quotation is a clear and resounding testimony to his belief that he had failed to be more proactive in his own life.

I came across this quotation again a couple of months ago when I was involved in some modest way with the commemorative events in Edinburgh for Holocaust Memorial Day2003 . Then, just as now, I felt the poignancy, weight and rue associated with those stirring and powerful words. In one sense, they were challenging me as someone whose own family was impacted by an Armenian genocide that had preceded by some thirty years a Jewish holocaust.

Indeed, Armenians suffered a determined and deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing by Ottoman Turkey during WWI. Well over a million Armenian Turkish men, women and children - of different ages and backgrounds - lost their lives in their hometowns or during the forced marches in the Syrian Desert. Yet, despite testimonials and statements from many historians and politicians like Arnold Toynbee, James Bryce or Winston Churchill, recognition by some countries is no closer today. And although many governments, parliaments or international legal fora have recognised the genocide as falling squarely within the requisite legal and historical criteria, some states have not budged from their critical refusal to define those wholesale pogroms as genocide. Today, in2003 , the USA, UK, Germany and Israel are four countries that remain implacably opposed to recognising the Armenian Genocide. To my mind, their standpoints are in themselves morally non-condonable, but it seems that the geo-strategic interests of those four major countries often override such considerations and prevent them from ruffling Turkish sensitivities or irredentist tendencies today! Mind you, such refusal also flies in the face of common decency at a time when the ‘coalition of the willing’ is fighting a war on a platform of ethical principles.

Some officials I have met over the past few years have often commiserated with the victims of the Armenian Genocide, but have also queried whether it is practical to keep dredging up this genocide almost as a fixation at every possible opportunity. Surely, their claims go, an event that took place eighty-eight years ago can be laid to rest at long last? I can certainly empathise with those feelings - after all, with a world constantly congested by genocidal events from Timor to Rwanda and Kosovo, it is ‘distracting’ to re-visit constantly the old pages of history! However, I disagree with this expedient argument!

Even if I were to overrule the historical and legal body of evidence favouring recognition of the Armenian Genocide, there remains also a potent psychological component. A wholesale massacre of over one million Armenians has scarred the collective psyche of Armenians worldwide, and has created in the process a trauma that has dented Armenian mindsets and outlooks. This burden is not getting any lighter with every new generation whence denial persists without relief. For those open wounds to ever begin their process of healing and lead toward conciliation, it is important to effect closure. Yet, closure comes with recognition - so the result could lay to rest some of the ghosts haunting many Armenians in the Republic, many more in the Diaspora, and quite a few Turks too. So let me be candid: I too seek an end to this saga, but not at any cost!

Given the harrowing testimonies of Christian missionaries [such as Dr Clarence Ussher in Van] describing vividly the atrocities perpetrated against Armenians by Ottoman Turkey in1915 , I must admit that I would feel more faithful to the kernel of the truth had Pastor Niemöller appended one qualifying sentence to his probing statement: First they came for the Armenians, And I did not speak out Because I was not an Armenian!

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   Armenian Issues   |   24 April 2003


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