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Confronting Genocide! - The Armenian Genocide: 24 April 1915
24 April 2008: the 93rd anniversary of the Armenian Genocide …

24 April 2008   |   Armenian Issues   |   Subject  The Armenian Geocide

Dorcy Rugamba is a Rwandan from Kigali, and most of his family were slain by the Hutu militia during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Co-author of the six-hour play Rwanda 94 that wove together survivor testimonies with music, comedy and fictional reconstructions, Rugamba who is now settled in Brussels always knew he had to wrestle with the psychological legacy of a genocide that not only killed his family but was perpetrated by an enemy that came from within the country itself.

His latest production with the Rwandan theatre company Urwintore is The Investigation, a revival of Peter Weiss’s searing 1965 German docudrama. It describes how ordinary people got caught up in the Nazi regime, and how many of them who were initially following orders later used their own personal cruelty to kill or maim their perceived enemies. Their collective and individual attitudes gave rise and credence to the chilling phrase ‘the banality of evil’ that was coined in 1963 by the German political theorist Hannah Arendt in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

The banality of evil: in the same manner as Rugamba describes it in terms of his own experience, I believe that the acts of murder, extermination deportation, torture and terror perpetrated against Armenians in Turkey by Ottoman Turks and their proxies under the cover of WWI were both a result of orders given by the troika of the Young Turks’ leaders to eliminate Armenians as they were the momentum of brutality gained by blood-thirsty mobs who might well have been following orders but then exceeded them when their own primitive and homicidal instincts overtook their orders. I need only recall the infamy perpetrated by Djevdet Bey, the Vali of Van, who was known as the ‘horseshoer of Bashkale’ for nailing horseshoes to the feet of his Armenian victims. The overall result is what history has proven already, namely an Armenian population that lost well over one million of its men, women and children, and a race that was subjected to deliberate - providentially unsuccessful - waves of elimination that are tantamount in law as much as in practice to sheer genocide.

24 April 2008: the 93rd anniversary of the Armenian Genocide …

Over the past 93 years, and more pointedly in the past three decades or so, Armenians across the world have been campaigning indefatigably for an acknowledgement of their suffering and a recognition that theirs was a genocide by definition so that the evil that was visited upon them does not in fact become banal and the horrors their forebears experienced are not trivialised by the pedantic statements and hair-splitting responses of different political mouthpieces. Clearly leading the denialists is modern-day post-Ottoman Turkey that now has at its helm a battered Islamist government attempting to lead the country into the European Union. A new political leadership that claims to institute reforms refuses to examine the mirror of its own past. Even those few who have admitted to those crimes against Armenians attempt to justify them by deeming that Turks were under attack by Armenians. It is a way of denying genocide by claiming it was war, or as the historian Deborah E Lipstadt wrote, turning the perpetrator into the victim as one of the latter stages of denial.

A good measure of the extent of a person’s (or a nation’s) denial is the vigour it demonstrates in defending itself and the aggression it levies against those who pry into it. It has been many years now since Freud argued that the guiltiest among us take it out on others who are the strongest. I would argue that we are no longer in a phase where we still have to debate whether the Armenian Genocide took place: the evidence is too overwhelming and conclusive. Indeed, American and British governmental efforts not to ruffle diplomatic relations with Turkey through convenient forgetfulness, shameless ignorance of the facts and staged friendliness merely enable denialists to perpetuate their political interests and as such do a disservice to the overall normative let alone ethical values of humanity.

Why is it that Turkey spends so much energy, diplomacy and money to militate against a truth that its leadership are quite aware of but that the people are largely disallowed from discovering for themselves? Why does Turkey refuse to accept an old reality and turn a new page in its relations with Armenia and Armenians across the Diaspora? The readers of this article would have their own persuasions. However, I believe that one fundamental reason is because the Age of Empire never really left the Turkish consciousness despite the many changes that have occurred in Turkey and the world since 1915. It seems to me at times that the Turkish mentality - one for instance that its Arab neighbours remain both aware and wary of - is still an empire on pause, longing for a return to greatness. As Tolga Baysal, writer and film-maker in Istanbul, suggested, Turks are wilfully closing their eyes to the skeleton the Ottoman Empire had become in its final forlorn years, and so no one wants to remember the indignities visited upon the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century.

Consequently, any reference to the guilt of genocide perpetrated by Ottoman Turkey against its Armenian citizens in 1915 is also a reminder of such an emaciated reality. This is indeed an emotional response, but with the Jewish Holocaust representing the baseline for genocides in the 20th century, Turkey refuses to be lumped in with this horrific event and wishes to maintain a myth of an Ottoman greatness and a total disconnection with this genocide that are both grossly false.

24 April 2008: the 93rd anniversary of the Armenian Genocide …

According to Fatma Müge Göçek in Middle East Historiographies: Narrating the Twentieth Century, the dream of The Committee of Union and Progress (?ttihad ve Terakki Cemiyeti) for establishing an ethnocratic empire by expanding to the east and consolidating an ethno-linguistic union with the Turks of Central Asia could have been impeded by the presence of a sizeable Armenian community in Asia Minor. According to her, the narratives of the Armenian massacres in Turkish historiography can be catalogued under three periodic headings. The first is the Ottoman investigative narrative (1915-1918) that did not question the “facticity” of the massacres or deaths. Instead, acknowledging that the massacres took place, this narrative questioned the reasons associated with it, and the Ottoman state published proceedings of the military tribunal that tried some of the perpetrators. In the second Republican defensive narrative (1923-present), the “deaths became distant memories” as the Armenian massacres were entirely denied. The moral blame on the incidents belonged to anybody except the Ottoman Turkish perpetrators. The Armenian victims themselves were blamed alongside the Western powers for the 1915 events. The third post-nationalist narrative (1990’s-present) incorporated works that are “directly or indirectly critical of the nationalist master narrative but do not [necessarily] focus specifically on the Armenian deaths. They are “knowledge products of the emerging civil society” in Turkey.

However, a widespread public debate began to take shape in Turkey for the first time in decades following the critical 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in 2005. According to Altinay and Turkyilmaz, this public debate consisted of two main positions. The first revolved around questions of curiosity about the events of 1915-1916, whilst the second revolved around a “war of pre-defined positions” or what they also call the “war of theses”. Among the ploys used by the Turkish thesis to diminish the reality and enormity of the genocide were an opposition to the use of the term ‘genocide’ and its replacement with tehcir or deportations in addition to the so-called ‘mutuality’ of those massacres, number-crunching and the question of intent - which is central to the 1948 UN Genocide Convention. However, over many years, historians and researchers worldwide have rebutted those claims and underlined that genocide was perpetrated against Armenians during this period. Turkish, European and American archives have demonstrated the issues of intent, numbers as well as non-mutuality. Only recently, fresh documents found in the national archives of the Foreign Ministry and the war archives of the General Staff in Sweden, as well as reports from Swedish missionaries and newspapers, confirm the view that the Ottoman Turkish government conducted a systematic extermination (utrotandet) and annihilation (utplåna) of the Armenian nation.

One part of the problem with denial is the rampant Turkish nationalism that manifests itself nefariously on different fronts - whether in the denial of the Armenian Genocide or the recent puerile challenge by Kemalists in the Constitutional Court against the validity of the AKP ruling party. It is an infectious and suppurating by-product of the unhealed wounds of Turkish history. Moreover, some analysts opine that another potent reason one can trace for those massacres that peaked into genocide is that Armenians were Christian and were viewed - quite wrongly in my opinion - as a potential fifth column.

24 April 2008: the 93rd anniversary of the Armenian Genocide …

One infamous manifestation of this nationalism is Article 301 (amongst others such as Article 288) in the Turkish Penal Code allowing the State Prosecutor to bring charges against anyone for ‘insulting Turkey or Turkishness’. Renowned authors such as Orhan Pamuk, high-profile symbols of moderation such as Hrant Dink (murdered for his views in January 2007) along with reporters, writers and publishers the likes of Aris Naici, Serkis Seropyan, Aydin Engin, Karin Karakashli and Ragip Zarakolou have been charged with a breach of Article 301 and taken to court where their cases have either been postponed or been given suspended sentences. Taner Akçam, for instance, is one of the Turkish historians who examined Ottoman archival documentary evidence and concluded the indisputable reality of genocide. He was then gaoled under Article 301 for publishing his findings and therefore ‘insulting Turkishness’.

Moreover, and under International law, Article 301 also contravenes - in both its original and revised versions - the right to freedom of speech codified in Article 19 of the International Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. 

24 April 2008: the 93rd anniversary of the Armenian Genocide …

The recognition of the Armenian Genocide now is no longer an historical challenge but a strictly political one. Armenians world-wide should therefore exercise their political judgment more prudently and use this opportunity to define a more consensual strategy for the future. The recent prolific - and at times quite animated - intra-Armenian discussions across the cyber-waves over the issue of the three R’s - recognition, reparation and restitution (also known as reclamation) - have indicated that there exists an indisputable gulf in Armenian positions between those who would be satisfied with recognition as a moral triumph of Armenian memory and those who believe recognition per se is redundant if it does not also lead to reparation and / or restitution. This unsettling gulf should be narrowed through a more concerted inter-Armenian consensus, and Armenians from Moscow to Paris, London and Nicosia should be ready with their collective and plausible response if Turkey were to recognise tomorrow that its predecessor regime had indeed committed genocide against Armenians.

This severe paucity of long-term strategic choices by Armenians has been supplemented over the past 93 years by short-term tactical options, sublimating emotional paroxysms and verbose statements. It would help if Armenians were to cooperate under an umbrella that could define and then consolidate their efforts toward the genocide and establish its causal nexus with other political issues such as the closure by Turkey of its border with Armenia or the volatile issue of Nagorny-Karabagh.

24 April 2008: the 93rd anniversary of the Armenian Genocide …

Genocide: it is clear that there are dire political consequences that flow from this single eight-letter word. But its power is clearly undeniable as the horrific Rwandan experience has taught the world. Yet, unlike Rwanda where the world bickered over ‘genocide’ as it was being committed, the genocide against the Armenians is a distant event, relegated largely to the history books. However, the irony is that this spatial distance might render the word even more relevant for the Turks.

When I recall the horrors of genocide, read and speak about it, or when I think of the fearful horrors that the physical excesses behind this word evoke in many souls, minds and hearts, from the Armenian experience to the mind-numbing atrocities in Darfur today, I am struck by the insidious let alone subtle and hidden nature of this term. I often remember the moving portrait of the photographer Jonathan Torgovnik that represents a beautiful Rwandan mother embracing her daughter that won Britain’s National Portrait Gallery annual photographic prize. On the surface, this is a gripping and healthy portrait, but it belies the ugly truth that the child is a result of the mother being raped during the Rwandan genocide.

This is the harrowing truth about genocides: not all its horrors are apparent, since there are so many underlying layers of suffering that haunt the victims of genocide as well as their latter-day relatives. I acknowledge that it is not easy to expect victims of different genocides - be they Armenians, Jews, Rwandans or other hapless victims - to forgive and forget the heinous crimes perpetrated against them. To reach that stage, we need to bare the human nature that provokes such aberrant behaviour and understand how genocide is used as a brutal political tool. We also need to fathom how the past would help us prevent the deformation and distortion of the future. This is not a glib statement, but a reality that affects Armenians world-wide today as it does many other races that have experienced attempts at extermination through the course of their history.

24 April 2008: the 93rd anniversary of the Armenian Genocide …

Today, how should Armenians confront the real evils of the genocide?

Much as recognition is an initial step toward closure of this open sore in Armenian psyches, it is equally necessary to have a sturdy vision that goes beyond it. Since I believe that one principal aim for the future should be the empowerment of healthy and robust Armenian generations, I would suggest that a real prophetic challenge would lead us to explore ways in which we could overcome the trauma of the Armenian Genocide as the sole gateway to our identity.  This would contribute toward healing our psychological, moral and political bruises let alone toward tending to our broken memories.

The power of healing: such an approach today goes well beyond political and even religious orthodoxy. It is admittedly a painful one for many of us that is also much more Sisyphean than pursuing a retributive course of action that could perhaps also temporarily relieve our angst and in the process vindicate our forebears who lost their lives during those genocide-driven years. However, I would dare suggest that healing remains the necessary and ultimate way forward in confronting the sordid evils of genocide, whereby we infuse in ourselves a sense of renewal and a preponderance of life over death that refuses to be defeated by the weight of genocide. In so doing, we will have thwarted Ottoman Turkish past designs to subdue us as a race or present-day Turkish endeavours to deny our sacrifices.

The British statesman and political thinker Edmund Burke once stated that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. It is my hope that ninety-three years after the Armenian Genocide, the world of righteous men and women would at long last stand together in solidarity with the truth and - most vitally - with the affirmation of life.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   Armenian Issues   |   24 April 2008


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