When planning the Holocaust, Hitler famously referred to the Armenians, as an example of how quickly the world forgets terrible events. The Armenian Genocide however has not been forgotten and
eighty-nine years after the event, remains a contentious and controversial topic. Turkey, Israel and the United States are amongst the countries that do not recognise the events that occurred in eastern Anatolia in 1915 as a Genocide. There are all sorts of issues wrapped up in what would appear on the surface to be a simple matter, recognizing, as backed up by a large number of indisputable historical sources, a historical event. Property rights, fiscal compensation, international alliances and Holocaust studies all come in to play, complicating the matter. Three Monkeys talked to Professor Denis R. Papazian, Director of the Armenian Research Center at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
The Armenian Genocide of 1915 has been called the first genocide of the 20th century but critics have questioned, was it a genocide, and if so was it the first?
Some say the Hereros in Africa experienced the first genocide of the 20th century when they were murdered wholesale by the Germans. I am not familiar with these events, and so I can make no determination as to whether or not it was truly a genocide. But in any case, we can see that the Germans at that time already had the concept of lesser peoples who were expendable for a greater cause.
As far as the Armenian Genocide is concerned, it was the first major genocide of the 20th century which took place in a country which was not only a part of the Concert of Europe but also a country, the Ottoman Empire, which had many European residents as business persons, consular officials, and indeed with many European military advisers with important posts in the Turkish army. For example, Liman von Sanders was the commander of the Turkish First Army which guarded Constantinople and Eastern Anatolia. Furthermore, there were many American missionaries in all parts of the Ottoman Empire, but especially in Anatolia, which was the traditional Armenian homeland. The Turkish field was the largest missionary enterprise in the world carried on by Americans, and it was vast indeed. The treatment of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire became an European issue in 1878, a sub-set of the Eastern Question, namely, what to do with a dying Ottoman Empire.
Thus, all of the Great Powers had been watching the situation and were well aware of what was going on. Furthermore, until the successful Greek Revolution the Ottoman Empire extended well into Europe and throughout the Balkans. So Turkish leaders thought themselves European in part. Of course, after the two Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913, the Turks were pushed out of most of Europe.
Turkey, as a part of the Concert of Europe, was in the European orbit of politics during the last half of the 19th century and therefore was to be held to generally accepted European standards of behavior. Furthermore, many Armenians lived in the European and American diasporas, had adopted European culture and were seen as more European than the Turks. In fact the Armenians are an Indo-European people and a Christian nation, more in harmony with Europe than the Middle East. The Armenians within the Ottoman Empire for the most part were peasants, but a large proportion were craftsmen, merchants, and professionals in the villages, towns, and cities. Many Armenians in Constantinople (now called Istanbul) and Smyrna (present day Izmir) were in the amira class and vastly rich. Many of their children had European educations and adhered to the latest European social philosophies of liberty, equality and fraternity.
The Europeans in the Ottoman Empire, for the most part, as I said, considered the Armenians more progressive and European-like than the Turks. This being the case, the genocidal massacres and expropriations of the Armenians drew wide European attention and opprobrium. Thus, the Armenian Genocide can be rightly termed the first genocide of the 20th century since it was well-known and widely recognized.
Why do you think there’s such a problem, and such a resistance to recognising the Genocide by for example Turkey, Israel, and the US?
States are not people. An individual may have a conscience, but a state generally acts from self-interest or at least perceived self-interest (which can even include philanthropy). An individual may struggle with his conscience and eventually might confess to a crime, but a state has no conscience and does not suffer remorse. A state will only confess to a crime under duress. And for all intents and purposes, Turkey did not lose World War I. It lost its colonies in North Africa, Arabia, and Mesopotamia, but the state remained intact under a new name. Most of the surviving Young Turks passed over to the new Nationalist government. Indeed, Turkey even expanded its territory slightly in the East at the expense of Armenia.
Thus the ethno-genesis of the modern Turkish state is based on genocide and expropriation of wealth. Just as we Americans are loathe to confess our sins toward the aboriginal Americans, the Turks do not want to admit to the genocide of the Armenians in the Armenian homeland, which would call into question the very moral foundation of the Turkish state. Furthermore, unlike the American Indians, many Armenians in the Ottoman Empire had substantial wealth. Some of the present-day Turkish fortunes are based on that wealth which was expropriated from the Armenians.
The case of the United States is much more shameful since it is not based on a profound issue of national self-interest. When the Armenian Genocide was taking place, the American people were well aware of it. They received information directly from the American ambassador in Constantinople, Henry Morgenthau, and American consular officials who were stationed in several major cities of the Ottoman Empire, as well as from American missionaries who were even more widespread. There was great sympathy for the Armenian people doing this period, since at that time Americans considered our country a Christian state and there was an abhorrence of the Muslims who frequently massacred Christians in the most bloody fashion.
President Woodrow Wilson even sent to the U.S. Senate, after World War I, a request for a Mandate over Armenia. After Wilson had his stroke, the issue of Americans taking responsibility for Armenia and Armenians was no longer a viable alternative. Nevertheless, the U.S. Congress established the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief, which later was to be known as Near East Relief, chiefly to help Armenian survivors who had been forced-marched to the desert of greater Syria to die. Most of these survivors were children, since the children had stronger constitutions and in some cases could withstand the dreadful forced marches. Furthermore, the area was taken by the British and Arab troops who fought their way up from the south, thus saving many survivors from perishing.
So why is the United States in denial? Simply to please the Turks. Denial began in the 1920s when American businesspeople and their representatives and the government decided that there was more money to be made in a revived Turkey than by helping orphaned children. It was following World War I that the missionary influence in the U.S. State Department was replaced by the influence of businessmen and oil companies. In fact, the missionaries abandoned the Armenians in the hope of keeping their properties in the new Kemalist Turkey. Ironically, the missionaries turned away from the Armenians only to see their properties confiscated a few years later. Not much has changed since that time. Moreover, during the Cold War Turkey was seen as a responsible ally. Indeed it was, since it was also in Turkey’s self-interest to be allied with America. Now that the same pressures do not apply to Turkey, Turkey is becoming a wayward ally. That should be expected. The Turkish government must be primarily interested in the well-being of Turkey, not America or any other foreign power. There was so much infatuation in the U.S. State Department with Turkey after all these years, that officials are loathe to recognize the changes which are taking place before our very eyes. Note the Turkish attitude towards the American invasion of Iraq, the Kurdish question in Iraq, and the rise of an Islamic government.
Recently the French government recognized the Armenian Genocide: the Turks blundered and blustered and made all sorts of threats, but in a few months it was back to business as usual. This is what would happen if the United States Government recognized the Armenian Genocide once more; the Turks would make a large outcry and months later it would be business as usual. Thus, American denial is shameful since it is not based on any real threat to America’s interests.
The case of Israel is a bit different. First, there has always been a type of simpatico, a mutual understanding between Jews and Armenians. In fact, many Armenians in Armenia and abroad have married Jewish women. Both were minorities in a diaspora, both were of a religion different from the predominant religion of the state, both experienced social disabilities and persecution, and both groups were held together by their ecclesiastical institutions since they had no state of their own. So, sympathy between the two peoples had historically been strong.
In the case of Israel, however, Turkey controls the water that flow south. If the Turks become angry with the Israelis, they could reduce the amount of water that flows south and cause all sorts of mischief in Syria and Iraq, upsetting the equilibrium. Turkey also sells vital water to Israel which is shipped in tankers. Secondly, with so much American influence among the secular Turkish elite, Turkey, although a predominantly Muslim state, does not have the same hatred towards Israel as the surrounding Arab states. The Turks, of course, are not Arabs and are not very sympathetic to the Palestinians, who are Arabs with a strong Christian minority.
‘The neighbor of my enemy is my friend’, is the old diplomatic rule of thumb. Israel cultivates the Turks also for economic reasons, receiving numerous financial benefits from trade, particularly the high technology possessed by Israel and desired by Turkey. The Israeli state is under tremendous pressure, and morality has taken a back seat to necessity. Thus the state of Israel can be forgiven to some extent, chiefly because most of the Jews of the world recognize the Armenian Genocide and are sympathetic with the Armenians. Israel will change its policy when the time comes.
Why is it important to recognise the events as Genocide? It’s widely recognised that atrocities were committed against the Armenians in 1915, why is official recognition important?
Recognition opens all sorts of legal doors for restitution. It can be shown that the present Turkish state is the legal successor state of the Ottoman Empire, particularly that of the Young Turk government which carried out the Armenian Genocide. While no significant cession of land can be expected, there is every possibility of some sort of financial restitution. For example, my family owned tracts of land along the Bosporus, land which would be invaluable today. I personally would like to get my hands on some of that money. It is not wrong for a victim to seek restitution.