April 24 of this year will mark 100-year anniversary since atrocities were initiated against the Armenians subjects of the Ottoman Empire, with the goal of eliminating all traces of the Christian Armenian minority in its historic Anatolian homeland.
Scholars and historians alike characterize the 1915 massacres against the Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek populations as the first genocide of 20th century. However, Turkey continues to deny culpability for the massacre, while the U.S. does not officially recognize it.
In Foreign Policy, Thomas de Waal, one the most respected Western experts of the Caucasus, addresses many key issues related to the Armenian Genocide. Regrettably, his sweeping article is undermined by two critical oversights: full consideration of the geopolitical and historical development of modern Armenia, and the extent of the Armenian Genocide’s politicization in the west.
Thomas de Waal’s thesis departs from the following controversial assertion: “The history of the Armenian genocide lacks the devastating simplicity of the Holocaust’s narrative.” He goes on to declare that the nuances of the Armenian Genocide’s history is the principal reason behind Turkey’s century-long denial of responsibility for it, as well as America’s failure to recognize it:
[…] Accounts have pointed out that theArmenians were not the only people to face persecution in eastern Turkey. The Kurdish and Turkish populations, too, suffered grievously at the hands of the Russian army, which contained several Armenian regiments, when these forces occupied swaths of eastern Turkey not long after the Armenian deportations.
De Waal’s narrative would be outrageous were it ascribed to the Shoah. The notion that the presence of Armenian regiments in the Russian army complicates the history of the Armenian Genocide is as ludicrous as positing that Jewish partisans, such as the Bielski brothers operating in Belarus, who were armed, supplied, and supported by the Soviet Union, somehow “complicate” the Shoah’s narrative.
Similarly, the claim that the suffering of Turks and Kurds at the hands of the Russian army somehow minimizes the mass murder of Armenian, a favorite “negationist” explanation for the “non-Genocide” carried out against “Christian-Armenian” populations, parallels Holocaust denier claims that Allied war crimes like the bombing of Dresden minimize the Nazi genocide.
Turkish negationists also claim that Armenian ambitions for autonomy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were sufficient justification for the eventual “non-Genocide” and an appropriate response to Russian aggression in the Caucasus. On this, de Waal gets it right: “And even though some Armenian nationalists helped precipitate the brutal Ottoman response, every single Armenian suffered as a result.”
Contrary to European Jews, who were made refugees from one end of the continent to the other, Ottoman Armenians were living in lands that were populated by their ancestors since antiquity. As a Christians in the Ottoman Empire, they faced intense and brutal repression exemplified by the Hamidian massacres of 1894-1896, where an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 Armenians civilians were brutally murdered, raped, and pillaged.
The Ottoman authorities legalized acts of repression against Armenians by bestowing “paramilitary” status on bands of bandits, encouraging the vilest crimes ranging from confiscation of goods to mass murder, even in regions and towns where Armenians formed a majority.
It was a very different story just across the border. In 1828, during its expansion in the Caucasus, imperial Russia acquired three historical Armenian provinces known as the Governorate of Kars, Erivan, and Elisabethpol. During the short-lived “Russian Armenia,” Armenians enjoyed virtually unrestricted economic freedom and, as a result, contributed enormously to the oil boom of Baku and the industrialization of the region.
Meanwhile, academic and artistic freedoms helped establish Armenian language schools and Armenian apprenticeships in prestigious Russian academies. Political freedoms even enabled some Armenians to inherit aristocratic titles, such as Count Mikhail Loris-Melikov, who became minister to the Czar.
Given the advances made by Armenians in Russia, it was natural that a movement calling for equality between all subjects of the Sultan emerged in the Ottoman Empire.
The negationist narrative that Armenians were traitors is also baseless, which is borne out by the experience of Sarkis Torosyan, a captain in the Ottoman Army. While Torosyan, an ethnic Armenian, was fighting the British in the Gallipoli campaign, his parents were murdered in the Armenian Genocide, and after the war he located his sister in a concentration camp. Torosyan, like many Ottoman Armenians, initially refused to believe that their own government could commit such atrocities. But it was so.
Thomas de Waal’s commentary on the legal and emotional meaning of the word “Genocide” is similarly flawed. De Waal states that Armenians living in the west give the word too much meaning, which he characterizes as “emotionally fraught and overly legalistic.” He writes: “Inevitably, the need to secure votes for any given resolution on the topic means that the memory of the Ottoman Armenians is cheapened by being tied to other items of congressional business.”
The issue is not simply one of semantics, however, but rather is about the politicization of the Armenian Question by foreign actors. Using the repression of Armenians as a justification, European powers furthered their own geopolitical interests at the expense of the faltering Ottoman Empire.
During the First World War, Britain and Russia cited the Armenian Genocide as one of the primary reasons for their intervention against Turkey, yet at the conclusion of the Great War, the same British guardians of Christian Armenians carved up Armenian provinces at the Paris Peace conference in the same arbitrary manner they drew up Middle Eastern borders. In one instance, they relegated a Muslim majority region to Armenian rule, while doling out the Armenian province of Karabakh to Azerbaijan, leading to revolts and campaigns of repression in both cases.
The Western powers weren’t the only ones to employ the genocide of the Armenians for political ends. Joseph Stalin ordered the planning of a 1945 invasion of Turkey, claiming that the eastern provinces of the country belonged rightfully to the Soviet Republic of Armenia. Meanwhile, in the present, with Turkish and Israeli relations at their nadir, Jerusalem threatens Turkey with Genocide recognition.
This serial politicization of the Armenian Genocide is far worse than the squabble over the word genocide that de Waal reproaches Armenian-American and Turkish lobby in Washington for having. The Armenian Genocide was used to further the geopolitical interest of almost everyone except the Armenians. Yet, to request that the memory of the victims be respected and honored somehow “cheapens” the tragedy, according to de Waal.
De Waal expresses the hope that a new generation of Turkish and international scholars will bring full recognition of the Armenian Genocide, which he considers necessary for regional economic and political stability. There is hope in this regard. Despite negationist attempts to minimize the Armenian Genocide, a free and open discussion regarding horrifying events that will be inscribed into darkest pages of history is emerging, ensuring that neither the crime itself nor the suffering that resulted will be forgotten.
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